Curse of the women of K2

29 Jul 2004


SKARDU: When Spain's Edurne Pasaban became the sixth woman to stand atop the "king of mountains" K2 during this week's 50th anniversary festivities, she entered an exclusive but tragic gallery of female mountaineers.

The five women who have stood on its 8,611-metre (28,251 feet) peak before Pasaburn have all met their deaths at high altitude - three of them while descending K2 and two of them on mountains in Nepal six years after their K2 feats.

Pasaban scaled the peak on Monday with three Spanish compatriots and four Italian climbers, including the grandson of one of the two Italians who first conquered the world's second highest summit on July 31, 1954.

Towering over the Karakoram ranges at an uninhabited border stretch between Pakistan and China, K2 is second only to Nepal's Everest, (8,848 metres/29,028 feet) in height, but mountaineers consider it more treacherous, and more striking for its isolation and almost perfect pyramid shape.

"K2 is a very difficult mountain. It is called the 'mountaineers' mountain' because of its difficulty and real challenge," veteran expedition organizer Naiknam Karim said.

The ascent to its peak is riddled with slippery, sheer slopes of ice, including the feared "bottleneck", a 100-metre slope with a gradient of 80 to 90 degrees close to the summit.

"The 'bottleneck' is very steep and the danger of slipping is very high. It's here that the three women died," Karim said. K2 is statistically deadlier than Everest. It has a fatality rate of 27 per cent, three times that of Everest.

Until this week 198 people had scaled K2 since its conquest by Italian pair Achille Compagnoni and Lino Lacedelli. Fifty-three people died on its slopes. Everest has claimed 179 lives against 2,000 summiteers, giving it a fatality rate of nine per cent.

The first woman to scale its summit was Poland's Wanda Rutkiewicz, considered the greatest woman mountaineer. She stood on top of the mountain on June 23 1986, just hours ahead of Frenchwoman Liliane Barrard.

Liliane, 37, and her husband Maurice disappeared in a snowstorm on descent, and her body was found a month later at the foot of the mountain. Rutkiewicz was lost in 1992 aged 49 while attempting to summit Nepal's Kangchenjunga, the world's third highest mountain.

Britain's Julie Tullis was the next woman on K2, reaching the summit a few weeks after Rutkiewicz and Barrard. But she was caught in a storm on descent and died, aged 47, from exhaustion and exposure.

In August 1992, Chantal Mauduit of France scaled K2. She came down successfully but died six years later aged 34 in an avalanche on Nepal's Dhaulagiri. Britain's Alison Hargreaves, 33, stood on K2's summit in August 1995, but she too met her demise on descent.

"I knew Chantal Mauduit. She was a very strong woman. I never met Alison but I heard a lot about her, people used to say she was a very strong woman," said Karim, director of Adventure Tours Pakistan, one of the biggest K2 expedition organizers.

"Very few women attempt K2, less than 10 per cent of the number of men who try to climb it. "I don't think it's harder for women. In my personal opinion if one woman can climb, another can. Maybe women take less risks than men, in terms of mountaineering only." Three other women, Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, Nives Meroi and Eva Zarzuelo are also bidding for K2's peak this season. -AFP