Don't look back; Rick Ridgeway, Foreground, and John Roskelley, members of the first American expedition to summit K2, ascend the northeast ridge in 1978.
Don't look back; Rick Ridgeway, Foreground, and John Roskelley, members of the first American expedition to summit K2, ascend the northeast ridge in 1978. (Jim Wickwire)

The Mountain of Mountains

“Schoening leaned into his ax and braced himself for the impact. The rope thinned, then drew taut as a steel wire. For the next five minutes, he kept six men from falling of the face of the mountain.”

Don't look back; Rick Ridgeway, Foreground, and John Roskelley, members of the first American expedition to summit K2, ascend the northeast ridge in 1978.

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THE AFTERNOON I STUMBLED across the human leg bone at the bottom of K2, it was one of those flawless days you almost never see in the Karakoram. The light was radiant, the wind was calm, and the air at 16,000 feet—sharp and clear as etched glass—seemed to lift and intensify the hulking black mass of the world’s second-highest mountain, which erupts in a single, unbroken thrust to its ice-armored 28,250-foot summit.

Don't look back; Rick Ridgeway, Foreground, and John Roskelley, members of the first American expedition to summit K2, ascend the northeast ridge in 1978. Don’t look back; Rick Ridgeway, Foreground, and John Roskelley, members of the first American expedition to summit K2, ascend the northeast ridge in 1978.

It had taken the better part of two weeks to get here, the heart of the high peaks in the Pakistani region of Baltistan, 800 miles northwest of Everest. When I arrived in late summer, the tail end of K2’s climbing season, there was only one team left on the mountain: Hector Ponce de Leon, a 36-year-old Mexican climber who has summited Everest from both the north and south sides; his fiancée, Araceli Segarra, a 33-year-old Spanish alpinist who doubles as a fashion model in Vogue and Elle; and Jeff Rhoads, a 49-year-old American filmmaker who has worked as a mountain guide in Utah. The group would eventually be turned back by exhaustion and bad weather, 4,300 feet short of the summit.

K2 base camp—a lunar landscape of shattered rock sitting atop a river of moving ice—was all but deserted, with only a few Pakistani porters and an American woman named Jennifer Jordan. A 45-year-old journalist and filmmaker, Jordan had been in camp since June, monitoring the progress of Rhoads, her boyfriend, and working on a documentary about the five women who have summited K2—not one of whom, she pointed out, is alive today. We talked a bit about the history of K2, a subject Jordan has studied deeply, and then she asked if I might like to take her “tour of the dead.”

We started up the Godwin-Austen Glacier, which cuts along the foundation of the mountain’s immense southern face. As we walked, Jordan told me about the postmortem K2 performs on the climbers who perish here. The ridges and escarpments of this peak are so sheer that the dead are rarely entombed on the mountain itself; most are scoured off by avalanches and rockfalls, and when their bodies hit bottom they become encased in the glacial field, where they are slowly torn to pieces.

“It’s kind of like a bread mixer,” Jordan observed as we picked our way around thin crevasses and frigid pools of Windex-blue meltwater. “The worst of the violence is the avalanches, but there are also the years of tearing and crushing in the glaciers. The movement churns them up in summer, back down in winter. Appendages get torn off in the disgorging process. When they surface, they’re almost all headless, because that’s the weakest link in the body. Mostly you find legs—very few arms.”

The summer of 2002 had been unusually warm, so the dead had risen in large numbers. Six weeks earlier, Jordan had uncovered traces of Dudley Wolfe, a wealthy American playboy-cum-mountaineer who in July 1939 was stranded at 26,000 feet on the southeast ridge and vanished, along with the three Sherpas who tried to rescue him. They were the first climbers to die on K2. Jordan found some of Wolfe’s equipment—including a mitten with his name on it—plus 30 of his ribs and vertebrae. Over 64 years, his bones and gear had traveled a mile and a half down the Godwin-Austen, averaging about four inches a day, before resurfacing.

At the moment, our attention was fixed on a small piece of delicate purple cloth that had recently emerged from the ice.

“Wow!” Jordan exclaimed. “Now who would wear something like this up here? A woman.” Jordan surmised it might be a piece of Alison Hargreaves’s clothing.

In May 1995, Hargreaves, a gifted 33-year-old British mountaineer, completed the first undisputed female solo ascent of Everest without supplemental oxygen. Her intent was to summit K2 next, and then Kanchenjunga, the world’s third-highest mountain, later that same year. But on August 13, after reaching the top of K2 in clear weather, Hargreaves and five other climbers were plucked off the mountain by a gale-force wind. “She was blown right off the summit ridge somewhere near that huge serac,” Jordan said, pointing to a massive block of ice near the top and tracing Hargreaves’s probable trajectory. “The thing is, we could be right on top of her.”

We resumed walking, passing sundry bits of gear—a rack of pitons, an oxygen cylinder, a boot—until we reached the arm of a wool shirt lying on the ice. “This has got to be one of the Spanish guys,” she said, referring to one of the climbers who died with Hargreaves. Earlier in the summer, Jordan had found his body, minus his head, and reburied him in a crevasse. “The skin was like burned leather,” she said. “Dark brown, but not black. He hadn’t been in the ice for long, because he still had his hands and his feet. Well… a foot.”

You couldn’t get any more nonchalant or dispassionate about human remains, and initially it seemed morbid and unseemly. But Jordan meant no disrespect. In fact, she was addressing something that sets K2 starkly apart from other great peaks in the Himalayas. All of these mountains have teeth. And all tender the seductive possibility that by venturing onto high, hard, unknown terrain, a climber can touch something within himself or herself that often proves elusive at sea level yet can be powerfully transforming when realized at altitude. On most mountains, this epiphany invariably goes hand in hand with reaching the summit.

Not on K2.

The secret to K2 seems to reside somewhere inside the frozen ossuary at its base. As new climbers wade over the remains of so many who came before them, they are reminded of what it is to strive and to fail—horribly—on an 8,000-meter peak, and they confront the question of whether that failure, played out amid the elemental indifference of stone and wind and ice, can possibly have any meaning and inherent worth.

We were nearing the end of the tour when I blundered upon what appeared to be a hollow stick lying on the ice—an odd thing to find in a landscape without a single tree. I knelt to examine it.

“Oh,” Jordan said. “Your first femur. Pretty gruesome, huh?”

The ends of the bone had been cut at such a sharp angle it looked like the job had been done with an electric saw. Bits of brown gristle clung to the sides.

“Welcome to K2,” she added with a chilly smile. “There’s nothing quite like it.”

IF THE CRITERION YOU USE to measure the majesty of mountains is simple math, then the greatest peak on earth is Everest; at 29,035 feet, it surpasses K2 by 785 feet. If popularity is the gauge, the answer seems equally obvious: More than 1,600 people have been to the top of Everest, claiming all manner of “firsts,” including but by no means limited to: the first one-legged summiter, the first one-armed summiter, the first person to sleep on the summit, the first live TV broadcast from the summit, the first person to make five summits in five consecutive years, and the first husband-and-wife team to fling themselves off the summit in a tandem paraglider. This year, another 262 climbers have reached the highest point on the planet as of press time. And in 2008, the Chinese intend to carry the Olympic torch to the top on their way to Beijing.

By comparison, in the last 50 years, only 196 climbers have made it to the top of K2. This past summer, another 55 gave it a shot as six expeditions—from Kazakhstan, Romania, Spain, Switzerland, and the Czech Republic, plus one international group—converged on the south side of the mountain. Among them were some of the strongest mountaineers in the world, including the Czech climbers Radek Jaros and Martin Minarik, as well as Segarra and Ponce de Leon, who returned for another try. None of them reached the summit.

It was the second summitless year in a row, a statistic that, at least by the standards of Everest-level success, seemed to confirm K2’s stature as the lesser giant. But among professional mountaineers who tackle the world’s most formidable peaks, things look a bit different.

“People are drawn to Everest because everyone can understand the idea of ‘the highest mountain on earth,’ ” says Greg Child, an Australian mountaineer and author who has summited both Everest and K2. “Christ, my grandmother can understand that. Unless you’re on the inside of climbing, however, it’s almost impossible to fathom an obsession with the second-highest. But K2 just has something about it. Partly it’s the shape and beauty and symmetry of the thing. And partly it’s the infamy—the stories of what’s happened to people who’ve tried it: how fucked up they’ve become and how many have died. K2 is simply not an amateur’s mountain.”

K2’s difficulties begin with its remoteness, reflected by the fact that the Balti hill people don’t even have a name for the mountain. It was dubbed K2—K for Karakoram and 2 for the second peak in the range to be identified—by the British mapmaker T.G. Montgomerie in 1856. “Just the bare bones of a name,” wrote the Italian alpinist Fosco Maraini in his 1959 book Karakoram: The Ascent of Gasherbrum IV. “All rock and ice and storm and abyss. It makes no attempt to sound human.”

There are only two ways to reach K2. To get to the north side, which straddles the border between China and Pakistan, you first must fly to Islamabad, then drive 500 miles northeast to Kashgar, in China’s Xinjiang province, then travel by jeep across the southern fringe of the Taklimakan Desert, then transfer to camels and caravan over the brown, broken wastes of the Shaksgam Valley. The more “accessible” southern approach requires slogging 40 roadless miles up the Baltoro Glacier in northern Pakistan.

K2’s remoteness has other consequences. It sits eight degrees north of Everest, so the weather is considerably more vicious. “It’s much colder, and great storms come shrieking off the mountain,” says British mountaineer Jim Curran, author of K2: The Story of the Savage Mountain, the definitive history of the peak. “Unlike Everest, you almost never get a good, clean week to push for the summit.”

Everest also boasts a well-established support infrastructure of guides and Sherpas who set up tents, fix ropes, and ferry canisters of supplemental oxygen to the high camps. On K2, there are few high-altitude porters or commercial firms—partly because of the isolation and partly because experience has demonstrated that guiding a mountain like K2 is an invitation to disaster. This point was proven yet again this July when a German climber named Klaus-Dieter Grohs slipped and fell to his death while pushing to the top. One of ten clients being led up the mountain by Kari Kobler, a veteran Swiss Himalayan guide who has climbed Everest twice, Grohs became the 53rd person to die on K2.

According to a 2000 study on high-altitude mountaineering deaths published in The American Alpine Journal, one in 29 climbers who summited Everest between 1978 and 1999 died on descent; on K2, one summiter in seven perished. “Those are pretty grim odds,” says Raymond Huey, a professor of biology at the University of Washington who co-authored the study. “It’s getting perilously close to Russian roulette.” Things become even more dire when you compare summit fatalities among climbers who did not use supplemental oxygen: On Everest, the casualty rate is one in 12; on K2, it’s nearly one in five.

That last number is rather chilling: Even among experienced mountaineers, K2 is more than twice as deadly as Everest. “Think of it this way,” suggests Curran. “From Everest Base Camp, you can walk four hours and you’re lounging on grass, drinking beer with trekkers. K2 stands absolutely on its own. The approach is hard. The base camp feels like the moon. The mountain itself looks utterly impregnable, and there’s no easy way up the thing. And all this hits you between the eyes when you see it for the first time. It’s like that famous Munch painting. You know the one—The Scream? Except, of course, you’re the one doing the screaming.”

FOR CLIMBERS, the existential angst kicks in the moment they round the bend into Concordia, the most majestic amphitheater of high peaks in the world. An enormous hub of ice situated six miles from base camp, where the Upper Baltoro and Godwin-Austen glaciers collide, Concordia is surrounded by the crown of the Karakoram—Broad Peak and Gasherbrum I, II, and III—four of the 15 tallest mountains on earth, with an average height of 26,330 feet. To the east, the fluted ridges of Ladakh rise above the Siachen Glacier, the front lines of an ongoing border conflict between India and Pakistan. And if the weather is clear, a mountaineer will get his first glimpse of K2 directly to the north, filling up the sky, lustrous and giant.

“You’re standing at 15,000 feet, and you’re looking up at 28,000 feet,” says Jim Wickwire, a 63-year-old climber from Seattle and a member of the first American team to summit K2, in 1978. “No photograph can do justice to 13,000 feet of vertical relief.”

Nor can a photograph convey the ponderous immensity of a pile of rock and ice large enough to contain no fewer than 84 Matterhorns. “When I reached Concordia and saw K2, it literally stopped me in my tracks,” recalls Rick Ridgeway, 54, who made it to the summit alongside Wickwire in ’78. “It stopped us all—that mountain affects everybody in the same way. Nothing on the whole planet matches it.”

Even Reinhold Messner, who at 59 is generally considered the greatest mountaineer of the 20th century, reserves a special measure of awe for K2, which he christened “the mountain of mountains” in 1979, after completing the fourth ascent of the peak. “It is the most beautiful of all the high peaks,” Messner told me. “An artist has made this mountain.”

There are a handful of fiendishly arduous Himalayan peaks that pose even greater technical challenges than K2, the most prominent being Gasherbrum IV (26,000 feet) and the Ogre (23,900 feet), both located in the central Karakoram. Neither of these, however, involves the difficulties posed by the extreme altitude of K2, where even the most popular passage up—the Abruzzi Ridge—leaves no room for error. A steep spur on the southeastern side first explored in 1909 by Italy’s Prince Luigi Amedeo of Savoy, Duke of Abruzzi, it involves more than 11,000 vertical feet of climbing and is approximately 20 degrees steeper than the South Col, the most heavily trafficked path up Everest.

Abruzzi made it to 20,500 feet—above where Camp 1 sits today—before abandoning his attempt. If anyone ever reaches the summit, he later declared, “it will be a pilot, not a mountaineer.” But on July 31, 1954, two Italian climbers, Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni, topped out using Abruzzi’s route. Compagnoni later claimed he heard the voice of an angel beckoning him to the summit; when he reached it, on his knees, he felt something on his face. “There was ice under my eyes,” he later said in an interview. “I realized I was crying. Frozen tears.”

He had good reason. Of the 196 climbers who have summited K2 since 1954, 144 arrived by way of the Abruzzi Ridge. And of the 53 people lost on the mountain since 1938, 36 perished somewhere along its spine.

The ridge begins with a line of towers that stretch up the lower part of the spur, ending in a 100-foot vertical fissure known as House’s Chimney, named after Bill House, an American mountaineer who first climbed it in 1938. The pitch involves 5.6 rock climbing at 22,000 feet—the route’s greatest technical challenge.

Above the chimney lies the Black Pyramid, a triangle of notoriously unstable slabs of ice and rock at about 24,500 feet. At the pyramid’s apex, the route emerges onto the Shoulder, a broad hump at roughly 26,000 feet and the site of the fourth and final camp before reaching the top. It was here in 1986 that Al Rouse, the first British climber to summit K2, was overcome by exhaustion and abandoned by his companions in the middle of a six-day storm. Minutes after leaving Rouse, two Austrian climbers, Alfred Imitzer and Hannes Wieser, collapsed in the snow and died as well.

From the Shoulder, the summit is 2,250 vertical feet away. But reaching it involves negotiating a broad couloir often loaded with knee-deep snow; undertaking a delicate traverse out of the Bottleneck, a 100-foot ice-enameled couloir that steepens to more than 50 degrees; and then scaling an exposed traverse that drops 9,800 feet to the Godwin-Austen. At least ten people have died in the Bottleneck—including the Polish climber Tadeusz Piotrowski, perhaps the finest winter mountaineer of his day, who in 1986 lost both his crampons in the midst of a grueling descent from the summit, bounced off his partner, Jerzy Kukuczka (who managed to keep his footing), and hurtled off the face.

Finally, there are the snowy slopes of the summit helmet itself, which are broad and steep and, as anyone familiar with the gut-wrenching plummet of Alison Hargreaves and her companions in 1995 can attest, more than able to kill you.

DEATH AND IMPREGNABILITY have always been great motivators, of course. Not long after the Italians achieved their victory over K2 in 1954, India and Pakistan plunged into an extended period of fighting over their northern borders and closed off the central Karakoram; it was not until 1975 that foreign expeditions were permitted to return. Two years later, a 52-man Japanese expedition with 1,500 porters laid siege to K2, scaled the Abruzzi, and posted the second summit. A year after that, in 1978, an American team led by Jim Whittaker (the first American climber to summit Everest, in 1963) finally succeeded. Four men—Wickwire, Ridgeway, John Roskelley, and Lou Reichardt—made it to the top via a new route on the northeast ridge. The ’78 expedition ushered in an era of breakthroughs on the mountain, including routes along the west ridge (Japanese-Pakistani, 1981), the south face (Polish, 1986), and the south-southwest ridge, which was summited that same year by Peter Bozik, a Czech, and two Polish climbers, Wojciech Wröz and Przemyslaw Piasecki.

K2’s reputation as the most difficult and dangerous of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks is surpassed only by the irrational pull it seems to exert upon climbers. No one understands this better than Wickwire, whose obsession very nearly cost him his life. When he completed his push for the top late on the afternoon of September 6, 1978, he was stranded on the summit face without a tent or sleeping bag as night fell, forcing him to endure 50-mile-per-hour winds and temperatures that plunged to minus 25 degrees—the highest solo bivouac up to that point.

“It was the only time in my climbing career that I really did let it all hang out, in the sense that I was going to get there no matter what,” says Wickwire, who came down with pleurisy and had to have a piece of his lung surgically removed when he got home. “But I had this 20-year preoccupation with K2 in my dreams, and those dreams simply were not going to be denied. That’s the power, the magnificence, of K2.”

That magnificence can take strange forms. Weeks before he summited, Wickwire was descending with Roskelley to Camp 3, on the knife edge of the northeast ridge, when he witnessed the Specter of Brocken, a rare play of light in which a climber’s silhouette is magnified and cast into the center of a cloud, sometimes surrounded by a double rainbow—two perfect circles, one inside the other. “That was the only time I’ve observed it in over 40 years of climbing,” he says.

It was along this same ridge that Roskelley and Ridgeway found themselves enveloped one afternoon by a flock of orange-and-black butterflies that had wafted up on air currents. “They were everywhere,” says Roskelley. “The world suddenly turned into this beautiful, orange, flapping mosaic of color.”

Such moments can occur on any great mountain. But as commercialization threatens to overrun the highest peaks, these experiences become more elusive. K2’s tendency to yield such ephemeral encounters partly explains why it draws a different type of climber than Everest—a climber who not only commands superior skills but harbors a deeper reason for wanting to be on the mountain. Greg Mortenson, who attempted K2 in 1993 after his sister, Christa, died at 23 of epilepsy, got as far as 25,000 feet but had to forgo his own summit bid to help an exhausted companion descend safely to base camp. Still, he has no regrets.

“I could have gone to Everest,” says Mortenson, who went on to found the Central Asia Institute and spend the next decade building schools for young girls throughout northern Pakistan. “K2, however, seemed to better exemplify the freedom of Christa’s spirit and my anger—my angst—over her death at a young age. On K2, you can’t pay a guide service $65,000 to get you to the top. On K2, you need the experience, the skill, and the stamina to climb without these resources. Everest is a mountain for those who just want to climb to the highest point on earth. But K2 is more about philosophic heights. It’s about purity, clarity, and being humble.”

Perhaps no one fuses these elements more eloquently than Dr. Charles Houston, who led two of the earliest American attempts on K2. One morning, almost 24,000 feet up the Abruzzi Ridge during his second attempt, in 1953, Houston looked out of his tent. “It was about sunrise,” he told me, “and the air was just filled with ice crystals. It wasn’t snow; they were tiny, tiny ice crystals, and they were red and yellow and green and purple—all the colors of the rainbow. There were trillions of them, shimmering against the blue and black sky. It was a gentle and beautiful thing. And unforgettable.”

This coming from a man who endured some of the most terrifying hardships on K2, and whose ordeal in 1953 has come to signify, more than any other, what it means to fail with dignity.

CHARLIE HOUSTON is a legend in mountaineering circles. A physician educated at both Harvard and Columbia, he had participated in the first ascent of Alaska’s Mount Foraker, in 1934; led the first detailed reconnaissance of the Abruzzi Ridge, in 1938; and was the first Westerner to enter Nepal’s Khumbu Valley, in 1950, spearheading the route to the south side of Everest. As a flight surgeon in the U.S. Navy, Houston spent World War II conducting pioneering research on the effects of high altitude on the human body.

In the summer of 1953, at age 40, he and his oldest friend, Bob Bates—a 42-year-old Exeter English teacher who had accompanied Houston in 1938 and gone on to develop much of the Tenth Mountain Division’s equipment in World War II—assembled a team of amateurs for the third American assault on K2. “We chose the expedition intuitively,” Houston explained. “We avoided superstars, people who we thought were going to put themselves first. We were a group with common ideals, a willingness to share, and, if I may say so, a singular lack of self-aggrandizement.”

The group was made up of eight men. Besides Houston and Bates there was George Bell, 27, a theoretical physicist at Cornell who had pulled off several first ascents in Peru; Bob Craig, 28, a philosopher who worked as a ski instructor in Aspen and had completed the first ascent of the Devil’s Thumb, in British Columbia; Craig’s friend Dee Molenaar, 34, a landscape painter and geologist from Seattle who had summited Alaska’s Mount St. Elias; Pete Schoening, 26, a chemical engineer who had led a successful climbing expedition to the Yukon; Tony Streather, a 27-year-old British Army captain who’d reached the summit of Pakistan’s Tirich Mir in 1951 with a Norwegian expedition; and finally, an accomplished 27-year-old rock climber from Iowa named Art Gilkey, who’d researched glaciers in Alaska. They reached Pakistan at the end of May, in time to receive the news that Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary had just knocked off Everest. It took them two months to transport their equipment to K2 base camp, but by early August, Houston and his men had forced their way up the Abruzzi Ridge to roughly 25,000 feet, where they were pinned down by a massive storm. After nine days, the team members were finally able to climb out of their tents. As Art Gilkey emerged, he fell facedown, unconscious.

Examining Gilkey, Houston realized he had thrombophlebitis, a condition in which blood clots develop in the veins of the legs; if the clots break off and flow to the lungs, they can cause a pulmonary embolism. At sea level, the condition is extremely serious; at 25,000 feet, it is virtually a death sentence.

“It was hopeless,” Houston recalls, “but we certainly were not going to leave him there alone—we never even considered that.”

All notions of making the summit were forgotten. After an initial attempt to move Gilkey down the same route they had ascended—which ended when they realized the entire slope was about to avalanche—Craig and Schoening proposed lowering him down a rocky ridge to the east. Houston suggested that the rest of the party descend while he remained with Gilkey; they could return when the weather improved. The team would have none of it. That night, Houston determined that two clots had indeed moved into Gilkey’s lungs. The next morning, with the storm raging again, they wrapped him up like a mummy using one of the tents and launched their rescue effort—the highest ever at the time.

By midafternoon, they’d inched their stricken teammate to within 150 yards of an ice shelf. To reach it, they would have to haul him across a steep gully, beneath which the ice fell off almost all the way to the glacier. Schoening stationed himself above Gilkey on the slope and belayed him by thrusting his ice ax deep into the snow above a large rock. The rope holding Gilkey was looped around the haft of Schoening’s ax, back across his hips, and through his right hand.

The plan was to pendulum Gilkey across the gully. Before the work began, Craig, who had nearly been engulfed in a small avalanche a few minutes earlier, unroped from Molenaar and moved over to the ice shelf for a breather. When Craig unhooked, Molenaar took the precaution of tying himself to a loose rope connected to Gilkey.

Moments after Molenaar tied in, George Bell, who was also standing above Gilkey, lost his balance and shot down the slope. As Bell tumbled, he pulled Streather off his feet. Streather’s fall took him directly into a second rope connecting Houston and Bates, ripping them from their positions. There was nothing to stop the fall of the four entangled men—except the rope connecting Molenaar to Gilkey, which Streather snagged as he slid by. Molenaar fell, and now five men rocketed down until the strain fell on Gilkey—who was connected by a single rope to Schoening.

Schoening leaned into his ax and braced himself for the impact of their fall. The rope thinned, then drew taut as a steel wire. For the next five minutes, he held all six men. This would have been remarkable anywhere, but at an altitude at which most people can barely think, it bordered on the miraculous. It has become the most legendary ice-ax belay in the history of climbing. “If Pete hadn’t held that anchor, Bob Craig would have been the only survivor,” says Molenaar.

When they all came to a halt, Bell was lying precariously close to the drop-off, Molenaar was bleeding from a gash in his thigh, and Houston lay crumpled at the edge of the abyss, unconscious. While the rest of the team struggled to right themselves, Bates soloed down to Houston, whose eyes opened.

“Where are we?” Houston asked. “What are we doing here?”

It was obvious that the battered team could not pull its leader back up the steep rock. In a last-ditch effort to get the concussed Houston to understand what he had to do on his own, Bates took his old friend by the shoulders.

“Charlie,” Bates said, “if you ever want to see Dorcas and Penny [his wife and daughter] again, climb up there right now!” Houston obeyed.

It was now essential to get the injured to shelter. Gilkey was anchored securely to his position in the gully with two ice axes while the others moved to the other side of a rocky rib to set up a tent. Houston, Bell, Schoening, and Molenaar were placed inside, then the remaining three returned for Gilkey. When they got back to the gully, the axes were gone and Gilkey had disappeared. An avalanche had apparently torn through the chute and taken him with it. “It was,” Bates later wrote, “as if the hand of God had swept him away.”

The next morning, after a horrendous night, the team found themselves climbing down through a tangle of chopped ropes and pieces of sleeping bag. Houston was first on the rope. “It was obvious that we were climbing down the same route that Art had taken, and that we were climbing through Art’s blood,” he recalls. “Blood and blood and blood…We didn’t talk about that for a very, very long time.”

Four days later, the seven survivors stumbled into base camp, as stunned by the unlikely fact that they were alive as by the loss of their friend. The porters erected a cairn, dedicated to Gilkey, on a prominent point of rock 200 feet above the glacier floor. It stands there to this day.

ON THE AFTERNOON after my tour of the dead, I clambered up to the Gilkey Memorial, a pile of ocher rock now festooned with dozens of plates and saucepan lids inscribed with eulogies to all the men and women who have died here. Below, I could see a procession of Pakistani guides bearing the bodies of six Japanese climbers who had been killed by an avalanche in 1997. Like Dudley Wolfe, they had recently emerged from the glacier. The guides stacked the corpses, wrapped them in plastic, then piled ice on top to keep them cool until a funeral pyre could be assembled from wood they had carried to base camp. As the wind kicked up, the plates and lids began rattling against the stone, beating out a mournful, otherworldly cadence.

At that moment, K2 seemed little more than an abattoir—a place linked inextricably with death. It was only months later, after I had returned home and met Charlie Houston for the first time, that it occurred to me that K2 might also embrace another quality—a dimension of redemptive grace that extends beyond the sport of mountaineering.

This summer marked the 50th anniversary of Art Gilkey’s death. George Bell died in 2000, but the remaining six teammates still convene for reunions, united by a sense of solidarity about what they did on K2. “There was nothing heroic about it,” insists Houston, who turned 90 in August. “It was just a job that had to be done. We weren’t counting how many people would be bereft if we died, because we weren’t figuring on dying. That’s why I don’t accept people who call us heroes. What else were we to do?”

Houston’s unsentimental attitude is admirable, but it fails to do justice to the fact that he and his men did, in fact, have a choice: They could have abandoned Gilkey to a fate that was almost certainly inevitable. Their selflessness in refusing even to consider such a thing may not qualify as heroism in their eyes, but to some it defines them in terms that cannot be other than heroic.

“The year after Charlie and his team came home,” says Jim Curran, the K2 historian, “the Italians finally succeeded in reaching the top—but it is Houston’s expedition that remains the touchstone of all that is best in mountaineering. Unfortunately, the world has since slid past this ideal. Events in climbing today are totally silly, particularly on Everest. But what those men did on K2 in 1953 was incredible. It is now one of the great legends of the mountains. In the annals of Himalayan climbing, there is nothing finer than this.”

What that legend suggests is that K2 may well be greater than Everest. Not because it’s technically harder or imparts more lyrical visions to those who climb it, but because, through the actions of Houston and his men, K2’s signature narrative achieved an expression weightier than mere triumph. “I have great respect for the Italians who summited K2 for the first time in 1954,” says Reinhold Messner, “but even greater respect for the Americans and the way they failed in 1953. They were decent. They were strong. And they failed in the most beautiful way you can imagine. This is inspiration for a lifetime.”

If Everest is a mountain that supposedly personifies the highest level of human achievement—achievement that each year is cheapened by ever less meaningful distinctions—then K2 is a mountain that embodies the supreme level of human failure. Failure imbibed to the fullest measure. Failure that cuts to the bone. And failure, too, that through some paradoxical alchemy transcends carnage by transforming those who possess the resilience and the honor to weather the ordeal. This is the secret to K2.

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