K2 - Against all odds - History

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Cranfield School of ManagementUme†


While surveying the area in 1856 Lieutenant Montgomery saw, along the border of China and Pakistan, the striking mountainous peaks which formed part of the Karakoram Range. "K" standing for Karakoram, Montgomery named the peaks according to the order in which he saw them, and they accordingly became K1, K2 K3 etc. Later, K1 was renamed Masherbrum after its local name and today K2, known also as the "Savage Mountain", is the only major mountain to still use Montgomery’s original title.

At 8,611 metres K2 is the second highest and one of the most challenging mountains in the world. Appropriately it’s local name "Chhogori" means King of the Mountains; however as this name is rarely heard outside of Pakistan, K2 remains the most commonly used.

In 1902 the Englishman Oscar J.L. Eckenstein led six men in the first attempt of K2’s summit. The group faced a mammoth challenge and had little comprehension of the huge obstacles they would face. The first huge challenge was to cross the Baltoro Glacier which, at 63km in length, was the world’s third largest. Their initial intention was to approach the summit directly over the Southeast Ridge, but on reaching the foot of K2 they decided that the Northeast Ridge route would probably prove easier. From here several attempts were then made but, unfortunately, these were not to be successful.

The Duke of the Abruzzi (1909)

By 1909 the summit had attracted the attention of many. This included that of the famous photographer Vittorio Sellatook who took an array of fascinating and legendary photos of the Karakorum region in this period.

Also in this year the Duke of Abruzzi, motivated both by scientific exploration and reconnaissance for potential alpine operations, led his own large expedition to K2. This group attempted the climb via the route of the Southeast Ridge (later to be known as the The Abruzzi Spur), but were hugely restricted by their lack of training. Some members of the group did reach the 6,666 meter high Savoia Saddle at the Northeast of K2 however, from where they were able to have a closer look at the mountain’s giant North-Face. Frustratingly, when the expedition pushed on in an attempt to climb the 7,544 metre high Skyang Kangri to the west, a giant gorge blocked their way. Nevertheless, the determined Duke did persevere and later succeeded in reaching an altitude of 7,500 meters. This in fact became a record high right up until 1922 when it was surpassed on Everest.

The Duke of Spoleto (1929)

Twenty years after the Duke of Abruzzi’s expedition his nephew, the Duke of Spoleto, lead a new expedition to attempt the K2 summit. They were not successful in their climb; however thanks to one of the expedition members, Professor Ardito Desio, some highly valuable scientific work was carried out in the Baltoro Region during this time. He was a knowledgeable leader within the field of Science and, thanks to his expertise, this expedition proved at least partly advantageous.

Shipton (1937)

During a survey mission to Shaksgam Valley, two famous British mountaineers, Harold William Tilman and Eric Earle Shipton, explored the North Face of K2 and surveyed its subsidiary glaciers. Tilman was a well-renowned explorer, mountaineer, sailor, writer and self-proclaimed planter in Kenya. For his part, Shipton was Consul- General of India in Kashgar between 1940-42 and 1946-48. He became known as one of the most significant explorers of the century and was Tilman’s most frequent expedition partner.

Houston (1938)

In 1938 the American Alpine Club, led by Chales Houston, organised the next expedition to K2. As they had succeeded two years earlier in an expedition to Nanda Devi, this group was confident of success and, indeed, would come the closest yet to conquering K2’s summit.

Commandeering a group of Sherpas led by the well-known Pasang Kikuli for assistance, the entire group made good progress and had reached the mountain by the beginning of June. On July 1st Camp 1 was established and, owing to the favourable weather conditions, several more camps followed. In spite of difficulties on the lower part of the mountain their final high altitude camp was established at 7,530 meters and, on July 18th, Houston and Petzoldt reached the "Shoulder" located at 7,740 meters. On July 21st, Houston and Petzoldt pushed up further in a mission to establish a site for Camp 8. A possible location existed directly below the top pyramid but Petzoldt pushed on still further, eventually reaching an estimated 7,925 meters before the decision was taken to descend.

Wiessner (1939)

In 1939 the German- American climber Fritz Wiessner led an expedition to K2, again enlisting the help of Pasang Kikuli’s Sherpas. Though Wiessner was an excellent climber this group’s ability was very mixed, a fact which ultimately proved very problematic during this particular attempt.

Camps 1-7 were established as in previous expeditions and the climbers pushed onwards to establish Camp 8 at 7,710 meters. At this stage, on 19th July, Wiessner and Pasang continued upwards to establish Camp 9 at an altitude of 7,940 meters, leaving fellow climber Wolfe behind. Given the favourable weather conditions, Wiessner was keen to complete the ascent by moonlight but as Pasang was reluctant; the pair instead began their descent. Exhausted, they reached Camp 9 at 2.30am. They had come the closest of anyone yet to reaching the 8,000 meter K2 summit.

Two days later the pair made a second attempt via another route. Passang in particular struggled, having lost his crampon during the descent two days earlier. Deflated, the pair turned back and headed back down to Camp once again. Supplies were now low and, to replenish, they descended further to where Wolfe had waited. Together the three men proceeded down towards Camp 7, expecting to find their fellow group members and a Supply Depot where they could re-stock. On approaching however, they found this camp, and then all camps from there down to Camp 2, completely abandoned. Seemingly while Wiessner and Pasang had been attempting the summit, the rest of their expedition members had climbed no further than Camp 2, meanwhile ordering the Sherpas to abandon all other stations up to Camp 7. When finally on July 24th Wiessner and Pasang made it to Base Camp they were unsurprisingly completely exhausted and suffering from frostbite.

As Wolfe had not made it down further than Camp 7 rescue attempts were now made by the Pasang Kikuli and some of his Sherpas to reach him. Finally on July 29th they made it but, as Wolfe was not fit to descend immediately, the rescue team descended to Camp 6 with plans to complete Wolfe’s rescue the next day. Unfortunately, a storm delayed them at this stage and it was not until July 31st that Pasang and two of the Sherpas again pushed upwards to fetch him.

By 2nd August neither Wolfe nor his rescuers had returned to Base Camp and there appeared to be no sign of life further up the mountain. At this stage, Wiessner made one last rescue attempt. Unfortunately he was delayed by yet another storm lasting for 3 days and by this time he realised that no survivors could possibly remain. For Dudley, Wolfe, Pasang Kikuli, Pasang Kitar and Pintso, this second American attempt of the summit had ended in tragedy.

In 1953 the Italian Professor Ardito Desio, a veteran of the 1929 expedition, along with Mario Puchoz surveyed the Karakoram terrain, seeking out possible routes up K2. Returning home having made their observations, Desio initiated plans to reach the summit. In his view, the best possible chance of success would require a military style operation followed and executed with strict precision and with any personal ambitions pushed aside. In January 1954, twenty-one carefully selected expedition members met in a tent camp based at 4,000 meters on the Mount Blanc Massif. At this point the group were subjected to extensive physical and mental examination through which the final 10 men were selected to leave immediately for a training camp situated at 4,500 meters on Monte Rosa. In the absence of any Sherpas to assist a few additional members were also recruited.

The approach proceeded as with previous expeditions, through the Abruzzi- Spur. Despite difficult weather conditions the group kept to their schedule well, securing the camps accordingly.

Come June, all supplies were stored at Camp 4 in preparation for the final summit attack. Though the intention was to reach the summit before the end of June, hard winds and storms prevented their progression. When conditions improved during late July, Desio decided to push onwards, establishing Camp 5 at 7,300 meters and proceeding in an attempt to reach the summit before a monsoon ensued. The group pushed onwards, securing Camp 8 at 8,150 meters, a point which was directly below the steep 200 meter high wall and generally considered to be the climb’s key to success. On July 29th, two of the four men who had reached Camp 8 made way towards the summit. They had just reached the ridge, 200 meters below the top, when their oxygen supply ran out and they were faced with the decision of whether to abandon the expedition or to continue. Continuing, they finally reached the summit on 29th July after a long hard struggle without oxygen supply.

As the first ever men to reach K2’s summit, this was a momentous achievement for the duo. Back at Camp 8 they were greeted warmly with congratulations and hot drinks and from here the whole group descended together, reaching Base Camp safely on August 2nd.

Because Desio wanted the whole group to be credited with the success of this expedition the identity of the two climbers who actually reached the summit remained unknown for some time. They were later revealed, however, as Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni.

The successful 1954 ascent was followed by a myriad of other attempts. The following 30 years, termed a "Golden Age" of mountaineering witnessed the development of "siege style mountaineering". Siege style mountaineering involves setting up a fixed line of stocked camps along the mountain route which can be accessed at climbers’ convenience. This is in contrast to "Alpine" style where climbers carry all food, shelter equipment etc. with them. "Siege" style is also characterised by the use of fixed ropes, and climbers (along with the porters they frequently employ) will travel up and down the route several times in order to fix ropes and to set up camps. Alpine style disregards the use of fixed ropes, porters, and camps, with climbers usually climbing the route only once in an intense continuous push. Expedition style was the type of climbing Sir Edmund Hillary and Tezig Norgay used in the first summiting of Mount Everest. They used siege techniques, for example fixing ropes on the wall and travelling up and down them to set up the route and carry food, water and equipment, to facilitate the final push.

By the end of 1985, a mere thirty-nine climbers have reached the summit of K2. By 1986, the Pakistani Government changed their policy of allowing more than a single team on the mountain at any given time. The floodgates opened and a stream of expeditions headed towards K2.

In 1986 an expedition between 6th and 19th August came to be known as the first disaster after five mountaineers died during a treacherous storm. The disaster came on the back of eight other climbers dying in the weeks preceding, bringing the total number of deaths to thirteen in a very short period of time.

The first casualties of the summer occurred during an American expedition. Like many, this team aspired to be the first to summit K2 via the technically demanding and previously unconquered Southwest Pillar, also known as the "Magic Line." Tragically, team leader John Smolich and fellow climber Alan Pennington were killed during this mission in an avalanche on 21st June. Pennington’s body was pulled out by climbers who had witnessed the incident, but Smolich’s body was never recovered.

On 23rd June, French climbers Liliane and Maurice Barrard reached the summit, just 30 minutes after their teammate, Wanda Rutkiewicz, became the very first woman to summit K2. Both Rutkiewicz and Barrard were climbing without bottled oxygen and, as darkness fell these three, along with team member Michel Parmentier and two Spanish climbers, Mari Abrego and Josema Casimiro, had to make an emergency camp (a Bivouac) not far from the summit itself. While all six made it through the night, the Barrards later disappeared at some point during the descent. Liliane’s body was recovered three weeks later but Maurice’s was not found until 1998.

Polish climber Tadeusz Piotrowski fell to his death after summiting the central rib of the south face on 10th July 1986 and, six days later, Italian soloist Renato Casarotto fell into a crevasse (a deep crack in the ice of a glacier), after unsuccessfully attempting to climb the Southwest Pillar. On 3rd August, Wojciech Wroz, part of a Czech-Polish team which had successfully summated the Southwest Pillar without using bottled oxygen, slipped off the end of a fixed rope and fell to his death. On 4th August, Mohammed Ali, a Sardar (political military leader) for a South Korean expedition, was killed by falling rocks on the Abzuzzi Ridge. Difficult weather conditions caused many other injuries and near fatalities ensued throughout the summer months.

Alan Rouse, leader of a British expedition, also set out during this time to master the difficult North West Ridge rather than taking the conventional Abruzzi Ridge. However, after several unsuccessful attempts to establish camps, the group disbanded leaving only Rouse and cameraman Jim Curran on the mountain. Curran returned to Base Camp, but Rouse chose to continue and joined forces with six other climbers- Austrians Alfred Wieser, Willi Bauer and Kurt Diemberger; a Polish woman, Dobroslawa Miodowicz-Wolf, and another British climber, Julie Tullis. This newly formed team made it to Camp 4, the final standing point before the summit, but for reasons unknown decided to wait a day before making the final summit push. Despite deteriorating weather conditions, Rouse and Wolf set out for the summit on 4th August, although Wolf quickly tired and dropped back. Two of the Austrian climbers, Willi Bauer and Alfred Imitzer, joined Rouse some 100 vertical meters below the summit and the three reached the summit together at around 4pm on 4th August; Rouse being the first Englishman ever to reach the summit of K2. On their descent, they found Wolf asleep in the snow and persuaded her to descend. They also met Kurt Diemberger and Julie Tullis, trying in vain to also persuade them to descend. Diemberger and Tullis did summit around 7pm but on their descent Tullis fell, thus forcing the pair to spend the night bivouacked (in an emergency camp) out in the open elements.

Eventually, these climbers reached Camp 4 and joined Hannes Wieser, who had previously hung back. A storm, bringing heavy snowfall, winds over 160 km/h, and sub-zero temperatures delayed their further descent and with no food or gas to melt the snow into water, the team members were at great risk of death by hypoxia. At an altitude of 800 meters the body requires approximately six litres of fluid a day to avoid dangerous thickening of blood. Given that the oxygen saturation of air at this altitude was only a third of that at sea level, the outlook for these pioneers looked grim.

Tullis died during the night of 6th August, presumably of HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema) a common consequence of lack of oxygen during physical exertion. The other six climbers stayed at Camp 4 for the next three days but remained barely conscious. On 10 August the snow halted and, though weak and severely dehydrated, the remaining climbers descended. Rouse, when conscious, was in agony, and the other climbers had to leave him behind in order to save themselves. It was a decision for which the survivors, particularly Diemberger, would later be severely criticised.

Imitzer and Wiesner, blinded by the snow, collapsed just a few hundred feet from camp and could not be revived. Wolf, who was descending last, never made it back either. One year later she was found attached to a fixed rope, still standing upright and leaning against a wall. Bauer and Diemberger, the two remaining climbers, having discovered that Camp 3 had been blown away by hurricane-force winds, were just able to make it to the relative safety of Camp 2 during the evening of 10th August. From here they were helicopter lifted to safety on 16th August- however both lost multiple fingers and toes as a result of severe frostbite.

The 2008 K2 tragedy unfolded on August 1, 2008, when eleven mountaineers from international expeditions lost their lives on the mountain. It has been the worst single accident ever in the history of K2 mountaineering. The full story of this disaster can be found on this website.


K2, the Savage Mountain, has certainly had its share of tragedy over the past hundred years. Nevertheless, this imposing structure has not lost its attraction, with an increasing number of expeditions pursuing its peak each year. Some challenges remain however. The mountain has not yet been conquered in a true "alpine-style" manner ascent; that is from bottom to top without the aid of fixed camps, fixed ropes, or bottled oxygen. Many of the ridge routes take significant deviations in line, so direct ascents are still open.

"And so K2, once essentially the preserve of the high-altitude climbing elite, was no longer so restricted. But as the number of climbers on the peak increased, so did the dangers. While almost all expeditions to the peak have installed fixed ropes low down to assist in the setting up and supplying of the camps, in general the early climbers dispensed with these on the summit day, trading their climbing experience and technique against the extra time required to fix them – and time is critical on the long K2 summit day where technical difficulty is added to altitude. Later ascents also brought more climbers to the hill so that summit days also involved greater numbers. If ropes are fixed to protect against a slip, it is a strong-minded climber who will ignore them. If they are fixed at points where there is essentially just a single line of rope, it may not be possible to ignore them. But fixed ropes slow any individual to the speed of the climber ahead." (Sale, R., The Challenge of K2: A history of the savage mountain, 2011, Barnsley: Pen & Sword Discovery, p. 177.)

The dangers of K2 are not purely related to its rocky, icy and steep angled surface over which a deadly Serac towers. With a growing number of climbers on K2 at any one time, this increased collective of climbers becomes a challenge in itself. The "Savagery" of a beautiful mountain such as K2 will not be countered by mere technical advances but increasingly by managerial skills needed to co-ordinate the efforts of an increasing number of individually minded climbers all eager to reach the summit successfully.