history of K2, Chogori, Mount Godwin-Austen, from the
first try in 1902, until the Italian success in 1954.
1856 - DISCOVERED AND NAMED
K2 was first described by the British colonel T.G. Montgomery
in 1856 while doing a survey of the area. He named the
peaks in the order he saw them, K1, K2, K3, etc. The K
stands for Karakorum. Today K2 is the only major mountain
that still uses it's surveyor's notation name as its most
common name. K2 with it's height of 8,611 meters is the
second highest mountain in the world and is regarded as
one of the hardest to climb.
- THE FIRST TRY
In 1902, a six-man group of European climbers, led by
the Englishman Eckenstein, headed for K2. They chose the
time before the monsoon.
They first crossed the Baltoro glacier, which with it's
length of 67 kilometres is the world's third largest.
The expedition reached the mountain's foot and planned
to make the attempt directly from the south over the Southeast
Ridge, but when in place they came to the conclusion that
the Northeast Ridge is probably much easier. Several attempts
were made without success. They only reached 6,600 metres
- this group had an unrealistic goal, and didn't realise
their limits. At this time, early in the century, they
had no idea of the difficulties in ascending such a high
1909 - THE
Seven years later it was time for the Duke of Abruzzi's
large expedition to Karakorum and K2. Besides the scientific
exploration, this royal adventurer also had plans for
alpine operations. K2 wasnow scouted closely and the famous
mountain photographer Vittorio Sellatook a lot
of fabulous and legendary photos. To start with, they
tried to reach up through the South East Ridge (that later
was named after the Duke). However, the bearers were not
trained for this exposed climbing (The Sherpas were unfortunately
"unknown" during the early part of the century!).
Northeast of K2, some of the expedition members reached
the 6,666 metre high Savoia Saddle and from there they
had a closer look at K2's giant North-Face. Later, the
expedition made an attempt to climb K2's guardian in the
west, the 7,544 metre high Skyang Kangri, but a giant
gorge blocked their way at 6,600 metres. However, later
on Chogolisa (7,654 metres) the Duke reached 7,500 metres
with a resolute attack. This became an absolute high altitude
record until 1922 when it was beaten on Everest.
1909 - NO PROGRESS
The Italians now celebrated their 20 year anniversary
in Karakorum. This time the expedition was lead by the
Duke of Spoleto, the nephew of the Duke of Abruzzi. The
scientific leader was Professor Ardito Desio and it is
mainly to his credit that the expedition didn't return
home completely without results.
The plan to try climbing K2 was abandoned and it was decided
to concentrate solely upon scientific work in the Baltoro
1938 - THE AMERICANS
In 1938 it was time for the next expedition, organised
by the American Alpine Club and led by Charles Houston,
who two years previously had
been on the successful expedition to Nanda Devi. They
were confident of succeeding this time too! They engaged
a team of excellent Sherpas, led by the famous Pasang
Kikuli. In the beginning of June the wholeexpedition reached
On July 1, Camp I was established and several others followed.
Theweather looked stabile and clear.
On July 18, Houston and Petzoldt reached the "shoulder"
at 7,740 metres and theysucceeded in conquering the difficulties
thelowerpart of the mountain , the last high altitude
camp was established at 7,530 metres.
On July 21, Houston and Petzholdt started to push upwards
again, trying to find possible sites for Camp VIII. A
place is found right below the top pyramid. Petzholt however,
continued climbing further on, trying the rocks, his highest
point is estimated to be at 7,925 metres.The sky was clear
and the sun warm. Continue or not? The decision was made
and they started the descent. The expedition results looked
promising, for the first time K2's summit was threatened
1939 - GRIM
Again the Americans stood in front of K2, this time with
the excellent German-American climber Fritz Wiessner as
the leader and again Pasang Kikuli leading the Sherpas.
However, the other climbers didn't measure up to Wiessner's
class, something that would have serious consequences
Camps I - VII were set up at the same places as the year
before and Camp VIII was established at 7,710 metres,
the expedition member Wolfe remained here when Wiessner
and Pasang went on ahead to set up Camp IX at 7,940 metres.
On July 19 Wiessner and Pasang decided to try for the
summit. They climbed through the rocks and it became extremely
arduous. At 6 p.m. they reached about 8,380 metres. Pasang
refused to continue, saying it was too late. Wiessner
wanted to continue, the weather was so good and clear
that the climb could be done in the moonlight. Pasang
is immovable, and they start the descent.
During the descent, the rope got stuck in Pasang's crampon
and was torn away from his pack and fell down the abyss.
At 2.30 a.m. they reached Camp IX totally exhausted. Their
big chance had slipped away through their hands; they
had been closer to reaching an 8,000-metre summit than
The next day, they rested, but the following day another
try was made,taking a different route. Passang had only
one crampon. After major difficulties, they headed back
With no supplies remaining the following day, they descended
to camp VIII, where Wolf welcome them with delight, he
told them that during the entire time they were gone,
no one had come up from Camp VII where a bigger supply
depot was supposed to be. When reaching Camp VII, they
found it abandoned. They spent the night there and the
following morning decided that Wolf would remain, while
Wiessner and Pasang continued down to organise a new attack.
When they got to Camp VI it was clear that a catastrophe
was near, also this Camp was abandoned, as were all the
other Camps all the way to Camp II!
Completely exhausted both physically and mentally, and
suffering from frostbite, Weissner and Pasang reached
Base Camp on July 24. While they had struggled for the
summit, the whole organisation had completely fallen apart.
Against Weissner's orders, the
remaining members of the expedition (that never reached
higher then Camp II) had given the Sherpas orders to abandon
all Camps up to number VII.
Now they had to save Wolfe! After two desperate and failed
attempts, Pasang Kikuli and some other Sherpas managed
to reach Camp VI on July 28. The next morning they got
up to Camp VII and the very exhausted and apathetic Wolfe.
Even after being given hot drinks he couldn't manage to
descend immediately, but promised to be ready the following
morning. The Sherpas returned to Camp VI where they spent
the night. A storm with bad weather started to rage over
K2 and they had to wait another day. At dawn on July 31
Pasang and two other Sherpas again climbed to Camp VII
while the fourth, Tsering, remained in camp. A decision
was made to somehow get Wolfe down or at least get a written
message from him that would free them from all responsibility.
This was the last ever heard from these four men. On August
2, Tsering alone reached Base Camp and told that none
had returned and that no sign of human life could been
seen higher up. Wiesser made a last desperate rescue attempt
but was forced to give up after spending three days in
Camp II waiting out a storm. This meant the end, any survivor
could no longer be found on the mountain. Dudley Wolfe,
Pasang Kikuli, Pasang Kitar and Pintso rest forever on
K2. So ended the second American attempt on K2, with a
tragedy. The expedition got massive criticism from both
England and the U.S.A., and Wiessner had difficulties
defending himself, but he was hardly the one to blame.
Pasang Kikuli was one of the best Sherpas, and at this
time he was equally compared to the now world famous Tenzing
1953 - CLOSE
After the war, due to the political conditions, no expeditions
were made to Karakorum until 1953 when the Americans again
headed for K2. The expedition consisted of eight men,
including the veterans Houston and Bates (from the 1938
expedition), Tony Streather (who had been with the Norwegians
on Tirich Mir in 1950) and George Bell (famous for his
climbs in the Andes) in the front line. On June 19, Base
Camp is established below the Abruzzi-Spur at 5,000 metres.
The expedition didn't have any Sherpas since they had
been denied entrance to Pakistan, they had to manage with
carriers from the Hunza-people, who did show climbing
talent. During the following three weeks the Camps were
established - mainly in the same places as in 1938 and
1939. The weather looked good, but slowly turned. Suddenly
storm winds became common, and all climbing activity was
stopped for several days.
Finally, on August 1, the entire eight man team was together
VIII at 7,750 metres, all in their very best shape and
ready for the final attack.
Then the Gods of the mountain attacked! A violent snowstorm
started to rage day and night. Thanks to Houston they
had supplies for 10 - 12 days. A vote was taken, and two
rope-teams were chosen for the attack against summit.
All they needed was a few days of good weather. However,
the storm never calmed down. Instead, the wind increased,
shaking the tents more and more. On August 4 the 26-year-old
Gilkey suffered a thrombus in one of his legs, it was
almost impossible for him to move. His condition deteriorated
and also his lungs were attacked after a few days. In
the raging storm there was no possibility to get him down
quickly to Base Camp - most probably, it would have been
difficult to transport him at all.
Now it was a fight for everybody's life. It was clear
that the storm would continue for some time. On August
10, the situation got critical in thehighest camp. There
were almost no suppliesleft and Gilkey'scondition was
very serious. Bell had also lost the feeling in his toes.
It was decided to make an attempt to get Gilkey down and
the whole crew started to descend. There was no alternative
anymore if they wanted to survive. The first day they
only managed a few hundred metres downwards. In the evening
the ropes entangled between the different rope-teams and
five men fell, but Schoening managed to hold them alone!
Fortunately no one got seriously injured. While the bivouac
tents were put up, Gilkey had been secured a bit away.
When went back to him, an avalanche had decided his destiny,
nothing is left, his provisional stretcher attached with
ice axes had been torn away, and in the howling storm
nothing could be heard. The other seven climbers continued
their struggle downward and finally they reached Base
Camp after five days. Bell had serious frostbite to his
feet and was carried all the way to Skardu - almost 200
The third American expedition had again been close to
success. That all seven climbers managed to get down the
steep Abruzzi-Spur under such adverse circumstances was
literally more than a miracle!
- THE ITALIANS RETURN
During 1953 Italian Professor Ardito Desio and Mario Puchoz
scouted the terrain, seeking possible routes up K2. They
probed the terrain up to 6,000 metres and made a lot of
observations. When Desio got home, hemade the final plans
to reachthe summit. He said that the only chance of succeeding
depended onthe the plan being followed with a militarydiscipline
and that every member was to leave his personal ambition
for the expeditions best.
The 21 chosen members first had to pass through a medical
examination and were tested in a pressure chamber. In
the middle of January 1954, all members gathered in a
tent camp at 4,000 metres altitude on the Mount Blanc
massif. The oxygen devices were tested and every person's
physical and mental condition was examined in detail.
From this group, 10 men were chosen for the expedition.
They immediately leave for a training camp on 4,500 metres
on Monte Rosa.
Just before the departure, a few men joined the party
since the expedition failed to recruit any Sherpas. At
the last minute the famous mountain guide Cassin resigned
his alpine leadership.
The Approach followed the schedule and the route is the
same as before, through the Abruzzi-Spur. Despite the
bad weather, the higher camps were established one after
In the middle of June, all supplies for the final attack
were stored in Camp IV. The expedition hoped to reach
the summit before the end of the month. Hard winds and
storms raged all over Karakorum during the following weeks
and no progress was made. Would they not reach higher
than their fellow countrymen from 1929? (The expedition
from which Desio is a veteran).
The hard winds and storms calmed during the second half
of July and the weather seemed to stabilise. Desio decided
to take this opportunity as a last chance to reach the
summit before the monsoon. Camp V was established at 7,300
metres and the next 300 metres above. At this point, an
unfortunate thing happened: the 36 year old mountain guide
Maria Puchoz from Courmayeur died of pneumonia in Camp
II on July 20.
The expedition continued and Camp VIII was pushed forward
to 8,150 metres, right below the 200 metre high and steep
wall that is considered to be the climb's key to success.
On July 28, four men reached Camp VIII
in the evening and spent the night there. Of these four,
two climbed on towards the summit next morning. Up on
the ridge, just 200 metres below the top the oxygen suddenly
ran out. What to do? Continue or descend? They continued
without oxygen and finally reached the summit in the afternoon
after a hard struggle. K2's summit is reached for the
first time. They didn't stay long. The descent became
dramatic when oneofthe companions fell but managed to
stop the fall with his ice axe and his partner's safety.
At 2:30 p.m. the duo reached Camp VIII where their friends
welcomed them with hot drinks. Everybody safely reached
Base Camp on August 2.
Who were the two climbers that reached the summit? It
wasn't made public until the expedition came back to Italy.
Desio wanted everyone to have the credit; the whole team
was responsible for the success. The ascenders were Lino
Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni.
ADDITIONAL CHAPTER - BONATTI'S VERSION
On this expedition was also a young ambitious man that
had quickly become the superstar of climbing and mountaineering
in Italy. Despite his very important contribution during
the expedition Walter Bonatti was later accused of being
a liar and a thief. He has ever since fought to clear
his name. As an addition
to this article, you can read about Bonatti's thoughts
and about his effort in this K2 expedition here.
- "The wall
was a stiff 60 degrees, it would had been like skiing
on a bell tower roof"
Books about K2
: Triumph and Tragedy by Jim Curran
: Challenging the Sky by Roberto Mantovani and Kurt
» Five Miles High
by Charles Houston and Robert Bates
: The 1939 Tragedy by Andrew J. Kaufman and William
Last Step : The American Ascent of K2 by Rick Ridgeway
by Patrick Meyers
Endless Knot by Kurt Diemberger
by Kurt Diemberger
by Reinhold Messner
: Savage Mountain, Savage Summer by John Barry
Mountains of my life by Walter Bonatti
Videos about K2
starring: Michael Biehn and Matt Craven
Other mountaineering stories
Norgay and his moment on the summit of the World
Buhl and the first ascent of Nanga Parbat
first ascent of Mont Blanc anno 1786
Messner - Nanga Parbat 1970 and 1978
Messner - breaking new limits on Mount Everest
Messner - the Manaslu tragedy
Messner & Peter Habeler - Hidden Peak in alpine
Messner & Hans Kammerlander - traversing the Gasherbrums
tale from Lofoten, experienced and written by Per Jerberyd