American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Ascent of K2

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  • Publication Year: 1956

Ascent of K2. By Prof. Ardito Desio. Translated by David Moore. 239 pages, 57 illustrations, 3 maps in text. London: Elek Books. Printed in Holland, 1955. Price 21 s.

The most massive assault on any major peak in the history of mountaineering, hindered by worse than average weather, barely succeeded in putting two men on the summit of K2 late in the afternoon of July 31, 1954.

The English translation of this readable book is adequately illustrated. There are brief appendices at the end, a diary covering the period of organization as well as the expedition itself, but no index. Considerable scientific work was accomplished in addition to the actual mountaineering.

The climbing party, mostly professional guides, was chosen only after the most searching physical examinations and rigorous field tests in the high Alps. No Himalayan expedition before has had practically unlimited financial resources and such elaborate equipment, 16 tons of which was shipped from Genoa, all assembled in four months.

The most extraordinary phenomenon seen was a huge new glacier, formed when a great ice mass slid off Haramosh into the Kutiah valley, causing death and destruction, and threatening the entire Stak valley 40 miles northwest of Skardu. In 1953 this glacier is said to have increased its length eight miles in three months.

The leader, Ardito Desio, professor of geology at the University of Milan, was 57. Compagnoni, who reached the top, was 40, and his companion Lacedelli, 29. The other climbers ranged in age from 24 to 47, to average 33.

The actual story of the approach and attack on the mountain followed much the familiar pattern and is well recounted. Most of the 500 porters deserted when the Baltoro Glacier was reached. Smaller groups of porters were recruited, and with the help of a few Boltis and Hunzas and the climbers themselves Base Camp was established at the end of May. Placing camps up the Abruzzi ridge took all of June and most of July. Bad weather, and the death of Puchoz, one of the strongest climbers, at Camp 2 from pneumonia, and various minor accidents, delayed progress. Parties and individual climbers moved up and down the mountain, using the fixed rope almost as a trolley.

Luck was with Compagnoni and Lacedelli the last two days. July 30 at Camp 8 (25,400) the weather was perfect. In powder snow up to their waists and after climbing formidable rock pitches, they made Camp 9 at 26,500 feet. Two others, Bonatti and Mahdi, trying to bring up more oxygen and food, were benighted without shelter at 26,200 feet. On July 31, Compagnoni and Lacedelli had first to go down 300 feet to recover the extra oxygen, then, carrying 42 pounds each they started up. The rock had much more snow and ice than when Wiessner had been on it 15 years before. The climbing on rock, ice, and snow was difficult at times. The oxygen gave out, but acclimatized as the two men were this did not stop them, nor did they even throw off the heavy equipment. The cold became intense late in the afternoon—they estimated it at perhaps 40° below zero, but fortunately the air was almost still. At 6 P.M. they reached the summit in clear weather. On the descent both men had falls, but were only badly shaken. At Camp 8 three other climbers and two Hunzas were there to meet them, and next day all started down together.

Desio comments at the end that the margin between success and failure may have been supplied by the party’s mental attitude. They had set out with the object of conquering K2 and not merely making an attempt. That and perhaps their great reserves of manpower and equipment, plus luck with the weather at the climax (after much earlier buffeting) resulted in well deserved success.

Henry S. Hall, Jr.

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