American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Asia, Pakistan, K2 Ascent and Tragedy

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1994

K2 Ascent and Tragedy. Our expedition consisted of Americans Stacy Allison (f), leader, John Petroske, Steve Steckmyer and me and Canadians Dan Culver, Jim Haberl and Dr. John Haigh. We arrived in Base Camp on June 6. The Slovene team was already on the Abruzzi Ridge working toward Camp III at 7350 meters. We established Advance Base on June 8 and Camp I and II at 6100 and 6700 meters on June 10 and 13. Culver, Haberl and I had become a climbing team and led the way to each new camp. On the 21 st, we set up Camp III. All were acclimatizing well except for Steckmyer, who fought a virus most of the trip. It stormed intermittently for the next 11 days. Dan and I made our way to the snow cave at Camp III during that period, but our cave and wands marking it were well buried by snow and we could not locate it by nightfall. We descended in darkness to Base Camp. Jim had turned around en route to Camp III because he was getting too tired. At one A.M. on July 4, in marginal but hopefully clearing weather, Culver, Haberl and I began our summit bid. We reached Camp II that day and Camp III on the next. We spent hours moving huge amounts of snow to find our cave, buried under eight feet of snow. On June 6, we moved to 8000 meters, carrying two tents, sleeping bags and 200 bamboo tomato stakes to mark the route. Dan began brewing at midnight. Dan and Jim left at 2:30 A.M. on July 7 to break trail. I left at 3:15, catching them at four o’clock. Because the Bottleneck was deep in snow and looked easy, we did not take a rope. It was frigid until dawn. We took a break to warm up when the sun came up. I broke trail the rest of the way to the summit in knee-deep snow. The Bottleneck was easy except for a bit of sugar snow around the rocks. There and in some spots on the traverse, the snow was up to my thighs. As we climbed, the distance between the three of us lengthened, but we were always in sight and earshot. I reached the summit at 2:56 P.M. I radioed, “Anyone who’s monitoring, this is Phil calling from the summit.” All of the six expeditions now on the mountain began shouting into their radios. Later, Stacy Allison came in from Camp IV where she, John Petroske and John Haigh had just arrived. Rather than wait on the summit for Jim and Dan, who were now one and two hours behind me respectively, I began my descent after 25 minutes. As I passed Jim, we agreed he would be down before dark, but we were worried about Dan’s slow pace. When I reached Dan, he was on the ridge. I told him that it had taken me over an hour to reach the summit from where he was and that he might not reach the top till dusk. Yet he was determined. We gave each other a big hug. That was the last time I saw Dan Culver. I continued the descent at a good pace. Facing out through the Bottleneck, I noticed again that the snow was variable there: some windslab, some depth hoar, some rock under shallow snow. The last few hundred meters to camp were boilerplate snow and ice. I got to Camp IV at five P.M. At a little after six o’clock, I looked up to see Jim and Dan crossing the traverse above the Bottleneck. They had become the first Canadians to climb K2 and were making good time on the descent. (Jim had waited on the summit for Dan and so there is no doubt of his having climbed to the top.) A few minutes later, we heard Jim yell for help. We could see him below the Bottleneck, still 40 minutes from camp. Dan was not in sight. Stacy Allison, Petroske and Haigh left to go to Jim’s aid. I stayed in Camp. The only sign of Dan that they could find was his hat and giant dents in the snow that he had made as he cartwheeled off the south face. Jim said that he was about 100 meters below Dan and he had looked up minutes before the accident to see Dan at the top of the Bottleneck. Jim then heard a noise and looked up again. It was Dan falling toward him. He went by Jim at a distance, flying many feet in the air between contacts with the snow and ice. Since no one saw him fall, we can only speculate on what caused it. He may have slipped or tripped. It is unlikely that he was hit by falling ice. It might have been from fatigue or mountain sickness. His ice axe was found in the Bottleneck by a summit party later in the month. The next morning, we began our descent at six A.M. in a brutal storm. Had we not placed wands every 60 feet between Camps IV and III, we should not have been able to find our way. Petroske and Haberl stayed in Camp II that night, too tired to continue. The rest of us descended all the way to Base Camp. We called Dan’s wife Patti by satellite phone from the Dutch Base Camp and told her the sad news. While we waited for the porters, we cleaned up about one ton of garbage from Base Camp. We burned three quarters of that and paid ten porters to carry the metals out to Skardu, where they were recycled.

Philip Powers

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