K2: Life and Death on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain

Recommendation: This is a more general narrative than Jim Curran’s account of the 1986 season, so this would be my pick for a first read

Where to read: Firmly planted in front of a heater

Read with: A nip or two of The Singleton 19 Year “The Siren’s Song”

In brief: Written in the wake of the 2008 K2 disaster which claimed the lives of 11 climbers, and clearly motivated by that episode, Viesturs and Roberts offer a broader history of the most consequential expeditions to K2. Informed by his own experiences, Viesturs is more successful than most in conveying the extraordinary pressures of high-altitude climbing and how trying circumstances produce recklessness and heroism, selflessness and inhumanity.

Ed Viesturs is one of the preeminent mountaineers alive today (a distinction made either more or less impressive by the appalling fatality rate for top climbers). He is also the only American to climb all 14 recognised peaks measuring over 8000m above sea level and, remarkably, has something close to literary flair. Set against the background of the 2008 K2 disaster, K2 recounts both his own experiences on the mountain and the short and deadly history of mountaineering on its slopes.

Created by the lightning fast (in geological terms) sprint of the Indian (tectonic) Plate northwards into the Eurasian Plate, the Himalayas and Karakoram account for all 14 recognised 8000m peaks. K2, the second highest, is also one of the most deadly, with about 1 fatality for every 4 summits (surpassed only by 1 in 3 on Annapurna). It has also, given the commercialisation of Everest, acquired a reputation as a “true” test for serious mountaineers.

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In Viesturs’ history, K2, much like Everest, was surveyed as part of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India in the 1856. Taking readings in the Karakoram, the surveyors took measurements and labelled the various peaks K(arakoram) 1, 2 and so on. Some were subsequently renamed in accordance with local languages (K1 became Masherbrum, for example) but despite attempts to find out the local name for K2 or name it after assorted British grandees, K2 stuck. He quotes Fosco Maraini, who wrote of K2 that it is:

A Name instinct with mystery and suggestion: a name that scraps race, religion, history and past. No country claims it, no latitudes and longitudes and geography, no dictionary words. No, just the bare bones of a name, all rock and ice and storm and abyss. It makes no attempt to sound human. It is atoms and stars.

By contrast to Everest, which was subject to fairly consistent early campaigns to summit and is now climbed on a regular basis, K2 was attacked only sporadically in the first half of the 20th century and there are still many years where no one reaches the top. Viesturs focuses on the most significant seasons – the American expeditions in 1938,1939 and 1953 which failed to reach the summit, the Italian expedition in 1954 which finally succeeded and the disastrous events of 1986 and 2008 where a shocking number of climbers both summitted and died.

A history lesson may sound less appealing than first hand tell-alls of the kind published by Jim Curran or Jon Krakauer however Viesturs’ account of each expedition are fascinating and certainly not lacking in either action or scandal. The 1938 expedition, for example, seems to have been marred by classism and tension between the Harvard-educated amateurs and the working class professional guide (in a truly wild aside, said guide immediately joined a cult in India, got into a dispute with the American guru, was put on trial for manslaughter, was acquitted and then basically spirited out of the country). The 1939 expedition, set against the background of rising tensions and nationalism in Europe, was led by a German-born American who was initially criticised for his “Teutonic” leadership style and supposed abandonment of teammate and American blue-blood Dudley Wolfe at Camp VII (three rescue attempts were made, the final attempt costing three Sherpas their lives). There was also deeply suspicious, almost fatal, conduct on the successful 1954 Italian expedition and pure heroism during the 1953 American attempt, when the whole team abandoned the summit push to get immobilised teammate Art Gilkey off the mountain (a nearly impossible task at that altitude). Courting disaster, they put Gilkey on an improvised stretcher and began lowering him down, with the whole team roped together. One of them slipped, pulling 6 climbers with him, but the seventh, Pete Schoening, managed to get the rope around his ice axe and shoulders and held the entire team, an act now known simply as “The Belay”. Nursing a range of injuries, the team left Gilkey fastened to the side of the mountain while they retreated to the next camp to recover. When they returned, they found Gilkey gone and many still believe he pulled himself free to give the rest the best chance of getting down.

In later years, Pakistan adopted the Nepalese approach of selling multiple permits, with the result that the 1986 and 2008 tragedies involved a greater number of climbers and higher fatalities. The 2008 expedition in particular provides something of a framing device for the book and, one suspects, is the reason it was published in the first place. Noting the outraged coverage which drew parallels with 1996 on Everest and portrayed the victims as underqualified clients who were paying to be dragged to the summit, he argues that while none were “superstars”, they were also generally competent mountaineers. Powerfully, he also pushes back on the idea the ‘there were no heroes’ in 2008, highlighting the extraordinary performance of the Sherpa climbers, some of whom died attempting to rescue others. Indeed, Viesturs’ respect for Sherpas suffuses the whole book and he repeatedly seeks to correct the persistent erasure of Sherpa from the accounts of Western-led expeditions.

His analysis, informed as it is by his 8000m experience and his successful summiting of K2, is penetrating but compassionate and frequently admiring. He does have some criticisms of other climbers and aspects of climbing culture. This is tempered, however, by his first-hand knowledge of the extreme challenges of the “death zone” and, generally speaking, his respect for the right of other climbers to decide for themselves how they want to climb and what risks they want to take. Ultimately, it is this balance of experience and a reluctance to condemn other climbers that makes K2 both fascinating and powerful – Viesturs seems to understand that most readers, myself included, will never really comprehend the motivations of these mountaineers. He suggests instead that we try to respect their right to choose how to live, and often to die.

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