K2, also known as Mount Godwin-Austen is the second tallest mountain on Earth, it’s height exceeded only by Everest. Though it’s not quite the household name that Everest is, K2’s place as one of the worlds tallest and most dangerous mountains has brought it relative fame among mountaineers the world over.
The name K2 was given in 1852 by British surveyor T.G. Montgomerie with “K” designating the Karakoram Range and “2” since it was the 2nd peak listed. During his survey, Montgomerie, standing on Mt. Haramukh 125 miles to the south, noted two prominent peaks to the north, calling them K1 and K2. While he kept native names, he found that K2 did not have a known name.Later K2 was named Mount Godwin-Austen for Haversham Godwin-Austen (1834-1923), an early British surveyor and explorer.
K2 is the world’s second tallest mountain reaching 28,253 ft. (8,612 m) above sea level, and is the world’s twenty-second most prominent mountain, rising 13,179 ft. (4,017 m) above the surrounding terrain.
A name for K2 is Chogori, derived from Balti words chhogo ri, meaning “large mountain.” The Chinese call the mountain Qogir meaning “Great Mountain,” while Balti locals call it Kechu.
The peak is located on the border that separates the Gilgit-Baltistan region in northern Pakistan and the Taxkorgan Tajik Autonomous County of Xinjiang, China at the coordinates 35°52′57″ N 76°30′48″ E.
Though Everest is taller by nearly 800 ft., K2 is significantly more dangerous. While Everest has a fatality rate of approximately approximately 5% for year-round climbs, K2 has a fatality rate of about 25%, meaning that one out of every four climbers to attempt the summit have perished. Additionally, K2 has never been climbed during the winter. Because of the extremely harsh weather on the mountain, the likelihood of fatality on a winter climb would presumably be significantly greater than the current 1 in 4.
British climbers Aleister Crowley (1875-1947), an occultist and hedonist, and Oscar Eckenstein (1859-1921) led an expedition of six climbers that made the first attempt to climb K2, from March to June, 1902. The party spent 68 days on the mountain, with only 8 clear days, attempting the northeast ridge. Spending two months at high altitude, the party made 5 summit attempts. The last one began on June 8 but 8 days of bad weather defeated them and they retreated after a high point of 21,407 feet (6,525 meters). Scraps of expedition clothing were later found below K2 and are displayed at Neptune Mountaineering in Boulder, Colorado.
The second attempt to climb K2 was led by Luigi Amedeo, Duke of Abruzzi, Italy in 1909. His party was the first to attempt the Southeast Spur — now know as the Abruzzi Spur — but turned back after reaching an altitude of 20,505 ft. (6,250 m) above sea-level. After failed attempts to realize an alternate route via the West Ridge or Northeast Ridge, Abruzzi declared that K2 would never be submitted. Ironically, the Abruzzi Spur is now the most common route to K2’s peak.
The third attempt to summit K2 and the first by an American was led by Charles Houston in 1938. After determining that the Abruzzi Spur was the most viable route, the team reached an altitude of approximately 26,000 ft. (8,000 m), but was forced to turn back due to insufficient supplies and dangerous weather.
One of the most famous events in American climbing history occurred during a 1953 expedition led by Charles Houston. A 10-day storm trapped the team at 25,592 feet. Abandoning a summit attempt, the climbers attempted to save 27-year-old Art Gilkey, who had developed altitude sickness, by descending to a lower altitude. At one point during their desperate descent, Pete Schoening saved five falling climbers by arresting their fall with the rope and his ice axe plunged behind a boulder. The ice axe is displayed at the Bradford Washburn American Mountaineering Museum in Golden, Colorado.
The first successful climb of K2 was led by Italian Ardito Desio in July of 1954, though only two members of the team — Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni — actually reached the summit.
23 years after Lacedelli and Compagnoni first reached the summit, Ichiro Yoshizawa of Japan led the second successful ascent of K2 in 1977. Ichiro’s party also included Ashraf Aman, the first native Pakistani to climb the mountain. More than 1,500 porters were employed by Yoshizawa’s expedition.
The first American ascent was in 1978. A strong team led by James Whittaker ascended a new route up the peak’s Northeast Ridge.
K2 is one of the most difficult of the fourteen 8,000-meter peaks, offering technical climbing, severe weather conditions, and high avalanche danger. As of 2014, over 335 climbers have reached K2’s summit, while at least 82 have died.
1986 was a tragic year on K2 with 13 climbers dying. Five climbers died in a severe storm between August 6 and August 10. Eight other climbers died in the preceding 6 weeks. Deaths were by avalanche, falling, and rockfall. The climbers killed by the storm were part of a group cobbled together from several failed expeditions. Three of the climbers reached the top on August 4. During the descent they met up with 4 other climbers and stayed at 26,000 feet where they were trapped in a storm. Five climbers died while only two survived.
As of 2013, 12 women have summitted K2, but four died on the descent. On August 23, 2011,Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner reached the summit of K2, becoming the first woman to climb all 14 of the8,000-meter mountains without using supplemental oxygen. Kaltenbrunner also became the second woman to climb the 8,000ers.
In August 2008, 11 climbers died on the upper slopes of K2 after an avalanche caused by a fallen ice serac either killed them outright or isolated them above The Bottleneck, a steep ice couloir.
In 2010, Fredrik Ericsson joined Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner in ascending the mountain with the intent of skiing down. Before reaching the summit, Ericsson suffered a fatal 3,300 ft. (1,000 m) fall, at which point Kaltenbrunner turned back.
Despite the enormous danger it presents, K2 continues to be a challenge that some climbers simply cannot resist. In contrast to the increasing commerciality of Everest, K2 is a peak that still represents the historical spirit of mountaineering. K2 has been and will likely remain the realm of only the most adventurous and ambitious mountaineers.