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50 years of summits on a Mountain named K2
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Jul 31, 2004 01: 35 EST
Every year, Everest draws attention from the entire world. Climbers scale the worlds tallest mountain virtually before an audience of millions, those following the quests on their home computers.

As Everest close down, some time around the end of May, another drama unfolds. This is the Karakorum season opening in Pakistan and China. Usually far from the eyes of the international media, the worlds foremost climbers assemble here in June and July, to climb the worlds toughest alpine peaks. The crown of those is named K2.

The Savage Mountain

Dubbed the "Savage Mountain," K2 in the Himalayas is Earth’s second-highest peak and among the top three hardest climb in the world. With a 8,611-meter (28,250-foot) summit and surrounding weather that is significantly colder and less predictable than on Everest, reaching the top of K2 and coming down alive is every veteran mountaineers dream.

K is for Karakorum

K is for Karakorum and K2 was first summitted on this day, July 31, in 1954. Since then, there have been around 240 summits (compared with approximately 2000 on Everest). Fifty six climbers have died on K2, twenty-two while descending from the summit. In terms of the overall summit/fatality rate of 23%, it is the third most deadly mountain in the world. Only Nanga Parbat and Annapurna are deadlier. K2s statistics for female climbers are particularly dramatic. Some even say K2 is "cursed" for women. Six women have reached the top, but of those 6, three died on the descent. (2 have since died on other 8,000-meter peaks.)

Shangri-La of ultimate fear

Situated in the middle of an isolated paradise, it is thought to be part of the fictional Shangri-La that James Hilton wrote about in Lost Horizon. In spite of the dangers, the mountain continues to lure climbers to it´s slopes of dark gray rock. It is the ultimate fear and as such must be faced and overcome by climbers aiming for alpine excellence. In scaling Everest, you are a great climber to the world. Summit K2, and you are a true climber to climbers.

A history of blood and triumphs - K2 100 years ago

The first attempt on K2 took place in 1902. One of the members of the doomed expedition, the ‘wickedest man on Earth’ and also one mean climber, was Aleister Crowley. He had many important solo climbs in the Western Alps, including a couple of firsts. For several years he had been moving swiftly up the ranks of the occult orders much to the dismay of the senior members. After offending just about every person involved in black magic at the turn of the 20th century and incurring several ‘attacks’, Crowley left his home in London. An accomplished climber, he found his way on to the K2 expedition.

Bad omen

The first bad omen for this first attempt on K2 was the arrest of Eckenstein, the expedition leader. Rumor has it that Eckenstein’s old nemesis, William Conway, then the president of the Alpine Club, had arranged for the incarceration in Kashmir. Three weeks later Eckenstein was released and joined his team at base camp only to walk into a raging debate on which route to take. The irreverent and bizarre Crowley wanted to attack the South-East Ridge but the team decided on the North-East Crest. As it turned out Crowley was right; the team had to turn back at 6,000 meters. To make his point during the frustration of failure, Crowley took out a revolver and threatened several members of the team. The expedition regrouped and planned for a second attempt.

Down from thin air into deep fogs of Heroin

A second attempt, this time via the saddle between K2 and Skyang Kangri (7,544m, The Staircase), redeemed Crowley and his superb mountaineering skills. When a fellow climber was struck by pulmonary edema, Crowley was the only one to recognize the severity and insisted on taking the sick man off the mountain. This decision saved the climber’s life but prevented the team from reaching the peak. Soon after the expedition Crowley began a long descent into heroin addiction. His behavior became more bizarre and iconoclastic and his activities more infamous each day.

Bat wife

At one point he became convinced his wife was a bat, Crowley forced her to sleep tied upside down in a closet at nights. By the time of his death, Aleister Crowley, was a permanent fixture in the world’s history of the occult, and a lesser known climber on the first attempt on K2.

The first victims

In 1939 the legendary mountaineer, Fritz Wiessner, led a fateful expedition to K2. Wiessner, an American born in Dresden, was only 200 meters from the summit when he was forced to turn back. Tragedy and exhaustion overtook the expedition and Wiessner never had another chance to reach the summit.

The fifteen member team was whittled down to five by camp VII; Wiessner, Dudley Wolfe, a millionaire climbing and yachting enthusiast, and three sherpas. Three days later it was just Wiessner and Pasang Dawa Lama. They reached 8,380 meters before turning back. Just 200 meters from the summit Pansang became consumed with fears of waking the angry gods of the mountain and refused to go any further.

Pasang pleaded for them to turn back and try again the next day. On the descent to camp both men lost their crampons, during the night the snow had frozen into ice and the attempt the next day showed little progress. The disappointment was overwhelming, but the story was far from over.

Empty camps

At camp VIII Wiessner and Pasang found Wolfe alone, without rations and very ill. The group made the descent from camp to camp and found none of the other climbers nor any rations. Wolfe was too weak to continue and remained in the tent as the others went down to get help. A rescue team was assembled at base camp but only one man returned. Wolfe and three sherpas were lost to the mountain, K2’s first victims.

Had Fritz Wiessner made it to the summit he would have been the first man to set foot on an 8000+ meter peak, eleven years before the successful summit of Annapurna. He would have also summited the world’s second tallest mountain without the use of supplemental oxygen, a feat forty years ahead of its time.

All eternity lost in just one moment

As Wiessner once wrote, “What you may be offered in a moment all eternity will never give you back.” Though his regret is understandable his feat is nonetheless remarkable and has gone down in the great history of mountaineering.

Fritz Wiessner discovered and opened, with Hans Kraus, the Shawangunks, made the first ascent of Mt. Waddington with Bill House in 1936, and the first climbing ascent of the Devil's Tower in 1937.

K2 fifty years ago

The 'Savage Mountain' has claimed the lives of 56 Climbers beginning with Dudley Wolfe and the sherpas, Pasang Kikuli, Kitar, and Pintso in July of 1939. After several failed attempts, K2 was finally summited in 1954 by the Italians, Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni. There has been a debate about the events that took place on that first climb ever since.

The controversy

In early June of 1954 a team of a dozen or so left from a 4,000m camp. In late July four men had reached camp VIII, about 200 meters below the summit. The final ascent was made by Lino and Achille and completed without oxygen...or so goes the official story.

The two men left behind at camp VIII were Walter Bonatti, then 24 years old, and the Hunza porter Mahdi, charged with the task of carrying the oxygen. According to Bonatti, who made first ascent of Gasherbrum IV in 1958, he and Mahdi could not re-supply the two lead climbers due to bad weather and darkness. So, on Lino's instruction, they left the oxygen where they were and began their descent.

Disgrace

The names of the summiteers were not released until the return of the expedition. When it was announced, Lino and Achille were celebrated as national heroes. The celebration ended a decade later when an Italian newspaper accused Bonatti of stealing oxygen and attempting a solo ascent ahead of Lino and Achille. Bonatti sued for libel and won, but he was ostracized from the climbing community and in 1965 gave up mountaineering. Bonatti has since published "The Mountains of My Life", an autobiography with stories about the expedition of 1954. In his book Bonatti displays proof of his innocence, including a photograph of Lino and Achille wearing oxygen masks on the summit.

“It appeared almost unexpectedly as in a dream”

Oxygen or not - Ardito Desio, the Italian professor heading up the expedition, once proclaimed. “It appeared almost unexpectedly as in a dream.” From Concordia the team trekked to the base of the mountain and began the historic climb to K2’s summit.

By the end of May the team reached base camp. On the first attempt Mario Puchoz, one of the climbers in the expedition, was struck by a then unknown illness. It was pulmonary edema, but in those days very little was known about the effects of high altitude on the body. The future of the expedition was in doubt.

The expedition pushed on. Lino and Achille made their way to higher altitudes. The climbers in charge of resupplying them had given up; the two climbers were left with limited supplies. In their account of what happened in those fateful days they claim that oxygen was limited and by the time of the final push they were without the life giving gas.

An Italian team victory

They managed to reach the summit; a spectacular feat under those circumstances and only half an hour later began their descent. After some serious falls the two men reached the lower camps to greet their team mates. The names of the successful summiteers were not released for many weeks after the accomplishment, for the fact that the ascent was a team effort.

K2 today

This spring, a half-century later, the Italians prepared for a spectacular golden anniversary: K2 2004 - 50 years later, a large, ambitious Italian expedition sent a 19-member team to scale Everest’s north side and then two teams to scale K2 from each side in commemoration the 50th anniversary of K2’s first ascent.

After a successful Everest season where several team members reached the summit without the use of oxygen, the expedition continued to K2 this summer.

Tragedy strikes

K2 had not been summited since 2001, no female K2 summiteer was alive and this years anniversary season started with a tragedy almost immediately:

June 10, three South Korean climbers; Lee Hwa-hyong, 36, Kim Jae-yong, 35, and Pae Kyong-kyu, 34, were found dead in their sleeping bags in a crevace covered with snow, at a point some 200 meters below the scene of the accident (6,600m). The three went missing after an avalanche struck while they were sleeping at Camp 2 6,600m. Shortly after, June 29, 5 porters drowned, caught in a swift-moving stream while carrying luggage for the Italian expedition.

Bad weather

The Italian team was split up in two - one larger on the South side including the Italian woman climber Nadia Tiraboschi, and a smaller group on the North side including the Italian female ace climber Nives Meroi.

The early tragedies were soon followed by a series of bad weather and discouraging forecasts: Only a few days before the summit push some of the reports predicted at least 10 days of bad weather and there was talk that K2 would once again remain without a summit. But the Italians trusted their own resources (including Adventure weather) which showed a more promising weather pattern.

They went up into bad weather to find the sky suddenly clearing in high camps.

Summit! Summit!

Virtually out of the blue - the news struck July 26:
The curse is broken – we just received word that Silvio Mondinelli and Karl Unterkircher of the Italian team summited K2.

In this first K2 summit in three years, the Italians marked the 50th anniversary of the first K2 summit in style. At 05.15 PM local time, about 45 minutes after Mondinelli and Unterkircher summited, Walter Nones, Michele Compagnoni, and Ugo Giacomelli followed suit. Yes, that's when K2's circle of history was closed; by Michele who is Achille Compagnoni's Grandson...

The Grandson and the Nephew

But that wasn't all - Lino had family up there as well: The Scoiattoli (translated squirrels) Northern Italian team summited in the next two days, Marco Da Pozzo, Mario Dibona, Renato Sottsass, Renzo Benedett, Luciano Zardini - and Mario Lacedelli: "A dream! A dream for all of us and Mario in particular: Lino Lacedelli will be proud of his nephew!"

A record breaking summit party

Yes it was a glorious party the "savage Mountain" threw for its birthday. Mountaineers scaled the peak in waves, one after the other, offering a record breaking season: Triple summit wave, 43 summiteers (nearly 50% more than the previous record season; 29 climbers in 1996) and 14 climbers at once, the closest was 11 on August 14, 1996.

Edurne Pasaban from Spain broke another curse of the mountain when she summited K2; the only female K2 summiteer alive today.

The Pakistan climbers

But let's not forget K2's own, the Pakistan climbers. Three Pakistani climbers scaled their Golden mountain in the same K2 joy ride: Mohammad Sanap Akam, Nisar Hussain (from Satpara Village/Baltistan ) and Muhammad Hussain (from Khaplu Village - Baltistan) were confirmed Pakistan summiteers this anniversary season.

They joined the fine ranks of other Pakistan K2 climbers:

In 1977, Ashraf Aman was the first Pakistani to climb K2. Nazir Sabir is the most famous name among Pakistani mountaineers. August 7, 1981 he reached the summit and is the only Pakistani, who has climbed Mount Everest as well. Nazir also has G1, G2, and Broad Peak.

Rajab Shah climbed K2 in 1995 and he is also the lone record holder from Pakistan to climb five eight thousand meters high peaks in Pakistan, including G1, G2, Broad Peak and Nanga Parbat. Mehrban Shah too climbed K2 in 1995, following his senior Rajab Shah. He has also G1 and G2.

But wait, it's not over yet

The toughest is yet to come. Two major expeditions remain on K2, biding their time in wind-blown camps on the slopes of the Mountaineers Mountain.

Last summer Nives Meroi (43), Italy, had a stunning grand slam success in the Karakorums: Together with husband Romano Benet and fellow climber Luca Vuerich, she reached the summits of GI, GII and Broad Peak in a mere 20 days. On the16th of May this year, Nives summited Lhotse (8516m). With six 8000m peaks under her belt, Nives is Italy’s leading lady of the mountains.

Nives is now on K2s North side with Romano and Luca. The Jet is licking the summit and the team hopes for a possible break end next week to try a summit push. Note that before this season, K2 South was last summited in 2001, whilst K2 North was last summited in 1996. K2 North in fact only holds around 30 summits out of the total 250 and no woman has ever summited K2s notorious North side.

A Magic climb

On the Magic line - Oscar Cadiach (expedition leader), Jordi Corominas, Jordi Tosas, Manel de la Matta and ‘Valen’ Giró have set Camps and fixed ropes up to the Pulpit, an intimidating rock bastion at 7500m – see picture 4. Currently in BC, they plan to climb back up as soon as the weather permits.

If they make it, they will accomplish the first repetition of an obvious but extremely difficult route following the SSW ridge, once described as ‘suicidal’ by Reinhold Messner. Only a Polish-Czech team ever completed it, back in 1986. Since them, some of the best climbers in the world have attempted it, with no success. Extreme snowboarder, Jordi Torsas has also brought his board along while climbing, just in case of a chance for a surf descent...

"The Magic Line" is the South West Pillar of K2, Reinhold Messner took one look at this route in 1979, called it "suicidal", switching to the normal Abruzzi route. The line is still the hallmark of "suicidal" excellence, with exceptionally hard, steep sections of icy rock at very high altitudes.

Happy Birthday, K2!

So there you have it, from the mad Aleister Crowley in 1902, to Lino and Achille in 1954, their grandson and nephew in 2004, a suicide attack on the Prime minister only yesterday and a Magic Line yet to be surfed, the drama of the Mountaineers Mountain's continues to mesmerize the world of mountaineering.

Happy Birthday K2. Thank you Pakistan for hosting and helping crazy mountaineers like us in spite of your own troubles. And hey - Viva Italia!

1. Image of K2, courtesy of Scoiattoli team through Planetmountain.com 2.Image of Aleister Crowley courtesy of hermetic.com 3. Image of Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni, courtesy of Jerberyd.com 4. Image of Porters in the Karakorum courtesy of Ian Bergeron. 5. Image of Silvio Mondinelli (left) and Karl Unterkircher (right) courtesy of Montagna.org 6. Image of Edurne pasaban (left) courtesy of Edurnepasaban.net and of Nives Meroi (right) courtesy of Mountain.ru 7. Images of the Magic Line route, Copyright K2 Magic Line 2004 Expedition
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