K2 is “a savage mountain that tries to kill you,” according to American climber George Bell. Rising steeply above the Karakoram Range along the Pakistan-China border and battered by atrocious weather, this pyramid-shaped mountain has always been the ultimate challenge for the world’s best mountaineers—and the graveyard of many of their ambitions. In 2008, in the worst accident in its history, 11 climbers perished trying to climb K2.
While making a documentary for the BBC, Mick Conefrey was lucky enough to meet a number of the pioneers who attempted to conquer the mountain, first summited by Italian Ardito Desio’s team in 1954. Conefrey’s book, The Ghosts of K2: The Epic Saga of the First Ascent, draws on those interviews, as well as newly released diaries and letters, to take us inside the obsessions, feuds, and acts of heroism that K2 inspires in those who dare to climb it.
Talking from his home in London, Conefrey explains why K2 brings out the best and worst in climbers, what climber Charles Houston meant by the term “The Brotherhood of the Rope,” and how the first man to attempt K2 ended up on the album cover of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Most mountains have resonant, poetic names like the Matterhorn or Everest. K2 sounds like a mathematical formula. How did it get its name?
It was first surveyed as part of the British Survey of India in 1856, by T.G. Montgomery. The British wanted to work out in particular where the border was between Kashmir and China, as there was a fear the Russian Empire would extend southwards. It’s called K2 because it’s found in the Karakoram Range to the northeast of the Himalayas on the border of today’s Pakistan and China. When they were doing the original survey, they gave all of the mountains K numbers. The surveyor would get the altitude of a mountain, write that down as K1 and the next one would be K2, K3, and so forth. Later, they went back and asked local people, “What’s this mountain over here called?” Then they would give it a local name, like Gasherbrum or Kanjut Sar. But K2 is so remote even today – it’s 75 miles from the nearest village – that there wasn’t an agreed local name. So K2 stuck. I actually think it’s very poetic because it sums up a mountain that is very bare, very austere, a perfect pyramid. It’s the very epitome of a mountain.
After being stretchered off K2 with frostbitten feet, American climber George Bell famously wrote: “It’s a savage mountain that tries to kill you.” Why is K2 such a deadly place?
It’s so deadly because of the combination of elements. It is about 800 feet lower than Everest, but the topography is much tougher. Climbing Everest you have stretches that are steep, then it flattens off. Very little of K2 ever flattens off. There’s a shoulder at about 24,000 feet when it flattens off briefly but that’s about the only respite. It’s also avalanche and rock fall-prone. It’s within the death zone, defined as above 25,000 feet. And the weather is terrible and unpredictable. There have been several years recently in which nobody managed to climb K2 because the weather was so bad.
The first attempt on K2 was surely the most bizarre. Tell us about 666, a.k.a “The Beast,” Aleister Crowley.
Aleister Crowley is famous for being an occultist. Some people call him a Satanist but that isn’t quite correct. There is no doubt that he was fascinated by the occult and Eastern religion. But although he’s most famous for the sex, drugs, and poetry—and for getting his face onto the cover of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—in his youth he was an ardent mountaineer. The kind of mountaineering he liked was the dangerous kind. He didn’t like climbing with guides. He liked climbing by himself or with his partner, Oscar Eckenstein. He wanted extreme experiences where he pushed himself to the limit.
Crowley and Eckenstein made the first attempt on K2 in 1902. In those days, nobody had a clue about what it was going to be like. They thought they would go to the Himalayas and knock off K2 in a couple of days. But as the expedition proceeded, it started falling apart. Eckenstein, the leader, had a bad respiratory infection. Crowley had malaria and spent most of the time in his tent with a high fever. At one point he got so delirious, he started waving his revolver at other members of the team. [Laughs]
American Charlie Houston is a legend in the history of K2 expeditions even though he, too, failed to summit. Why has his expedition retained a singular place in the K2 canon?
Charlie Houston went to K2 twice, first in 1938 to do a reconnaissance of the mountain when he almost succeeded in getting to the summit. But by a bizarre stroke of misfortune, when he reached his last camp, he discovered he didn’t have any matches left. That sounds like a trivial thing but if you’re at high altitudes and you can’t cook for yourself or melt water then life is very dangerous. He rummaged around in his pockets and found a few dog ends of matches. There’s this horrific scene where they’re striking them and they’re dying. He gets to the last one. Is it going to light? Eventually, they got a couple of matches to light but it was not the way to begin the ascent of the world’s hardest mountain.
Houston came back in 1953, a very different character, having been through WWII and become an expert on high altitude climbing. The expedition was built around democratic American ideals. He was the team leader but he wanted everybody to have a say. It epitomized the noble ideal of what Houston called “the Brotherhood of the Rope”: the idea that the people you climb with are dependent on you, and you are dependent on them.
K2 seems to bring out the best—and the worst—in people. Expeditions are full of acrimonious fallings out and grievances nursed for a lifetime. Tell us about Fritz Wiessner and the psychopathology of this mountain.
Fritz Wiessner was a brilliant German climber, who had gone to America in the 1930’s and revolutionized American climbing by introducing European techniques. But as soon as the expedition set off in 1939, just before the outbreak of World War Two, everything went wrong.
He had to put together a scratch team because the climbers he wanted weren’t available. Even before he arrived at base camp, one of his lead climbers fell terribly ill. Fritz forced himself on but the group of novices he had been obliged to take with him started falling away. By the end you had Fritz at the top and the rest of his team at the bottom of the mountain, desperate to leave. Tragedy was inevitable.
He almost reached the summit. But on his way down, Wiessner found that the rest of his team had stripped the mountain of the sleeping bags, collapsed the tents, and got rid of the supplies he’d been relying on. Worse still, one of his colleagues, Dudley Wolfe, remained stranded high up the mountain. They made three attempts to bring Wolfe down but he died on K2. Three Sherpas also perished.
When he came back to America, Fritz was interrogated. Why did you leave Dudley Wolfe on the mountain? Why did the Sherpas die? This was in the context of the war, which had just broken out. So you had this polarized controversy where Fritz’s German nationality became a key question. And the controversy still rumbles on.
Even the successful 1954 Italian expedition was dogged by bitter infighting. Though they made it to the top, the team members spent years arguing and even suing each other. It’s an extreme mountain that makes extreme demands on all the climbers who attempt it. Because of that, when things don’t go according to plan, you get these terrible, rancorous arguments.
You write, “Every year the mountain gives up some of its victims.” You made a particularly memorable discovery yourself, didn’t you?
We were taking shots of these striking ice sculptures in the glacier between K2 Base Camp and Camp One. Suddenly, my climbing safety person pointed and said, “There’s a rib cage.” It was lying ten feet away. You could hardly see it because the bones had become bleached and were partly embedded in the snow. There was nothing around it that could identify from whom it came; no clothing or belongings. So we thought it best to leave it where it was, rather than disturb it. It was a chilling reminder of just how dangerous the mountain is.
Tell us a bit about the women who have climbed K2 and the “curse” that surrounds them.
For a long time there was this strange fact that women who did manage to get to the top either died on the descent or died a few years later . The first to summit was Wanda Rutkiewicz. She got there just ahead of French climber Liliane Barrard, then died on Kanchenjunga six years later. In 1986, Barrard climbed with her husband Maurice Barrard, and they died on the descent. Similarly, British climber Julie Tullis got to the summit then died on the way down. Same with Alison Hargreaves. This gave rise to the idea that there was a curse on K2 for women climbers. Of course, that has been disproved. There have been women who have climbed K2, among them the legendary Spanish climber, Edurne Pasaban, who was the first woman to climb every “Eight Thousander.”
You interviewed many of the survivors of K2 expeditions for your BBC film. What moved – and surprised – you about them?
The thing that always surprises me when I meet these climbers from the golden age is that they either live for an incredibly long time, or they die young, climbing. Ardito Desio lived to 101; Charlie Houston lived to his 90’s; Fritz Wiessner lived to his late 80’s. These guys are so tough they simply kept on going.
When I talked to Charlie Houston about the 1953 expedition, I could tell everything was still so vivid in his mind. When I talked to the Italians Compagnoni and Lacedelli about getting to the summit, there was still this incredible sense of wonder in their voices, “Did I really do that?” Because climbing K2 is so hard and there are so many odds stacked against you, if you succeed, you’re left with this sense of wonder. If you fail, you are left with a feeling of intense disappointment because you’ve had to put so much into it. You’ve had to lay your life on the line. And that marks you forever.
There are not that many happy stories around K2. There are many more unhappy stories because it’s so difficult and dangerous. Close to base camp at K2 there’s a memorial to Art Gilkey, who died during Houston’s expedition. Every year more and more little plates are put up, recording people who have died on K2. These little plates jingle in the wind, which gives them a strange, unworldly quality. It goes back to K2 not having a name. It’s not like an ordinary mountain. There’s something different about it. It’s just that much more dangerous.