American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

K2's West Face

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1982

K2’s West Face

Teruo Matsuura, Waseda University Alpine Club, Japan

In THE PAST, four parties have succeeded in climbing K2, three by the Abruzzi Ridge; only an American party climbed the northeast ridge, though they too traversed to the southeast ridge at about 8000 meters. Attempts had been made on the northwest, the south and the west ridges, but these all failed. A British party led by Christian Bonington attempted the west ridge in 1976, but after losing Nick Estcourt in an avalanche, they abandoned the climb. In 1980 four British climbers, led by Doug Scott, renewed the challenge and reached the height of 7010 meters (23,000 feet), but they retreated from there and changed their route to the Abruzzi Ridge.

On June 6 we left Dassu with 420 porters. We had no porter strikes and reached Base Camp at 17,550 feet on the Savoia Glacier on June 19 with all the 300 porters we still needed. They carried well from the Abruzzi Base Camp to ours, thanks to fixed ropes over the rock and crevassed sections. We gave special equipment to fifteen selected porters, who carried loads to Camp I at the foot of our climb.

On June 20 we started climbing without first resting. The west side of K2 rises impressively from Base Camp for 10,700 feet at an average of 45°. On June 22 we established Camp I at 19,200 feet and on the 26th, Camp II on the col of the west ridge at 21,650 feet. Beyond Camp II we climbed up the ridge on both rock and snow without particular difficulties. At nearly 23,000 feet there was a vertical 1000-foot rock face and so we traversed to the right and then climbed a steep, difficult rock face, some 130 feet in height. We found a loop of rope which must have been left by Joe Tasker of the British party. This was as high as they had climbed. Eiho Ohtani climbed this difficult face successfully on June 30 and sited Camp III there at 23,000 feet, but only after six days of bad weather could we establish the camp on a narrow ledge under overhanging rock where we had to pile up stones to make the campsite wide enough.

Above Camp III there are two large snowfields which are separated by a rock band. We climbed one snowfield along the west ridge. Hideki

Megumi found a route in the rock band. On July 17 we established Camp IV at 25,100 feet above the upper snowfield. From Camp IV our route was via a big Y-shaped couloir in the middle of the west face. We feared avalanche danger there. On July 19, with a thunderous roar, almost all the snow avalanched out of the couloir, just as Harushige Yabuta and Matsushi Yamashita left Camp IV to climb there. Several moments later, the snow and wind blast hit Base Camp. After this avalanche the danger was reduced. The pair climbed an easy rock band above Camp IV and traversed a snow ledge toward the Y Couloir, but they could not enter it because of a 350-foot overhang. They descended 150 feet and traversed for 500 feet under the overhanging rock to the right side of the bottom of the couloir. From there they climbed a 500- foot snow chimney. At last they reached the open snowy couloir above the overhang. They climbed solid snow along the right edge until they reached the fork of the Y Couloir. The left fork was a vertical rock slab. The right side looked easier and was snow. Having found a route to the upper snow band at 26,900 feet, they returned.

Indeed, our route was difficult. We had fixed 5500 meters (18,000 feet) of rope from the start of the west ridge to 8200 meters (26,900 feet). Bad weather made the climb even more difficult. There were 21 days out of the 52 above Base Camp when we could not climb.

After preparing the route from Camp IV to 26,400 feet, we were driven into a corner when it snowed for eleven consecutive days after July 22. We were wasting too much food and fuel. We abandoned our plan for Camp VI at 27,000 feet; Camp V became our final camp. We were forced to adopt rash tactics. Osamu Iwata returned to the climb. He had been tortured by malaria since the march in. Another member suffered cerebral edema and went down to Skardu, where he recovered.

Day after day it snowed. All members of our party were losing their energy after one month at over 23,000 feet. Yet we would not descend to recover for fear of losing even one good climbing day.

On August 2 it cleared at last. On August 3 we established Camp V at 26,400 feet at the fork at the base of the rock face. The next day Megumi and Iwata fixed rope on the vertical rock face above Camp V without using artificial oxygen. Until then we had used oxygen above Camp IV only for sleeping, but on August 5 Ohtani, Yamashita and Pakistani Nazir Ahmad Sabir climbed from Camp V to 27,225 feet using oxygen. They climbed to the upper snow band of the west face and traversed to the south ridge. Now, preparations for the attack on the summit were complete.

At five A.M. on August 6 a three-man attack team, Ohtani, Yamashita and Nazir, set out from Camp V, using oxygen, and a two-man support team, Takao Yonemoto and Yabuta, followed, carrying oxygen cylinders which would be used by the attack team on their way back from the summit. The support team did not use oxygen. The attack team reached 27,225 feet on the south ridge by ten A.M. From there, looking up the ridge, they thought the heavy oxygen cylinders would hamper the delicate task of climbing. So they left them there. They avoided the ridge and turned to the right to climb a mixed rotten-rock and snow face, but it took too long. It was already six P.M. when they got to the top of the face, where they were forced to bivouac at 27,900 feet. It took them three hours to dig a snow cave. They spent a miserable night there, without sleeping bags, oxygen, fuel, food and water.

Fortunately the weather continued good. On the morning of August 7 the sun rose again and warmed them. They found that they were still alive and had energy to climb. Without oxygen, their pace was slow. After four hours, at ten A.M. they had gained only 350 feet. Now Yamashita began to trail behind. As leader, I ordered them by walkie- talkie to start down immediately, in view of the difficulties of the descent. Yamashita answered, “I shall stay here; without me, the others will be able to climb more quickly.” He stopped only 150 feet below the summit. The other two reached the top at 11:30 and at noon began descending, reaching Yamashita half an hour later. They descended rappelling. At eight P.M. they joined the support team at the 26,900-foot bivouac site. They were exhausted, but they returned to Base Camp on August 10. The good weather which had allowed the climb ended at that time. Snow fell for seven days. We had almost been denied success.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Karakoram, Pakistan.

New Route: K2, 8611 meters or 28,250 feet, via West Face; Summit reached on August 7, 1981 (Eiho Ohtani, Nazir Ahmad Sabir).

Personnel: Teruo Matsuura, leader; Takao Yonemoto, assistant leader; Eiho Ohtani, climbing leader; Harushige Yabuta, Matsushi Yamashita, Hideki Megumi, Naoyoshi Ohsugi, Nobuyuki Kinagawa, Ryuichi Takada, Osamu Iwata, Katsumi Sakurai, Dr. Kazuo Saiki, Yoshio Komatsu, Japanese; Nazir Ahmad Sabir, Pakistani.

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