K2's Magic Line

Climb Year: 1986. Publication Year: 1987.

K2’s Magic Line

Janusz Majer, Klub Wysokogórski, Katowice, Poland

We dedicate our route to the memory of Americans Alan Pennington and John Smolich, Italian Renato Casarotto and Pole Wojciech Wróz, who died while struggling on this “Magic Line.”

OUR EXPEDITION, organized by the Mountaineering Clubs of Katowice and Poznan and the Polish Mountaineering Association, consisted of three ladies, Anna Czerwinska, Krystyna Palmowska and Dobroslawa Miodowicz-Wolf, and five men, Petr Božik from Czechoslovakia, Krzysztof Lang, Przemslaw Piasecki, Wojciech Wróz and me as leader. Lang had to abandon the expedition before arriving at Base Camp.

We had difficulties and delays with the permission and further time lost because of the air-cargo shipment. We reached Skardu only on June 20. Our goal was the south-southwest pillar of K2, known as the “Magic Line.” In 1979 it was attacked by a strong French expedition that reached 8400 meters. Also in 1979 Messner looked at the route and turned instead to the Abruzzi Ridge. In 1981 Japanese Eiho Ohtani and Pakistani Nazir Sabir ascended the upper part of the pillar from 8400 meters to the summit.

In the summer of 1986, aside from our team, there were three other expeditions with permission to try the route: Americans, the Italian Quota 8000 Expedition and the famous Italian solo climber, Renato Casarotto. The American and Italian expeditions got to 6800 meters before John Smolich and Alan Pennington were tragically killed in an avalanche at the foot of the slope below the Negrotto Col on June 20. The Americans gave up the attempt. The Italians also abandoned the pillar, turning to the Abruzzi Ridge instead. Renato Casarotto twice reached 8200 meters on the pillar and on a third attempt also had to retreat. While descending to Base Camp, he perished in a crevasse fall, fifteen minutes above safe ground. Details appear elsewhere in this Journal.

We began climbing on June 22. Working in two groups, one a four-man and the other a three-woman team, we established three camps: Camp I on June 24 on the Negrotto Col at 6300 meters, Camp II on July 6 at 6900 meters and Camp III on July 17 at 7400 meters. The route ascended the De Filippi Glacier and a snow-and-ice slope of 50° to 60° to the Negrotto Col. From there it ascended the pillar on rocky terrain of UIAA IV to V difficulty, interlaced with small snowfields, up to a small hanging glacier at 7400 meters. Steep snow and ice with several rock steps led further to the bottom of a huge couloir on the right edge of the pillar. From the top of the couloir, we climbed 60° ice and snow to mixed terrain. From the top of the buttress at 8500 meters, the route ascended a snow ridge to the summit of K2.

We used the fixed ropes left earlier by the American and Italian expeditions. On July 18 and 19 the four-man team climbed up and fixed rope from Camp III to 7600 meters. We were forced back by the weather. After a spell of bad weather, on the night of July 29 we all left Base Camp for the summit try. Božik, Piasecki and Wróz spent nights at Camps II and III and on August 1 bivouacked at 8000 meters, after fixing ropes from 7600 to 7800 meters. After a night in a bivouac sack and another at 8400 meters, they reached the summit of K2 on August 3 at six P.M. Because of the difficulty of the ascent, they decided to descend the Abruzzi Ridge. The route was partially secured by fixed ropes and there were several camps on the ridge.

At about 11:30 P.M. a tragic accident occurred at 8100 meters. While rappelling on the fixed ropes in the Bottleneck, Wróz fell to his death. The exact cause of the accident is not known. There was a one-meter gap in the fixed ropes between the last two sections of the line. The team was descending in the following order; Piasecki, Božik and Wróz. Only the first had an efficient headlamp. They told each other about the gap in the ropes. Piasecki rappelled the last 50 meters and Božik followed him. They waited for Wróz in order to descend together the remaining section of the route to Camp IV, which had no fixed ropes. Suddenly they heard the noise of a fall. They feared the worst but, exhausted, could do nothing more than to wait. An hour and a half later, a member of the Korean team, which had also reached the summit on August 3, appeared. He had started down after Wróz but never saw him again. At two A.M. Piasecki and Božik got to Camp IV on the Abruzzi Ridge.

Meanwhile, I had joined two of the women, Czerwinska and Palmowska. We bivouacked at 8200 meters with the intention of attacking the peak the next day. Early on the morning of August 4, we received a message about our other group reaching the summit and of the tragedy. We decided to abandon further climbing and to return to Base Camp, evacuating the camps on the descent. The weather suddenly deteriorated. Both teams worked our way down in dreadful conditions: Božik and Piasecki down the Abruzzi Ridge and our group down the pillar. The winds blew a whirling, blinding hurricane: masses of snow constantly threatened to bury us. It was frigidly cold. Both teams returned to Base Camp on August 6 and 8 respectively. Czerwinska and Božik had frozen feet. We were all so exhausted that a few days passed before we recuperated.

Meanwhile, a series of tragic events was taking place on the Abruzzi Ridge, as related elsewhere in this Journal. Dobroslawa Miodowicz-Wolf, whom we called Mrówka [pronounced “Mrufka” and meaning “ant”], had joined with the British climber Alan Rouse on the Abruzzi Ridge, regarding the pillar as too difficult. Without news of the climbers on the ridge, we were preparing a rescue operation in Base Camp. The foul weather and the bad condition of the potential rescuers made it impossible at first. Czerwinska and Božik had frozen feet. Piasecki was exhausted and suffering from retinal hemorrhages. Just as the rescue party was to enter the action, Bauer struggled in from above with the message that Diemberger and Mrufka were following. Palmowska, Englishman Jim Curran and I got up to Advance Base at eleven P.M. and found the completely exhausted Diemberger. The next day Piasecki and Austrian Michael Messner set out to search for Mrufka. Pushing steadily ahead all night and all the next day, they finally climbed to 7100 meters, where she had last been seen. Alas, they came upon no trace of her. Hurricane winds and falling snow, the lack of bivouac gear and the lack of hope that Dobroslawa Miodowicz-Wolf could still be alive caused the rescue operation to be given up. Early on the morning of August 13, Piasecki, Messner and I penetrated the icefields at the foot of the face but found nothing. On August 15, the expedition sadly abandoned Base Camp.

Alas, the new route had been a costly victory. These accidents placed our expedition under a dark and bitter shadow.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Baltoro Mustagh, Karakoram, Pakistan.

New Route: K2, First complete ascent of the South-Southwest Ridge; summit reached on August 3, 1986; first traverse of the mountain (Božik, Piasecki, Wróz). Wróz died on the descent.

Personnel: Janusz Majer, leader, Anna Czerwinska, Krystyna Palmowska, Dobroslawa Miodowicz-Wolf, Petr Božik, Krzysztof Lang, Przemyslaw Piasecki, Wojciech Wróz.