American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

K2—The North Ridge

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1991

K2—The North Ridge

Steven J. Swenson

The afternoon was fine, and nothing interrupted my view of the great amphitheatre about me. The cliffs and ridges of K2 rose out of the glacier in one stupendous sweep to the summit of the mountain, 12,000 feet above. The sight was beyond my comprehension, and I sat gazing at it, with a kind of timid fascination … I saw ice avalanches, weighing perhaps hundreds of tons, break off from a hanging glacier, nearly two miles above my head; the ice was ground to a fine powder and drifted away in the breeze long before it reached the foot of the precipice, nor did any sound reach my ears … Sitting alone gazing at the cirque forming the head of the K2 glacier was an experience I shall not forget; no mountain scene has impressed me more deeply.

Eric Shipton, Blank on the Map, 1938

MY FIRST DIRECT EXPERIENCE with K2 was in 1986 when I was invited by Lance Owens to participate in an American expedition to the north ridge from the Chinese side. Although the north ridge had been climbed first by the Japanese in 1982 and by an Italian expedition the next year, the route still impressed me as one of the most striking lines on the mountain.

In 1986 we employed a traditional expedition style by fixing ropes and establishing camps to 7800 meters. George Lowe, Alex Lowe and I reached our high camp on August 3. That night George developed high altitude pulmonary edema, probably from his extreme efforts breaking trail, fixing rope, and carrying loads for the team. George refused assistance and descended alone that night to give Alex and me a chance to reach the summit the following day. On August 4, Alex and I attempted to get to the summit but turned around at 8100 meters because of an approaching storm and slow progress in bad snow conditions. David Cheesmond, Catherine Freer and I made another summit attempt in mid-August after the other expedition members had left. We were turned around at 7500 meters when a new storm engulfed the mountain. Not until we returned to Kashgar did we learn of the tragic events that had occurred on K2 that season from the Pakistan side.

The following year, in 1987, I returned to K2 from the Pakistan side. Together, Greg Child, Phil Ershler and I made several alpine-style attempts to climb the south face. By using lightweight tactics we were able to move very quickly and could take advantage of small windows of good weather. In spite of the newly acquired speed and efficiency, we had no chance to climb K2 that year. We returned home after almost 50 days at or above Base Camp during which there had been not more than 18 hours of continuous good weather.

During the 1987 expedition we received word that David Cheesmond and Catherine Freer had disappeared while attempting the second ascent of the Hummingbird Ridge on Mount Logan. I had become very close friends with David and Catherine when we attempted K2 the previous year. Learning of the tragedy while I was on the same mountain we had tried so hard to climb helped me to accept the loss. With the repeated attempts to climb K2 in 1986 and 1987, the mountain had assumed a special significance for me which David and Catherine were now part of.

While we were flying back from the 1987 trip it wasn’t too difficult to convince Greg Child and Phil Ershler that a return to the north ridge of K2 should be considered. I pursued the permit shortly after we arrived home and by early summer 1988, the Chinese had agreed to grant us permission for the route in 1990. I was disappointed to learn that both George Lowe and Alex Lowe would not be able to join us because of job commitments. To complete the climbing team, Greg Child invited Greg Mortimer of Sydney, Australia. Although I had never met him, I knew him by reputation from his ascent of a new route on the north side of Everest in 1984 with a small team and without using oxygen. Three more Australians eventually joined the group including Margaret Werner, Peter Kuenstler, the expedition doctor, and Lyle Closs.

On the north side of K2, all the expedition loads are carried to Base Camp on camels. Because the camels are not able to walk on the ice, they can only carry loads to the snout of the North K2 Glacier. The snout of the glacier is about 12 miles from where Base Camp would be if porters could be used. As we were to learn later, if the water levels are too high in the river coming from the North K2 Glacier, then the camel drivers will not go past Sughet Jangal, which is nearly 16 miles from K2. To help us carry the loads from wherever the camels stopped to the base of the mountain, we employed four Pakistanis. Two of the Pakistani members, Ghulam Rasool and Fida Hussein, had cooked for us on K2 in 1987 and had worked for Greg Child on his Nameless Tower Expedition in 1989. In addition to Rasool and Fida, Nazir Sabir arranged for us to employ two Hunza men, Anwar and Sarwar Khan.

The Australian contingent was already ahead of us by several days when we arrived in Beijing just after midnight on June 12. Because we were concerned about rising water levels in the Shaksgam River on the approach to K2, we tried to keep moving across China as quickly as possible. We were able to leave for Urumchi that night. At Urumchi, we met our liaison officer, Zhou Xing Lu.

The next day we flew to Kashgar where we met up with the expedition members from Australia and our interpreter, Ma Xun Kui. With most of our local food and equipment already purchased by the Australians, we drove to Yecheng and then to the roadhead at Mazar Dala where we arrived on June 18. At the roadhead we helped the six camel drivers divide our supplies into loads for the 30 camels we had previously ordered. Since the loads averaged a little more than the allowable 80 kilograms, we agreed to pay extra wages by allowing the drivers to document the use of two more camels than we actually had. The drivers could then collect additional funds from the local mountaineering association for carrying the extra weight.

The first three days of the walk to Base Camp were uneventful, with the exception of having to remove an abscessed molar from Sarwar’s mouth. The final three days of the approach took us down the Shaksgam River, which meanders through a half-mile-wide gravel flood plain in a valley flanked by steep rock walls. A crossing of the river is required each time a channel crosses the valley width and runs against a cliff at each side. Several crossings each day are necessary because the channels snake from one side of the valley to the other at frequent intervals. In early spring before the summer snowmelt begins, water levels in the river are very low. But warmer temperatures in the late spring and early summer cause increasingly larger volumes of snowmelt so that by July the river is in flood stage and becomes impossible to cross. Since our approach was in late June, I was quite nervous about what we would find when we reached the Shaksgam. The Chinese had already warned us that the weather had been quite hot and the rivers could be high. We soon discovered their predictions were well founded.

On June 22 we crossed the Aghil Pass and descended to the Shaksgam. The river was deeper than in 1986. Greg Child and I slid down a gully through a wall of morainal debris that lined the canyon and walked up to the waters’ edge. I threw large stones into the rapid current and listened in vain for the quick thud that would indicate a shallow bottom. I waited in quiet despair as the remainder of the expedition arrived. I seriously believed that the expedition might be turned around before ever even seeing the mountain.

Mr. Zhou was not quite so discouraged, and he led us downstream to where the river broke up into a number of channels. Leading the first camel train, Mr. Zhou found a way across. The rest of us followed. The water was swift and above our waists in places. To stay upright we linked arms in groups of three or four and crossed each channel diagonally so the current could help move us along. The four Pakistanis were quite accustomed to these difficult crossings, and they were invaluable both in choosing places to cross and in teaching us the techniques required to get across safely.

For the next two days we lived in constant anxiety that we would come to some channel that we could not cross and the camel drivers would refuse to continue. On June 24, we rode on the camels across the Shaksgam for the last time. We took a shortcut over the end of a ridge that gave us our first view of K2 and of the normal Base Camp at Sughet Jangal. We felt confident we had overcome the most significant obstacles on our approach until we arrived at the river that emerges from the North K2 Glacier. This crossing was a mere boulder hop in 1986, but this year we were dismayed to find that it would be our worst crossing yet. The river was not wide, but it was steeper and the current was swifter than anything we experienced on the Shaksgam. We could hear the muffled sound of large underwater boulders crashing their way downstream. It would be impossible to wade this channel, so each of us was assigned a precarious perch atop a load strapped to the back of a camel. All I could do was to grip the ropes holding the load as the camel lurched through water up to its belly. I felt helpless. Our lives were completely dependent upon the skill and strength of the animal beneath us and the drivers’ ability to lead them.

One of the younger drivers, Rasool, Greg Child and I rode on the first camel train to go across. We watched in horror when halfway into the channel the camel behind me with Rasool aboard lost its footing and was swept away. Both Greg’s and my camel’s lead ropes became severed from the rest of the train. We had to drive the animals to the other side by reaching back and hitting them on the rear. I reached the opposite shore just behind the camel driver. The driver and I ran downstream to help Rasool who was fortunate to have stopped on some rocks near the bank. Rasool was standing in the current holding the camel’s head out of the water so it wouldn’t drown. The driver and Rasool cut the ropes holding the load onto the camel and I threw the luggage onto the bank. After being relieved of its load, the camel was able to get up and walk to shore.

After witnessing this near disaster, the remaining camel drivers refused to come across. Since peak flows in the river come late in the afternoon, the drivers decided to try again early the next morning when water levels might be lower. We set up a rope crossing farther downstream for the team members, and several more made it across before the river level rose. For those of us that made it across that day Anwar was able to articulate our feelings in a few simple words, “Today Rasool’s luck number.”

The next morning the remaining camels made the dangerous crossing through the still swollen river without incident. Having arrived safely at Sughet Jangal was not the end of our problems with camel loads. The expedition logistics depended upon the camels carrying loads to our Base Camp at the snout of the North K2 Glacier. The normal route to our Base Camp from Sughet Jangal is to walk up the river we had just crossed. Because of the deep water, the camel drivers refused to take their animals that way. Based on my previous experience with the area in 1986, I thought there might be a way for the camels to carry loads up the hill behind Sughet Jangal and then down the other side to the glacier. Late that day, Greg Mortimer and I were able to make an incomplete reconnaissance up the hill. This trip led us to believe the route could get us close if not all the way to the glacier.

We managed to convince the camel drivers to wait an extra day at Sughet Jangal before carrying loads over the hill towards our Base Camp near the glacier. With a sense of urgency Lyle Closs and I left that morning with pick and shovel to build a trail while we finished exploring the route. We didn’t have the time to finish our reconnaissance prior to building the trail. The camel drivers were anxious to leave before the rising floodwaters blocked their exit. They would carry for us the next day or not at all.

We were lucky to find a route safe enough for the camels that could get us within a mile of our Base Camp. We arrived back at Sughet Jangal late that night where the rest of the team had sorted and repacked the loads to be carried to Base Camp. Most of the team left early the next morning to finish building the last section of trail before the camels arrived. By the end of the day all the camel loads arrived at the designated dump and we carried enough gear down a steep lateral moraine to establish Base Camp on June 26 at the snout of the North K2 Glacier.

By June 29, we had moved all our gear from the camel dump to Base Camp and we began to carry loads up the glacier towards Advanced Base Camp (ABC) at 4900 meters. By July 3, we had carried up enough supplies to occupy ABC. Over the next several weeks the four Pakistanis finished the remaining load carrying on the glacier. Near our ABC at the head of the glacier we met a Japanese expedition attempting a new route on the north face to the right of our route on the north ridge. They had arrived 44 days before at Sughet Jangal and had already established two glacier camps plus their Camp II at 6700 meters.

Late that first night we were awakened by a large avalanche that fell from the north face. The next morning we learned that the Japanese Advanced Base Camp had been destroyed by the slide. Fortunately no one was killed, but two Sherpas were seriously injured. Peter assisted the Japanese doctor in treating the injured, and he helped evacuate the most severely injured man to Sughet Jangal. On the north side of K2 an injured climber cannot be evacuated after the river floods. Fortunately, the injured men were able to recover during their long convalescence without the need for elaborate medical treatment. An expedition to this area must be completely self sufficient because rescues, evacuations, and medical assistance from the Chinese are not available.

Our plan was to fix rope up to our Camp II at 6700 meters. From there we would climb without fixed ropes or camps. Rope was fixed to Camp I at 5800 meters by July 5 and the camp was occupied on July 8. Stormy weather kept us at ABC and prevented us from making quick progress towards Camp II. But on July 24 we finished fixing rope and occupied Camp II. After completing acclimatization we would be ready to begin our summit attempts.

Our acclimatization plan included two trips high on the mountain. On our first trip we spent July 25, 26, and 27 at Camp II, and we explored the route to 7200 meters. On the second trip we spent one more night at Camp II and explored the route to the site of our bivouac Camp III at 7600 meters. We completed the second trip and our acclimatization program by August 3. During our explorations above Camp II we discovered that much of the rope that was fixed in 1986 was still usable by tying knots around frayed sections and splicing in a few bits of new rope where necessary. Although we had not planned to fix rope above Camp II, we did use the existing rope between Camps II and III.

After another period of stormy weather, both Gregs, Phil and I began our first summit attempt on August 9. Now that we were acclimatized, we would go directly from ABC to Camp II the first day. This plan would allow us to summit on the fourth day. As we would discover later, this could make the difference between success and failure since we rarely experienced good weather exceeding four days. On August 10, the weather was unsettled, so we spent another night at Camp II. We passed the day on August 11 wading in deep snow to Camp III. I slept poorly that night because of a sore throat and bad coughing. Greg Mortimer had been very strong, breaking most of the trail to Camp III, but he felt sick the next morning. He accompanied us toward Camp IV, but during the day he moved quite slowly and fell behind.

Two Japanese climbers had reached the summit on August 9. With our permission they had crossed onto our route on the north ridge at about 7700 meters and had fixed rope to approximately 8100 meters. On our attempt, we used the Japanese rope that was left in place. By six P.M. Beijing time, Greg Child and I reached 7800 meters. We planned to climb another 200 meters that day to our Camp IV bivouac, but high winds and an approaching storm forced us to retreat. We spent another night at Camp III before descending the next day on August 13 to ABC.

After only two stormy days the weather dawned clear. Although this didn’t give us much rest from our previous summit bid, we knew we must take advantage of our opportunities as they came. The four of us waited for one day of sunny weather so that the new snow on the slopes to Camp II would slide off or consolidate. On August 17, we once again made the trip to Camp II, this time with Anwar and Sarwar helping to break trail. Because of a misallocation of personnel, Anwar and Sarwar had not yet been above ABC at 4900 meters and were not acclimatized. In spite of this they were eager to help us as best as they could. Anwar had to turn around at 6400 meters because of a headache. Sarwar continued almost to Camp II before I sent him back down to accompany Anwar to ABC. Before heading down he apologized for not being able to go above Camp II because he had to go down to help Anwar. He clasped both my hands and said, “But, sir, I want to go higher. I’m very sorry, sir. Insh’Allah you will reach the summit. It will be a very happy day if you make the summit.” I was sad to see him disappear down the ropes. He deserved more, given the work he had done to help us.

On August 18, we climbed to Camp III with relatively good snow conditions. On the radio, Rasool gave us a favorable weather forecast from Radio Skardu and an enthusiastic cheer concerning our progress. We donned our down suits the next day as we headed for Camp IV. The ridge had been almost completely blasted free of snow by the wind and we had to be very careful not to knock loose rocks on each other. At 7800 meters we crossed the ridge where previous expeditions had placed their high camp. We continued with a traverse left onto the glacier through deep snow. By late that evening we arrived at 8000 meters where the Japanese had left a tent when they went to the summit eleven days earlier. Rather than dig a new platform, we all piled into the old tent after digging it out. The tent was too small for the four of us. Snow was blowing in the tunnel door, but closing it cut off our already meager air supply. Dry cracked throats, coughing, hacking, panting for air and wet cramped conditions all prevented us from getting adequate sleep for the task that lay ahead tomorrow.

On August 20 we began our preparations several hours before dawn. At eleven A.M. Beijing time, all four of us left the tent and traversed straight left across the top of the glacier to where we crossed the bergschrund into the summit couloir. This traverse, as well as the bergschrund crossing, was still fixed with Japanese rope. A few hundred feet above the bergschrund the fixed rope ended and we proceeded unroped up the 45° to 50° neve. We climbed to where there was a branch in the snow couloir that angled left to the summit ridge. We followed the left fork and arrived on the summit ridge at the edge of the north face at around six P.M. Beijing time. High cirrus clouds had been building all day and from our new vantage point we could see the oncoming storm. I noticed that Phil was not behind us and the two Gregs said that he had turned around. I learned later that Phil had decided to descend at 8400 meters because he felt the personal risks were too great and the hour was too late to reach the summit and descend before dark.

We reached the top of the north face by seven P.M. and were disappointed to see that we still needed to gain several hundred more feet before we reached the top. Greg Child expressed some doubts about reaching the summit and getting back down before dark. I cached my second ice tool and fanny pack there and told him I would give myself another hour before turning around. I pushed myself to move as quickly as possible along the final part of the summit ridge so that I would reach the top within my allotted period. At 7:56 I walked from the last false summit to where I could see no higher ground.

Standing on the summit of K2 was not the euphoric experience that I had dreamed it would be. I felt a dull sense of accomplishment that was mostly overshadowed by the relief of not having to go any further.

Hypoxia took the edge off everything as if a translucent screen had been pulled over my senses. The storm moving in from the southwest had already obscured the summits of all the big mountains in Pakistan. I felt pressed for time since there were only two-and-a-half hours of daylight remaining and a long steep descent to our high camp was still ahead of me. I spent only a few minutes there alone before beginning the descent. After three K2 expeditions which consumed almost a year of my life, having climbed K2 didn’t seem very important to me. All I could think about was getting down.

The descent was easy at first. I met Greg Child only a few minutes from the top. My first impulse was to go back up with him to verify that I had really been to the summit. I was afraid he would tell me later the true summit was just beyond where I had been. In the interest of self-preservation I resisted this urge and when I asked him what he was going to do he mumbled he would go to the top and wait there for Greg Mortimer. He suggested they might have to bivuoac on the way down. Later I passed Greg Mortimer who was about one half hour from the summit.

I collected my ice tool and fanny pack where I had left them on the way up. As I reached into my fanny pack to get my headlamp for the descent, I noticed I had forgotten to remove two small palm crosses I had intended to take to the summit. Lance Owens, the leader of our 1986 trip, had given these to me before I had left the United States with a request that I leave them at a suitable spot on the mountain in memory of David and Catherine. I released the two small objectsfrom my bag and watched them blow away into Pakistan. I paused a few moments thinking I had shared something great with them today, and then resumed my rush downward.

From the ridge crest I traversed over to where I could begin to back down the main summit couloir. Backing down the first three-quarters of the face went quickly, but the last several hundred feet demanded the utmost concentration given the steep terrain and my state of hypoxia and exhaustion. I arrived back at our high camp an hour after dark. Phil was already there melting snow. I expressed my concern about the two Gregs and wondered if they could survive a bivouac if this storm broke tonight. After a warm drink I dozed off.

About an hour after I arrived at camp the two Gregs appeared out of the dark. They had somehow found their way back using Greg Child’s headlamp. Our second night at Camp IV was no better than the first, given our cramped conditions. During the night the storm had broken and by morning there was almost a foot of new snow. After melting enough snow to allow each of us a small drink we ran out of fuel.

The descent to Camp II that day was almost as difficult as the summit day given the bad conditions and lack of water. At Camp II there was plenty of food and fuel and we sufficiently rehydrated ourselves to continue the descent on August 22.

We dropped out of the storm clouds just above Camp I, and for the first time since leaving the summit I could see the glacier below. Greg Mortimer and I arrived at the abandoned Camp I site and waited for the others. As we left the camp, I spotted a line of figures advancing up the glacier below. For the past several days I had been completely preoccupied with our ascent and safe descent of K2. The figures on the glacier below brought me back to the living world I had lost touch with. I suddenly realized the significance of what we had accomplished. I paused for a minute while the stress of the previous days’ events evaporated and my anxiety was replaced by an overwhelming surge of emotion. It was a very happy moment for me. I stood holding onto the fixed rope and wept.

Throughout the ensuing days of load carrying down the glacier and the walk out, I entertained doubts about having been at the actual summit. Had I missed some slightly higher point further along the ridge? For some reason my doubts were not dispelled by the two Gregs who verified my description of the summit area.

K2 cannot be seen from the Aghil Pass since the view to the southwest is blocked by intervening ridges. From high on K2 I noticed that it might be possible to obtain a view of the mountain from near the pass by climbing partway up several peaks to the east. Arriving at the Aghil Pass on the way out, I felt a need to climb up the slopes east of the pass and search the horizon for a final view of K2. After climbing several hundred feet, I became increasingly excited as the north sides of first the Gasherbrum group and then K2 gradually came into view. As I gained elevation, more and more of K2 became visible and I continued up as far as I could go before the climbing became technical. From my vantage point I could see the north sides of all the major peaks in the Karakoram. Through my telephoto lens I could see all the features of the ridge on K2 where we had walked to the summit. My perspective from a distance confirmed what I was unable to believe from having been there. We had climbed K2.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Karakoram.

Ascent: K2, 8611 meters, 28,250 feet, via the north ridge; summit reached on August 20, 1990 (Greg Child, Greg Mortimer, Steve Swenson). Phil Ershler reached 8500 meters.

Personnel: Phil Ershler, Steve Swenson, Americans; Greg Child, Greg Mortimer, Lyle Closs, Peter Kuenstler, Margaret Werner, Australians; Ghulam Rasool, Fida Hussein, Anwar, Sarwar Khan, Pakistanis.

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