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K2: The king in the north

Updated Apr 10, 2015 10:51am
July 31,2014 will be exactly 60 years after the first ascent ok K2, the second highest mountain on Earth, achieved by an Italian expedition led by Ardito Desio. Despite the shadows of terrorism that still haunt mountaineering and tourism in Pakistan, several expeditions to the Karakoram promise a busy season on the ‘big mountain’. The Polish, the Italians, a Canadian, a British and the all women Nepalese team hope to fulfill their dreams of summitting the K2 this year as part of the celebrations along with many Pakistani climbers.
July 31,2014 will be exactly 60 years after the first ascent ok K2, the second highest mountain on Earth, achieved by an Italian expedition led by Ardito Desio. Despite the shadows of terrorism that still haunt mountaineering and tourism in Pakistan, several expeditions to the Karakoram promise a busy season on the ‘big mountain’. The Polish, the Italians, a Canadian, a British and the all women Nepalese team hope to fulfill their dreams of summitting the K2 this year as part of the celebrations along with many Pakistani climbers.

By Obaid ur Rehman Abbasi

It is both serene and savage; a king and a killer. In the local Balti language, it is known simply as Chogori, the big mountain. To the rest of the world, it is K2.

It has remained an object of both fear and fascination for mountaineers, many of whom have spent, and even lost, their lives in a quest to conquer it.

It was only on July 31, 1954 that the peak was finally scaled by an Italian expedition, thus breaking the myth of its invincibility. This year is the 60th anniversary of that event.

But how did K2 get its distinctly unromantic name, and when?

For that we have to travel back to the 1850s, when the new farangi overlords of the subcontinent were being their meticulous selves, and surveying everything in sight.


Women scaling the heights

Interestingly, K2 has a particularly nasty reputation when it comes to female climbers. The first woman to reach the summit was the legendary Polish climber Wanda Rutkiewicz, who got to the top in June 1986. In August the same year Julie Tullis of UK also reached the summit but died high on the mountain on the night between Aug 6 and 7. Over the next 18 years all five female climbers who tried to summit this peak were killed. Three died during the descent down to K2, whereas two others died on nearby mountains. The curse was finally broken in 2004 by Edurne Pasaban, a 31-year-old Spanish mountaineer. On Aug 23, 2011, G. Kaltenbrunner also reached the summit of K2, becoming the first woman in the world to climb all of the 14 8,000-metre peaks without using supplemental oxygen. Rutkiewicz, who undoubtedly would have been the first woman to climb all the 8,000-metre peaks died on her ninth one, Knangchenjunga, in 1992.


The discovery of K2 was accidental and has a political background.

It was in 1856, when the British were enforcing their control over the northern part of India that a young officer of Royal Engineers, T.G. Montgomerie, remained busy in quietly surveying the mountains of Kashmir.

During this survey he saw in the far distance a mighty and conspicuous mountain in the direction of the Karakorams and immediately named it K1 (‘K’ for Karakorams).

Later on, it turned out to be the beautiful mountain of Hushe valley in Khaplu area of Baltistan, called Masherbrum by the inhabitants of Hushe valley. He also saw another tall and dominating summit behind K1 and named it K2, which turned out to be “Chogori”. Hence the peak of K2 was discovered by the outside world.     

Single file: Laden with equipment trekkers carry on
Single file: Laden with equipment trekkers carry on

According to the survey record available in various corners, the young royal army officer Lt Montgomerie, a surveyor by profession, was the person who planned and organised the survey of Kashmir.

He reportedly remained an unofficial political adviser to Gulab Singh, the then Maharaja of Kashmir.

After Gulab Singh’s death in 1857, Montgomerie continued his survey work as he carried the same influence with Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the successor of Gulab Singh.

Montgomerie trained many locals in surveying who later helped the British government in achieving its political purposes in Kashmir and what we now call the Northern Areas of Pakistan.    

The old record further shows that in 1860, Captain H.H. Godwin-Austen of the Survey of India and an officer in the 24th Foot Battalion, went to Baltistan and surveyed the famous Shigar and Saltoro valleys. 


Death in the clouds

K2 is also known as ‘the Killer Mountain’, and it’s a deserved title. One in four of those who have attempted to scale this peak have lost their lives in the process. Fifty six climbers have died on K2, 22 while descending from the summit. The overall summit/fatality rate of 27pc gives K2 the highest summit-to-fatality ratio of all the 8,000-metre peaks. After all, it is probably the most difficult of the 14 8,000-metre peaks to summit. To conquer this holy grail of mountaineering you have to be physically fit, adept at climbing, able to surmount severe and unpredictable weather conditions as well as risking the ever-present danger of avalanche.


Earlier, he had joined Mr Montgomerie at a survey station in Kashmir in 1857. He also surveyed the Kajnag range in southern Kashmir and was the first to put Gulmarg valley, another stunning area located at the border of Gilgit Baltistan and Kashmir, on the map. 

The officer, who was also involved in the survey of eastern Kashmir including Jammu, had started from Skardu and entered Braldu valley from Skoro-La (5,043m) in the year 1861. He then climbed and surveyed the Chogo-lungma, Kero Lungma, Biafo and Panmah glaciers.

It was from Kero Lungma that Godwin-Austen climbed the Nushik Pass (4,990m) and is stated to have entered the 53km long Hispar glacier of Northern Areas of Pakistan.

He was perhaps the first European to reach it. 

Some historians narrate a myth that the K2 peak, which was erroneously called Godwin-Austen peak, was actually discovered by him.

Although this is not true, it is nevertheless a fact that he did explore the gateway to K2 (the Baltoro glacier), along with famous glaciers including the Godwin-Austen glacier, which was indeed his outstanding contribution to the geography of the area.   

Another famous explorer of the area was Mr Francis Younghusband (later knighted), a soldier and an adventurer. He had reportedly been able to cross the Gobi Desert from Peking and entered India by crossing the Mustagh pass in 1887. It was during this journey that he saw K2.

He was the first European to set eyes on K2 from the northern (Chinese) side. His guide on this inward journey was a former resident of Askole village of Skardu, situated at the start of Baltoro glacier, who had been living on the other side of the mountain for a very long time.

When he entered the village of Askole with his guide, Younghusband was extended due courtesies. His guide was, however, looked down upon because he had shown a foreigner the possible route of invasion. Subsequently in 1903-4, Sir Francis Younghusband became the head of the famous mission to Tibet.   

It was probably for the first time in 1902 that an organised expedition led by Mr Oscar J.L. Eckenstein travelled to K2 from Baltoro glacier without the assistance of any guide.

Its aim was to explore approaches to the mountain and possibly have a try on the peak. Unfortunately, the harsh and unpredictable weather prevented it from attempting the peak.

The party nevertheless collected useful information about the upper Godwin-Austen glacier, which was used as a stepping-stone by expeditions in the years to come.   


Planting the Pakistani flag

A total of 10 pakistani climbers have conquered this peak. Ashraf Amman is the first Pakistani climber who summitted in the year 1997. The others being Nazir Sabir, Mehraban Shah, Shaheen Beg, Nisar Hussain, Rajab Shah, Mohammad Hussain, Mohammad Akram , Karim, and Hassan Sadpara.


Two members of the expedition — one a Swiss by the name of Dr Jules Jacot Guillarmot and the other an Austrian by the name of Dr V. Wesseley — succeeded in reaching 6,523 metres (21,400ft) on the north-eastern ridge of K2.

The party also ascended Skyang La (6,150m) to ascertain the climbing possibilities of Skyang Kangri peak (7,544m). Eckenstein was the first mountaineer who applied the principles of engineering to mountaineering and its equipment in Pakistan.

The party, under the command of Mr Eckenstein, spent 68 days on the mountain, with only eight clear days, attempting the northeast ridge.

Spending two months at high altitude, the party made five summit attempts.

The last one began on June 8 but eight days of bad weather defeated them and they retreated after a high point of 21,407ft (6,525m).

Scraps of expedition clothing were later found below K2 and are displayed at Neptune Mountaineering in Boulder, Colorado.

Beyond borders: Pakistani and Italian flags proudly on display
Beyond borders: Pakistani and Italian flags proudly on display

In 1909, a big Italian expedition under the leadership of the resolute Mr Luigi Amadeo Giuseppe, Duke of Abruzzi, the grandson of King Victor Emmanuel II of Italy, reconnoitred K2.

Its members produced a very good account of the expedition with photographs and accurate maps of Baltoro area.

The Duke, however, rejected the southern and western ridges of the mountain for a climb. His party attempted the peak from the south-east ridge, which later came to be known as Abruzzi ridge, but could not proceed beyond 5,560 metres because of some problems with the porters.

The party, however, carried out a thorough reconnaissance of K2 from south to northeast. Vittono Sella, a photographer and a climber, accompanied the Duke on this expedition.

The Sella Pass, near Godwin-Austen glacier, is named after him.    

In 1938, the US also showed interest in exploring K2. The American Alpine Club sponsored a reconnaissance party for a visit to the area. The party reached a height of 7,925m after setting up eight camps.

When compared with the heights climbed by previous expeditions, this seems to be a considerable advancement.

Famous American mountaineers like Dr Charles Houston and Mr Robert Bates were in this party. Six Sherpas from Nepal were also on this expedition as porters.

After a proper reconnaissance of the routes leading to K2, the party rejected the north-west and north-east routes. Instead, it selected the south-east ridge (Abruzzi ridge).

As per their version, it was the shortage of food supplies that forced Houston to return to lower altitudes. In the opinion of the party it was through this ridge that the K2 peak could be climbed, which eventually proved correct in the years to come.

The year 1939 saw another American expedition on K2 led by Mr Fritz Hermann Ernst Wiessner, a German-American chemist and mountaineer.

The expedition, along with nine Sherpas, made very good progress on the already identified south-east ridge.

Two members and five Sherpas set up Camp VIII at about 7,711 metres and left one member by the name of Dudley Wolfe in this camp as he had fallen sick.

Wiessner, along with one Sherpa, went up to approximately 8,382m. On their way back they found that Wolfe was short of food.

They, therefore, hurriedly brought him down to Camp VII and made him stay there. They then descended in search of food and aid but found all camps abandoned until they reached Camp II. Three Sherpas were immediately sent to rescue Wolfe.

They, however, did not return. In this way, Wolfe and the Sherpas died on the K2. It wasn’t until 63 years later in 2002 when Wolfe’s remains, including bones, bits of a tent, a cooking pot, trousers, and a mitten with his name on it were found.

The Americans brought another expedition in 1953 led by Charles Houston, when one of the most famous events in American climbing history occurred. It was at Camp VIII at about 7,772m that the party was hit by a blizzard which lasted many days.

On Aug 7, one member, Arthur Gilkey, developed thrombophlebitis. In view of his serious condition it was decided to start the descent of the mountain in spite of bad weather. At the end of the day, the party was involved in a fall on a steep slope as a result of a slip and tangling of ropes. Luckily nobody was seriously injured.

Subsequently all members assembled at the nearby Camp VII. Gilkey was secured on the snow slope with two ice axes until a party could be mustered to bring him across the slope to the camp.

An uphill task: climbers require high fitness levels
An uphill task: climbers require high fitness levels

However, when three members of the party returned to Gilkey, they found that he had been swept away by an avalanche. It took the rest of the party five hard days to reach the base camp. On reaching there, the party immediately started for Skardu because one of the members, George Bell, had very bad frost-bitten feet. In spite of their very best efforts, the Americans could not climb K2 from the south-east ridge.  


Getting there

The mesmerising K2 peak is situated on the Pak-China border in the mighty Karakoram range, which is one of the biggest mountain ranges in the world. It is a cone shaped peak rising like a pyramid to a terrifying height of 28,251feet (8,611m). It is surrounded by a cluster of equally high peaks such as Gasherbrum I, Gasherbrum II and Broad Peak all of which are also above 8,000m.

The traditional route to K2’s base camp goes from Gilgit Baltistan’s picturesque valley of Skardu, which is linked to Islamabad by road and also by air. Two PIA flights leave for Skardu every day, subject to the weather, while dozens of private and government vehicles take the passengers to Skardu via Abbottabad on the majestic Karakoram Highway, the eighth wonder of the world. In the summers, the much shorter route from Kaghan Valley passing though the Babudar Pass is also open. From Skardu the route goes via Shigar and Askole up to Concordia over the Baltoro glacier, which is the world’s largest glacier outside the polar region. Most of the road till Ashkoli is broken and dangerous; only expert drivers can take you to the Asholi village, which also boasts of a museum. Jeeps can be hired from Skardu valley or Shigar valley to reach Ashkoli which is a seven-hour drive away. From there on, the entire route can be covered by foot. It takes almost four days to reach K2 base camp no 1 commonly known as Concordia. Climbers, after staying one or two nights there, go to various other camps to reach the point of climbing.


Finally it was in July 1954, that an Italian expedition came to Pakistan to try its luck on K2. It consisted of 12 climbers and four scientists and was led by veteran mountaineer, Professor Ardito Desio, who had come to these mountains with Italian expeditions before the World War II.

Three Pakistani climbers, Colonel M. Ataullah and Arshad Munir, accompanied the expedition from the Karakoram Club of Pakistan. Captain (later Lt. General) G.S. Butt was the liaison officer. However, poor weather hindered the progress of the party for a pretty long time.

As soon as the weather cleared, the party made very good progress and set up Camp II. It was at this camp that one of its members, Mario Puchoz, a 36-year-old guide, died of pneumonia.

The party established six more camps on the south-eastern ridge. Camp IX was a bivouac. On July 31, Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni started from the bivouac.

They continued their assault and reached the summit at six in the evening. After staying for a while they started descending and reached Camp VIII round about 11 at night. In this way the saga of K2’s invincibility ended.

After this first successful summit, there was a long gap and nobody reached the summit for the next 23 years when finally in Aug 9, 1977, a Japanese team led by Mr Ichiro Yoshizawa and including the first Pakistani climber of K2, Ashraf Amman, made a successful visit to the summit.

Hence the story of success which began in 1954 continued and later season’s expeditions started reaching Pakistan with some witnessing the golden peak.

A lot of climbers lost their lives and some captured success after conquering the mighty K2.

Nazir Sabir is the most famous name among Pakistani mountaineers. On Aug 7, 1981 he reached the summit. He has also climbed Mount Everest, Gasherbrum 1, Gasherbrum 2, Broad Peak and others. Rajab Shah is another name who combed K2 in 1995. He is also the lone record holder from Pakistan to climb five 8,000-metre high peaks in Pakistan, including Gasherbrum 1, Gasherbrum 2, Broad Peak and Nanga Parbat. 

The here and now

After the tragic and horrific incident near Nanga Parbat, in which many foreign climbers were killed on the base camp by terrorists, there was a fear that trekking tourism in Gilgit Baltistan, which had only recently picked up, would also die. But this year the enthusiasm and spirit shown by international and local climbers to visit K2 and celebrate the occasion is truly unprecedented.

Next stop K@:An expedition travels by jeep
Next stop K@:An expedition travels by jeep

Numerous expeditions and treks are taking place along with the recording of several documentaries by enthusiastic international film producers. The Italian government is making a great contribution to the celebrations as Italians were the first ones to originally summit the mountain in 1954.

The Pakistani expedition to K2 is being sponsored by Mr Agostino Da Polenza, the president of Ev-K2-CNR, an organisation which promotes scientific and technological research in mountain areas. Mr Polenza has personally reached Pakistan and joined the base camp to cheer the Pakistani climbers. This shows that despite all the dangers, the lure of K2 is impossible to resist.

Three veteran Pakistani climbers, Mohammad Sanap Akam, Nisar Hussain (from Satpara Village, Baltistan) and Muhammad Hussain (from Khaplu village, Baltistan) are confirmed Pakistani summiteers this anniversary season.

And, as per the reports, four Nepali women climbers, along with Pakistani sensation Samina Beg (hailing from the Shamshal Valley of Gilgit, she is the first Pakistani lady to scale Mount Everest) have left for K2 for the 60th anniversary celebrations.

The summer climbing season has begun and local tourist guides and high altitude porters are awaiting desperately to welcome the climbers specially on the eve of the 60th anniversary of K2 as their bread and butter depends on the arrival of large number of expeditions.

However, the proceedings of this summer may get affected by the events of summer 2013, which had a catastrophic season with 22 fatalities in Karakoram and Western Himalaya; half of them caused by a terrorist attack on Nanga Parbat base camp. Following the incident, all Diamir side expeditions were cancelled, several climbers changed their plans and majority of trekking groups returned home from Islamabad.

The shadows of terrorism still haunt the mountaineering and tourism scene in Pakistan.

This summer, the number of climbing permit requests is half as compared to last year. Official sources acknowledge that foreign mountaineers are staying away from Pakistan.

They, however, give special attention and importance to the Italian-backed activities of the 60th year celebrations of K2. This may attract more trekkers, expeditions and climbers from the outside world.

Chief Minister of Gilgit Baltistan, Syed Mehdi Shah, has said that his government will ensure safe and secure travel for foreigners in an attempt to revive trekking tourism in the area.

Little Karim, the legendary high altitude porter of Skardu, is of the view that the craze of climbing and mountaineering cannot stop people from coming to Pakistan for scaling its legendary peaks. After all, Pakistan has a unique distinction of becoming a meeting place of three different ranges, two of which: the Karakoram and the Himalayas, are the biggest in the world (the other one being the Hindu Kush).

Within a small radius of 160km from the town of Gilgit to Skardu there are as many as 90 peaks all soaring above 18,000 feet. Such concentration of high peaks in a small area is perhaps found nowhere else in the world. It’s literally a paradise for serious mountain climbers with K2 and Nanga Parbat being their ultimate dream.

Col (etired) Manzoor Hussain, the President of Alpine Club of Pakistan, is of the view that we must do more to attract international expeditions. He says that due to the Nanga Parbat incident the confidence of international trekkers and expeditions have been shaken and in this year not a single expedition is coming to Pakistan for the mighty Nanga Parbat. However, 10 have so far confirmed their willingness for K2.

Although he says they have assured them of full security, their governments are not discouraging them from coming to Pakistan. He, too, places his hopes in the 60th anniversary of K2 celebrations. Perhaps, he says, this may attract them and bring expeditions back to the country.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, July 27th, 2014