K2—Giant of the Karakorum

Publication Year: 1961.

K2—Giant of the Karakoram

Dave Bohn

Tragic news reached me in late November, for I learned of the death of Günter Jahr, hit by an automobile in Munich while riding his motorcycle. Though Günter spoke no English, and I no German, we shared twelve fine days aboard the Lloyd Triestino “Asia”, accompanying our forty-one crates of expedition equipment through the Mediterranean and the Red Sea to Karachi.

To a most able and friendly climbing companion, then, I dedicate this brief account of the 1960 Karakoram Himalaya Expedition to K2.

We reached Base Camp at 16,400 feet on the Godwin-Austen glacier on June 14 at about 7:30 in the morning. There was a high wind and it was cold and may I never see a more desolate, inhospitable spot on this earth. Half the Sahibs went to work paying off the shivering porters, who then raced away in twos and threes down the glacier toward the Concordia amphitheatre, the Baltoro and, they said, Urdukas that night. The rest of us struggled with the second large tent and the cookstoves, and shortly presented our bankers with a cup of hot orange juice.

Fourteen days earlier we had left Skardu, but space, or rather the lack of it, does not permit me to tell the tale of the march in, to speak here of some of the one hundred characters who carried our equipment for us, nor of some of the thirty who carried food for the porters carrying the equipment, nor even of the final twenty-five who carried food for those porters carrying food for those carrying equipment. Nevertheless, before proceeding with the story, I must mention how excessively grateful we were to our liaison officer, Captain Sharif Ghafur, on that raw day of arrival below the southwest face of K2. You see, we had come all the way from Skardu without a porter strike.

The following day Wolfgang Deubzer and I made a late start for Camp I with nine porters in tow. We tied in at the end of the moraine because there were some crevasses coming up, and Wolfgang shortly thereafter dropped into one up to his waist. Longino, who was behind me, became greatly excited and sprinted past me headed straight for the crevasse to assist. I managed to flag down our impetuous one before he blundered into the same hole, and Wolfgang easily extricated himself. We pushed on through the icefall at the base of the mountain, but it wasgetting late and Taqi wanted to cache the loads at the bottom of the rock slope directly under Camp I. This I agreed to, but the porters, instead of heading back, scattered in all directions looking for old Italian equipment. I was somewhat less than overjoyed at these events, and Taqi very quickly got the point; the treasure hunt was canceled immediately.

On June 19, Taqi was supposed to show Ludwig Greissl and me the route to Camp II, for he had been that far with the Italians in 1954. He pointed the way up a couloir which starts above the rock cliffs behind Camp I. As we struggled for hours with powder snow—on rock slab at times it became all too evident that this was no route over which laden porters or Sahibs could travel. It also became evident Taqi did not really know for sure just where Camp II was, and at five p.m. we threw in the towel, cached our loads at the top of the couloir, and managed to get back to Camp I just at dark. The following day Herbert Wünsche and Günter strung the first of 8000 feet of fixed line as they reached Camp II at 19,100 feet.

We were having trouble with the small two-way radios, and contact with Base Camp was always questionable. I remember dragging out of the tent one morning and crossing to the ridge east of Camp I. There I stood for twenty minutes in the biting wind trying to get through to Lynn Pease, and when I finally did, I could hear about every fourth word. But I was barely able to learn Hayat Shah had arrived from Concordia the night before, and would soon be joining us on the mountain. Thus ended an epic tale of perseverance, for Hayat had waited a full week at the village of Dassu for permission from his own government to travel further, but with infected blisters was forced to return to Skardu and spend several days in the hospital. Finally, the powers-that-be magnanimously allowed him to join the expedition, which was by then very nearly at the mountain. Hayat marched alone to Askole, from Askole to Concordia at the head of the Baltoro with one porter, and the last day alone to Base Camp!

The Italian fixed rope, much of which we used advantageously, held great fascination for our high porters, and they began to amass quantities of it. Makhmal in particular was a devoted scavenger of this item, and I recall the day Lynn was so late in returning after carrying to Camp II. He had passed Makhmal, who was moving slowly because of an injured knee, on the way down, then became alarmed when he was unable to see the porter coming behind him. Lynn, tired as he was, climbed back up over 500 feet and there was Makhmal cleverly removing Italian rope from one of our own pitons! We had a wee lecture next morning, and no more old rope was collected until the mountain was evacuated.

There was at first total agreement that the food we were eating on the mountain—for the most part Army dehydrated—constituted a fine diet. Later on, some opinions changed, and there were discussions over the merit of our rations. I myself do not see how it would have been humanly possible to have obtained a better balanced diet, nor do I know of any way to avoid repetitious meals when in the field for three months. Certainly Bill Hackett deserves great credit for the menu he worked out. I will admit that occasionally a dish did not turn out to be as savory as anticipated, and I remember creating a magnificent casserole of hamburger, string beans, cheese, and red cabbage, which concoction was so salty it went begging. Some days later I discovered the red cabbage was in reality Malwa Tea leaves! Porter rice on the mountain became for some of us a delicacy. Taqi and Asad, huddled in their tent, would prepare it in the pressure cooker, then pass to us a steaming bowl. With the addition of maple syrup (at Lynn’s suggestion) we had what I felt was the taste sensation for K2 1960.

On June 20, Bill and Ludwig established Camp II. A few tattered strands of an Italian tent reminded us of our predecessors on the mountain. In my opinion, this campsite is, from the point of view of rockfall, by far the most dangerous on the Abruzzi Ridge. It is wide open for anything coming down from the Camp III area, and we had several bad moments there as we were shelled from on high. By June 24, Günter and Herbert had completed fixing the lines to Camp III, and on June 27 Ludwig and Günter established themselves there on the tiny shelf at 20,350 feet. The traverse into Camp III was ice, covered with powder snow, made the more uncomfortable because this couloir was a favorite thruway for artillery from above. Taqi, for one, was very nearly hit in the head when in the middle of the crossing.

Camp II had by now become an advance base with two Gerry Himalayan tents, a Klepper tent, a Pionier tent, all oxygen equipment, 5000 feet of manila for fixed rope, about eighty man-days of food, two high porters, and four Sahibs. Living space was at a minimum, obviously, and my left elbow was sore because it was at Camp II that I celebrated my fourteenth straight day of living in the wrong Gerry tent—that is to say, the tent used for communal cooking. Of course, I could have rolled over on the right elbow, but I cannot cook while leaning on my right elbow. This caused problems when Bill and I shared a tent at II because he cannot cook either while leaning on his right elbow.

On the 2nd of July the crowded plateau of Camp II saw much activity for Hayat and I were to move up and establish Camp IV at 21,150 feet, just below House’s Chimney. We were accompanied by Lynn, Taqi, and Asad, and it was a long day. Steps broke out under Lynn at the Camp III traverse, and in deteriorating weather and icy conditions, Hayat peeled off the difficult rock pitch just below Camp IV. However, both these men were clipped in to the fixed lines—which now ran all the way from Camp I—and disaster was averted. With darkness close at hand, Lynn and the two porters dropped their loads below the icy pitch and dashed for Camp II in a snowstorm, while Hayat and I moved on the last yards to the tents, to be met there by Günter and Ludwig who had that day finished stringing the manila up the rotten rock ridge we had just ascended. After ferrying the loads left by Lynn and the porters, these two disappeared into the wind and semi-darkness, leaving us to the flapping tent.

Two days later, in magnificent weather, Hayat and Günter and I ascended House’s Chimney and fixed the ropes to Camp V, where we sat in the warm sun and feasted on 1953 raspberry jam.

The steel cable used by the Italians was still hanging from the top of the chimney, but at the bottom of the rocks it trailed off into the ice. Fighting appalling lassitude, I helped Hayat chop a fifty-foot long trench to free the wire, and later that day we completed rigging a permanent cableway, over which we ran gunney sacks on a pulley—winched to the top of the cliff by a manila line. The same day, good news came from below; Bill’s badly infected heel had cleared sufficiently to allow him to move to IV, and Herbert, who had been at Base recovering from a bad throat, was in Camp II and moving up with Wolfgang and Longino.

At Camp IV, we began to get the perspective of height, for Broad Peak was gradually sinking, and we could see more and more of the vast Karakoram. I well remember the day Hayat and I sat at the top of House’s Chimney for a lunch break, before heading for Camp V with the fixed rope. There was hardly a cloud in the sky, and prominent to the southwest was Masherbrum which for many days had been plagued with bad weather. And Hayat claimed he could see the pyramidal tents of Base Camp on the moraine 5000 feet below, but I accused him of telephoto vision because even with the binoculars I could see nothing.

On July 6, with the weather holding, my Pakistani companion and I staggered late into Camp V with heavy loads, thus establishing ourselves at 22,000 feet.

There were now signs that our benevolent weather was coming to an end, but Hayat, Bill, and Herbert managed to get the route in to Camp VI, at 23,175 feet and on July 10 Ludwig and Günter occupied the orange tent there, bidding a reluctant goodbye to the other three who had to return to Camp V in what was by then a bad storm. In retrospect, it is easy to see that this blizzard did signal failure, for Camp VII was not destined to be established. Violent winds continued unabated on July 11th and 12th, and snow began to build up on the windward side of the tents, further restricting the already crowded living conditions.

Supplies moved up on the next day, with Taqi and Asad, in their clumsy Korean boots, carrying loads to Camp VI with the others, while Ludwig and Günter did a great job of reconnoitering above VI in dangerous ice conditions and high wind. On the 14th of July, Herbert was able to get through to Camp VI, but the weather was too poor for him to return, and then for five days no one could move either up or down as the storms raged. The winds were so high at Camp VI that none of the three men there (all in one tent) could venture outside, not even to relieve themselves. They were forced to use plastic bags for the purpose, and it is not necessary to point out the forbearance needed to cope with such a situation.

On the 30th of July Hayat and Herbert placed fixed rope to the ice traverse below Camp VII, but at just under 24,000 feet, this was the end. Time was running out, and the party was decimated by illness: Ludwig was in Base with fever and kidney trouble, and Makhmal had been there for some time with his swollen knee. I had earlier been forced off the mountain by what was apparently an insistent low-grade virus, which had been with me for over four months.

In the meantime, Lynn and I had left Base for Askole to request porters. We were not in good shape and were carrying heavy packs, but the story of this long, lonely, and physically excruciating hike out is a tale in itself, not to be told here. As the two of us moved on to the Baltoro Glacier at Concordia, we turned for another look at the Mountain; the rest of the Karakoram was clear and still, but the inevitable cloud on K2 hung across Camp VI, and a snow plume from near the summitt testified to the merciless winds above.

Summary of Statistics

Area: Karakoram, Pakistan.

Attempted Ascent: K2, 28,250 feet.

Personnel: Climbing team: Major William D. Hackett, leader; Dave Bohn, Lynn M. Pease, Americans; Wolfgang Deubzer, expedition doctor; Ludwig Greissl, Günter Jahr, Herbert Wünsche, Germans; Hayat Shah, Pakistani. Liaison officer: Captain Sharif Ghafur. High porters: Taqi, sirdar; Asad, Makhmal, Longino.