1953. K2 Expedition

Publication Year: 2002.

1953. K2 Expedition

Jim Wickwire

Hillary and Tenzing's climb to the top of Everest earlier in 1953 provided the world with electrifying news. But the events on K2 that year were the stuff of legends, growing even more striking with the passage of time. The American expedition’s struggle with wind, storm, sickness, high altitude, and the loss of a companion seems more poignant than other expeditions that achieved success. Why? As much as anything, because they did not succeed. When a great mountain is climbed for the first time—particularly if it is an Everest or a K2—the media attention is substantial. But when the effort falls short of the goal and the climbers are faced with a situation that threatens their lives, it can be even more compelling. This seems especially true in the face of tragedy—as on K2 in 1953.

For many climbers, K2 is the ultimate mountain. At 28,262 feet (8,614 meters), it is second only to Everest, a scant 773 feet higher. With its classic pyramidal shape, K2 is the perfect embodiment of our mental image of what a mountain should be. The climber who has designs on K2’s summit must not only contend with extreme altitude and difficult rock and ice, but with sudden storms that deplete strength and erode willpower. Although K2 was first climbed by a large Italian expedition in 1954 when Achille Compagnoni and Lino Lacedelli reached the summit, the American expedition’s attempt of K2 the year before ranks as one of the most memorable in the history of Himalayan mountaineering.

After two other American expeditions nearly succeeded in 1938 and 1939, the 1953 Charles Houston-led team made a valiant effort to become the first to climb the still-virgin summit. Like its forerunners, the 1953 expedition was carried off in the finest style. Lightweight by comparison with other Himalayan expeditions of the same period, these bold attempts on K2 came very close to success.

Poised for the summit at 25,000 feet in early August, the entire team of eight climbers was pinned down in their tents by an unexpected 10-day storm. Worse, they were confronted with a medical emergency so serious that it forced them to abandon their objective. Art Gilkey was stricken with blood clots in one of his legs, and Houston determined that his only chance for survival was to descend immediately. Since Gilkey was unable to walk, they wrapped him in a makeshift litter and began the almost impossible task of lowering him down the Abruzzi Ridge. But before they could reach the top of the ridge, one of the climbers slipped and almost the entire team was involved in a fall down the mountain's exposed upper slopes. Only Pete Schoening’s now-legendary ice axe belay saved his teammates from certain death.

After the accident, the sick man was lashed to the slope while the climbers injured in the fall were assisted to a nearby campsite. When they returned for Gilkey 10 minutes later, to their shock and disbelief, he had been swept into the abyss. His death most certainly was due to avalanche. But it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Gilkey sacrificed himself to save the others. The answer will never be known. It took the survivors five more storm-filled days to reach the safety of base camp.

The most remarkable aspect of the 1953 expedition was the way these men stayed together through thick and thin, to the end. There was absolutely no thought of leaving Gilkey to save themselves. They would get down together or not at all. In the years that followed, most notably during that tragic summer of 1986 when 13 climbers lost their lives on K2, equally dramatic events have occurred on the mountain. But never has the 1953 expedition’s unified resolve in the face of extreme peril been exceeded—or matched for that matter. It was what enabled these men to survive one of the epic experiences of Himalayan mountaineering history. It was what enabled them to maintain lifelong friendships afterward.

When my companion Louis Reichardt and I neared the summit of K2 in 1978,I recall being filled with a tremendous sense of history and admiration for what had gone on so many years before. We could look down to where Houston's team had withstood the week-long storm. The site of the accident was clearly visible. We could also see the crest of the famed Abruzzi Ridge, which dropped off steeply to the Godwin-Austen Glacier more than 12,000 feet below us. As we walked those last few steps to the summit, I could feel the presence of Charlie Houston, Bob Bates, Pete Schoening, and the others who, but for the vagaries of storm and circumstance, would have been there 25 years ahead of us. Their heroic struggle and the character they displayed is one of the greatest mountaineering stories ever.