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K2/Chogori Winter 2003

A history of reaching the summit of K2

Monika Rogozinska

The mountain owes its name to a coincidence. In 1856, T. G. Montgomerie from the British Cartographic Service in India was taking down the consecutive summits by the initial of the Karakorum mountain range when doing his measurements there, adding them in the order in which he was studying them. He had no idea that K2 is in fact the second highest mountain on Earth. There was no local name attached to the mountain. Attempts were made to find a name for it in the language of the inhabitants of Baltistan, the region in which it is situated. The highlanders liked "key two", the most, however, the way it is pronounced in English.

The first European who had probably reached the foot of the mountain from the South in the year 1861, on the Baltoro Glacier, was Captain Henry Haversham Godwin Austen, a British topographer. His name is to stay in the glacier on which he was strutting under the slope of K2. It was the time when the mountain's altitude was established to amount to 8611 m. The Englishman Oskar Eckenstein, inventor of an alpenstock and crampons of modern design, was the first to attempt to reach the summit of K2 in the year 1902. The expedition had reached 6600 m and became famous for the fact that it had its correspondent who would call himself the Great Beast.

Pictures on glass

The mountain became really well-known when it caught the attention of Ludwig Amadeus Sabaudzki, an aristocrat, the Duke of Abruzzi. Mountaineering was his passion. In 1894, he climbed the Matterhorn with the most outstanding alpinist of that time, the Briton Albert Frederick Mummery, who a year later attempted to reach the summit of an 8000er, Nanga Parbat, from which he did not return.

When the Duke of Abruzzi reached the foot of the K2 Mountain in the year 1909, he had a successful expedition to Saint Elias behind him, which was then considered to be the highest summit in North America, as well as an attempt to reach the North Pole. Among others, he invited his mountaineering companions to participate in the expedition, the heads and porters from Mont Blanc. From that moment on, the K2 massif will carry the names commemorating the achievements of that expedition: the Sell Pass, the Savoy Glacier, or the one known best, the Abruzzi Rib. 45 years later, the first conquerors from Italy, the Duke's compatriots, will have reached the summit using that very route.

In 1909, after reaching 6000 m, the expedition lost the faith in their abilities to conquer the mountain. The Duke said back then: "I guess that if anyone manages to do the trick, they will be no alpinists, but aviators." The mountain would not have captured so much imagination if it were not for the pictures taken at that time by Vittorio Sell. Scientists and art dealers had been fighting for his mountain pictures exhibited at galleries and museums even before that event. Sell immortalized the beauty of Karakorum on sepia photographs made from glass plates of 18x24 cm. It is hard to imagine how they were transported through all the months of hiking and climbing upwards. Many consider them to be the most beautiful mountain photographs ever made.

First victims

K2 began to reap its tragic harvest in the year 1939. An American expedition was climbing the Abruzzi Rib, headed by Fritz Hermann Wiessner. It was the first time when Sherpas from Nepal were employed in Karakorum. Together with the Sherpa Pasang Dawa, Wiessner reached 8380 m, where the hardships of the route horrified Pasang so much that he refused to go any further. He wrapped around the rope on the hook, blocking his partner's movements. There were only 230 m left to the summit. The day that followed was so warm and sunny, however, that Wiessner was warming himself in the sun naked at the camp. He convinced Pasang to continue their climb. They were stopped by ice. They had no crampons, since they had fallen out of the Sherpa's rucksack into the precipice. They began their descent.

Dudley F. Wolfe was awaiting them at camp at 7710 m. For two days, he was without warm food or drink, since he had run out of matches. They were walking tied with a rope. All of the sudden, Wolfe slipped and plummeted down, pulling his companions along. Wiessner brought the fall to a halt at the edge of a precipice. They reached the lower camp at dusk, which they found to be emptied of bivouac equipment. They survived the night sitting in a torn tent, with their legs wrapped around in the only sleeping bag. Wolfe, who was exhausted, decided to stay and wait for help. Not much was known back then about the deterioration of the organism at great altitudes. They were not using any oxygen from cylinders.

Wiessner and Pasang arrived at the base extremely emaciated, where they met everyone ready to leave. Somebody said that the mountaineers were buried by an avalanche. Two other attempts were made to save Wolfe. Finally, four Sherpas reached him.

They found him sunk into deep apathy. They went down to the lower, equipped camp for the night. They were trapped for another day by a blizzard. The following day, three of them went back up only to receive a written statement from the alpinist that he is staying at camp VII of his own free will. Wiessner made one more unsuccessful attempt to save them. No-one has ever seen the three Sherpas or Wolfe since that day.

Wiessner was made responsible for the death of the expedition's participants. At the hospital, where he was curing his chilblains, he could not defend himself against the false accusations. The virulence of the attacks was heightened by the fact that Wiessner was of German descent. Fritz Wiessner's resignation from the membership in the American Alpine Club was received with enthusiasm by the general public. More than 25 years had to pass for that mistake to be finally corrected. Wiessner became an honorary member of that club in 1966.

Gilkey's Mound

In the year 1953, Charles S. Houston, a physician and alpinist, headed the American expedition to the Abruzzi Rib. Seven Americans and one Englishman did not take any oxygen cylinders along, thinking that reaching the summit of K2 should be possible without oxygen. The alpine operation went smoothly until the time when the whole team was imprisoned for many days at a camp at 7700 due to a raging blizzard and sliding snow masses. Huston noticed at first a venous clot in Arthur Gilkey's leg. Helplessly, they were watching the beginning of his agony, soon, a venous embolism in his lung followed. They did not want to leave the dying man behind, so in the morning of August 10, after wrapping him up in sleeping bags, they began to transport him down. In the late evening, one of them slipped and pulled his partners along. Three teams, tangled up in three security ropes, plummeted down. Peter Schoening managed to hold all of them from his securing post. Most mountaineers were injured or extremely mauled. They fastened Gilkey with ropes to the slope and stepped away to cut a platform in the ice as a foundation for the tents. When the bivouac was ready, they went back to the sick. At the spot where they had left him, they saw the trace of a huge avalanche. Gilkey's death had saved their lives. Before leaving the base, they raised a mound in memory of the deceased, a symbolic monument on which following expeditions shall hang plaques commemorating those who will stay on the slopes of K2 forever.


In the year 1954, the Italians were ready at the foot of K2 to give it a go. Among the participants were scientists and eight professional alpine guides. The candidates for that expedition went through a rigorous selection: scrupulous medical examinations and qualifying mountaineering winter camps in the Alps. The head of the expedition, 57-year-old Ardito Desio, professor of geology, required responsible behavior from the participants and made them keep to a diet, since the, indisposition of one or more participants caused by overeating or excess alcohol consumption can endanger the whole undertaking. Each participant received an illustrated ,K2 guide, prepared by the head of the expedition, so that they could also be prepared with regard to theory. Apart from Desio, who had participated in the year 1929 in a K2 expedition organized by Duke Spoleto, the cousin of Ludwig Amadeus Sabaudzki, nobody had any previous experience in the Himalayas. In Italy, there were doubts about the expedition's purposefulness.

Already at the beginning of the expedition, Mario Puchoz, an alpine guide, died at camp II due to pulmonary edema. He was carried down and buried in a rocky crack nearby Arthur Gilkey's mound. The fight with the Abruzzi Rib took 8 weeks. Achille Compagnoni and Lino Lacedelli pitched the tents of the last camp at 8050 m. Walter Bonatti and the Hunza Mahdim were to bring them 19-kilo oxygen cylinders needed for attacking the summit. The latter did not manage to reach the highest camp at daytime, however, and were forced to bivouac without equipment or sleeping bags. They spent the night in the blizzard. The mountaineers did not use the oxygen they had close at hand, knowing that this would thwart the chance of attacking the summit. The Hunza paid for the night with severe chilblains and the amputation of his fingers and toes. At dawn, they left the oxygen apparatus and began their descent.

The following day, Campagnoni and Lacedelli found the oxygen apparatus a few dozen meters below their tents. They took them and went up. Soon they had reached the spot where Wiessner had withdrawn 15 years earlier. At 8400 m, they ran out of oxygen. They did not dare to pull off the now useless equipment from their backs. Loaded with it, they reached the summit. It was July 31, 6 pm.

The Italian final

They spent half an hour on the summit and left their oxygen apparatus there. The descent was dramatic. A drink prepared with the addition of Cognac, the way it was fashionable back then, weakened them. Exhausted, they were descending at night, intoxicated with alcohol and oxygen deficiency. They had plenty of luck when they fell from the upper edge of a crack that is cutting the steep slope, they flew over it and came to a halt on the lower edge. They lost their alpenstock. After a while, Compagnoni plummeted down along with the snowy overhang and got stuck into the snow a dozen or so meters below. Lacedelli, descending without the alpenstock, also fell on the ice.

They reached the camp, where their friends were waiting. The following day, after leaving the camp, Compagnoni fell down again 200 m on the icy slope. He landed luckily one more time in a snowdrift. They reached the base. A dispatch was sent to the world: "Victory on July 13, we are all together at the base. Professor Desio". The names of the conquerors were not given away. Desio wanted to announce them personally after returning to Italy.

After returning home, Compagnoni lost almost all frostbitten fingers. Lacedelli lost a few. The expedition found its ending in a courtroom. Compagnoni filed a suit against the Italian Alpine Club, the organizer of the expedition, regarding the shares in the profit from the movie which was made for the price of the amputated fingers and toes. Walter Bonatti, shocked by the official report from the expedition, in which his contribution in leading the expedition to a success was omitted, demanded apologies from the organizer. He received them after 40 years. The following year, he tried to raise some funds to return to K2 and try to climb it alone, using the equipment left behind on the slope. He did not succeed in raising the money.

Polish alpinists to try to reach the summit

Poles set out to K2 in 1975, headed by Janusz Kurczaba. It was the ninth expedition in the history of conquering the mountain and the first in the Himalayas and in Karakorum which did not rely on the help of mountain porters. 19 alpinists participated in the expedition.

The goal was to mark a new route on the north-eastern ridge, the one used by the Eckenstein expedition in 1902. Some dramatic events took place. Wojtek Kurtyka's fall on an overhang on a difficult section of the ridge ended with a leg injury. Andrzej Czok fell into an ice crack. Kazimierz Głazek suffered from snow blindness. It took three days to lead him down. At 7670 m, Głazek experienced untypical symptoms of altitude sickness, paralyzed hands and legs along with speaking and memory disorders. Among other participants, the doctor diagnosed inflammatory venous thrombosis, a disease which with time people have begun to call typical for K2's climate. The camps were covered with a two-meter-thick layer of snow and partly destroyed. Despite all the odds, Eugeniusz Chrobak and Wojciech Wróż reached 8400 m. Until the summit, they had merely 200 m left, when they ran out of oxygen. Back then it was unknown whether people could climb to such great altitudes without oxygen. Chrobak and Wróż decided to turn back. That decision possibly saved them. They were descending accompanied by gales and blizzards. They hardly found the tents of the camp at night, where their friends were awaiting them. K2 became an obsession for Wojtek Wróż. He came back in 1982 as a participant in the next expedition headed by Janusz Kurczaba. On the new route leading on the north-western ridge, constituting the border between Pakistan and China, his distance from the peak was merely 400 m. During his third attempt, he reached the summit by a difficult route which others did not manage to finish. He paid for that with his life.

Apart from the present attempt, the first and only effort to reach the summit of K2 in winter was headed at the turn of 1987 by Andrzej Zawada from the Pakistani side, through the Abruzzi Rib. The Polish-Canadian-British expedition reached 7300 m. Its participant, Krzysztof Wielicki, is presently the head of the second winter expedition, which at the same time is his fifth to K2.

Without oxygen

Victorious expeditions often benefit from the failures of previous ones. The Polish route from 1976 was finished by the Americans two years later. It was the fifth American expedition that was organized 40 years after the first one. It was again headed by James W. Whittaker. The alpinists simply went around the difficult stony barrier, reaching on the Abruzzi Rib the easier way of the first conquerors. James Wickwire started using oxygen from the cylinder at 8100 m. 200 m further above, Louis Reinhardt also tried to activate his oxygen cylinder, but to no avail. He decided to continue the ascent, however. On September 6, 5.20 pm, they both reached the summit. Reinhardt, the first mountaineer to reach the summit of K2 without using oxygen, began to descend faster, fearing the consequences of oxygen deficiency. Wickwire remained on the summit, trying to change the tape in his camcorder. He began to descend when it started to get dark. He did not have a head flashlight. He spent the night 150 m below the summit, wrapped around in a tent cloth. The next day, the second team reached the summit, without using additional oxygen. Four alpinists descended together to the base. Wickwire had severe chilblains, pleuropneumonia and inflammatory venous thrombosis. He was saved by an American military helicopter.

The Magic Line

Reinhold Messner, who tried in vain to reach the summit of K2 on the south-western ridge (which he called the Magic Line), as well as on the southern slope, said: "It's the first time that I've encountered a mountain which you cannot climb from any side." Finally, he reached the summit without oxygen, half-alpine style, using the route of the first conquerors'  through the Abruzzi Rib. After returning home he confessed that "Mount Everest was a stroll compared to K2." The challenge is on. A French expedition tried to conquer the Magic Line, headed by Bernard Mellet, which was the most expensive expedition ever, with the biggest amount of equipment. 1400 porters were carrying 25 tons of equipment to the base. The expedition was accompanied by 10 filmmakers, press photographers and journalists. A hang glider was carried to the altitude of 7500 m. Jean-Marc Boivin used it and landed near the base. After long struggles, the French reached 8450 m. Ca. 160 were left to the summit.

The Magic Line was finished by Poles in the tragic year of 1986. Our alpinists daringly marked yet another new route on K2 then. Anna Czerwińska, a witness to those events, summed them up in her book, The Terror of K2,  as follows: "In my opinion, we achieved a lot as athletes in the year 1986 on K2, and we were terribly successful. As an alpine community, however, we suffered a defeat".

Back then, there were five expeditions at the foot of K2. 27 alpinists reached the summit, only four of whom used oxygen. Seven died while descending the peak. All in all, 13 people had lost their lives


Tragedies alternated with triumphs. After a heroic battle, Wojciech Wróż, Przemysław Piasecki and Peter Bożik from the Czech Republic went through the Magic Line. They were descending at night on the Abruzzi Rib. In the darkness, Wróż apparently slipped from the end of a fixed rope that was not properly fastened and plummeted down.

Jozef Rakoncaj from the Czech Republic became the first man to reach the summit of K2 twice. Three years ago, he accomplished this feat from the Chinese side, whereas during the Italian expedition he climbed the Northern Pillar. He climbed on the Abruzzi Rib with the Italians, as well. The Frenchman Benoit Chamoux reached the summit on his own using the same route in merely 23 hours.

A great event was the use of a new route on the southern slope by Tadeusz Piotrowski and Jerzy Kukuczka. They were descending on the Abruzzi Rib in foggy, windy and snowy weather, without food or water for three days, bivouacking without tents or sleeping bags. Looking for the right route, they were slipping down the rope. At last they saw the tents of the Korean camp. They climbed the icy slope. "I advised Tadek to go more to the left", wrote Jerzy Kukuczka in Mountaineer. "After some time I noticed that he was losing his crampon. I told him to watch out, to which he reacted with a sudden movement and at this moment he lost his other crampon. I heard him screaming "Jurek!" and saw him falling down. I was standing directly below him on the steep ice, "he fell on me with his whole weight, I hardly managed to remain where I was, but I wasn't able to help him. I just saw him disappear behind the edge of the vertical slope". Kukuczka reached the base. The search for Piotrowski was unsuccessful.

At the beginning of August, five people reached the summit using the Abruzzi Rip: Austrians and, for the first time, two Britons: Julie Tullis and Alan Rouse. Julie reached the summit together with Kurt Diemberger, a walking legend of himalaism, the first man to conquer two maiden 8000ers. In their private life, they constituted one more couple known in the world of alpinism. Rouse was climbing with the "Ant", Dobrosława Miodowicz-Wolf. They were moving along a route they had no permit for. They regarded that ascend as their last chance. The Briton reached the summit. During his descent, he met Diemberger with Tullis, who told him that he had found the Ant sleeping in the snow and asked him to take the Pole down. Alan urged Dobrosława to return. When she was turning back, she was 150 m away from the summit.

At camp IV at 7900 m, five men and two women got into the death zone. They became imprisoned by rapid weather deterioration. Julie Tullis was the first one to die, she had survived for three days. Alan Rouse was in a state of agony when after another three days, the ones who remained decided to set out to the camp in the afternoon. Blinded Alfred Imitzer and Hannes Wieser did not get far, however, despite help. Extremely exhausted, they remained on the slope.

Willi Bauer, Dobroslawa and Diemberger kept on descending. At 7300 m it turned out that camp III was taken away by the wind. At night, Bauer, and shortly after Diemberger reached the tent of camp II. The "Ant" did not show up there, however. After the return of the two Austrians, Przemek Piasecki and Peter Bożik started their ascent. They did not meet the Pole. The body of Dobrosława Miodowicz-Wolf was found by a Japanese expedition the following year, below camp III that had been swept away by the wind. The Ant was strapped by means of a security loop at her wrist to a fixed rope.

The above terrible total effect was completed by the death of two Americans in an avalanche and the Sirdar of the mountain porters in the Korean expedition, who died hit by one falling rock.

The female side of K2

In 1980, Wanda Rutkiewicz headed the first female expedition to K2 on crutches, her leg, broken during an accident in the Caucasus, did not keep her from executing her plan. The expedition started with a tragedy. Halina Kruger-Syrokomska, deputy head of the expedition, unexpectedly lost consciousness at camp II (6700 m) and died shortly afterward. Resuscitation failed. The doctors considered apoplexy to be the likely cause of death.

Wanda Rutkiewicz was the first woman to reach the summit of K2 in 1986. Half an hour later, the French married couple of Liliane and Maurice Barrard reached the summit as well. That couple was famous not only for their climbing feats. In love with each other, looking at each other, inseparable, they both died descending from the summit of K2. The details of the tragedy will remain a mystery. The body of Liliane was found three kilometers further below. She was buried in a rocky crack below Gilkey's mound.

Another well-known couple came to climb K2. Renato Casarotto was one of the most outstanding alpinists, covering alone the routes of mountains on different continents. Goretta was usually waiting for him at the bases set up at the foot of the mountains, baking tasty cakes, creating a real feeling of home, adoring him limitlessly. Renato climbed the Magic Line to 8200 m at several occasions before he felt that he was defeated. After talking over the radiotelephone with Goretta, he would quickly return to the base. He was very close already when he fell into an ice crack. One last time, he established a telephone connection to ask his wife for help and tell her that he was dying. He died after being pulled out from the crack.

Written by Monika Rogozinska, "Rzeczpospolita"; translated by "Scrivanek".