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K2: Challenging the Sky

K2: Challenging the Sky. Roberto Mantovani and Kurt Diemberger. The Mountaineers: Seattle, 1997. 144 pages. $35.00.

Second only to Everest in height, K2 also has been subordinated in the attention it has received from writers and photographers. That may be changing, although it’s doubtful it will catch up. For a wide group of climbers, K2 may be the peak of choice, but the highest mountain in the world undoubtedly will always maintain its lead.

With the publication three years ago of Jim Curran’s K2: The Story of the Savage Mountain, the mountain received its long overdue climbing history, a stellar effort necessarily concentrated on the narrative with photographic coverage limited to a few selected shots. K2: Challenging the Sky, published the same year—but not previously reviewed in this journal until its republication by the Mountaineers Books—fills that gap nicely. With its large oversized format, K2’s rugged grandeur can be fully displayed for the first time without the constraints of standard book size.

I thought I had seen all the photographs from our 1978 expedition, which succeeded in making the mountain’s third ascent. Now I realize that John Roskelley must have tucked away a few shots that didn’t find their way into the issue of National Geographic that chronicled the climb or The Last Step, Rick Ridgeway’s absorbing account of the expedition. Best of all is Roskelley’s stunning photograph, which appears on the dust-jacket cover. The foreground is mundane but instructive. Ridgeway is seen ploughing his way up thigh-deep snow we had to contend with each time a major storm blew through. But beyond the struggling human figure is the ferocious, knife-edged crest of the northeast ridge, and soaring above everything the colossal summit pyramid of K2. It looks close, but it took weeks of effort by our 14-member team to get anywhere near the top.

I wish I could be a bit more salutary about the book’s text. The few brief sections Kurt Diemberger contributes are up to his usual high standard, but, overall, the historical treatment that accompanies the photography is decidedly inferior to Curran’s well-written book. Not being able to read Italian, it may be that Roberto Mantovani’s original narrative fares better than in this translated version. There are the usual number of niggling errors. For instance, it’s hard to see how careful editing could not have caught misspelling—Lou Reichardt’s name is spelled as “Lou Richard” on one page, after getting it correct the page before. That would have to be particularly galling to John Roskelley—a careful writer himself—in whose contribution on our summit climb the error appears. Both Reichardt and Roskelley deserve better.

This book’s value, however, is primarily in its photographic coverage of K2 and its climbing history. For that reason alone, it definitely belongs on the shelf of every K2 aficionado, myself among them.

Jim Wickwire