There were remarkable events on K2 last weekend. Although the facts are still emerging it looks like just a few days before the 60th anniversary of the first ascent a record number of climbers (32) reached the summit on Saturday 26 July, and more than 40 over the course of the weekend. The summiteers include three members of a Nepali women’s team, and the first complete Pakistani team (though a number of Pakistanis have previously reached the summit as members of other teams).
At 8611m high, K2 has traditionally been regarded as one of the hardest mountains in the world, climbed only by the boldest and most talented mountaineers. But with so many people summiting has it at last become within the reach of less experienced commercial climbers in the same way Everest did in the 1990s? And in a year when the only people to climb Everest by its standard Southeast Ridge did so by helicopter, has K2 now become the new Everest?
Before I examine the data to answer this question it’s worth taking a look at K2’s history, which more than any other Himalayan peak is unspeakably dark, tragic and depressing. It’s a history littered with the corpses of those who underestimated the mountain and perished after making unwise decisions, and one that has frequently been darkened by the worst aspects of human nature.
K2’s grisly history
This history began as early as 1902, when the occultist and black magic wizard Aleister Crowley joined an expedition led by Oscar Eckenstein, inventor of the 10-point crampon, and threatened his team mate Guy Knowles with a revolver during an argument at base camp. Knowles retaliated by kneeing Crowley in the groin, and the expedition ended in acrimony (I’m not making this up).
When Fritz Wiessner, the German-born leader of an American expedition descended from a heroic summit attempt with Pasang Dawa Lama in 1939 he discovered their support camps had been systematically stripped by their team mates, who were in the process of packing up and returning home without them, leaving an ailing climber Dudley Wolfe stranded at one of the high camps. Wolfe subsequently died along with three Sherpas who went missing after being sent up to rescue him.
When the Italians Achille Compagnoni and Lino Lacedelli made the first ever ascent of K2 in 1954, they left two team mates Walter Bonatti and the Pakistani porter Mahdi to sleep outside on a ledge at 8000m after carrying up vital oxygen supplies for them. While both men survived the night Mahdi later lost most of his feet to frostbite. Compagnoni and Lacedelli were also accused of lying about their claim to reach the summit without oxygen.
The story of bitterness and animosity continued into the 1970s. Galen Rowell’s book In the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods records a particularly vitriolic American expedition to the west side of K2 in 1975, led by the brothers Jim and Lou Whittaker. The team split into rival factions, and one climber Fred Dunham responded to 6’5″ Lou Whittaker’s physical presence by recording in his diary: “There is only one way to handle a guy like Lou who shoves his weight and size around … with an ice-axe in the back of his head or a bullet between the eyes. There is no other way for a smaller person to get justice.”
More recently K2’s history has been characterised by tragedy as a result of poor decision making, either by climbers who were too inexperienced to be tackling a mountain as difficult as K2, or who underestimated the task they were undertaking.
In 1986 thirteen climbers died in seven separate incidents. Causes of death included an avalanche, falls, crevasses, rockfall and sheer exhaustion. Renato Casarotto was almost home when he fell into a crevasse in the icefall just above base camp. He was so close to safety that he was seen to disappear from camp, but by the time rescuers found him he was beyond help. Maurice and Liliane Barrard were trying to climb alpine style without the use of fixed ropes but fell to their deaths somewhere around the steep slopes of the Bottleneck Couloir on their way down from the summit. Several climbers chose to spend a rest day in fine weather at Camp 4 on the Shoulder at nearly 8000m. Some climbed without tents, relying on the goodwill of other teams to accommodate them. But when they returned exhausted from the summit the following day they found themselves fighting for their lives in a six day storm.
Of the seven who were trapped only two, the Austrians Kurt Diemberger and Willi Bauer, survived the ordeal. Diemberger guided up his relatively inexperienced partner, the British climber Julie Tullis, who almost certainly would not have been there but for him. He was the hugely experienced grand old man of Himalayan mountaineering, who made the first ascent of Broad Peak in 1957 and the first ascent of Dhaulagiri in 1960, but when push came to shove it was as much as he could do to save himself, and Tullis died in her tent.
In 1995 six climbers, including the British woman Alison Hargreaves, chose to push for the summit with a storm brewing far beneath them. Although they reached the top in clear conditions they encountered winds in excess of 100 mph a short while into their descent. With no shelter and no fixed ropes to anchor themselves they didn’t stand a chance and were literally plucked off the mountain by the wind and cast thousands of metres below.
In 2008 a huge serac that had threatened the route above Camp 4 throughout K2’s history but remained stable finally collapsed in a series of separate incidents. Most of the climbers who reached the summit that day did so very late in the afternoon, which meant they had to descend in the dark. They were unaware the collapsing ice had severed the fixed rope beneath them which they needed for safe descent, and several were killed in falls. In total eleven people died in eight separate incidents.
With such a grisly history it seems hard to believe K2 has become the ultimate ambition of so many mountaineers. The stories are about as inspiring as Justin Bieber playing a set of bagpipes, and personally they leave me with no more desire to climb K2 than watching James McAvoy dragged out of a plane at Entebbe Airport and hung by his nipples in the film The Last King of Scotland tempted me to take a holiday to Uganda.
Why climb K2?
So why do people set K2 on a pedestal above other mountains? It’s possible many of them simply aren’t aware of the stories, but it’s equally possible there are other reasons. In her book Savage Summit, about the the first five women to climb K2, Jennifer Jordan provides the following quote by the writer and musician Robert Leonard Reid:
“Mountaineers climb because they love the mountains, yes; but they climb too because mountaineering prepares them boldly and tenaciously for death, then guides them faithfully to the edge of another world, a world I now recognize as the world of the dead, and there allows them to dance, mountain after mountain, year after year, as close to death as it is possible to dance, which is to say, within a single step.”
I’m probably not the best person to offer a critique about this statement, as I climb mostly for the scenery and love of the mountains. I’ve come to mountaineering as a hiker rather than a climber and the technical difficulties have little attraction for me, which probably puts me in a slightly different bracket. It’s easy to criticise a quotation that has been lifted from somewhere without its accompanying passages and taken out of context, but on its own I believe the statement above is, to put it mildly, unadulterated head-in-the-clouds hogwash. While it’s certainly true some alpinists and extreme rock climbers get a thrill out of risk and danger, they constitute a small fraction of mountaineers and even they have other motivations beside a longing to prepare themselves for the other world. After all, if what you’re looking for is a dance with death you can put on a gimp mask and a pair of hand cuffs and jump into your local swimming pool.
In any case, arguably K2 isn’t even the most dangerous 8000m peak. Statistically there are around a quarter as many deaths on K2 as there are successful summits. As of 2013, 306 have reached the summit, while 81 (26.5%) have died on its slopes, but 8091m Annapurna in Nepal has a higher death rate and a lower tally of successful summits. While 191 people have reached the top, 67 (35.1%) have died there. No, danger alone can’t be the reason.
One of the climbers who summited K2 over the weekend, Alan Arnette, offered a possible explanation in a blog post about his climb.
“I know clearly why I am climbing K2 and I will say this today and forever – it is about the cause, not the climb.”
This is an enlightening statement, and while it refers specifically to his own reason for climbing K2 it may provide some insight into the motivation of others. The cause he refers to is research into Alzheimer’s, a disease which took his mother. He could be climbing any mountain to raise money, but he chose K2. Why? Because he believes it offers a greater return. While Alan needs money for a charitable cause, many more need it simply to maintain their status as professional climbers. In other words, by climbing K2 they believe they will be able to attract more money in sponsorship.
Is it possible many people climb K2 for its reputation alone? This is certainly true with Everest, which attracts a high number of climbers simply because more people have heard of it. Perhaps it is simply a wish to demonstrate they are real climbers and not only guided clients. So how do the two mountains compare?
K2 vs. Everest
“Everest and K2 aren’t even the same sport,” says commercial expedition guide Chris Szymiec in this trailer for the film K2: Siren of the Himalayas.
The Victorian mountaineer Albert Mummery famously said mountains go through three stages: (i) an inaccessible peak, (ii) the most difficult ascent in the Alps, and (iii) an easy day for a lady. Mummery was a man of his era and in the 21st century most of us would have our balls cut off for making a statement like that, but the underlying theme behind his words still holds. It took ten large siege style British and Swiss expeditions between 1921 and 1953 for someone to stand on the summit of Everest. In the 1970s more fearless climbers attempted it alpine style, and in 1980 Reinhold Messner climbed it solo. You had to be one of your country’s top mountaineers to have an opportunity of climbing Everest in those days, but in the 1990s commercial companies started guiding less experienced climbers up, and in 2012 even I climbed it. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, but with a bit of graft it’s quite possible for people of lesser talent to reach the summit.
The reason this happened was improved logistics. Perhaps the two most important contributions were Sherpa support, taking away much of the hard work of carrying loads and establishing camps, and fixed ropes which provide security against falls and enable less able climbers to overcome technical obstacles by hauling themselves up with ascending devices. Significantly better weather forecasts have also improved the situation in recent years, and clients often only need to climb in good conditions.
Everest’s terrain is favourable to commercial expeditions. Much of it is simply a steep snow climb or a rock scramble. Exposure is more usually due to narrow ridges rather than steep terrain. More difficult technical obstacles such as the Second Step on the Northeast Ridge or the crevasses of the Khumbu Icefall, can be overcome with ladders. It’s possible for a trekker who is competent moving over snow using an ice axe and crampons to climb with confidence.
K2 is yet to become a commercial peak like Everest. Operators provide base camp logistics, but generally leave all aspects of the climbing to their clients. Pakistani high altitude porters (known as HAPs) are used by some teams to provide support, but there are not as many of them and they lack the depth of experience of Sherpas. Many “teams” are simply a collection of individuals sharing a permit, and while fixed ropes are used, fixing them requires cooperation between climbers, a procedure that isn’t always reliable. Weather forecasts are less reliable too, and the weather itself is far more severe in the Pakistan Karakoram than it is in the Nepal Himalaya. There have been years when K2 has provided no summit window at all. The routes are notoriously avalanche prone after snowfall, and climbers must be able to read the signs and exercise good judgement.
Even with better logistics the terrain on K2 is an order of magnitude harder than it is on Everest, which makes it far less attractive to commercial operators. It’s not enough to be a snow plodder who knows how to use an ice axe and crampons. Those who attempt K2 must be competent ice and rock climbers, capable of moving quickly at high altitude with a heavy pack. Three sections on the standard Abruzzi Route – House’s Chimney, the Black Pyramid, and the Bottleneck Couloir and Traverse – contain difficulties well beyond those found on Everest. The first is a 100m vertical rock gully between Camps 1 and 2, choked with ice, while the latter is an atrociously steep snow slope with some vertical sections. It traverses directly beneath a huge serac, which collapsed while people were climbing beneath it in 2008, leading to a prolonged tragedy and many fatalities. Located above Camp 4 at around 8300m, it’s a desperate feature for an exhausted climber to be descending on their summit day.
But so much for the differences. As Mummery said, mountains go through three distinct phases. Is it possible this week has marked a watershed in K2’s history? Have this week’s successes been unprecedented, and do they signal the start of K2’s transformation into a commercial peak?
Let’s have a look at the stats. The table below compares the number of ascents of K2 and Everest over the last 10 years, excluding this year. It also shows the most ascents in a single day for each mountain.
|Total no. of ascents||Most ascents in a single day|
As you can see from the table, there may have been a record number of ascents last Saturday, but this doesn’t necessarily demonstrate a changing trend. Four other days in the last ten years have seen a significant number of ascents on K2 (for the record these are 27 July 2004, 20 July 2007, 1 August 2008 and 31 July 2012). The last of these in 2012 saw nearly as many summits (28) as last Saturday. Even if last weekend saw over 40 ascents, this wouldn’t be totally unprecedented. There was a similar window in 2004, when over the period 26 to 28 July there were 41 ascents. In fact it seems to be normal on K2 that if there are summits at all then pretty much everybody gets up in a short one to three day window.
Contrast this with Everest. Leaving aside this year, when strike action by Sherpas prevented those on the south side from climbing, 500 summits in a season is far from unusual. There have been 100 summits on a single day every year since 2007, but even so there have been no shortage of ascents on other days, indicating good summit weather windows. The most ascents on a single day was 223 on 19 May 2012 (which coincidentally – or perhaps not – was the day I reached the summit). That year is remembered as being one with unusually short weather windows, with long queues of climbers and many teams on the mountain at the same time, yet there were still 335 ascents on other days beside May 19.
So much for getting up the mountain – how about getting down again? The table below compares the number of fatalities on K2 and Everest, and the proportion of fatalities against the number of people climbing.
|Deaths||% Deaths to Ascents|
Source: List of deaths on eight-thousanders from Wikipedia
These results are even more notable. While 36 times as many people climb Everest, less than twice as many die there. While K2 has a death rate of 21.7% over the last ten years, Everest has an almost respectable 1.2%. Even if you take this year into consideration, when around 150 people reached the summit of Everest and 16 died in an avalanche, the figure would still be just 1.5%.
K2 is not the new Everest
All of which brings me to an incontrovertible conclusion, that K2 is not the new Everest any more than Germany are the new Brazil. Climbers need a level of ability and self-sufficiency that can’t be obtained from a commercial Everest expedition, and those who consider trying would benefit from acquainting themselves with its history.
As for me, I’ve been watching this week’s events with interest but no desire. I’m not a great technical climber, and Alan Arnette’s description of 80 to 90° ice slopes on the traverse which left him anxious about how he would ever get down them reminds me too much about Everest’s much simpler First Step. I still have unfinished business on three easier 8000m peaks – Cho Oyu, Gasherbrum II and Lhotse – and many other peaks attract me long before I consider The Savage Mountain. Savage? That’s not what I look for in a peak.
Lots of people may have climbed K2 last weekend, but each and every one of them has just reached a new stratosphere as a climber, and returned from an experience that lifts them well above us more ordinary folk. It was a sad year on the Pakistan 8000ers last year, and in Nepal this year; it’s good to have some positive news for a change.
Tragically within the last few hours it has emerged that a Spanish climber Miguel Angel Perez, died in his tent at Camp 4. Climbing without oxygen he turned around 300m below the summit on Saturday after feeling cold. He made second attempt with oxygen on Monday and reached the summit, but was forced to bivouac above the Bottleneck at 8300m. He was found dead in his tent today by rescuers after friends had been unable to contact him.
[UPDATE, JANUARY 2016: If you enjoyed this blog post then you may be interested in my first full-length book, Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest, about my ten-year journey from hill walker to Everest climber.]