The Northwest Ridge of K2

Publication Year: 1976.

The Northwest Ridge of K2

James Wickwire

ON the Pakistani-Chinese border, K2 rises as a rocky, isolated pyramid to 28,741 feet*, a scant two rope- lengths below the height of Everest. Although K2 is not as frequented by mountaineers as its higher neighbor 900 miles to the east, the six expeditions that have unsuccessfully attempted it—and the only one that succeeded—have written memorable pages in the history of Himalayan mountaineering.

Who can forget the bizarre circumstances surrounding the 1902 Eckenstein expedition on which, among other occurrences, Aleister Crowley, the notorious “Beast 666,” pulled a pistol on another expedition member; the elaborate undertaking of the Duke of Abruzzi in 1909 which first thoroughly explored the mountain’s defenses; the magnificent reconnaissance of 1938 when a small American team led by Dr. Charles Houston, with extremely light resources, very nearly reached the top; Fritz Wiessner’s near miss in 1939 when, but for his reluctant Sherpa companion, Wiessner could have probably climbed without the aid of oxygen through the night to the summit; the remarkable return of Houston, Bob Bates, and the others from the heights in 1953 after surviving a ten-day storm and the accident in which six men were held by Pete Schoening’s belay, and the tragic, but merciful loss of Art Gilkey which enabled the team to retreat to safety; and, finally, Compagnoni and Lacedelli’s amazing oxygen-starved climb to the summit the day after Walter Bonatti’s incredible bivouac at 26,000 feet? After all this, how could one have contemplated climbing K2 without a feeling of awe, a sense of interference with the past?

Since 1960, when a German-American expedition failed on the Abruzzi ridge, no expedition had attempted K2. With the dramatic Nixon overture to China in 1972, which had followed the U.S. “tilt” toward Pakistan in its war with India the previous year, it appeared that once again expeditions might venture to the Baltoro Glacier with its incomparable panoply of peaks—Payu, Masherbrum, Trango Towers, Muztagh Tower, the Gasherbrums, Broad Peak, and K2.

In December 1973, a team composed of Jim Whittaker (as leader), Lou Whittaker, Alex Bertulis, Rob Schaller, Leif Patterson, and myself applied for permission to attempt the unclimbed, and only barely reconnoitered northwest ridge of K2 in the summer of 1975. Unknown to us, a Polish team received permission for K2 in the summer of 1974 but could not field an expedition, due to brevity of notice. Bob Bates, a K2 veteran from 1938 and 1953, and Ad Carter, along with their wives, trekked to the base of K2 that summer, becoming the first persons to approach closely to K2 in fourteen years. To assist us in adding to the meager knowledge of the mountain’s west side, they probed the Savoia Glacier toward the pass at its head which the Duke of Abruzzi and his guides had reached in 1909. Poor weather, however, prevented Bates and Carter from obtaining a clear view of the upper northwest ridge, and, as it turned out, their reconnaissance could not have helped us anyway.

On March 11, 1974, we received the electrifying news from the Pakistani government that we had permission to climb K2! Our application received a big boost from Senator Edward Kennedy, a close friend of Jim Whittaker and, most important, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The ensuing year was a hectic scramble to raise the necessary money, to choose the proper equipment, food, and other supplies (including oxygen), and to round out the team. Early on, Galen Rowell and Fred Dunham joined the climbing team. Dianne Roberts, Jim’s wife, was to be our photographer. Later, Bertulis left the expedition and was replaced by Fred Stanley. Finally, Steve Marts agreed to be our cinematographer, and we had a ten-person team.

At the last minute, NASA agreed to fill our experimental oxygen bottles to a pressure of 4,000 psi, a major boost in capacity over previous systems.

The long flight to Pakistan was a relief after the pressure-packed final stage of preparations. We now had only K2 to worry about—or so we thought. We hoped to avoid a lengthy stay in Rawalpindi, the former military garrison town in northern Pakistan at the foot of the Himalaya. But poor flying weather kept us pinned down for two weeks. By the time we boarded a Pakistani Air Force C-130 for the spectacular flight to Skardu, virtually all of us had succumbed to one form of diarrhea or another.

Flying past ice-festooned Nanga Parbat and the desert valley where Skardu is located, we continued on to K2 for an aerial reconnaissance. Approached from the west, K2 is a classic pyramid. Its ridges though are much steeper than its Egyptian counterparts. All of us were surprised at the amount of rock showing. Unlike the snowy southern and eastern aspects of K2, seen from the west, the peak is a forbidding rock monolith. Border restrictions kept us in Pakistan air space, which prevented our seeing the lower portions of the northwest ridge where we knew good luck would be necessary to get by some ferocious-looking gendarmes at 23,000 feet. Lou Whittaker thought he saw a snow ramp past the gendarmes on the Chinese side but couldn’t be sure.

Our return to Skardu, the traditional jumping-off point for expeditions to the Baltoro, seemed anticlimactic. K2’s awesomeness lingered on. We hoped to see K2 again from the ground in two weeks, but it was to be nearly a month before we walked into Concordia, that vast meeting place of glaciers from which K2 rises in its classic thrust eight miles to the north.

In the interim, we were plagued by more than our fair share of misfortune. Pakistan International Airlines off-loaded 62 boxes of our expedition gear in Rawalpindi, including most of the precious oxygen. This delayed us from leaving Skardu, making a 57-mile Jeep ride to Dasso, and beginning the 120-mile hike to K2. Once the missing equipment arrived, things went reasonably well until we reached Askole, the last permanent village in the Braldu river valley, three days’ march from the snout of the Baltoro Glacier. There we learned that 200 additional porters programmed to carry atta, lentils, tea, and fuel for our 600 approach porters were not available. A late spring which kept most of the Askole men at work tilling their sparse fields prevented Major Man- zoor Hussain, our liaison officer, from mustering more than 75 men. Instead of progressing toward the mountain as a single, advancing party, we now faced the discouraging prospect of load-shuttling, a game that can only mean delay.

At Payu, a couple of miles from the Baltoro, we had our first real taste of the Balti tactics that would keep the question of our ever reaching K2 unanswered to the last. Overcast skies became a pretext for a sitdown strike and the porters’ demand for additional rupees not covered by the government regulations we thought we could rely upon. The regulations soon ceased to have any relevance, except, for instance, when it came to our obligation to provide medical assistance to the porters.

The remainder of the approach march, which should have been a stirring walk through perhaps the most spectacular mountain valley in the world, was instead an almost continual hassle of porter strikes and demands for higher wages. At each halt along the way, we thought the expedition might never reach its objective. With the sickness of Ghulam Rasul, the porters’ sirdar, our liaison officer was unable to maintain steady movement toward the mountain. Miscalculations about the amount of porter food necessary only added to our troubles.

At Ghoro, one stage short of Concordia, we were at a complete standstill. Strong measures were called for. After over three hours of negotiations without success, we threatened to burn all the equipment and money. The next day the porters carried.

During the entire approach, Rob Schaller performed heroics in treating the sick and ailing porters and village people. Each day would find Rob engrossed for several hours in dispensing most of the 20,000 aspirin we brought with us, as well as dealing with more serious medical problems. As a result of his close contact with the porters, Rob came down with bronchitis, which he was never fully able to shake for the duration of the expedition. Worse, Leif Patterson and Galen Rowell were later burdened with the same problem, which deteriorated into pneumonia.

Base Camp was finally established on June 5 at 17,600 feet on the Savoia Glacier, about three weeks behind the schedule originally set. Within two days, Camp I was located at 19,000 feet, on the first rise above the main Savoia Glacier. Above was a steep ice face leading to Savoia Pass. The maps showed the pass elevation at 21,870 feet; we were disappointed after climbing the ice face to discover it was only 20,500 feet, leaving a much greater vertical distance to the summit. Lou Whittaker and I probed above the pass, hoping to find a passage past the pinnacles on the north side. Edging out on the cornice, I could see only a sheer drop to the glacier 6,000 feet below. Discouraged, we retreated. Three days later, another probe to the left yielded no better result. A reasonable route did not exist on the Chinese side of the ridge.

Camp II had meanwhile been established in a hollow below the crest of the pass on the north side. Wind was a constant nemesis there, even in good weather. Our only remaining choice was to try the right side of the broad slope above us, with a possibility we might turn pinnacles on that side, along the top, or perhaps on the Chinese side (but higher up than the earlier probes).

Deep avalanche-prone snow lay between Camp II and the steeper face. We worked hard plowing through but were then rewarded with our most enjoyable climbing of the trip. With support from Rob Schaller and Steve Marts (who quickly became more than cinematographer), Lou and I climbed the 45° to 50° face for several hundred feet, strenuous climbing on hard ice overlaid with unstable snow. Coming up a last steep snow gully, I emerged on the ridge at 21,500 feet. Towering above was the summit pyramid of K2, but to reach it we still had to negotiate the pinnacles. The route led left up a shallow snow gully flanked by rock outcrops, but deteriorating weather forced us down.

For five days we were pounded by high winds and driving snow. Nearly out of food and fuel, we made a dash for Base Camp as the storm petered out. Leif had made a remarkable recovery from his bout with pneumonia and was eager to go higher. He went back up to Camp II with Jim, Lou, Steve, and me. In another day of climbing above Camp II, we could push the route only another 150 feet. Another storm blew in, and we were pinned down for another five days.

Jim descended to Camp I following a sober discussion among us with the inescapable conclusion that our chances for the summit were growing very slim. With Galen and Rob knocked out completely with pneumonia and bronchitis, and the two Freds suffering from minor ailments, our climbing strength was greatly reduced. The high-altitude porters had not performed well; only three of them made it as far as Camp II, forcing us to rely on a winch system to get loads up the ice face. It was now July, and the storms and resultant delays left us a long way from the summit.

In any event, we decided to push the route farther, hoping for a breakthrough which would negate our pessimistic assessment. On July 3, the storm blown out, Lou, Leif, and I climbed back up the fixed ropes. Steve followed to film. I was able to finish the steep gully with a couple of hard moves on the near-vertical rock at its top. Above the difficulties, I could see from a narrow ridge of snow that climbing or circumventing the pinnacles was out of the question. First Lou, then Leif, came up. Each of us recognized the inevitable: the expedition was at an end. Ahead, the pinnacles were silhouetted against the mass of K2. The slopes on either side were in excess of 70° for several thousand feet. At 22,000 feet, perched on the narrow top of the first pinnacle, we could go no higher. There was not sufficient time to withdraw and start anew on the west-southwest ridge, which splits the west face of K2.

The return trip was pleasantly uneventful, except for two medical emergencies. Our best high-altitude porter, Akbar Ali, became gravely ill from round-Worm infestation. His intestine became perforated, and only Rob’s round-the-clock efforts kept him alive. We evacuated Akbar to Concordia, where a requested military helicopter was to pick him up. It never came, but the sick porter gradually recovered his strength. Later, just beyond Dokass, one of the 80 porters who carried out our loads became deathly sick from a perforated ulcer. Again, Rob was successful in keeping him alive. Most remarkably, the helicopter that had been requested for Akbar came to Payu just when the newly sick porter reached there. He was flown out to Skardu and survived.

All of us believe that the northwest ridge of K2 is not a feasible route to the summit. The only possible alternative to the pinnacled ridge would be a dangerous face climb and traverse to reach the ridge above the pinnacles. On the mountain’s west side, the best route, given our experience with the northwest ridge, is the west-southwest ridge. It is no easy proposition, with some very difficult climbing in the last 3000 feet to the summit.

* Mr. Rajput of the Survey of India confirms 28,741 feet or 8760 meters as the newly accepted altitude of K2.