Destinations of the Month
K2 is the second-highest mountain on Earth. It is located in
the Shigar valley of Baltistan, Northern Area of Pakistan.
routes and difficulties
There are a number of routes on K2, of
somewhat different character, but they all share some key
difficulties: First is the extreme high altitude and
resulting lack of oxygen: in fact there is only one third as
much oxygen available to a climber on the summit of K2 as
there is at sea level. Second is the propensity of the
mountain to extreme storms of several days' duration, which
have resulted in many of the deaths on the peak. Third is
the steep, exposed, and committing nature of all routes on
the mountain, which makes retreat more difficult, especially
during a storm.
The standard route of ascent, used far more
than any other route, is the Abruzzi Spur, first attempted
by Luigi Amedeo, Duke of the Abruzzi in 1909 (see the
history above). This is the southeast ridge of the peak,
rising above the Godwin Austen Glacier. The spur proper
begins at an altitude of 5,400 m, where Advanced Base Camp
is usually placed. The route follows an alternating series
of rock ribs, snow/ice fields, and some technical rock
climbing on two famous features, "House's Chimney" and the
"Black Pyramid." Above the Black Pyramid, dangerously
exposed and difficult to navigate slopes lead to the easily
visible "Shoulder," and thence to the summit. The last major
obstacle is a narrow couloir known as the "Bottleneck,"
which places climbers dangerously close to a wall of seracs
which form an ice cliff to the east of the summit. (It was
partly due to the collapse of one of these seracs around
2001 that no climbers summited the peak in 2002 and 2003.
Almost opposite from the Abruzzi Spur is the
North Ridge, which ascends the Chinese side of the peak. It
is rarely climbed, partly due to very difficult access,
involving crossing the Shaksgam River, which is a hazardous
undertaking. In contrast to the crowds of climbers and
trekkers at the Abruzzi basecamp, usually at most two teams
are encamped below the North Ridge. This route, more
technically difficult than the Abruzzi, ascends a long,
steep, primarily rock ridge to high on the mountain (Camp
IV, the "Eagle's Nest", 7,900 m), and then crosses a
dangerously slide-prone hanging glacier by a leftward
climbing traverse, to reach a snow couloirs which accesses
Besides the original Japanese ascent (see the History
section), a notable ascent of the North Ridge was the one in
1990 by Greg Child, Greg Mortimer, and Steve Swenson, which
was done alpine-style (though using some fixed ropes already
put in place by previous teams).
Northwest Ridge (finishing on North Ridge), first ascent
West Ridge, 1981.
Southwest Pillar or "Magic Line", very technical, 1986.
South Face, 1986.
South-southeast spur (finishing on Abruzzi route; a possibly
safer alternative to the Abruzzi), 1994.
Northeast Ridge (long and corniced; finishes on uppermost
part of Abruzzi route), 1978.
Northwest Face, 1990.
K2 is only ranked 22nd by topographic prominence, a measure
of a mountain's independent stature, because it is part of the same extended
area of uplift (including the Karakoram, the Tibetan Plateau, and the
Himalaya) as Mount Everest, in that it is possible to follow a path from K2
to Everest that goes no lower than 4,594 m (at Mustang Lo). Many other peaks
which are far lower than K2 are more independent in this sense.
However, K2 is notable for its local relief as well as its total height. It
stands over 3,000 m (9,840 ft) above much of the glacial valley bottoms at
its base. More extraordinary is the fact that it is a consistently steep
pyramid, dropping quickly in almost all directions. The north side is the
steepest: there it rises over 3,200 m (10,500 ft) above the K2 (Qogir)
Glacier in only 3 km (1.8 mi) of horizontal distance. In most directions, it
achieves over 2,800 m (9,200 ft) of vertical relief in less than 4 km (2.4
mi). This degree of steepness, at this vertical scale, in so many different
directions, is unmatched in the world. This is one of the reasons why K2 is
such a difficult climb.
The mountain was first surveyed by a European survey team in
1856 headed by Henry Haversham Godwin-Austen. Thomas
Montgomerie was the member of the team who designated it
"K2" for being the second peak of the Karakoram range. The
other peaks were originally named K1, K3, K4 and K5, but
were eventually renamed Masherbrum, Broad Peak, Gasherbrum
II and Gasherbrum I respectively.
The first serious attempt to climb K2 was organized and
undertaken in 1902 by Oscar Eckenstein and Aleister Crowley,
but after five serious and costly attempts, no member of the
team actually reached the summit, possibly due to a
combination of questionable physical training, personality
conflicts, and poor weather conditions — of 68 days spent on
K2 (the then-record for longest time spent at such an
altitude) only eight provided clear weather.
Subsequent attempts to climb the mountain in 1909, 1934,
1938, 1939 and 1953 also ended in failure. The 1909
expedition, led by Luigi Amedeo, Duke of the Abruzzi,
reached an elevation of 6,666 m on what is now known as the
Abruzzi Spur (or Abruzzi Ridge). This is considered part of
the standard route today;
An Italian expedition finally succeeded in ascending to the
summit of K2 on July 31, 1954. The expedition was led by
Ardito Desio, although the two climbers who actually reached
the top were Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni. The team
included a Pakistani member, Colonel Muhammad Ata-ullah. He
had been a part of an earlier 1953 American expedition which
failed to make the summit because of a storm which killed a
key climber, Art Gilkey.
In 1977, 23 years after the Italian expedition, Ichiro
Yoshizawa led the second successful ascent to the top. The
Japanese expedition ascended through the Abruzzi Spur route
traced by the Italians, and used more than 1,500 porters to
achieve the goal.
The year 1978 saw the third ascent of K2, via a new route,
the long, corniced East Ridge. (The top of the route
traversed left across the East Face to avoid a vertical
headwall and joined the uppermost part of the Abruzzi
route.) This ascent was made by an American team, led by
noted mountaineer James Whittaker; the summit party were
Louis Reichardt, James Wickwire, John Roskelley, and Rick
Ridgeway. Wickwire endured an overnight bivouac about 150 m
below the summit, the highest that anyone had spent a night
up to that date. This ascent was emotional for the American
team, as they saw themselves as completing a task that had
been begun by the 1938 team forty years earlier.
Another notable Japanese ascent was that of the difficult
North Ridge, on the Chinese side of the peak, in 1982. A
team from the Mountaineering Association of Japan led by
Isao Shinkai and Masatsugo Konishi put three members, Naoe
Sakashita, Hiroshi Yoshino, and Yukihiro Yanagisawa, on the
summit on August 14. However Yanagisawa fell and died on the
descent. Four other members of the team achieved the summit
the next day.
The peak has now been climbed by almost all of its ridges.
Although the summit of Everest is at a higher altitude, K2
is considered a more difficult climb, due in part to its
terrible weather and comparatively greater height above
surrounding terrain. The mountain is believed by many to be
the world's most difficult and dangerous climb, hence its
nickname "the Savage Mountain." As of August 2004, only 246
people have completed the ascent, compared with 2,238
individuals who have ascended the more popular target of
Everest. At least 56 people have died attempting the
climb;13 climbers from several expeditions died in 1986 in
the K2 Tragedy during a severe storm.
Legend once had it that K2 carried a "curse on women." The
first woman to reach the summit was Wanda Rutkiewicz, of
Poland, in 1986. The next five women to reach the summit are
all deceased — three of them died on the way down.
Rutkiewicz herself died on Kangchenjunga in 1992. However,
the "curse" was broken in 2004 when Edurne Pasaban summitted
and descended successfully, and again in 2006 when Nives
Meroi of Italy and Yuka Komatsu of Japan became,
respectively, the seventh and eighth women to summit K2,
both descending successfully.
For most of its climbing history, K2 was not usually climbed
with bottled oxygen, and small, relatively lightweight teams
were the norm. However the 2004 season saw a great increase
in the use of oxygen: 28 of 47 summiteers used oxygen in