K2 History

by Per Jerberyd © 1997

The climbing history of K2, Chogori, Mount Godwin-Austen, from the first try in 1902, until the Italian success in 1954.

The additional chapter to this article, telling Walter Bonattis version of what really happened on K2 in 1954 finally turned out to be true as Lino Lacedelli finally confessed in 2006 that Bonatti was right and their version was a conspiracy and lie! Read Bonattis version. It’s sad that Bonatti never got his permit for a totally solo expedition to K2 the year after. If he would have done it, climbing K2 totally solo, something he belive was possible, it would have been the feat of all feats in Himalaya ever…

K2 was first described by the British colonel T.G. Montgomery in 1856 while doing a survey of the area. He named the peaks in the order he saw them, K1, K2, K3, etc. The K stands for Karakorum. Today K2 is the only major mountain that still uses it’s surveyor’s notation name as its most common name. K2 with it’s height of 8,611 meters is the second highest mountain in the world and is regarded as one of the hardest to climb.

In 1902, a six-man group of European climbers, led by the Englishman Eckenstein, headed for K2. They chose the time before the monsoon.
They first crossed the Baltoro glacier, which with it’s length of 67 kilometres is the world’s third largest. The expedition reached the mountain’s foot and planned to make the attempt directly from the south over the Southeast Ridge, but when in place they came to the conclusion that the Northeast Ridge is probably much easier. Several attempts were made without success. They only reached 6,600 metres – this group had an unrealistic goal, and didn’t realise their limits. At this time, early in the century, they had no idea of the difficulties in ascending such a high mountain.

1909 – THE DUKE
Seven years later it was time for the Duke of Abruzzi’s large expedition to Karakorum and K2. Besides the scientific exploration, this royal adventurer also had plans for alpine operations. K2 wasnow scouted closely and the famous mountain photographer Vittorio Sellatook took a lot of fabulous and legendary photos. To start with, they tried to reach up through the South East Ridge (that later was named after the Duke). However, the bearers were not trained for this exposed climbing (The Sherpas were unfortunately “unknown” during the early part of the century!).

Northeast of K2, some of the expedition members reached the 6,666 metre high Savoia Saddle and from there they had a closer look at K2’s giant North-Face. Later, the expedition made an attempt to climb K2’s guardian in the west, the 7,544 metre high Skyang Kangri, but a giant gorge blocked their way at 6,600 metres. However, later on Chogolisa (7,654 metres) the Duke reached 7,500 metres with a resolute attack. This became an absolute high altitude record until 1922 when it was beaten on Everest.

The Italians now celebrated their 20 year anniversary in Karakorum. This time the expedition was lead by the Duke of Spoleto, the nephew of the Duke of Abruzzi. The scientific leader was Professor Ardito Desio and it is mainly to his credit that the expedition didn’t return home completely without results.

The plan to try climbing K2 was abandoned and it was decided to concentrate solely upon scientific work in the Baltoro region

In 1938 it was time for the next expedition, organised by the American Alpine Club and led by Charles Houston, who two years previously had been on the successful expedition to Nanda Devi. They were confident of succeeding this time too! They engaged a team of excellent Sherpas, led by the famous Pasang Kikuli. In the beginning of June the wholeexpedition reached the mountain.

On July 1, Camp I was established and several others followed. Theweather looked stabile and clear.

On July 18, Houston and Petzoldt reached the “shoulder” at 7,740 metres and theysucceeded in conquering the difficulties on the lowerpart of the mountain , the last high altitude camp was established at 7,530 metres.

On July 21, Houston and Petzholdt started to push upwards again, trying to find possible sites for Camp VIII. A place is found right below the top pyramid. Petzholt however, continued climbing further on, trying the rocks, his highest point is estimated to be at 7,925 metres.The sky was clear and the sun warm. Continue or not? The decision was made and they started the descent. The expedition results looked promising, for the first time K2’s summit was threatened for real.

1939 – GRIM DAYS
Again the Americans stood in front of K2, this time with the excellent German-American climber Fritz Wiessner as the leader and again Pasang Kikuli leading the Sherpas. However, the other climbers didn’t measure up to Wiessner’s class, something that would have serious consequences later on.

Camps I – VII were set up at the same places as the year before and Camp VIII was established at 7,710 metres, the expedition member Wolfe remained here when Wiessner and Pasang went on ahead to set up Camp IX at 7,940 metres. On July 19 Wiessner and Pasang decided to try for the summit. They climbed through the rocks and it became extremely arduous. At 6 p.m. they reached about 8,380 metres. Pasang refused to continue, saying it was too late. Wiessner wanted to continue, the weather was so good and clear that the climb could be done in the moonlight. Pasang is immovable, and they start the descent.

During the descent, the rope got stuck in Pasang’s crampon and was torn away from his pack and fell down the abyss. At 2.30 a.m. they reached Camp IX totally exhausted. Their big chance had slipped away through their hands; they had been closer to reaching an 8,000-metre summit than anyone before.

The next day, they rested, but the following day another try was made,taking a different route. Passang had only one crampon. After major difficulties, they headed back again.

With no supplies remaining the following day, they descended to camp VIII, where Wolf welcome them with delight, he told them that during the entire time they were gone, no one had come up from Camp VII where a bigger supply depot was supposed to be. When reaching Camp VII, they found it abandoned. They spent the night there and the following morning decided that Wolf would remain, while Wiessner and Pasang continued down to organise a new attack. When they got to Camp VI it was clear that a catastrophe was near, also this Camp was abandoned, as were all the other Camps all the way to Camp II!

Completely exhausted both physically and mentally, and suffering from frostbite, Weissner and Pasang reached Base Camp on July 24. While they had struggled for the summit, the whole organisation had completely fallen apart. Against Weissner’s orders, the remaining members of the expedition (that never reached higher then Camp II) had given the Sherpas orders to abandon all Camps up to number VII.

Now they had to save Wolfe! After two desperate and failed attempts, Pasang Kikuli and some other Sherpas managed to reach Camp VI on July 28. The next morning they got up to Camp VII and the very exhausted and apathetic Wolfe. Even after being given hot drinks he couldn’t manage to descend immediately, but promised to be ready the following morning. The Sherpas returned to Camp VI where they spent the night. A storm with bad weather started to rage over K2 and they had to wait another day. At dawn on July 31 Pasang and two other Sherpas again climbed to Camp VII while the fourth, Tsering, remained in camp. A decision was made to somehow get Wolfe down or at least get a written message from him that would free them from all responsibility.

This was the last ever heard from these four men. On August 2, Tsering alone reached Base Camp and told that none had returned and that no sign of human life could been seen higher up. Wiesser made a last desperate rescue attempt but was forced to give up after spending three days in Camp II waiting out a storm. This meant the end, any survivor could no longer be found on the mountain. Dudley Wolfe, Pasang Kikuli, Pasang Kitar and Pintso rest forever on K2. So ended the second American attempt on K2, with a tragedy. The expedition got massive criticism from both England and the U.S.A., and Wiessner had difficulties defending himself, but he was hardly the one to blame. Pasang Kikuli was one of the best Sherpas, and at this time he was equally compared to the now world famous Tenzing Norgay.

After the war, due to the political conditions, no expeditions were made to Karakorum until 1953 when the Americans again headed for K2. The expedition consisted of eight men, including the veterans Houston and Bates (from the 1938 expedition), Tony Streather (who had been with the Norwegians on Tirich Mir in 1950) and George Bell (famous for his climbs in the Andes) in the front line. On June 19, Base Camp is established below the Abruzzi-Spur at 5,000 metres. The expedition didn’t have any Sherpas since they had been denied entrance to Pakistan, they had to manage with carriers from the Hunza-people, who did show climbing talent. During the following three weeks the Camps were established – mainly in the same places as in 1938 and 1939. The weather looked good, but slowly turned. Suddenly storm winds became common, and all climbing activity was stopped for several days.

Finally, on August 1, the entire eight man team was together in Camp VIII at 7,750 metres, all in their very best shape and ready for the final attack.

Then the Gods of the mountain attacked! A violent snowstorm started to rage day and night. Thanks to Houston they had supplies for 10 – 12 days. A vote was taken, and two rope-teams were chosen for the attack against summit. All they needed was a few days of good weather. However, the storm never calmed down. Instead, the wind increased, shaking the tents more and more. On August 4 the 26-year-old Gilkey suffered a thrombus in one of his legs, it was almost impossible for him to move. His condition deteriorated and also his lungs were attacked after a few days. In the raging storm there was no possibility to get him down quickly to Base Camp – most probably, it would have been difficult to transport him at all.

Now it was a fight for everybody’s life. It was clear that the storm would continue for some time. On August 10, the situation got critical in thehighest camp. There were almost no suppliesleft and Gilkey’scondition was very serious. Bell had also lost the feeling in his toes.

It was decided to make an attempt to get Gilkey down and the whole crew started to descend. There was no alternative anymore if they wanted to survive. The first day they only managed a few hundred metres downwards. In the evening the ropes entangled between the different rope-teams and five men fell, but Schoening managed to hold them alone! Fortunately no one got seriously injured. While the bivouac tents were put up, Gilkey had been secured a bit away. When went back to him, an avalanche had decided his destiny, nothing is left, his provisional stretcher attached with ice axes had been torn away, and in the howling storm nothing could be heard. The other seven climbers continued their struggle downward and finally they reached Base Camp after five days. Bell had serious frostbite to his feet and was carried all the way to Skardu – almost 200 kilometres.

The third American expedition had again been close to success. That all seven climbers managed to get down the steep Abruzzi-Spur under such adverse circumstances was literally more than a miracle!

During 1953 Italian Professor Ardito Desio and Mario Puchoz scouted the terrain, seeking possible routes up K2. They probed the terrain up to 6,000 metres and made a lot of observations. When Desio got home, hemade the final plans to reachthe summit. He said that the only chance of succeeding depended onthe the plan being followed with a militarydiscipline and that every member was to leave his personal ambition for the expeditions best.

The 21 chosen members first had to pass through a medical examination and were tested in a pressure chamber. In the middle of January 1954, all members gathered in a tent camp at 4,000 metres altitude on the Mount Blanc massif. The oxygen devices were tested and every person’s physical and mental condition was examined in detail. From this group, 10 men were chosen for the expedition. They immediately leave for a training camp on 4,500 metres on Monte Rosa.

Just before the departure, a few men joined the party since the expedition failed to recruit any Sherpas. At the last minute the famous mountain guide Cassin resigned his alpine leadership.

The Approach followed the schedule and the route is the same as before, through the Abruzzi-Spur. Despite the bad weather, the higher camps were established one after another.

In the middle of June, all supplies for the final attack were stored in Camp IV. The expedition hoped to reach the summit before the end of the month. Hard winds and storms raged all over Karakorum during the following weeks and no progress was made. Would they not reach higher than their fellow countrymen from 1929? (The expedition from which Desio is a veteran).

The hard winds and storms calmed during the second half of July and the weather seemed to stabilise. Desio decided to take this opportunity as a last chance to reach the summit before the monsoon. Camp V was established at 7,300 metres and the next 300 metres above. At this point, an unfortunate thing happened: the 36 year old mountain guide Maria Puchoz from Courmayeur died of pneumonia in Camp II on July 20.

The expedition continued and Camp VIII was pushed forward to 8,150 metres, right below the 200 metre high and steep wall that is considered to be the climb’s key to success. On July 28, four men reached Camp VIII  in the evening and spent the night there. Of these four, two climbed on towards the summit next morning. Up on the ridge, just 200 metres below the top the oxygen suddenly ran out. What to do? Continue or descend? They continued without oxygen and finally reached the summit in the afternoon after a hard struggle. K2’s summit is reached for the first time. They didn’t stay long. The descent became dramatic when oneofthe companions fell but managed to stop the fall with his ice axe and his partner’s safety. At 2:30 p.m. the duo reached Camp VIII where their friends welcomed them with hot drinks. Everybody safely reached Base Camp on August 2.

Who were the two climbers that reached the summit? It wasn’t made public until the expedition came back to Italy. Desio wanted everyone to have the credit; the whole team was responsible for the success. The ascenders were Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni.


  1. Your history should take account of K2’s height and position being fixed in 1861 by Haversham Godwin-Austen (1834-1923) from a point about 1000m above Urdukas on the Baltoro Glacier.

  2. One should add that the two Italians at the top of K2 left their two oxygen supplying companions spend one night at 8000. Among the suppliers was the young Walter Bonatti, in much better condition than Lacedellli and Compagnoni. They obviously saw him as a rival for the conquest of the top. Bonatti and the local Hunza Mahdi should have died ou there in the cold.
    See :
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Achille_Compagnoni (and its bibliography)
    Erri De Luca wrote a book with the Italian alpinist Nives and in it she clearly hints at that infamous episode of the K2 history

  3. I love reading through a post that will make men andwomen think. Also, thank you for allowingfor me to comment!

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