American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The Second American Expedition to K2

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  • Publication Year: 1940

The Second American Expedition to K2

Chappel Cranmer and Fritz Wiessner

The Journey to Basecamp

When permission for an American Alpine Club attempt on K2 was granted in December, 1938, the mountain seemed impossibly far away for us to reach by summer. Although our way had been well paved by last year’s party which had reconnoitered the various ridges of the mountain and had accomplished an excellent feat in reaching 26,000 ft. on the Abruzzi Ridge, we had a difficult job ahead of us even to equal their record.

The Indian government is reluctant to grant permission to large parties, which seriously disrupt this poor and barren country economically, and because the small, mobile party had proved itself fully as capable of success as the large; it was determined that the 1939 expedition should be only slightly larger and more elaborately equipped than last year’s. Early in March, Fritz Wiessner, sailed for Europe to join Dudley Wolfe and collect what equipment we had bought over there; and a week later Eaton Cromwell, George Sheldon and I sailed with the rest of the equipment. When two days at sea we received the news that Jack Durrance would meet us in Italy; thus our party of six was complete.

On April 14th, six hot and dusty travellers got off the Frontier Mail in Rawalpindi where our capable agent, Major Lander, advised us to send as much of our equipment as we could ahead of us to Karghil in bond ; so we spent one full day putting together our plywood boxes and packing them and our dufflebags. The following day we motored through the gorge of the Jhelum River into the Vale of Kashmir and arrived in Srinagar in time for tea at the home of Major Hadow to whom we are deeply indebted for assistance in a multitude of ways.

We were to have ten days of skiing, Wiessner having suggested this interlude as a means of acclimatization before starting the long trek to the mountain. We were given the privilege of using the Ski Club of India’s Khillanmarg Hut (10,000 ft.), overlooking the Vale, where the skiing was on perfect spring snow and we had magnificent views of the main range of the Himalayas. When we returned, our nine Sherpas had arrived headed by last year’s leader, Pasang Kikuli, and including three others who were with the 1938 expedition. Also, Lieut. G. S. C. Trench, R. A., had joined the party as transport officer. On the 2nd of May we said goodbye to Srinagar and Major Hadow’s boundless hospitality.

We travelled up the Sind Valley on the ancient road to China. Our second night out we pitched our tents on snow at the edge of the village on Sonamarg, whence a short day of snow walking brought us to the foot of the Zoji La, lowest of the great passes over the Himalayas though over 11,000 ft. Owing to the difficulty of crossing the pass with ponies at such an early date, we had arranged with the government contractor to use coolie transport as far as Dras, and leaving at 1 a.m., we were soon ahead of our heavily laden coolies and climbing slowly up the steep slope of hard snow between dark and towering cliffs. It was three by the time we had reached the top of the pass where we passed a few rough- looking Ladakhis travelling toward Kashmir but it was too early in the season to pass many travellers. We crossed a number of old avalanche tracks before the valley broadened out. Magnificent snow peaks towered all around us, glittering in the moonlight. Ahead lay barren and rugged Baltistan, magnificent but forbidding and a home only to those hardy Baltis who have scraped a living from earth where nothing grew before. The last of the party arrived at the Metayan resthouse by nine o’clock. It had been a tiring march but an unforgetably beautiful one.

One more snow walk brought us to Dras where we paid off our coolies and hired horses. From here to Dassu we used as much horse transport as was available. Wiessner and Trench made a long double stage to Karghil to get the loads which we had sent ahead and to arrange with the Tehsildar for transport to Skardu. Meanwhile we did the two regular stages to a barren campground at Kharal Bridge where we crossed the Dras River. The next day we continued down the river and after a hot and dusty walk which ended with an 800-ft. climb, we sat enraptured in our orchard campground as apricot blossom petals rained down upon us and floated in our teacups. This steeply terraced village of pink blossoms and green fields seemed a fairyland of spring only possible in a poet’s imagination. Late in the afternoon, Wiessner and Trench rejoined us. They had brought the rest of our loads and a Chuprassi (native policeman) whom the Tehsildar had sent to help us with our transport. We now had ahead of us five hot and dusty marches down the Indus Valley to Skardu. We passed though a number of villages but saw no more blossoms for we had descended to a lower altitude and summer weather. A few miles from Skardu, the valley broadened and we had glimpses of high peaks in the direction of the Karakoram, and one we thought might be Masherbrum. Late in the afternoon of the day we arrived in Skardu, the Wazir and Tehsildar called on us along with all the other notable residents of the capital of Baltistan. After lengthy discussion, coolie rates to Basecamp were at last arranged. We were to have another Chuprassi to assist us as far as Askole, the last village, and about twenty-five local coolies were to accompany us to give competition to the Askole men. The following day we crossed the Indus on a big barge which was carried across by the current and some encouragement from the noisy crew. Three more days brought us to the end of the horse trail and the bank of the Braldo River. All blisters were pretty well healed by this time for no more riding was possible. Crossing the river on a zakh, or skin raft, a more seaworthy craft than it looked, we arrived in the little village of Dassu on May 17th and enjoyed our first rest day since leaving Srinagar.

The Braldo Valley between Dassu and Askole is narrow and precipitous; the scenery, the wildest imaginable. The trail led up over huge bluffs and at times followed along the rushing, muddy torrent of the Braldo. These stages brought us to the remote but comparatively prosperous village of Askole, the last we were to see until our return at the end of the summer. All afternoon the coolies argued and shouted about the rates and seemed to have the intention of striking for higher pay, and though the Askole men were very much disturbed at our having brought Skardu men with us, they finally agreed to the rates set by the Tehsildar, and we were ready to make the last few marches to the mountain.

One day from Askole, one of our Sherpas, Pemba Kitar, arrived in camp so ill that we could not take him further. The other Sherpas discussed the matter, and it was finally decide to send him back to Skardu until the doctor there would permit him to come. The following day we had to wade the icy Panman River and continued up the Braldo under threatening skies. It rained the next morning but not for long and the coolies continued willingly and we had our first view of the Baltoro Glacier. Two days of unpleasant walking on the snow and débris covered glacier brought us to Urdukass, the last camp where there was any wood at all. The weather became steadily worse; the following day it snowed; and the coolies were unwilling to continue. This worried us for we had only enough tsampa (roasted barley flour) to keep the coolies for three extra days. If the bad weather lasted longer, they would have to be sent back to Askole and we would lose many precious days for obviously it was impossible to take our hundred loads the three remaining stages ourselves. However, the weather improved, and though the coolies struck for higher pay, they finally changed their minds and there was no change in the rates. We paid off nineteen and the next night camped among the ice ships in the middle of the Baltoro, surrounded by the giants of the Karakorams. As the sun set behind the spires of the lower Baltoro, it cast its last rays on the summits of Masherbrum and Gasherbrum IV. These last three days of the trek we saw some of the world’s most magnificent mountain scenery. The Mustagh Tower, Bride Peak, Golden Throne, Mitre and the others kept us enraptured the whole day through.

At last, on May 31st, we turned the corner onto the Godwin- Austen Glacier and beheld K2. It was a tired but happy party that slept at Basecamp that night. We were at 16,600 ft., at the foot of our mountain and eager to try our strength on it.

C. C.

The Attack

Arrived at Basecamp, our party consisted of Eaton Cromwell, Dudley Wolfe, George Sheldon, Chappel Cranmer, Jack Durrance, Lt. Trench, R. A. (transport officer), myself, 2 Sherpas, 2 Baltis,

Hindu and a cook.

In view of the difficulties experienced by the 1938 party on the Southeast or Abruzzi Ridge of K2, we desired to examine the possibilities of other routes. Vittorio Sella had recommended a study of the N. E. ridge. On June 1st, Cromwell and Pasang Kikuli accompanied me from Basecamp on a reconnaissance up the Baltoro Glacier, and camped at noon opposite the Abruzzi ridge, ascending half way up the peak opposite K2 the next day. With this view we were convinced that the Abruzzi ridge was the better, especially as the N. E. ridge is exposed to the prevailing W. and S. winds. From this point of vantage, we also decided to try to eliminate Camp III (of the 1938 party) due to gangers of rockfall at that location and, returning to Basecamp, we followed a shorter route through a badly broken icefall. (Camp numerology of the 1938 party is followed throughout.)

On our return to Basecamp we found Chappel Cranmer ill with cardiac decompensation. Durrance, with untiring efforts nursed him through the crisis, and six weeks later Cranmer was able with some difficulty to visit Camp I.

With the help of the Sherpas and the two Balti porters, we started packing up to Camp I ; we were pleased at the success of the Baltis, although the Sherpas clearly preferred to have the monopoly of such work ; eventually, then, we paid off the Baltis. Another member of the party, Chandra Pandit, a Hindu from Canon Briscoe’s School in Srinagar, taken along at Major Hadow’s suggestion, was most helpful in our organization.

On June 9th, Jack Durrance, Pasang Kikuli and I set out to find a new, higher, campsite for Camp II, thus to eliminate old Camp III. Taking the first snow couloir W. of Camp I, we gained nothing. The next day most of us climbed over the 1938 route and passing the site of Camp II, established a cache 500 ft. higher when we could not find another campsite. On the 14th, Camp II was established on the 1938 location. On June 17th, after a snowstorm, Cromwell, Durrance and the Sherpas continued above Camp II. The steep, snow-covered rocks made it impossible for them to reach Camp IV as they had planned, so they returned to Camp II. In the following days Sheldon, Wolfe, the Sherpas and I pushed through to Camp III, establishing other caches. Durrance was handicapped by poor boots (his expedition boots not yet having come) in addition to nursing Cranmer, so he could not yet go higher. Using the site of old Camp III as a cache only, we could now proceed right through from Camp II to Camp IV. On June 21st, Durrance (with his new boots), Sheldon, Wolfe, five Sherpas and I started for Camp IV, along the route well described in the American Alpine Journal for 1939 by House, which is less complicated than below Camp II, but exposed to some stonefalls.

The higher one proceeds on the Abruzzi ridge the more broken it becomes, reminding one of the Peuteret Ridge on Mt. Blanc. We found quantities of rope left by the 1938 party, but much of it had to be replaced.

We hoped to eliminate Camp V, as the distance from Camp IV to Camp VI is relatively short ; at this point, while at Camp IV, terrific storms came up, and threatened destruction of our tents, sounding like veritable machine-guns, as the gusts struck the tents.

To describe these days and nights of storm and cold is not within my power. They were terror-inspiring. Finally, on June 25th, came the first break, when three Sherpas arrived from Camp with a worried note from Durrance. On the 29th, the weather seemed clear, and Sheldon with three Sherpas descended to Camp II, while Wolfe, Pasang Kikuli, and myself started for the House Chimney and Camp V. We found the old ropes buried in the deep snow in the Chimney and the first day we only partly cleared the rocks. The second day, Pasang and I reached the top of the Chimney after two hours work, and I can only commend House for his ability in having originally led up this piece of difficult rock climbing. Camp V was then established on the old platform by Wolfe, Pasang and myself. Two days of storm followed.

On July 5th, with 40-lb.-loads, Pasang Kikuli, Tendrup and I started for Camp VI. From Camp VI we could see Nanga Parbat, 120 miles away to the W., where I had been seven years before, and I hoped for a repetition of that year’s beautiful July weather. From Camp VI to Camp VII we found but little of last year’s ropes, and the going over the rocks was slow for six hours. Then a 300-ft. ice traverse, to the site of Camp VII, whence we returned temporarily to Camp VI. Here we weathered another storm, and on July 8th descended to Camps V and IV. In the meantime, since June 21st, Cromwell, Durrance and Lt. Trench had made five relays between Camps I and II, and another to the cache at Camp III. Sheldon had been forced down to Basecamp by frost-bitten toes. Meanwhile word had been sent out to Askole for coolies to be back at Basecamp on July 23rd, it having been agreed that Wolfe and myself, with some of the Sherpas, could stay on the mountain for somewhat longer, as we had ample provisions, the party being, meanwhile, divided into two groups—Durrance, Wolfe and myself on high, Cromwell and Trench at Camp IV or lower, ready to go out with Sheldon and Cranmer on July 24th, even if we were still up on the mountain.

With Camps I to VII thus all well stocked, Wolfe, Durrance and I with two Sherpas moved up again ; on July 12th, going beyond Camp VI, Durrance had great difficulty in breathing. Two hundred yards beyond Camp VI he wanted to return to Camp VI, the rocks being well fixed with ropes, it was altogether reasonable for him to return alone to Camp VI, which he did. Later data shows that Durrance was unable to recover at Camp VI, and soon thereafter descended, leaving no Sahib above Camp IV. However, as Cromwell and Trench were unable to remain as high as Camp IV, there was, in fact, unknown to us above, no Sahib above Camp II. At Camp VII the mountain seemed more friendly towards Wolfe and myself, much of the new snow having disappeared in eight days, and our Sherpas were doing wonderful work.

Camp VII was now well established with eleven loads of supplies. Wolfe, Tendrup, Pasang Kitar, Pasang Lama, and I left films, camera, two tents, two stoves, six quarts of fuel, three sleeping-bags, and twelve days’ food at Camp VII, and started on the 14th for Camp VIII over snowfields to the right of the shoulder ridge. In 5½ hours we made camp, while Tendrup and Kitar returned to Camp VII, to bring more food and two more sleeping- bags the next day. All three of us were in fine condition, Wolfe doing actually better the higher we went, to my delight.

For the next two days, light snow, but not bad like the June storms ; and July 17th dawned clear. Staircase Peak to the E. was already below us, and behind Windy Gap we could see the Shaks- gam Valley and the high snow summits of Turkestan. Broad Peak was still above us to the E. We left camp around 9 a.m. with one tent, sleeping-bags, and fuel for seven days. The snow was soft and very deep. Sinking to our hips, the last 20 ft. up to the bergschrund seemed impossible. That took two hours ! Exhausting was no word for it, but I finally crossed it, with Pasang Lama belaying me. Wolfe, weighing more, found the going even harder ; trying again and again, he finally gave up, and returned to Camp VIII, a short distance below, amply stocked with food and fuel and stove. He had his sleeping-bag with him. He might follow us the next day with Tendrup and Kitar if the snow settled, otherwise he would await the return of Lama and myself at Camp VIII. Crossing the slope to the shoulder of the S. E. ridge, we made camp, a short day’s advance, but a strenuous one. On July 17th we moved camp to the foot of the rock ridge, crossing a place where numerous ice blocks had fallen. This was Camp IX, 26,050 ft. The following day, in fine weather, Lama and I started for the summit. Up over two difficult pieces 500 ft. above Camp IX on the S. E. ridge, we reached the steep reddish wall of a large buttress, 800 ft. higher. Here two routes presented themselves. We could traverse to the E. into a snow gully which headed up under the great ice cliff, the other to the W. of the buttress across steep black rock. Although the ice cliff appeared to be in good condition, we selected the route to the W. of the buttress, in spite of a difficult overhang near its end. Thence over a pronounced ridge onto difficult rotten rock, always working upwards, into a snow couloir cutting in behind the buttress. Eighty feet short of the head of this couloir against the S. ridge was an overhang. There was an escape from this couloir to the W., which I had noted below : a traverse of its steep westerly wall, which would lead to a little snowfield running up towards the S. ridge. This traverse was about 50 ft. in length, but Pasang Lama refused to proceed ; the time was 6.30 p.m., and he preferred to go back to Camp IX, and tackle the summit the next day by the ice gully E. of the buttress. I had been counting for an hour on an all-night climb, as we were both in excellent condition, the weather safe, and the nights light at that altitude. From this point on, the going was clearly much easier and there would be many resting places along the S. ridge, where we could sit. To return now meant we would be forced to negotiate the very difficult rocks and the overhang by night. As Pasang Lama continued to insist on descending, I yielded—he had been a wonderful companion—and there was a good chance that we would find easier going tomorrow in the gully. Later on, I found that Pasang Lama had not at the time realized that our difficulties were to end with the 50-ft. traverse, which we faced—from where he stood he could not see that—and he had not examined the terrain from lower down.

The overhang we descended with a long rappel ; Pasang Lama’s rope tangled in his crampons, strapped to his back ; unstrapping them, he lost them. We reached Camp IX at 2.30 a.m. and many times during that descent I regretted intensely that I had not insisted on continuing over that last short traverse.

The next day, lovely and warm, we stayed in camp, and I lay luxuriously, stripped, on top of my sleeping-bag in the wide open tent. Our highest point the previous day had been about 27,500 ft., a gain of some 1450 ft. above Camp IX, much of it very severe climbing. Setting out then at 8 a.m. on July 21st, we planned to proceed to the E. of the buttress, up the snow gully. No ice had fallen in two days from the ice cliffs ; they were uncracked and in very good condition. From the reddish rocks, where the two routes divide, a 400-ft. traverse to the E. over difficult rotten rock, below the buttress, steep and snow covered, brought us to a short ice chimney ; this chimney ended in 50 ft., some 80 ft. below the end of the ice wall, at the beginning of our snow gully. Step-cutting was necessary—there was a hard icy crust to the snow—had Lama not lost his crampons we would have been saved this ; 400 to 500 ft. of such steps would be necessary. That could not be done in one day. Returning, it was too late when we reached the junction of the two routes under the butress to try the first route again, and we returned to Camp IX early in the afternoon. On July 22nd, we descended to Camp VIII, as our supplies were low, leaving everything at Camp IX except Pasang Lama’s sleeping-bag. Wolfe was much pleased to see us, telling us no one had been up from below. The three or four days’ provisions at Camp VIII we considered insufficient for another summit attempt, so we all decided to continue on down to Camp VII where a large supply of provisions had been left on the 14th. During this descent we had a slip on a short ice slope, on the gentlest part of the route. I was able to catch the fall and after some delay—Wolfe had lost his sleeping-bag in the slip —we reached Camp VII. Utterly unanticipated, we found Camp VII had been largely evacuated. The reserve sleeping-bags, air- mattresses and much of the food had been taken away. One tent was useless, the other still serviceable. In it were some 30 lbs. of food, two stoves, and meta sticks in confusion. We had put in a long day, having left Camp VIII late, and now we were faced with spending the night at 24,700 ft. with one air-mattress and one sleeping-bag between the three of us. It was a miserably cold night. We could not conceive of what had happened to create such a situation ; we could not understand why our reserves had been removed—all sorts of fantastic thoughts crossed our minds. We would be forced to descend to Camp VI for additional supplies and sleeping-bags before attempting the summit again. We still very definitely planned on another summit attack, for the weather remained fine and promised to continue. Wolfe accordingly remained at Camp VII, while Pasang Lama and I started down to Camp VI, leaving our only sleeping-bag with Wolfe at Camp VII, planning to return in two or three days with more Sherpas for the second summit attack. Neither of us for a moment thought this was to be our last sight of each other.

Camp VI, too, we found evacuated ; the tent and some food left, but all sleeping-bags and air-mattresses removed. Piled on top of yesterday’s shock, this was overwhelming ; a doubly difficult blow, as we were not in our best condition after the previous night’s discomforts. Continuing on down, we found Camps V and IV in turn also evacuated. We were completely broken mentally, as well as physically, weak and very, very tired. Even Camp II was evacuated as to sleeping-bags and mattresses ; we took one tent, used it as a cover, and spent another dreadful night there ; our toes, already slightly frostbitten, were suffering severely now. My throat next morning gave trouble and for three weeks I could only whisper, and reached Basecamp that next day (July 24th) as truly broken mentally and physically as men could be. Cromwell and three Sherpas we found on the glacier, having been searching the upper Godwin-Austen Glacier, and they helped us into Basecamp.

I now learned that on July 17th, the day after the light snowfall, Tendrup and Pasang Kitar had descended to Camp IV where Kikuli ordered them back to Camp VII to assist the summit party ; Tsering and Phinsoo meanwhile having been waiting at Camp VI, which camp Durrance had left, ill, on the 14th. Tendrup and Phinsoo then joined Tendrup and Kitar, and they went up to Camp VII. Tendrup calling up to Camp VIII but receiving no answer, convinced the others that we three—the summit party—had been killed high up on the mountain and that they (Tendrup, Kitar and Phinsoo) should salvage what they could—i.e., the sleeping-bags and mattresses, from Camps VII, downwards. This they did, arriving at Basecamp July 23rd, telling the Sahibs at Basecamp that the summit party had been killed. Sleeping-bags and air- mattresses from Camps II and I had been removed at an earlier date, under the belief that there were sufficient sleeping-bags at Camps VI and VII, and that the advanced party would bring down some with them.

On July 25th, Durrance with Dawa, Phinsoo and Kitar went up to bring down Wolfe, but at Camp IV next day both Dawa and Durrance were ill, and returned on the 27th. On the 28th, Tsering and Kikuli started up with sleeping-bags, reaching Camp VI in one day—a magnificent feat. Kikuli, Kitar and Phinsoo went on to Camp VII on the 29th, finding Wolfe completely broken down and his tent in untidy condition. He was unwilling and too weak to descend, and asked them to return on the following day, when he would be ready. The three Sherpas returned to Camp VI that afternoon.

The 30th brought bad weather. The Sherpas went up again to Camp VII on the 31st, to compel Wolfe to descend, or else obtain from him a chit exonerating them from responsibility. Fire signals had been pre-arranged with Basecamp in case of difficulties, but none were observed at any time. A lone figure was seen outside the Camp VI tent on August 2nd; it was Tsering, who returned to Basecamp at noon of the same day. He reported the above, and that nothing had been seen of Kitar, Phinsoo or Kikuli after they had gone up the second time. As they had neither sleeping-bags nor food, it was impossible for the rescue party to have survived in those three nights of intervening bad weather.

On August 3rd, Tsering, Dawa and I, still very weak, set out for the high camps. After searching the glacier we reached Camp I, and, with great effort, Camp II, where we were held by heavy snowstorms for three successive days. Finally we were forced to descend to Basecamp, and on Augus 9th all left for Askole. It was certain that neither our brave Dudley Wolfe, whose determination and ability had grown the higher he went, nor the three unforgettable Sherpas, Pasang Kikuli, Pasang Kitar and Phinsoo, who so gallantly had done their best to rescue their Sahib, could possibly be alive.

They have, as their monument, a more beautiful structure than any man will ever erect, K2.

F. W.

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