After our talk on the K2: Concordia Trek last night Jonny has asked me to upload the words I said on the history of the "Savage Mountain"
I hope everyone finds this interesting!
The stories about Everest are incredibly well known, even outside of the mountaineering world.
The story of Mallory and Irvine’s disappearance on the mountain in 1924 continues to intrigue and the first ascent in 1953 is celebrated every year. Since that climb by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, there have been more than 3000 successful ascents of the highest mountain on earth.
By comparison, K2 was first climbed in 1954, and there have been less than 300 successful climbs since – and not even a single attempt for 23 years between 1954 and 1977. In the same vein, the record for an individual climbing Everest is 21 climbs, while nobody has ever summated K2 more than twice.
For me this makes K2 something of the forgotten mountain, and I think this reflected in the amount of trekkers who make the journey up the Baltoro glacier to Concordia, which is nothing compared to the hordes of people heading to Everest Base Camp each year. Everest has an aura about it, but if you’re speaking to mountaineers they are much more in awe of K2 than Everest – largely because of the inherent difficulty and clear risks involved with climbing what has become known as “The Savage Mountain”.
K2 has a fascinating history of its own.
Named in 1856 by a British surveyor looking out from Srinagar, he named the mountains K1 – K32. Several were later discovered to have local names, K1 for example is Masherbrum, but with K2 being so hidden and remote the closest it had to a local name is “Chogori” which basically translates to “Big Mountain” and as such the name K2 has stuck.
The early expedition in 1909 brought back some of the most incredible photographs seen by the world at that time – taken by the Italian photographer Vittorio Sella which are on display at the K2 Museum in the hotel we stay at in Skardu, while 1938 and 1939 each had expeditions that reached above 8,000 metres and had circumstances been different, might have been successful.
The first major story to come through was in 1953. This was the first time that the journey would start in Skardu, prior to that they had to travel overland from Srinagar in Kashmir which took 60 days in itself. The group of American climbers led by Charles Houston, were caught in a storm just below 8000m for 10 days, during which time one of their team developed bad altitude sickness.
Unable to walk, the group made the decision to try and get him down the mountain, wrapped in his sleeping bag and rugs. With an ice axe wedged behind a rock and a rope leading from it, around the waist of a guy called Pete Schoening, then being attached to five other climbers plus the sick Arthur Gilkey, they began to lower him down. He was about 60ft below when one of the other five climbers lost his footing and went tumbling down the mountain, pulling all of them over a ledge that dropped away 1000s of feet.
So six men were swinging in mid-air, dazed and confused while the youngest bloke on the expedition held all their weight around his waist and on his ice axe. Miraculously, they came to and were able to get themselves across to a nearby ice shelf.
Unfortunately this wasn’t enough to save Gilkey – and the memorial to him that was later set up by the survivors remains the spot where all deaths on the mountain are commemorated.
This tragic expedition came to embody the great teamwork and effort that can be involved in mountaineering. The first successful climb however, by an Italian team a year later, ended up being one of the most ugly and long running controversies in the history of the sport.
On the night before the first ascent of K2, Walter Bonatti and a Balti Porter called Mehdi had to endure a freezing, storm-swept bivouac high on the Shoulder of K2, while their companions Achille Compagnoni and Lino Lacedelli spent the night in a tent literally within shouting distance.
As agreed beforehand, Bonatti and Mehdi had carried the oxygen bottles for the summit team who were waiting for them in Camp 9. But the top camp was placed in a different, higher location than Bonatti had expected, and when they couldn’t find the tent, they were forced to bivouac at 8100 meters, an event that led Mehdi to lose fingers and toes to frostbite, ending his career.
Compagnoni claimed Bonatti was trying to sneakily bag the summit for himself, but in 2004, a full 50 years later, Lacedelli told the truth that the camp was moved deliberately and that Compagnoni heard them shouting in the dark, but did not reply.
Since then there have been numerous disasters on the mountain, the most famous being in 1986 and 2008 of which the books Triumph & Tragedy on K2 by Jim Curran and No Way Down by Graham Bowley tell the respective stories.
I for one am a little obsessed with finding out as much as I can about the history of a place before I visit it, and I can assure you that these stories will give you a great deal of respect not just for the people who climb these mountains, but the mountains themselves.
I can quite happily say however, that Wild Frontiers have thus far not have any fatalities on our trek to Concordia!