K2: Triumph and Tragedy

Recommendation: This is part of a moderately niche genre, but an excellent example of it

Where to read: In the middle of an Australian summer

Read with: A large selection of Polish cured meats

In brief: There is absolutely no chance you will ever find me on a 8000m peak. The chances of me binge-reading a good mountaineering book, however, are very high, and this is one of the classics of the genre.

I do not precisely remember when I first became fascinated by mountaineering literature but the (perhaps unlikely) catalyst was a piece in Men’s Journal about the 2008 disaster on K2. The full piece is well worth reading, although it should be noted that some of the factual assertions have been challenged over time. In summary, however, 11 climbers were killed and more were seriously injured over just two days in a series of falls, accidents and avalanches on the upper slopes of K2. The death toll, and the nightmarish scenarios in which they occurred, underscored both K2’s reputation as a challenge for even very serious mountaineers and its shockingly high mortality rate.

Published in 1987, Curran’s narrative covers older and even deadlier terrain, skating through some of the early and often fatal attempts on K2 and focusing on the catastrophic 1986 season to which Curran was witness. That year, a bevy of international expeditions, one of which included Curran, converged on the mountain. The veritable NATO summit included Italian, Basque, French, British, Polish, German, Swiss, Austrian and American climbers, with a ‘vast army’ of Koreans thrown in for good measure. Some of the expeditions were also accompanied by Pakistani High Altitude Porters (HAPs), who play a similar role as Sherpas in the Himalayas.

Over the course of the summer, 13 climbers would be killed in a litany of a small tragedies accelerating towards a devastating climax in the early days of August. First were two Americans, Alan Pennington and John Smolich, killed by a freak avalanche between Camps 1 and 2 towards the end of June. Three days later, French couple Maurice and Lilliane Barrard vanished on the descent following an harrowing overnight bivouac near the summit with four other climbers who barely made it down themselves. In early July, Polish climber Tadeusz Piotrowski lost both crampons and fell to his death, again on the descent. Six days later, Renato Casarotto, a legendary solo climber, turned around near the summit but fell into a crevasse within sight of Base Camp where his wife was waiting – he was pulled out by fellow climbers but died shortly after. Around 4 August, Polish climber Wojciech Wroz abseiled off the end of a fixed rope on the upper slopes on his descent (probably) and Mohammed Ali, the Sirdar (leader) of the HAPs with the South Korean team, was killed below Camp 1 by a stone fall. Then, between 6 and 10 August, five climbers died as a storm battered K2’s slopes. Julie Tullis, the first British woman to climb K2, died at Camp 4 (probably of high-altitude pulmonary oedema) while Al Rouse, the leader of the British expedition and the main trail breaker during their summit push, became incapacitated and was left in his tent at Camp 4. After days at Camp 4, the survivors tried to descend during a break in the storm but Austrians Alfred Imitzer and Hannes Wieser and Mrufka Wolf, the first Polish woman to summit, never made it back.

If this sounds like a rather depressing roll call you would be correct. Curran does his level best to highlight some of the titular triumph but it rings hollow in the face of such unrelenting carnage. He also tries to explain the motivations of those who chose to stay despite the mounting death toll and what must have been the growing suspicion that the year was cursed. I am sure his explanations are unnecessary for some and sufficient for others but to me it is entirely anathema. This is not a critique of him – no writer has ever explained it to my complete rational or emotional satisfaction, nor can I comprehend justifying the risk and consequent anguish to loved ones. That said, there are parts of the narrative I find astounding but which Curran either skates over or finds unremarkable, particularly the frankly unconscionable fact that, by August, Al Rouse’ partner was eight months pregnant with their first child.

A better counterbalance to the misery is Curran’s prose; he writes beautifully, with a delightfully sly sense of humour, abundance of sarcasm and charming self-deprecation, particularly when recounting his disastrous attempts to ski. His portraits of some of the individual climbers are also affecting, if often a tad brutal (one is described as having political views ‘far to the right of Ghengis Khan’, another ‘Kurt by name and curt by nature’). I will acknowledge, for good order, that some will not find his style quite as entertaining – I thought it was deeply amusing, but there is a mild dose of good ol’ English snobbery which could be grating for some readers.

Books about mountaineering disasters are a strange, but often bestselling, genre and this is probably one of the better ones. As with Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, it is probably wise to treat it with some scepticism however it is undoubtedly an absorbingly written account of the kind of predicament most of us, gods willing, will never encounter.

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