The savage mountain

February 21, 2021

Characterised by jagged peaks and steep slopes, K2’s triangular shape means that it has historically posed an extraordinary challenge to mountaineers

Earlier this year, a photograph went viral, in which K2’s pyramidical shadow can be seen stretching across the sweeping extent of the Karakoram Mountain range, into China, the shadow’s peak touching a golden horizon.

At 8,611 metres high, K2 is the second tallest mountain in the world after Mount Everest, which is 8,848 kilometers above sea level. It is located on the China–Pakistan border between Baltistan in northern Pakistan, and Dafdar township in Taxkorgan Tajik Autonomous County of Xinjiang, China, where it is referred to as Qogir Feng. Because of this cross-border reach, K2 is known by several names.

K2 received its most popular name from the British Survey of India in 1856, when a 19th-century English geographer, Godwin Austen, was the first to measure and survey the peak. For this reason, K2 was also referred to as Mount Godwin Austen on maps for a time—even though the name, which was suggested in honour of the geographer, was eventually rejected by the Royal Geographical Society, it still sticks. Colloquially, K2 also goes by the names Dopsang (“mountain peak”) and Chogori (which translates in Balti simply to “big mountain”).

A report published by CNN earlier this year states that, “While few have summited K2, at least 77 people have died attempting the climb.”

The statistics for the climb are grim: for every one four that summit K2, one person dies. In fact, just a short distance from the K2 base camp is the Gilkey Memorial, gleaming with metallic plaques that have been plastered to the Godwin-Austen Glacier in memory and honour of fallen mountaineers. For these reasons, K2 is infamously given the moniker Savage Mountain among mountaineers. Despite this, however, the rocky inclines and ice-draped walls of K2 have continued to attract ambitious mountaineers for well over a century.

The statistics for the climb are grim: for every four people that summit K2, one person dies.

The first serious documented attempt to climb the mountain took place in 1902 by an international expedition led by Oscar Eckenstein. They reached the base of K2 on the north side (China), and climbed the North East Ridge to a height of 6,525m (21,400 feet). The first successful ascent occurred in 1954. An Italian expedition led by Professor Ardito Desio reached the summit via the Abruzzi Spur, using supplemental oxygen. Two successful ascents followed in 1977 and 1978, by Japanese and American expeditions, respectively.

In 1986, Wanda Rutkiewicz (Poland), Julie Tullis (Britain), and Liliane Barrard (France) became the first three women to reach the summit. All three climbed without supplemental oxygen. Unfortunately, Julie and Liliane died on the descent. 2008 marks the worst year in the history of K2 mountaineering. On August 1 that year, 11 mountaineers from international expeditions died. In addition, 2014 not only marked the 65th anniversary of the first K2 summit, but also the year when an all-Pakistani expedition summited K2. Earlier this year, on January 16, 2021, a team of Nepali Sherpas led by Mingma Gyalje Sherpa made history by summiting K2 during the winter season.

Characterised by jagged peaks and steep slopes, K2’s triangular shape means that it has historically posed an extraordinary challenge to mountaineers. To date, there are less than 400 summits overall for K2, compared to Mount Everest’s 7,500 summits. Owing to its harsh environment and climate, few plants and animals thrive on K2 and other mountains on the range. A combination of unpredictable weather and severe temperatures contribute to the overall technical challenges of the K2 climb.

The writer is a student at the Lahore University of Management Sciences

K2: The savage mountain