K2:The King of Mountains

This summer there were 11 expeditions from around the world trying to climb K2—including the one-man 2004 Hawaiian Expedition, which consisted of our contributing editor, guy Sibilla.

“I think it’s a leg bone and a hip joint”

I said to Rozi Ali, my Baltistani guide, while pointing at my own leg for emphasis. It was the fourth body (or parts of a body) of a dead climber that we had seen in the same number of weeks at K2 base camp. It reminded all of us that climbing the world’s second-tallest mountain had consequences if things went wrong.


Even if you do everything right, you can have the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like the three Korean climbers this summer who were caught in the path of an avalanche and killed. Or the three members of an international team who were trapped in the fury of an ice storm at 25,000 feet and simply disappeared. On K2, the penalty for a mistake-or just plain bad luck-was always the same. We had the body count to prove it.

The massive southern face of K2 reveals why climbers sometimes call it the “Killer Mountain.” Photos: Guy Sibilla

This year was the 50th anniversary of the first ascent of K2. The Italians had done it first in 1954. This summer they returned in force to prove once again that this was their mountain. I had decided years ago that I was going to be with them when they tried. I climbed my first mountain in the Swiss Alps when I was 13 years old. I knew then that I loved the adventure of alpine mountaineering and I’ve humped gear around the United States, Europe, Africa, Mexico and now Pakistan, ever since. Seeing K2 this summer with my own eyes was a dream come true.

Pakistan’s northern frontier province of Jammu Kashmir is home to the Karakoram Range from which K2 takes its geologic designation. The Baltistani people of this region have given this deadly pile of rock and ice a more poetic name: Chogori. At 28,250 feet, it may be second to Mount Everest (29,035 feet) in height, but to the Baltis it is still the King of Mountains.

The author in his tent.

Living at base camp for a couple of months was a challenge, but getting there was no piece of cake either. The flight from Honolulu to Tokyo and then to Bangkok was endlessly uneventful. Flying Pakistan International Airlines from Bangkok to Islamabad was another thing altogether. Pakistan was founded in 1947 as an Islamic state, so I tried not to act surprised when our airplane remained on the runway until a prayer to Allah was recited over the passenger cabin’s loud speakers.

From Islamabad, you head north by Jeep along the Karakoram Highway for three or four days, depending on the weather. It is a highway only in the broadest interpretation of the word. After bone-jarring days of rocks and potholes, the road finally stops at tiny Askoli village. I now know where the expression “the end of the line” comes from.

map: iexplore.com

From Askoli, you walk. The trek winds along the basin of a valley through which the Baltoro Glacier flows. It is an 11-day, 115-kilometer hump up to nearly 17,000 feet. Some days were particularly miserable going. Glaciers surge, crack, melt and swell with the daily high and low swings in the temperature so the path was never the same from one month to the next.

I remember zigzagging my way hour after hour around crevasses and marching through icy hills and valleys. How the Pakistani porters carried their 50-pound loads of gear and supplies still remains a mystery. More than once I was so overcome by sheer frustration that I considered sending my own pack to hell by chucking the damn thing-loaded with three cameras, filters, lenses, film and a tripod-into a crack in the ice.

Humping food and supplies, load by load, along the Baltoro glacier hasn’t changed in the 50 years since the Italians first climbed K2.

I kept a daily blister count as a measure of how tough the going was. “The mountains can be cruel,” panted Capt. Junaid, one of the Pakistani Army liaison officers assigned to monitor the movement of foreign expeditions traveling the Baltoro. My shoulders, my back and my feet all agreed.

Glacier travel in the Karakoram was more about rocks than it was about ice. One of the campsites was named Urdukas, which, translated literally from Balti, means “cracked rocks.” It was slippery, treacherous going.

Most of the time I kept my head down and concentrated on safe, stable foot placement. Sometimes I couldn’t help but look up. I was shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the tallest, most beautiful mountains on Earth. I simply couldn’t resist the temptation to gaze skyward. Invariably, while doing that, I would twist an ankle or wrench a knee. The lesson: Focus on what you’re doing, sightseeing is for tourists.

Base camp for K2 is nearly as high as the summit of Kilimanjaro, which I don’t remember being a picnic to climb. When I finally arrived, a voice started inside my head: “Christ, I’m in the middle of freezing nowhere!” I couldn’t believe this was going to be my home for the next two months. My new address would read: Guy Sibilla, 1st Yellow North Face VE 25 (Tent), Godwin Austen Glacier, Pakistan. Welcome to base camp.

The body of Tatsuya Harada and some of the personal belongings of other members of an ill-fated Japanese expedition in 1997 were recovered this year.

The shelf life for human beings at the foot of K2 is roughly 90 days. By mid-August, expeditions are leaving base camp one after the other. It would be suicide to face the ferocious winter storms of the Karakoram. When the temperature dropped to about 5 degrees Fahrenheit inside of my tent each night, I kept wondering, “If this is what summer is like, what’s it like in winter?” I think you don’t fully appreciate the concept of cold until you sleep in a tent on a glacier for two months.

I had read a slew of books about expeditions in the Karakoram, and I had enough personal climbing experience to set low expectations regarding the weather here. Compared to the East Himalayas, which are home to Mount Everest, the weather pattern in the West Himalayas is unpredictable. K2 is so massive it makes its own weather. A slight shift in the wind could mean the difference between heading off to the high camps up the ridge, or merely gazing up at the heavy, white sky and swearing with the Italians: “Il tempo é merda!” The weather is crap!

The rugged features of one of the Baltistani porters at K2 base camp speaks of a proud culture and a
difficult life.

Expeditions have spent entire summers waiting at base camp for a break in the weather that never came.

Day-to-day life is boring. Unless you are actually on the mountain, there isn’t much to do. The boredom was exacerbated this year, because we suffered through some of the nastiest summer weather anyone had seen in years. We were buried by a series of snowstorms, some of which lasted a week at a time.

In bad weather, we couldn’t climb. We couldn’t do laundry. In fact, we couldn’t do much else except eat and stay in our tents. Sometimes it felt like solitary confinement. Even after it stopped snowing, we couldn’t immediately head off for K2, because the avalanche danger was too high. We did a lot of waiting. If nothing else, climbing teaches you patience.

Food was not an issue most of the time. The Balti porters formed a constant stream of humanity reaching from base camp to Askoli village. Hand-scribbled messages were sent down with porters. They astonished everyone at camp with their stamina. For about 3,000 Pakistani rupees, or roughly $5 a day, they trekked 11 days, uphill, one-way from Askoli, with another 55-pound load of food and supplies. They portaged everything from canned meats to vegetables to rice to toilet paper. No one got more respect in camp than those porters and cooks whose cryptic messages in Urdu or Balti traveled the length of the Baltoro valley and were transformed into nourishment.

The base camp at K2 this year was especially active, because of the Italian Jubilee Anniversary. As a result, climbers arrived from all over the world: Italy, Spain, Korea, Japan, China, France, Austria, Russia, Iran, Romania and Kazakhstan. We were, in New Age lingo, a village. But a quick walk through our little hamlet peeled back any illusion that we were as remote as we sometimes felt we were.

Proof that at least one expedition started at sea level before arriving at the 17,000-foot base camp at K2.

Some of the expeditions with commercial sponsors had solar-powered communication tents with Imarsat uplinks for Internet access. I saw CD players and cellular telephones. The Spaniards from Andalusia brought a generator, a booming stereo and a good attitude. They were enormously, famously popular.

“K2 will be hard,” said Agostino da Polenza, the charismatic leader of the Italian Commemorative Expedition. He would know. This was his fourth journey into the Karakoram to attack K2. In 1983, he arrived at its summit from China’s northern approach. That alone earned him the respect and admiration of every climber in camp. He reminded his climbers that, ever since Italy was the first to plant its flag on K2’s summit in 1954, the huge, nearly triangular mountain had had the nickname “The Italian Pyramid.”

The Italian 2004 Commemorative K2 Expedition.

Da Polenza’s climbing team was impressive. At full strength, there were almost two dozen climbers, although the average expedition was about one-fourth that size. The Italian team also included some of the best mountaineers in the world. Six members climbed Mount Everest in June and then came to K2 in July, as if climbing the tallest mountain in the world was just a warm-up exercise.

The difference in height between Mount Everest and K2 is more than just 785 feet. In the 50 years since both mountains were successfully climbed, more than 2,000 people have reached the summit of Mount Everest, but barely 200 have summited K2. Chogori is a technical climb requiring a level of expertise that Mount Everest does not. The combination of the unpredictable weather, the severe angle of ascent of the Abruzzi Spur, the technical aspects of the route, the cold and the lack of oxygen above 24,000 feet, gives K2 the edge as the meanest mountain on Earth.

From where my tent was pitched at base camp, the summit of K2 was still more than 11,000 feet above me. All of the expeditions left equipment at a jump-off point for any summit attempt at an advance base camp. The climb to the top began here in the cold, stingy air at 18,000 feet. To give you an idea of how high we were at the beginning of the climb, Mount Elbrus, the tallest mountain in Europe, is about the same elevation as advance base camp at K2. Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa, is barely 1,000 feet higher.

Balti tea, made with salt and butter, is an acquired taste.

The strategy employed by the Italians was simple. They pre-set three more camps: Camp I at 20,500 feet, Camp II at 22,166 feet and Camp III at 25,666 feet. From high camp, there would be a single, nonstop push to the summit (28,250 feet) and a return to Camp III before completing the descent. It would be a dangerous and exhausting rush to the top.

The lower portion of the Abruzzi Spur, which leads to the summit, is covered in ice. Crampons, metal spikes attached to double-insulated climbing boots and ice axes make for slow going.

The trip is relatively not that difficult up to Camps I and II. Since I carried cameras instead of supplies to record the historic summit charge by the Italian team, I was fortunate to get above 19,000 feet before turning back.

To get to Camp III, climbers anchor fixed ropes to pull themselves up along ridiculously steep ice faces. The summit push begins in the “dead zone,” where the elevation is so high there is not enough oxygen to support life. It is also bitterly cold (22 below zero without wind chill). Once the climbers make it through the “bottleneck” and the “traverse,” it becomes a slow, tortuous process of placing one foot in front of the other until you reach the summit.

K2 nightlife—tents on ice.

The years of planning and three months of preparation paid off. On July 26, 2004, a team led by Silvio Mondinelli and Karl Unterkircher reached the summit of K2, with teammates Giacomelli Ugo, Walter Nones and Michele Campagnoni. Only these five men of the 19 climbers that comprised the 2004 Italian Commemorative Expedition made it. Such is the challenge of K2.

Before I left base camp, I spoke with Gian Pietro Verza, one of the members of the Italian expedition. I asked him why he climbed. He thought for a moment and then said: “In the mountains there is nothing that separates you from nature. We in the developed countries have placed machines everywhere to detach us from the pure beauty that is around us here. That is why I only feel alive when I am climbing.”

Perhaps that sums up why, in spite of the immense harshness of the Karakoram, we were all there.