Dying to reach the top of the world

The Ghosts of K2
by Mick Conefrey, Oneworld, £20

In the summer of 1996 a ferocious storm descended on K2, the world’s second-highest mountain, engulfing the many climbing teams spread out across its perilous ledges. By the end of August, 13 climbers were dead in what would prove to be the worst season in K2’s history.

The lure of climbing dangerous mountains has always been with us, regardless of how many have died or lost fingers and toes. K2, situated in Pakistan’s Karakoram range, has taken more than its fair share. Though not as high as Everest, K2 is a far harder mountain to climb, requiring technical skill as well as daring and risk. To date, 247 people have reached the summit. Of those, 54 never came back down.

Mick Conefrey deftly takes on K2’s history, focusing on the first successful summiting by an Italian team in 1954 and the bitter fallout that followed.

K2 was first espied by Francis Younghusband in 1887, when he was reconnoitring the northern passes of India as part of the Great Game. But it wasn’t until 1902 that the first expedition set out to climb what already had a reputation as an unclimbable mountain.

The 1902 British expedition was led by none other than Aleister Crowley. Before he became known for his louche lifestyle and occult leanings, Crowley, the son of fundamentalist Christian parents, was one of the most capable and daring climbers of his day. The expedition was hopelessly naive, though, with climbers believing they could summit in a few days, and was rife with fractures and petty argument. Crowley almost quit when he wasn’t allowed to take his personal library up to base camp.

The next attempt was by the Duke of Abruzzi. His party surveyed several ridges as possible routes to the summit but were defeated by endless storms, illness and a porters’ strike.

K2 slipped off the radar for several years due to the Second World War. Afterwards, the partition of India meant K2 was no longer an Indian mountain but a Pakistani one. It wasn’t until 1953 that another serious attempt to scale the peak was mounted. The 1953 expedition included some of America’s best climbers and ran parallel to John Hunt’s Everest expedition on the other side of the Himalayas. When Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary reached the top of the world’s highest mountain, the American team on K2 felt that 1953 was the year in which the great Himalayan giants would topple.

Besieged by bad weather and dangerous icefalls, the 1953 team were nevertheless making good progress when Art Gilkey developed thrombophlebitis, a blood clot in the legs. In a show of solidarity and kindness, the 1953 team did what most other teams would not: they gave up their ascent in an attempt to try to save him. The only way to do that was to lower the unconscious Gilkey almost 6,000 feet strapped inside a sleeping bag. This heroic rescue was frustrated when an avalanche cut off Gilkey and he disappeared into the mountain’s icy maw.

In 1954, it was the turn of the Italians. A capable and professional team with much experience in alpine climbing, they brought with them a statue of the Virgin Mary which they enshrined in a nearby ice cave. Two climbers managed to reach the summit and the conquest of K2 was celebrated around the world. But controversies over the climb itself led to decades of bitterness and recrimination between the parties.

There is something exciting and otherworldly about climbing mountains, a feeling of spiritual engagement and existential freedom and, while most of us will never scale such lofty peaks, Conefrey’s book is as close as we can get without having to leave the armchair.