Are we heading for a K2 calamity? 70 climbers race to summit in winter

Are we heading for a K2 calamity? It’s the last great conquest in climbing – to scale the ‘Savage Mountain’… in winter. Now 70 climbers are racing for the summit

Posted on Instagram on Wednesday via satellite phone link, the message reads: ‘Bad weather . . . but satisfied we got our first acclimatisation round. All members spent two to three nights on the mountain and are now waiting for the next opportunity to go up.’

An attached clip of video shows a desolate vista of wind-battered tents on a narrow plateau between snow-covered escarpments, their peaks obscured by the ‘deteriorating weather’.

The message signs off defiantly with a bulging-bicep emoji and the words ‘All is well and greetings from K2 base camp’.

As I write this, around 70 climbers — among them cash-rich amateurs but led by two of the greatest mountain men that have ever lived — are engaged in simultaneous expeditions to conquer K2, the second-highest mountain in the world

All is well? Not by any rational measure. The post was sent from the slopes of the so-called ‘Savage Mountain’ where, at this time of the year, winds gust at hurricane speed, the temperature can fall to -65c, and there is a one in six chance of dying in the effort to reach the summit.

The past year has revealed to us a new way of killing mankind as the world has become transfixed by Covid-19.

But amid the ongoing cataclysm of the pandemic, there remains the desire among a few of the very brave, or very foolhardy, to defy Nature on a new, far more deadly battleground.

As I write this, around 70 climbers — among them cash-rich amateurs but led by two of the greatest mountain men that have ever lived — are engaged in simultaneous expeditions to conquer K2, the second-highest mountain in the world.

The summit is 237 m closer to sea level than that of Everest. However, even at a height of 8,849 m (29,031 ft), Everest has been climbed thousands of times.

Some of those successes occurred during the far deadlier winter season. Sources put the mortality rate among climbers at ‘only’ one in 25 at best, at worst one in 15.

K2’s conquerors number fewer than 100. And no one has ever summited her in winter. To attempt to do so has been described as ‘the last great mountaineering challenge’.

Alison Hargreaves was arguably Britain’s greatest female climber. On May 13, 1995, the Derbyshire-born mother of two reached the summit of Everest without the aid of Sherpas or bottled oxygen. But, three months later — against the advice and wishes of her family and local officials — she pressed on in appalling conditions to reach the summit of K2

For more than 200 years, we have been fascinated by the idea of climbing the world’s highest and most dangerous peaks.

Why do we do it? In his book on the philosophy of climbing, Mountains Of The Mind, Robert Macfarlane writes of ‘mountain worship’ and the ‘faintly erotic feeling of real terror’.

Of the European peaks, Mont Blanc was first summited in 1786 and the Matterhorn in 1865 — the latter by a British expedition, four of whom perished on the descent.

Empire broadened the climbing horizons and the Raj brought the British to the foothills of the greatest mountain range of them all — the Himalayas, of which Everest is a part.

In the early 20th century, the country was fascinated by the attempts of George Mallory to conquer what was by then considered to be ‘the Third Pole’, and stunned when he was lost without trace on his third expedition in 1924.

But there was another mountain range on the borders of British India (now Pakistan) and China, which harboured what would prove to be an even more formidable challenge than Everest.

In 1856, a British survey team set out to measure the Karakoram range. One summit stood out, quite literally; like a gigantic pyramid of ice.

The mountain has been the scene of a number of multiple fatalities among climbers over recent years. Thirteen lost their lives there during the summer of 1986, including five in one storm 

‘K2’ was designated as such because it was the second peak in the Karakoram range to be sketched by team member Thomas Montgomerie. Its prosaic nomenclature has never been altered. Some climbers even feel it suits the cold frigidity and unique risk that the mountain presents; a nameless space alien among the Everests and Eigers of the canon.

Today, K2 is second among the 14 peaks in the world known as the ‘eight-thousanders’. That is to say their peaks are all over 8,000 m (26,000 ft above sea level), the threshold of the ‘death zone’, above which oxygen depletion and cold can fatally undermine our physical and mental well-being.

These are the blue riband climbs of mountaineering and K2, at 8,611 m, is considered among, if not the most, perilous, being steeper and more remote than Everest.

The first organised attempt at scaling K2 was made in 1902, but the expedition could not find a possible way up.

K2 held out against all human endeavour, even after Everest had been conquered for the first time in 1953 by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.

It was not until the following July that two Italians called Achille Compagnoni and Lino Lacedelli reached the summit. K2 would not be conquered again until 1977.

The mountain has been the scene of a number of multiple fatalities among climbers over recent years. Thirteen lost their lives there during the summer of 1986, including five in one storm. Eleven died in one day on the mountain in August 2008.

One of the most poignant tragedies occurred between these two disasters, in the August of 1995.

Alison Hargreaves was arguably Britain’s greatest female climber.

On May 13, 1995, the Derbyshire-born mother of two reached the summit of Everest without the aid of Sherpas or bottled oxygen.

But, three months later — against the advice and wishes of her family and local officials — she pressed on in appalling conditions to reach the summit of K2.

A storm caught her on the descent and she was killed, along with five other climbers. Remember, this was during the summer, not the winter season.

There was a tragic postscript to her family’s loss. Hargreaves had climbed the Eiger’s north face when she was six months pregnant with her first child, Tom Ballard. He followed in his mother’s footsteps as a record-breaking mountaineer. But he, too, was killed — in 2019, when ascending Nanga Parbat.

That mountain was the 13th of the 14 ‘eight-thousanders’ to be climbed in the winter season, a feat achieved only as recently as 2016.

Only K2 remained. The first serious attempt was made in 1988. It failed. Later efforts were marred by death and serious injury.

Climber Tom Ballard is pictured above. He died in 2019 during another mountain expedition

So why are so many climbers attempting to be the first now?

The 2020 climbing seasons in the Himalayas and across the world were disrupted by the pandemic. Pakistan has ‘opened’ the mountain this winter, so there was pent-up demand. And, it must be said, professional expedition leading is a lucrative business.

The Instagram message at the start of this piece was posted by Chhang Dawa Sherpa, who is leading one of the expeditions attempting to conquer the mountain.

He has climbed all 14 peaks above 8,000 m. Until last year, he was the youngest ever to have done so.

Another expedition is being led by Nirmal Purja MBE, the first Gurkha soldier to pass selection to the Special Boat Service.

Purja, who lives in Hampshire, climbed the 14 ‘eight-thousanders’ in six months and six days, beating the previous record of eight years.

He also posted on Wednesday: ‘We are at basecamp of K2 at 5,200 m elevation. The conditions right now are not very pleasant and it’s expected to get even worse for the next few days with temperatures up to -50c.’

There is disquiet among the wider mountaineering community about the presence of relatively inexperienced climbers — who have paid anything up to £35,000 to make the attempt — in such harsh conditions on a notoriously deadly mountain.

Nevertheless, both group leaders have expressed confidence that they can lead their charges safely to the summit.

Go tell it to the Savage Mountain. One wishes them all the good luck in the world, but the statistics suggest that K2 will add to its baleful toll before this winter is out.

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