“It’s a savage mountain that tries to kill you.”
George Bell, upon returning from K2 in 1953
Of all the 8000m peaks 8,611m K2, straddling the China-Pakistan border in the Karakoram, seems to be the one that arouses public interest more than any other besides Everest. I don’t believe this is simply because it’s the second highest. Nor is it because it’s the most dangerous – arguably that title goes to Annapurna, which takes one life for every three successful summiteers. Possibly, just possibly, it has the most gruesome reputation (although Nanga Parbat runs it a close second). It does have a reputation for being the hardest one to climb, both for its terrain and the weather.
The answer probably lies in its history, which is one of the most interesting of any mountain: triumph, villainy, heroic tales of survival, heroic rescues, controversy and exploration all play a part.
Its history has been covered in depth in a number of well-known books, so why write another one? Mick Conefrey asks this very question in the prologue of his new book The Ghosts of K2: The Epic Saga of the First Ascent, which was released in hardcover last week. His reply is that archive material has emerged that shines new light on some of the more controversial episodes in K2’s history.
I have personally read plenty about K2’s early history, including Jim Curran’s K2: The Story of the Savage Mountain, Ed Viesturs and David Roberts’s K2: Life and Death on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain (great titles … not), as well as chapters from Abode of Snow by Kenneth Mason, Fallen Giants by Isserman and Weaver, and The Mountains of My Life by Walter Bonatti.
Why would I want to read another one? In my case it was not because I felt I needed new insight into some of K2’s best-known controversies, but because I very much enjoyed reading Mick’s other mountaineering history Everest 1953, which was as enjoyable and accessible an account of the 1953 British Everest expedition as I’ve read. That was a happy expedition, though it had its share of controversy, most notably a pointless media storm that erupted on the team’s return to Kathmandu, over which of Tenzing and Hillary arrived on the summit a millimetre ahead of the other. The 1954 Italian K2 expedition, on the other hand, is arguably better known for its controversy than its achievements. I looked forward to learning about that expedition in more detail in Mick Conefrey’s down-to-earth, authoritative style.
The first point to note about The Ghosts of K2 is that it has a slightly misleading subtitle. It’s not just about the 1954 first ascent, but the whole of K2’s early climbing history up to that point. This is a good thing, as it would have been easy for the book to get bogged down in the unsavoury controversy which followed the Italian ascent (which is covered in detail in any case). K2 has many really interesting stories which Mick covers in the early chapters before he gets to the history of its first ascent.
The Ghosts of K2 can roughly be broken down into four sections, the first involving K2’s initial history and exploration, and the other three focusing on three great expeditions: the 1939 American expedition and its fallout (badly-organised, controversial and tragic), the 1953 American expedition (heroic and tragic), and the 1954 Italian expedition (well-organised, successful, villainous and ultimately drowned in controversy). The words in brackets are mine not Mick’s, based on previous accounts of K2’s history. What he does very well is re-examine the expeditions in the light of previous accounts, and provide his own interpretation – an interpretation that is both objective and sensible.
The first two chapters of the book recount K2’s initial exploration and early climbs. These include Martin Conway’s exploratory trek around the Karakoram in 1892, the first attempt to climb it in 1902, featuring the inventor Oscar Eckenstein and occultist Aleister Crowley (possibly the strangest pairing in mountaineering history), and the first assault on the Abruzzi Ridge by an Italian team led by (wait for it) the Duke of Abruzzi. A full chapter is given to the 1938 American attempt, which was the first realistic attempt to reach the summit. This expedition, led by Charles Houston, contained four leading climbers, all of whom contributed to its success. It was the first to find practical campsites on K2’s precipitous terrain, and the first to find its way up the mountain’s most formidable technical obstacle, House’s Chimney, named after 1938 team member Bill House, who led the route up it.
Mick’s prose is breezy and entertaining to read. He peppers these early chapters with interesting and entertaining anecdotes from the participants’ own accounts, such as the time Oscar Eckenstein thought he’d bought a dress being modelled by a woman in Kashmir, only to discover he’d actually bought the woman instead, or the time Pasang Kikuli saved the 1938 team from rockfall when he claimed a yeti warned him to duck.
The following three chapters of the book cover the 1939 expedition, led by German-born American Fritz Wiessner, an expedition that came within the toss of a cricket ball of an improbable first ascent, but descended into a catalogue of cock-ups which ultimately led to the deaths of four men. In hindsight, the seeds of disaster were sown from the start with its team selection of college kids and guided climbers. The only experienced western climber aside from Wiessner was a 25-year-old mountain guide called Jack Durrance who had difficulty acclimatising. Nevertheless, thanks to an astonishing performance by Wiessner, who led the entire route ably supported by an experienced team of Sherpas, Wiessner and Pasang Dawa Lama got to within 250m of the summit. It was 6.30pm, and although Wiessner wanted to continue, Pasang refused, and both men returned to camp exhausted at 2.30am.
These days climbers on 8000m peak expeditions carry radios to keep in touch between camps, but the 1939 team did all their communication using handwritten notes carried from camp to camp. The gulf in class between the team members meant that while Wiessner and his elite Sherpas were within striking distance of the summit, the rest of the team were mostly at base camp and had no idea what was going on higher up. Believing the elite climbers to be dead, the rest of the team failed to support their summit attempt. Some of them even started stripping the lower camps, and in the confusion that followed four men died: the brave but inexperienced American Dudley Wolfe, who was unable to descend K2’s precipitous terrain without help, and three Sherpas – Pasang Kikuli, Phinsoo and Pasang Kitar – who went missing when they tried to rescue him.
Mick devotes an entire chapter to the fallout from the 1939 K2 disaster. How interesting you find this chapter depends on how interested you are in controversy and speculation. He certainly does a comprehensive job sifting through all the conflicting accounts, which were still being written in the 1990s, some years after Wiessner died. What I found most enlightening about the chapter was the way Mick illustrates how public perception of mountaineering history swung between extremes as each side was championed by a different writer. To begin with Wiessner’s German ancestry meant he was given a rough ride in 1939 on the eve of the Second World War. He eventually died an American mountaineering hero in 1988, but in the 1990s one of his former champions Andy Kauffman published a book about the 1939 tragedy which was extremely critical of Wiessner, swinging his reputation again. What I like about Mick Conefrey’s approach is that he is able to see through all the conflicting opinions and steer a course of moderation.
The next three chapters of the book cover the 1953 American attempt on K2, an expedition that was free from controversy and has become the embodiment of teamwork and heroism. All eight members of the team reached 7800m, before becoming trapped for days in a storm. In spite of this they were in a position to strike for the summit, and chose the summit pair by secret ballot. Then one of the chosen two, George Bell, discovered that he had frostbitten heels.
When Art Gilkey emerged from his tent to find he could no longer walk, and expedition leader Charles Houston (who was also a doctor) diagnosed a blood clot, the attempt was effectively over. In his heart Houston knew Gilkey was doomed – he was unable to climb down on his own, and would die if the clot spread to his lungs. But instead of leaving him, the whole team made an attempt to evacuate him.
They descended in pairs, each pair roped together, with Gilkey tied in a sledge between them. One man slipped, their ropes became tangled, and they would all have fallen off the mountain had the last man on the final rope, Pete Schoening, not rammed his axe into the ground and arrested the whole tangle. Bruised and exhausted, they left Gilkey and his sledge tied to a snow slope as they went to establish camp. When they went back to get him, he had vanished.
Had he cut himself loose to save his companions or been swept away by an avalanche? Although the second explanation is more likely, the legend remains.
Finally we come to the heart of the book, four chapters on the 1954 first ascent by the Italians Achille Compagnoni and Lino Lacedelli. In the last fifty years the perception of this ascent has been rewritten thanks to a prolonged personal crusade by Walter Bonatti, one of the greatest mountaineers in history, who played a support role to the summit pair. I won’t go into many of the details here, as the story is complex, and its intricacies are ably sifted through by Mick in his thorough, practical manner.
Compagnoni, Lacedelli and expedition leader Ardito Desio were rightly lauded by the Italian mountaineering establishment after the ascent, and Bonatti felt his important role went unacknowledged. He and Pakistani high-altitude porter Mahdi carried oxygen up in support of the summit pair, but were forced to bivouac in the open when they were unable to locate the tent in the dark. Compagnoni and Lacedelli used the oxygen cylinders for their ascent, but they subsequently ran out.
Bonatti’s arguments centre on whether Compagnoni and Lacedelli deliberately abandoned them to spend a night in the open, and whether they reached the summit without oxygen, as they claimed. In the 1990s his cause was taken up by an Australian writer Robert Marshall, who believed he had discovered proof Bonatti was right. Ultimately this view won the day, and these days Compagnoni is often seen as a villain whose ambition to claim summit glory caused him to abandon his fellow team members, as well as a charlatan who reached the summit with oxygen and then lied about it.
I’m not familiar enough with the details of the controversy to say whether Mick has discovered new evidence to disprove this interpretation of the facts, but what he certainly has done is readdress the balance in his no-nonsense way. He has written a history that doesn’t take sides (although he does betray contempt for Robert Marshall), and treads a more moderate line. The Compagnoni he describes is a loyal deputy to the autocratic Desio, who drives the expedition forwards as other team members argue with their leader, and ultimately earns the right to be one of the summit team. Bonatti’s night in the open becomes a result of misunderstanding, confusion, and the difficulties of navigating difficult terrain in the dark, rather than deliberate callousness.
I like Mick’s approach. In emotive discussions with conflicting opinions, the truth is nearly always somewhere in the middle. The argument about whether Compagnoni and Lacedelli reached the summit without oxygen is as pointless as it is ludicrous, and Mick is at pains to point out just how ludicrous.
The “proof” they were still breathing bottled oxygen when they reached the summit centres around calculations of climb rate (as in metres of vertical ascent per hour) and speed of oxygen depletion from the cylinders. These are the sort of arguments that are mentioned frequently in the debate about whether Mallory and Irvine reached the summit of Everest.
As Mick correctly points out, they still can’t make oxygen apparatus that functions efficiently in the 21st century. I know this from experience. On several occasions I have climbed for long distances and felt like I have derived no benefit from my oxygen apparatus. A quick wiggle of my mask and suddenly things are better, and I’ve no idea why. I’ve had tubes freeze up, and I once slept for an entire night with a mask over my face only to discover in the morning that I’d breathed no oxygen at all. I expect oxygen apparatus was much worse in 1954. One of the suppliers the Italian team used had never supplied cylinders for mountaineering expeditions before. Summit day was the first time Compagnoni and Lacedelli had used it, and that’s not a good time to learn. There is a good chance they made a mistake setting it up.
To assume the oxygen worked perfectly at the advertised rate is a deeply flawed argument, and is certainly not proof. As for Compagnoni and Lacedelli’s speed of ascent, there is no certainty about their departure time, as nobody saw them leave. The start time Robert Marshall used for his very precise mathematical calculations was simply Walter Bonatti’s best guess.
For a long time biographies of Robert Falcon Scott and the race for the South Pole took one of two extremes: Scott was either a national hero or a bumbling incompetent. Eventually Sir Ranulph Fiennes put an end to the nonsense by writing a biography that put him in his true place as a pioneer who made a few mistakes in a harsh environment. With The Ghosts of K2 Mick Conefrey has done the same for Compagnoni. Whether he breathed bottled oxygen all the way to the summit or not, it was still a great achievement. Perhaps he could have helped Walter Bonatti to find his tent, and given him more credit for his contribution, but we are all human and we make mistakes from time to time. I hope Mick’s sensible attitude to the first ascent of K2 prevails.
The book is slightly let down by the epilogue, which is a bit of a mish-mash that creates more loose ends than it tidies. It covers K2’s later history by concentrating on two of its biggest disasters in 1986 and 2008 (yawn). There is a “whatever happened to …” section that briefly describes the lives of the book’s main actors after they returned from K2, and a “what might have happened if …” section, that speculates on how history would have been written had events turned out differently. Even so, Mick displays a refreshing attitude to the changing face of mountaineering, instead of yearning for an age long past, as many mountaineering writers do.
I enjoyed this book, which is a worthy successor to Everest 1953. Mick Conefrey appears to have found his niche covering great moments in mountaineering history in a scholarly yet accessible way, accompanied by a healthy dose of common sense. I look forward to reading his next book.
I read an free advance uncorrected proof of the book. There may be slight changes to the version I read.
To receive my weekly blog post about mountains and occasional info about new releases, join my mailing list and get a free ebook.