The History of K2 — The World’s Second-Highest Mountain


Updated on 09/06/2022

Attempts to summit K2 begin in Islamabad. From there you will spend a day driving in a rickety bus toward the town of Skardu on the dangerous Karakoram Highway (and they’re using the term “highway” VERY loosely here). You’ll probably have an armed guard wth your party because aside from the road itself being dangerous, there are people on it who want to rob you. If the weather is good, instead of ground transport to Skardu, you can take a one-hour plane flight through the mountains. From Skardu, you travel by jeep for about a day on a difficult and butt-numbing path to Askole, the last town on your journey, before ditching the motor transport and continuing on foot. From there it’s an 8-day slog along a riverbed, up a glacier, and through areas where you have to run to avoid the falling rocks. You’ll also clamber over sketchy rope bridges spanning fast-flowing rivers, all this while continuing to gain altitude before leveling off at about 17,000 ft. At the end of the trek, you reach Concordia, the main gathering point for expeditions to several mountains in the area and a good place to turn back if your second thoughts begin to beat out your first thoughts. It’s also here where you get your first good looks at K2. Then it’s a 4-5 hour hike to the K2 basecamp. No, you haven’t even begun to climb yet. Once at basecamp, you may have to wait for several days to a month before you get a decent enough weather window to actually climb the mountain. In the meantime, you’ll spend your days climbing part way up the mountain and back down, securing ropes, cacheing supplies for higher-up camps — getting your route sorted, all with the ever-present threat of death by freezing, avalanche, or fall. Once the weather window opens and the decision is made to go up, you can look forward to about 3-5 days of strenuous, icy climbing straight up over the Abruzzi Ridge, through avalanche-prone areas, up cliffs, and over very steep ice-coated slopes where storms will blow in suddenly without warning. Then in an area known as the “Bottleneck”, for about 330 feet (100m) you traverse what is essentially a steep icy death slide underneath a gigantic serac — a large overhanging mass of ice, big pieces of which can break off suddenly for no predictable reason and come tumbling down killing anything in their path. If you make it through the Bottleneck and you haven’t completely succumbed to the cognitive and physical effects of extreme altitude sickness, then maybe, just maybe, you’ll be able to reach the summit and be treated to a view that few others in human history have seen first-hand. While there, you can take a few pictures and revel in your accomplishment. But don’t revel too long, because next comes the hard part.

The Hard Part

Going down is where most fatalities happen, and there are many reasons for this. For one thing, you’re going through the same ridiculously dangerous course you came up, underneath the waiting-to-kill-somebody serac and all. For another, it’s simply harder to get a secure foothold as you’re going down. When going up, you’re pressed against the ice and rock using your crampons and axes to get on. In this position it’s much easier to see where your next hand holds can be and you can judge the steps for your feet easier. Think of a ladder. Going up, you don’t need to look at your feet, and you’re more balanced. Going down, it takes way more concentration because you’re not getting as good of a view of your foothold. Even though you’re working more with gravity, you’re still working against it.

Depending on how much you kept to your climbing schedule, you could end up descending in the dark. And descending in the dark is just plain frightening even with headlamps and glow sticks. Here is where fixed ropes really come in handy. If your team did its job and fixed ropes into the ice with ice screws or pitons (which if you made it to the summit you probably did), wearing your climbing harness you can clip on to the rope to prevent falls due to a missed step. You can also follow this rope down like a trail. This makes your task much easier, but saying that is like saying it’s much easier walk across Niagara Falls on a clean tightrope as opposed to one that’s coated with slippery grease. The ropes are not avalanche proof, so it’s possible for a climber to go up then come down only to find his or her ropes gone. Throw in the fact that mentally you’re half in the bag and physically as weak as a tired 8-year-old because of a lengthy period of oxygen deprivation, your life is immeasurably harder. One little slip, one moment of not even carelessness but of a slight mental lapse and you could end up on the ride of your life down a 200-500 meter ice slide that sends you careening over a cliff to a frosty skull-cracking death. 

Here you can see the “Bottleneck” on K2. Notice the climber in the lower left of the photo. If you look closely to the right of the climber in the background you’ll see tracks in the snow. Now look above those tracks at the massive wall of ice just waiting to crush whatever is beneath. Not a place you want to be for long. (Photo by Rolf Kemp.)

If you want to impress your friends, climb Everest. If you want to impress mountain climbers, climb K2.

K2 is a SilverMedals double whammy. It is not only the second-highest mountain above sea level in the world (Mt. Everest is the tallest), it is also considered the second-most dangerous of all peaks taller than 8,000m (Annapurna is considered the most dangerous). Expert climbers generally all say that K2 is a far more difficult climb than Mt. Everest because of the technical skill required to reach the summit. Not that Everest is a walk in the park, but there isn’t nearly as much actual rock, ice, and axe climbing involved. Whereas Everest flattens out for stretches between steep climbs, K2 almost never lets up and is steep the whole way. Then there are the rock faces, which from a distance seem solid, but up close, climbers find that much of the rock is loose and can easily come off as they climb, hitting fellow climbers below. Helmets are great to have in these places, but they can only protect so much.

Nowadays, climbers often complain about how crowded Everest has become during climbing season. Over the last few decades, climbing Everest has become much safer because of better guides, better gear, and more fixed ropes. There are actually very few fatalities from year to year. This is great news for climbers, but it has the negative effect of attracting hoards of would-be alpinists who wish to summit the world’s highest mountain who otherwise would have engaged in some other less dangerous test of mettle. 

Not to belittle the accomplishment in any way, but if you’re willing to hire an expensive guide and buy all the equipment, maybe spend a few months with a personal trainer doing cardio work, you too can summit Everest. K2 on the other hand, if you don’t have a significant mountaineering resume to your name, odds are you’ll either die, or turn back at Camp 1. Even experienced climbers die pretty easily on K2. Particularly in the “Bottleneck” where sudden unpredictable avalanches can occur with startling violence.

The Bottleneck and the Death Zone

So why do so many climbers traverse the Bottleneck if it is so darn dangerous? It’s easy to look at a map or a photo and think there must be an easier route, and yes there are other routes to the top but none of them are at all easier1. To summit via the Abruzzi Spur through Bottleneck is the fastest route to the top, and the route where climbers spend the least amount of time in the “death zone”. The death zone is a term climbers use to describe the area above 8000m (about 26,000ft give or take) where the air is so thin and the oxygen levels so low that those who haven’t acclimated themselves to higher altitudes can die from hypoxia. Those that have spent time at this altitude can survive, but they often feel the effects of extreme altitude sickness. These can include edema, hallucinations, confusion, exhaustion, nausea, headaches, and muscle deterioration, all of which after prolonged exposure ultimately lead to death. 

Other issues people have at altitude — no matter how much they’ve been able to acclimate — are dehydration due to the dryness of the air and an extra susceptibility to frostbite. The dryness is especially insidious because even though athletes know to keep hydrated, they have to drink almost twice as much liquid to prevent dehydration at altitude. This is also why camping fuel and hiking stoves become important when climbing these heights because of the need to melt ice to make water. Some may think, “why don’t they just chew snow as they go?” The answer is that it would cause climbers to lose too much core heat. This leads us to frostbite. It doesn’t take a genius to know that tops of high mountains are cold and that prolonged exposure leads to frostbite, but altitude actually speeds up frostbite. As climbers climb into the thin cold air, they not only sweat, but they lose water from their bodies just from being there in the dry air. When more water gets sucked from the body, the blood becomes thicker and doesn’t circulate as well, thus leaving the capillaries in the extremities with less blood to warm them, which leads to higher frostbite susceptibility. 

The general idea here is that the less time spent in the death zone the better, and traversing the Bottleneck ends up being the better bet to make. It’s extremely steep and your odds of dying are very high, but once you pass this Bottleneck, which again is about 100m below a deadly serac, you pretty much have a straightforward route to the summit. This is all relative of course: that straightforward route is pretty steep and strenuous and there are still plenty of ways to die there. To get an idea of what it looks like to actually be on the Bottleneck and underneath the big scary serac, have a look at this video taken by a climber who was waiting on the Bottleneck for ropes to be fixed before continuing up. Note the gigantic apartment-building sized mass of ice above him and the steep terrain he’s on. It is not a fun place to hang around for long.

Early Exploration of K2

K2 was given its name or designation by British surveyor Thomas Montgomerie while on a survey expedition into the Himalayas in 1856. The survey itself was part of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India — a full geographical measuring of India and its borders through various expeditions and surveys that took about 70 years to complete. As part of this effort, teams of British surveyors would venture into the forbidding mountains to map out passes and other topographical features, partly in the interest of science, but mostly in the interest of marking borders. During Montgomerie’s survey, he and his team climbed the 5,142m (16,800ft.) Haramukh peak in Kashmir, and set up shop there, surveying all they could from that vantage point.

Francis Younghusband was one of many fascinating characters to have visited K2. One of the last great English explorers, Younghusband was also a soldier, spy, writer, mountain climber, and was at one point the president of the Royal Geographic Society.

Scanning the horizon in the direction of Karakoram, Montgomerie noted two peaks that stuck out above the rest, and named them “K1” and “K2” in accordance with the norms of the day. Since he was in Karakoram, each peak would be given the “K” designation since that is the first letter in “Karakorum”, and then a number as in K1, K2, K3, etc…, which was short or Karakoram 1, Karakoram 2, and so on. After sketching and plotting the peaks on a map, the surveyors or whoever, would go around asking the indigenous people what the local names for the peaks were. In this case, the Brits had luck in naming K1 (today known as Masherbrum) and lots of other peaks on their survey, except for K2. It was so remote, and almost hidden by the mountains around it that nobody had a name for it. So K2 stuck.

Over the next few decades, British and Russian teams both sent expeditions into the area to survey the mountains and passes in an attempt to gain more control over the region and claim lands for themselves. One expedition in 1861 was headed by British Soldier Henry Haversham Godwin-Austen. He got a nearby glacier named after him (also some maps refer to K2 as ‘Mount Godwin-Austen’, but that’s not a name that ever stuck), and claimed to be the first expedition to actually make it to the base of K2. This was followed by another British military expedition into the area in 1887 led by Francis Younghusband. K2 was not so much an objective as it was a point along the way from China into India. He and his men approached K2 from the north. When the party came upon K2, Younghusband was floored by its sheer size. In his journal he wrote:

“We had just turned a corner which brought into view, on the left hand, a peak of appalling height, which could be none other than K2…Viewed from this direction, it appeared to rise in an almost perfect cone, but to an inconceivable height. We were quite close under it — perhaps not a dozen miles from its summit — and here on the northern side where it is literally clothed in glacier, there must have been from fourteen to sixteen thousand feet of solid ice. It was one of those sights which impress a man forever, and produce a permanent effect on the mind.”

First Attempts to Climb K2

The British were the first to try to climb K2 with a 1902 expedition led by Oscar Eckenstein. It included one of the most interesting and odd characters ever to go to any mountain, the well-known occultist and all-around weirdo Aleister Crowley (he didn’t wash for the entire 85 days they were at K2). The expedition tried several routes before attempting the northeast spur, which they believed was the easiest route to the summit. In the end, they never made it even close to the summit, but they did manage to get up to around 6,500m (21,000 ft), which was pretty darn good considering the mountain conditions and the state of then mountain-climbing technology at that time. They were also hampered by weather and disease, with Crowley himself suffering from malaria he had contracted months earlier.

The next major attempt came in 1909 and was an Italian expedition led by one of the finest explorers of his generation. Prince Luigi Amadeo, Duke of Abruzzi, was a well-known polar explorer and mountaineer, and his expedition to K2 later became one of the most studied and influential expeditions in mountaineering history. The Duke and his party made many attempts along several routes, but in the end found that the southeast ridge of the mountain was probably the best route to try, despite its overwhelming difficulty. That ridge later became known as the “Abruzzi Spur” in honor of the Duke, and has become the most frequently used route to the summit, including the one that the first team to summit K2 eventually took. As for the Duke’s expedition, although they were only able to reach just over 6,000m (21,000ft) on the Abruzzi Spur, the account of their expedition and lessons learned from it provided invaluable information for later expeditions.

The American Expeditions of 1938 and 1939

The next group of note to try K2 came from the United States. It was led by Fritz Wiessner, a German immigrant to the U.S. who to this day is considered one of the finest and most controversial of the American climbers. The effort came in two parts. The first was a 1938 expedition to K2 as a sort of reconnaissance for the following year. That expedition was led by Charles “Charlie” Houston, a physician from Exeter, NH, and a well-respected climber. Their job was to map out routes for the 1939 expedition. After several weeks trying out different spurs and routes, Houston’s team identified the Abruzzi Spur as the best route to the top despite the overwhelming difficulties they themselves faced when climbing. 

Leader of the 1939 American expedition, Fritz Wiessner. He was criticized for letting expedition member Dudley Wolfe, an inexperienced amateur, climb as high as he did on K2. It’s quite possible that some of this criticism had more to do with Wiessner being German at a time when Hitler was marching around Europe rather than his leadership.

The 1939 expedition was led by Wiessner himself. Sadly, this one ended with the death of four climbers and became one of the most controversial expeditions in the history of K2 climbing. One of the big criticisms was the general lack of mountaineering experience with some in the party. American climber Dudley Wolfe was one such person. Wolfe was a friend of Wiessner’s. They both shared an affinity for mountaineering and a desire to climb K2. Although he was nowhere near the level of Wiessner, Wolfe wasn’t completely new to climbing, but he was far from having the level of experience necessary to climb a mountain like K2. True, he had climbed several high difficult peaks in Europe, but Wolfe was always accompanied by an expert guide who figuratively held his hand for most of the ways up. Many critics would later say that Wolfe had no business even being at K2 let alone being on it. What a mountain like that required were climbers who didn’t need guides, and not dabblers like Wolfe. But Wolfe had something that other climbers in the party didn’t — deep pockets.

Wolfe was from a very rich New England family. Mountain climbing had become a sort of past-time for him, and he was very enthusiastic. He helped front a great deal of the money Wiessner needed to get the expedition off the ground when funding from elsewhere dried up. Even at the time this raised some eyebrows among some in the expedition. But Wolfe was determined. Having recently gone through a divorce, he very much wanted to put his mind toward an endeavor such as the K2 expedition. There is even some suggestion that he was trying to impress his ex-wife, but such conjecture came mostly after the fact.

As it turned out, Wolfe actually showed some talent on the mountain. A stocky man with not a particularly athletic build, to the surprise of everyone he seemed to withstand the effects of altitude sickness better than most in the party. There were some accounts that he had to be helped up and guided in certain areas, but for the most part, he turned out to be a pretty good climber and managed to climb higher on K2 than many “better” climbers were able to. Unfortunately for Wolfe, his body eventually succumbed to the effects of altitude, and things began to go very wrong when they did.

After weeks of climbing and setting up camps, Wiessner, Wolfe, and a sherpa named Pasang Lama, managed to climb up to a camp about 7,000m up the mountain. It was here that Wolfe insisted he couldn’t go on because he was suffering from frostbite and altitude sickness. Wiessner and the sherpa left Wolfe behind, thinking that he would be resupplied soon, and decided to move to a higher up camp and try for the summit. The going was good for a while, but at a point about 200m from the summit, Lama insisted they turn back. They returned to the high camp for the night and tried again to summit the next day, but they failed. By that time Wiessner and Lama had spent far too much time at altitude and knew they had to go down. Injured and suffering from frostbite, Wiessner and the sherpa climbed down to the lower camp where they had left Dudley. When they arrived, they were surprised to see that no supplies had reached Dudley from below, even though Wiessner had left strict instructions before leaving basecamp to keep the upper camps supplied. The next day, the three climbers went down to the next lower camp only to find that it had not only not been supplied, but abandoned! What Wiessner and Lama eventually found out was that the team at basecamp erroneously believed that Wiessner, Wolfe, and Lama were dead and therefore stopped bringing up supplies.

Wiessner and the sherpa were both deteriorating fast and needed to get to lower elevation. When they were about to set out, however, Wolfe refused to go. This was a huge problem because it’s never a good idea to split a party like that or to leave a weak member alone at altitude. At the time, there was information about the physical effects of altitude, but little was known of its cognitive effects. Wolfe was affected by the thin air and incapable of making rational decisions. But Wiessner and Lama, who themselves were likely impaired, needed to get lower, so they left Wolfe in the tent and descended, promising to send a rescue team back up as soon as they could. 

By the time a rescue team of four sherpas reached Wolfe, he had spent over a week alone up on the mountain freezing at altitude. According to the sherpa who survived this attempted rescue, when the sherpas reached Wolfe, they were horrified by the conditions in which they found him. Wolfe had not once left his tent during the entire time, which meant that his tent had also doubled as his toilet. Covered in his own urine and surrounded by feces, he was suffering badly from altitude sickness and acute frostbite. Despite this, according to the surviving sherpa, Wolfe still refused to climb down. There were no other tents in Wolfe’s camp, so the four sherpas had to go back down the mountain to a lower camp where they had tents. While there, they got caught in a storm and couldn’t go back up for Wolfe for another two days. When a break in the weather finally came, it was decided that three of sherpas would go to get Wolfe, while a fourth went down to basecamp to alert the rest of the party. Unfortunately, Wolfe and the three sherpas were never heard from again.

For years afterward, many in the climbing community blamed Wiessner for Wolfe’s and the sherpas’ deaths. In later years, these criticisms were refuted and Wiessner largely exonerated as the mental effects of altitude became more widely known and documented. 

Group photo of the 1953 American Expedition to K2. From left to right: Bob Bates, Tony Streather, Charlie Houston, Dee Molenaar, George Bell, Bob Craig. Missing from this photo are Pete Schoening, Art Gilkey, and the ice axe that saved them all.

The American Expedition of 1953

WWII came and went, which meant that Himalayan mountaineering could resume. Charlie Houston, leader of the 1938 expedition, was hell-bent on summiting K2 and returned in 1953 with a crack team of mountaineers. What’s interesting about this team was that Houston chose the members not necessarily because they were the best mountaineers he could find, but rather he wanted a bunch of guys who would get along and work well as a team. He saw previous attempts and failures at K2 and other mountains as the result of poor team dynamics. True, he wanted them all to have a good amount of climbing experience, but more than anything Houston wanted men whose personalities would fit well together. In the end, Houston managed to put together a team that seemed very likely to succeed, but as in previous attempts, bad weather killed their plans. Not only that, but the whole team at one point almost fell to their death in a single instant. One of them did not make it back from K2, the rest were saved by a single axe.

By August 1, Houston’s team had made it all the way up to what they referred to as Camp 8, about 7,700m (25,500ft.) up K2. They had planned to send two climbers ahead the next day to establish Camp 9 farther up the mountain, but the weather turned ugly. A fierce storm blew up with gale-force winds and blinding snow, confining the men to their tents for the next 5 days. Things got worse when team member Art Gilkey began complaining of severe pain in his legs. So bad was the pain, Gilkey couldn’t even stand. Houston, being a physician, immediately diagnosed Gilkey’s affliction as thrombophlebitis — blood clots in the legs that could break loose and cause a blockage in the brain killing Gilkey. Collectively and without hesitation, the decision was made to abandon their summit bid and get Gilkey to safety.

Although the decision was made to descend, the weather didn’t cooperate making it too dangerous to venture out. After a couple more days in their tents, Gilkey’s situation grew worse and he seemed close to death. Despite the weather, the whole team decided to take the risk of climbing down in the storm to save their friend. Gilkey was almost completely incapacitated, so they wrapped him in a tent and a sleeping bag, pumped him full of morphine, tied a rope to him, and set out. The storm let up and things went pretty well at first, but as they neared Camp 7, things got tricky.

The team was performing a maneuver to move the tied-up Gilkey down and across a tricky patch on the icy slope. Belaying, or rather, the ones holding the rope to Gilkey, were Dee Molenaar and Pete Schoening. To secure the rope, Schoening drove his axe into the ice just above a rock on the slope so that the handle was sticking out, ran the rope around the axe and rock (which would bear Gilkey’s weight as they moved him), and over his own shoulder. In this position, he and Molenaar had good leverage and a good hold on Gilkey to lower him. Above these men were: George Bell, who was roped to Tony Streather; and Houston who was roped to Bob Bates. Bob Craig was another team member there, but he was not roped to anybody. All of them were doing what they were supposed to be doing, then all hell broke loose.

Bell lost his footing and began sliding down the ice, pulling Streather with him. They tumbled into Houston pulling him and Bates down. The whole mass of Bell, Streather, Houston, and Bates fell into Molenaar knocking him off the mountain taking Gilkey with him. They were all sliding toward a cliff, which would have certainly killed them all if they went over had it not been for Schoening. Still belaying Gilkey and Molenaar, the quick-thinking Schoening drove his feet into the ice and put all his weight into supporting the ice axe in its place before the weight of the falling men could pull it out. The rope between the tangled mass of falling climbers and the axe went taut, and all the men stopped falling. Schoening’s axe handle, which very much should have snapped under the force of the seven men hanging from the rope it was holding, didn’t budge and saved all the climbers from certain death. It was one of the most amazing and lucky events to happen on any mountain anywhere. 

The hurt and exhausted men gathered themselves, untangled the ropes, and anchored Gilkey securely to the slope before moving down to set up camp. This was considered prudent because the climbers were too tired and hurt to be able to move him safely. Most of the climbers were frostbitten and Houston was suffering from a concussion he sustained during the fall. They figured it was best to set up camp, get the most injured people inside tents, and then go back to retrieve Gilkey.

While setting up the tents, several of the climbers thought they could hear Gilkey in the distance. When Streather and Bates went back to retrieve him, they found no trace of Gilkey. They searched the area as much as they could, but all signs pointed to an avalanche sweeping him off the slope. They returned to their tents defeated. Several days later, the rest of the party made it back to basecamp without further incident. The expedition was over.

Although the 1953 expedition ended with the death of a team member and a failure to summit, the rescue attempt and their descent are remembered with great reverence in the climbing community. Today, there is a pile of rocks near K2 basecamp with the names of climbers who’ve perished on K2. It is known as the Gilkey Memorial.

The Italian Expedition of 1954

The 1954 expedition was unlike the others before it. In the previous American, British, and Italian expeditions, climbers were chosen by reputation, willingness, or after a long conversation with potential climbers (such as Charlie Houston’s 1953 expedition). Then there were those like Dudley Wolfe who were allowed to go because they had money. Previous unsuccessful attempts at K2 had been analyzed and argued in Italian climbing circles, and for the most part, many believed that many failures and tragedies could have been avoided had the climbers been selected for their fitness levels more than anything. In the 1954 Italian expedition, leader Ardito Desito didn’t rely on friends or reputation, but sought the best athletes of the Italian Alpine Club. The Club had about 75,000 paying members, including almost all of the best climbers in Italy, which provided a great resource for Desito. So he invited members of the Club to go through a series tests as part of his selection process. In the end he chose a team of 16 to head to K2.

There were many other differences between this expedition and previous ones. For one thing, they flew into Skardu, thus saving themselves the headache of land transport to the town. The expedition also carried with it numerous bottles of oxygen, which was something never before brought to K2. Also, the expedition itself was huge, almost like an army — numerous sherpas, hundreds of porters to carry provisions to the mountain, almost three times as much stuff as in previous expeditions. They wanted for nothing in basecamp, had enough food to last until the fall, and enough money to pay for all of it. As Desito said himself, they weren’t going to attempt a summit of K2, they were going to conquer it.

Here is a closer view of the top part of K2. The outline of the mountain along the right is approximately where the Abruzzi Spur runs. This was the route the Italian team, and many teams since, have taken to the top. (Photo courtesy of Corriere Della Sera.)

Months of planning, tons of supplies, the best climbers in Italy, what could go wrong? Just about everything actually. For one thing, many in the climbing party didn’t like Desito. He was sort of a top-down-rule kind of guy, which rubbed many in the expedition the wrong way. As a leader, Desito was a good planner, and knew who to talk to in order to get things done (especially in the political arena), but he wasn’t really a lead from the front sort of expedition leader. He was somewhat aloof and spent almost the entire time in basecamp listening to the radio and sending out orders. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it didn’t put him on the mountain with the men who would be risking their lives. 

There was also an issue with the porters. The local Balti porters were not as servile as in previous generations. Things were different by the 1950s, and they wanted to get paid a fair wage for what they were owed. So they ended up getting paid two to three times what they were paid in previous expeditions. But even then there were still communication problems (they didn’t speak Italian) and many times they simply stopped working because of either poor conditions, low wages, or because some of the expedition members were being jerks.

When it came to the actual climbing part, things went reasonably well. After weeks of establishing routes, ropes, and camps on K2, the Italian expedition by the end of July was ready to attack the summit. The two climbers chosen to make the ascent were Achille Compagnoni and Lino Lacedelli — two very strong climbers who were coping with the conditions and altitude well. They would be supported by Italian climber Walter Bonatti, and Pakistani porter Amir Mehdi. The plan was for Compagnoni and Lacedelli to establish one last camp at just under 27,000 ft., while Bonatti and Mehdi would bring up to them oxygen tanks to be used on the final ascent. 

This was a first in K2 history, using oxygen tanks. In their summit of Everest a year earlier, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay used oxygen for their summit and it proved invaluable. The only problem with its use on K2 was that the tanks for Compagnoni and Lacedelli had to be brought up from below and they weighed about 40lbs each, which at altitude probably felt twice that. But that was the plan and it was a good one. Until they actually started carrying it out. 

First Summit of K2

Compagnoni and Lacedelli headed toward what would be their last campsite before attempting the summit. When they got there, Compagnoni found that the site where they were going to set up wasn’t particularly suitable, possibly because of its exposure. So they went farther up the mountain to set up, but had no way of letting the others below them know that they were doing this. This decision would later become the center of a huge debate in the years after the expedition. 

Bonatti and Mehdi were following with all the oxygen tanks. They had gone down first to a lower campsite to actually get the oxygen, and were then carrying it up to Compagnoni and Lacedelli’s campsite. It was a grueling and extremely dangerous climb to reach the upper campsite, but when they got to the area where they thought Compagnoni and Lacedelli were, the two climbers were nowhere to be seen. Bonatti and Mehdi searched the area as much as they could on their near vertical incline, but got nowhere. What was worse was that the sun was going down and the temperature was dropping. They were in danger of being stuck out in the open in the dark. Finally, Bonatti caught sight of Compagnoni, who was signaling Bonatti not come up but to leave the oxygen where they were and start down. Thinking this was understood, Compagnoni and Lacedelli returned into their tents, out of the wind, and out of touch with Bonatti and Mehdi.

Lino Lacedelli on the summit of K2. Note the many oxygen bottles strewn about. They were left there partly to save on weight going down but also to leave a sort of marker to prove that they had actually made it to the top.

Bonatti and Mehdi didn’t exactly understand what was said to them, but they knew what needed to be done. Knowing that without the oxygen, the summit team would not make their ascent the next day, Bonatti carved a space into the ice, deposited the oxygen tanks, and thought to begin the trek down, but it was too late. They would not be able to descend to their camp because darkness. They couldn’t climb any higher either because it was too icy. So Bonatti and Mehdi spent the night exposed to the harsh elements. During their time in the open, they did all they could to keep warm and their blood flowing. At several points, they thought to use the oxygen meant for their higher-up teammates, but they knew that if they did, it would put an end to Compagnoni’s and Lacedelli’s summit bid. At first light the next morning the two weary and half frozen climbers began their descent, leaving the oxygen behind for the summit team. Bonatti ended up slightly frostbitten but otherwise unscathed, while poor Mehdi lost all his toes and some fingers.

Meanwhile, the summit team of Compagnoni and Lacedelli managed to climb down to recover the oxygen tanks, and then make their final assault on the summit. It was definitely tough going, what with the steepness at the top of the mountain and the cold wind blowing over them. But after several hours they finally made it up the last the steep ledge and onto a large flat area that was the summit. As the two climbers described it, they walked arm in arm to the summit. Compagnoni and Lacedelli that day at about 6:00PM on July 31, 1954, became the first two men to set foot on top of the world’s most savage mountain!

The last bits of their ascent were very unnerving to them as their oxygen ran out, but to their happy surprise, they found that they were still able to breathe (a fact that climbers at the time weren’t sure was possible). However, the effects of the thin air were beginning to affect their cognition. Compagnoni was in a very bad way. He was suffering from frostbite on his hands and feet and was beginning to think erratically. After taking pictures and ditching some of their empty oxygen bottles, it was time to go down, but Compagnoni refused to move. In his delirium, he felt that it was imperative that he rest a while despite the growing cold, and danger of being stuck out exposed when night fell. Lacedelli tried to reason with Compagnoni, but when the latter wouldn’t budge, Lacedelli raised his ice axe and threatened to hit Compagnoni if he didn’t go down right then and there. Lacedelli was possibly recalling the story of Dudley Wolfe, and didn’t want that on his conscience. It also would’ve been harder for him to climb down by himself. Luckily at least a few of Compagnoni’s brain cells weren’t overcome with hypoxia and he managed to rouse himself and head down with Lacedelli.

Achille Compagnoni (left) and Lino Lacedelli (right) after their successful summit of K2. The Italian expedition didn’t exactly go smoothly under expedition leader Ardith Desio, but one can’t really argue with the results.

When news of the the Italian team’s success reached Italy, there was a good deal of rejoicing and national pride on display up and down the boot. Although it wasn’t as big of a news story in other countries, letters of congratulations came in from climbers and mountaineering enthusiasts everywhere. But the good times didn’t last long. Some of the fissures in the Italian team came to light. Although they had agreed not to name the two who made it to the summit, preferring the story be about the team effort (which it very much was), newspapers could plainly see that Compangoni and Lacedelli, both of whom suffered from frostbite, were probably the ones who summited. Compagnoni especially, lost all his toes and a couple fingers, and was never really able to climb again.

Then came allegations from Compagnoni and Desito that Bonatti and Mehdi had endangered the mission by using some of the oxygen while out in their open bivouac. They also said that Bonatti had tried to surpass the summit team so that he could grab glory for himself. Both allegations were later proven false. Bonatti, who was possibly the best climber on the team, for his part accused Compagnoni and Lacedelli of purposefully setting up their camp higher than they had originally planned in order to prevent Bonatti from reaching them, thereby putting his and Mehdi’s lives in danger. Of course, nobody liked Desito, except maybe Compagnoni whose story Desito corroborated in the official reports of the expedition, which also very much downplayed Bonatti’s contributions. On the other side, many of Desito’s detractors dismissed him as a poor leader whose expedition was successful despite his ineffective leadership. There was even a silly matter over whether or not some 16mm film was stolen. It turned out later that it wasn’t stolen, but that fact did little to lessen the acrimony.

Lawsuits, inquiries, books, books refuting those books, articles, accounts, articles refuting those accounts, documentaries, accusations, admissions, committees, politics — it became one big ugly soap-operatic mess, which is a shame. Whatever anybody has said over the past 60 years, the fact is that the Italian team was the first to reach the summit of K2, fulfilling a dream shared by many great mountaineers, including Oscar Eckenstein, the Duke of Abruzzi, Charlie Houston, and Fritz Wiessner.

2008 Disaster

Pemba Gyalje Sherpa was one of the heroes of the 2008 K2 Expedition. Braving the ice and wind, he managed to save two climbers on two separate journeys back up the mountain. For his heroics, Pemba was named Adventurer of the Year by National Geographic Adventure. (Photo courtesy of

This is a still taken from the 2012 K2 documentary The Summit, which details the disastrous 2008 season where 11 climbers died over 48 hours on K2. The picture presents the shadow K2 casts as the sun sets over the Himalayas.

There have been many tragedies and deaths on K2 over the years.2 One of the more notable tragic expeditions came during the 2008 season when 11 climbers from France, Ireland, Norway, Pakistan, Serbia, and South Korea died between August 1 and 2 of that year. Most of the people on the mountain over those days were experienced climbers whose luck simply run out or who were trying to save others. Nepalese climber Pemba Gyalje Sherpa emerged as one of the heroes that day, having risked his own life to save two others. The circumstances surrounding the loss of life over those two days has been the subject of many articles and debate. An award-winning documentary was even made of the tragedy (see below), and several of the climbers authored books on the expedition including the leader of one of the teams, Wilco Van Rooijen, and climber Marco Confortola, both of whom spent a night bivouacked out in the open with fellow climber Ger McDonnell, who unfortunately died the next day while trying to rescue members of the South Korean team.

A Mountaineer’s Mountain

Wanda Rutkievicz of Poland (above) was the first woman reach the summit of K2. She made her ascent on June 23, 1986, without any supplemental oxygen.

Mountain climbing has come a long way since those early days where access was more difficult, equipment was primitive, and communication with climbers was non-existent. Today, a team can summit K2 during a two month window, whereas in the old days, they’d have to set aside a half year for travel and preparation. Radios and satellite phones make communication with climbers as easy as dialing a number on a phone, and the gear is way beyond what any climbers back in the day thought possible. Like Everest and other mountains, companies offering guided journeys to the summit of K2 have emerged, but not to the same extent that they have on other peaks. Despite advances in mountain climbing technique and technology, K2 will always be a mountaineer’s mountain, one that tests climbers to their absolute limits. Skill, experience, and a good deal of luck are needed for anyone even attempting to climb K2, let alone make it to the summit. Climbing the “Savage Mountain” is still as dangerous an endeavor as it has ever been and will be for the foreseeable future.