I read the book (like Mallory said about Mt. Everest), “because it’s there“. The thing about non-mountaineers like me is that, we are drawn to the tragedies on the slopes. With a title like that, and a fairly bleak cover image of an early mountaineer climbing the slope, you can forgive me for imagining this would be the K2 version of Krakauer’s excellent “Into Thin Air“.
But it wasn’t. The book essentially lists all the expeditions from Crowley, Charlie Houston, Desio and spends a fair bit of time on the Compagnoni-Lacedelli controversy.
OInteresting tid-bits notwithstanding, however nothing that one couldn’t have gleaned from a few hours of internet link-jumping. So in essence, the book’s a good starting place to know the various expeditions and names that you could double-click on for further research.
There are multiple anecdotes, but the one that stuck was the failed rescue of Art Gilkey. I had actually skipped this chapter entirely but went back to it from a later reference. The rescue is a gripping tale of men who did everything they could to try and rescue one of their own.
It wasn’t just about climbing down with an immobilised climber, it was about doing that in the middle of a snowstorm with your own strengths drawn to a limit. Such a high degree of belief in one’s moral ethic is worth pausing for.
The team try to belay Gilkey down a slope but when one of them slips and knocks everyone off their feet, it is literally only Pete Schoening and his ice-axe that holds the entire team up from certain death. I would never want to forget the names of Charlie Houston, Bob Bates, Dee Molenar, George Bell, Tony Streather, Pete Schoening- the men who attempted this rescue. Such a sharp contrast from the mountain-madness and commercially driven greed that is prevalent across the board these days (I don’t mean just in mountaineering).
The book also details the very dramatic post-summit scandals of the Italian expedition. To think that the first time K2 was summitted in 1954, would be drowned in a never-ending squabble is quite unfortunate. It’s surprising that most of us haven’t heard as much of the summitting pair of Compagnoni & Lacedelli, unlike the Hillary-Tenzing pair. Almost a waste of what was actually quite a well orchestrated climb by Desio, with some last-minute heroic actions of team-members like Bonatti & the Pakistani porter Mahdi.
Like I have written elsewhere, mankind never ceases to amaze me with its incredible stories of heroism and depravity. What lifts the book is not the writing but the subjects.