Ask any child to draw a rough sketch of a mountain. There are significant chances that child would come up with a near perfect triangular peak with sloping shoulders jutting prominently out of its base. That is K2!
This savage mountain both admired and feared is second to only one. Pakistan is the proud custodian of this beauty and the beast standing tall, delineating its northern border with China.
"K2" was the name given to the peak in 1852 by the British surveyor T.G. Montgomerie as part of the Great Trigonometric Survey carried out by the British Empire to demarcate its territories. The "K" denotes the mountain range - Karakoram - and the "2" denotes that it is the second highest recorded peak. The mountain is known by a variety of names including the Chinese Qogir (great mountain), Chogori (Large Mountain) and Mount Godwin-Austen after an early explorer of the area. K2 has also been nicknamed as "The Savage Mountain" because of the extreme level of danger it poses to climbers. About the impersonal nature of the word K2, Fosco Maraini (an Italian photographer and mountaineer) remarked, "...... just the bare bones of a name, all rock and ice and storm and abyss. It makes no attempt to sound human. It is atoms and stars. It has the nakedness of the world before the first man - or of the cindered planet after the last."
Approaches and Routes
K2 consists of two distinct sides, the formidable Chinese side comprising north and east face and the preferred Pakistani side with west and south face of the mountain. For climbing purposes K2 has ten well identified routes. Four routes on the Chinese side are rarely used while the Pakistani side has six established routes.
1. Abruzzi Spur/South East Ridge. This is the standard route to reach K2 summit used by almost 75% of all climbers. It was first attempted by Duke of Abruzzi in 1909. The famous features on this route include "House's Chimney", "Black Pyramid", the easily visible "shoulder" and a narrow couloir known as the "bottleneck".
2. South-South East Spur/Cesen Route. This route is a safe alternative to the Abruzzi Spur as it avoids Black Pyramid and the House's Chimney.
3. Polish Route/South Face/Central Rib. It is one of the most dangerous approaches to K2. In July 1986, Jerzy Kukuczka and Tadeusz Piotrowski summited on this route. Piotrowski was killed while descending. Reinhold Messner (an Italian mountaineer) called it a suicidal route and so far, no one has attempted to take the Polish route again.
4. Magic Line/South-South West ridge/South West Pillar. This route is very complicated. It was first climbed in 1986 by the Polish-Slovak climbers. Since 2004, when Jordi Corominas of Spain climbed this route, no one has been successful in summiting it.
5. West Face. This route is almost entirely made up of rock crevices and snow-covered couloirs. It was first used by the Japanese in 1997.
6. West Ridge/Japanese Route. First climbed in 1981 by Pakistani mountaineer Nazir Sabir and Elho Ohtani from Japan, this route originates from the distant Negrotto Glacier.
7. North West Ridge. Located on the Chinese side of K2, it culminates in the north ridge. First ascent to this route was attempted in 1991.
8. North West Face. Also located on the Chinese side of K2, this route is known for its chaotic rock and snow fields extending all the way up to the summit. First ascent was made in 1990 by a Japanese team.
9. North Ridge. Opposite the Abruzzi Spur on the Chinese side is the north ridge which is rarely climbed, partly due to its very difficult access, which involves crossing the Shaksgam River and is a hazardous undertaking. Japanese ascent to the north ridge in 1982 was the first.
10. North East Ridge. The long and corniced north east ridge was used in 1902 by British engineer Oscar Eckenstein during the first ever attempt to summit K2. His attempt stalled at almost 6000m. This route was not attempted again for seventy-four years. In 1978, an American team was successful and was the first expedition to use a route other than the Abruzzi Spur.
East Face. No one has ever climbed the east face of K2 due to the instability of the snow and ice formations.
The Climbing History
The climbing history of K2 can be divided into two parts.
* The Attempts Era (1902-1953).
This era was dominated by the Italian and American expeditions. In total there were five attempts. The first ever attempt to climb K2 was in 1902 by British engineer Oscar Eckenstein. His summit attempt along the north east ridge stalled at almost 6000m. In 1909, the Duke of Abruzzi attempted to climb via the south east ridge but made it only to 5974m. This route, called the Abruzzi Spur, later led to the first summit of K2. In 1938, the American expedition led by Charles Houston made upto 7925m on the Abruzzi Spur Route. A year later in 1939, Fritz Weissner made it upto 8380m but was forced to retreat. In 1953 Charles Houston attempted again but failed.
* The Summits Era (1954-till date).
This era starts from the first successful summit by an Italian team via the Abruzzi Spur on July 31, 1954. The team included a Pakistani member, Colonel Muhammad Ata-ullah, who had been a part of the 1953 American expedition. Captain (later Lt. General) G.S. Butt was the liaison officer. Also on the expedition was a porter from Hunza, Amir Mehdi, who lost his limbs to frostbite. Twenty-three years later, Ichiro Yoshizawa of Japan led the second successful ascent of K2 in 1977. Ichiro's party also included Ashraf Aman, the first Pakistani to summit the mountain. In 1978, an American team made the third successful ascent of K2 using a new route i.e north east ridge. A notable Japanese ascent was that of the difficult north ridge on the Chinese side of the peak in 1982. The first climber to reach the summit of K2 twice was Czech climber Josef Rakoncaj. The first woman to summit K2 was Pole Wanda Rutkiewicz on June 23, 1986.
In 1986, two Polish expeditions climbed via two new routes, the Magic Line and the Polish Line. On July 26, 2014, a team of six Pakistanis and three Italian climbers scaled K2 to commemorate 60 years of the first K2 ascent.
The Savage Mountain
Due to its high fatality rate, K2 is called the savage mountain. Most fatal accidents in K2's history include the 1986 Disaster (thirteen dead), 1995 (six dead) and 2008 (eleven dead). The factors contributing to K2's lethality include rock fall and avalanches, unpredictable weather, steep altitude, limited number of routes and the lack of oxygen. So far only 302 people have completed the ascent and at least 81 people have died attempting to climb.
K2 in Popular Culture
The Charisma of K2 has caught the imagination of many writers, photographers and film makers. Few of the movies based on K2 include: K2 (1991), Vertical Limit (2000); K2: Siren of the Himalayas (2012); and, The Summit (2012). Few books about K2 are: No Way Down: Life and Death on K2 (Graham Bowley); K2: Life and Death on the World's Most Dangerous Mountain (Ed Viesturs); K2: The Story of the Savage Mountain (Jim Curran); and, K2 Kahani (Mustansar Hussain Tarar).
K2 Base Camp Trek (Askole-Concordia)
The Almost one week long Askole-Concordia trek to K2 Base Camp has the status of being one of the most spectacular treks in the world. In the words of Fosco Maraini beyond Askole, the last human habitat, one enters into "The Greatest Museum of Shapes and Forms". Important campsites enroute include Payu, Liligo, Urdokasand Goro and Concordia. From Concordia it takes another 5-6 hours to reach K2 Base Camp.
Pakistan indeed is fortunate to be the custodian of a mountain like K2. It is important to realize how we can use this gift of God to capitalize upon and benefit from. K2 could do wonders for Pakistan's tourism industry, only if we take effective measures to make the most of it.