“Blinded by altitude sickness, his mind and body seemed to crumble in slow motion due the starvation of oxygen to his brain on these menacing slopes. ‘Dark days are coming’, he whispers to himself as he inexorably staggers and stumbles helplessly down the precipitous abyss of the mountain” – K2 survivor
Any form of derivative of the above words has almost certainly emerged from a daring climber of K2, also known as the Savage Mountain due to its perilous slopes and treacherous storms. This monster of rock is the second tallest mountain on the planet reaching 8,611 metres (28,251 ft), just two hundred metres shorter than the king of mountains, Everest. Located solemnly in the monstrous Karakoram Range between Pakistan and China, the momentous alpine is only scaled by the most audacious of professional climbers. Although Everest is marginally higher, K2 has the second most extreme chance of death of all mountains in the world, with daring climbers ascending the mountain in fear of the 27% death rate that haunts the bottomless crevasses and bladed ridges all the way to the summit. One in four climbers have perished on this isolated mountain and few have endured the betraying altitudes of the mountain’s summit. In 2008, eleven climbers fell victim to K2 and when the summit was last attempted during the summer of 2014, a Spanish climber lost his path on the slopes and vanished from his expedition, never to be seen again.
K2 is statistically the second most deadly mountain on the planet, and ascending its merciless gradient almost certainly requires a fistful of bravery, and madness.
No successful attempt at reaching the summit was made until as late as the 1950s, with all prior exhibitions ending with either death or abandonment, often a gruesome combination of the two. Crushing avalanches, flash snow storms, arctic temperatures and unstable terrain renders this eight-thousander a mountaineers dream nightmare. In spite of countless deaths and disappearances on the mountain during the first half of the 1900s, it was a valiant Italian exhibition lead by mountaineers Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni that first imprinted the shape of the human boot on the snow at the glossy summit of the mountain in 1954. The summit was then left untouched by human presence for decades until a more advanced Japanese exhibition enabled the first Pakistani native climber to ponder over the views of the endless mountain range from the storm-battered summit once again.
Of the over 300 estimated climbers of K2, over 50 have died or disappeared attempting to reach the summit generating the 1 in 4 death rate statistic. The first five woman to climb K2 either died on the mountain or on subsequent exhibitions.
The most common route of ascension up K2 is via the Abruzzi Spur, first attempted and named amid the early 20th century by the brassy Italian mountaineer, the Duke of Abruzzi, which consists of four main base camps utilized as waypoints for climbers yearning to reach the summit. After a new world altitude record on the mountain was set by Abruzzi and his team in 1909, the Abruzzi Spur became the most popular method of ascent up the mountain and gave alpine climbers the largest chance of survival in reaching the summit of the wintry beast.
Although the Abruzzi spur is known to be the most efficient approach to reach the summit, there are still a cascade of precarious obstacles to overcome that limitless climbers have fallen merciless victim to, such as “House’s Chimney”, a notoriously narrow 100-foot vertical crack in the side of the mountain that leads the only available route to camp two on the Abruzzi Spur. Named after the American climber Bill House when it was first ascended in 1938, the shaft is now engulfed in a thicket of ancient ropes and climbing equipment left behind by previous climbers, making it marginally easier to climb. Prior to surviving “House’s Chimney” however, climbers are then faced with an even more daunting obstruction on their odyssey to the summit.
There are around ten different routes leading up to the summit of K2, only five have ever been repeated.
The “Black Pyramid”, prodigiously looming over base camp two, is a pyramid-shaped cluster of ebony rock and glacial ice that dominates the view up this steeping side of the mountain for an intimidating 1,200 feet. This section of the mountain boasts the most technically demanding ascension for climbers, and is extremely susceptible to inclement weather of all kinds due to its exposition to the elements of the sky. Temperatures are known to plummet at these altitudes and avalanches become worryingly more common, in spite of which route the climber has chosen to travel to the summit.
Sharp, black and looming – the “Black Pyramid” is known to harness extremely high winds and is the most technically demanding section of the climb.
At the top of the ‘Black Pyramid’ allows the team of mountaineers to gaze up at another viciously dangerous component of the mountain, the shoulder. Although mostly horizontal, the shoulder is incredibly prone to avalanches and acts as a filter for the unyielding winds sweeping between K2 and it’s neighbour, Broad Peak. However, after surpassing this obstacle, camp three is quickly erected and the final part of the journey is ready to be ignited into a commotion of scrambling to the peak of the mountain.
The mountain is extremely susceptible to avalanches capable of wiping out an entire team at this point so climbers are advised to travel light and spend as little time as possible on the shoulder.
After a night of anxious sleep, forever fearful that the pegs gripping the tent to the icy ridge may come loose and send it flying off the side of the mountain, camp three is abandoned and the journey up to camp four follows the same trend as the previous sections of the journey – it’s tougher and even more unforgiving. This part of the journey is commonly known in the diaries of mountaineers as the ‘rush for the summit’ as a final push is made to ensure that the ultimate goal of the journey is fulfilled. Regardless of what route is taken up this popular side of the mountain, all paths hastily begin to converge into one vertically steep channel known as “Bottleneck”, presenting an overhanging wall of ice that forces the expedition to scramble into a free-for-all climbing adversity. Clinging delicately to the wall of ice is a fissure of ice blocks ranging from the size of TVs to the average school bus. The fear that these volatile blocks of solid ice are capable of falling from their bases at any given moment is an undying one among any professional climber and has seen the death of many at this dynamically dangerous section of the mountain. It is said that attempting to climb this part of the mountain is like staring into the end of a loaded rifle. However, not far adrift of “Bottleneck” exists a section of the mountain that offers the most salvation for any expedition of climbers; the summit. From the summit, an ecstatic view of the gargantuan Karakoram range seems to replace the lingering menace and fear with unprecedented amounts of joy and accomplishment. However, the journey is only 50% complete and naturally, a vast majority of the hundreds of deaths on K2 have occurred during the descent of the journey on the mountain. K2, as spectacularly inviting it may appear to be on Google Images, is probably best left in the hand’s of mother nature.
American climber Alan Arnette is the most recent and oldest American to have reached the summit of K2 in July, 2014.