Published: May 1979

Americans Climb K2

Leaving Camp III

The Ultimate Challenge

Second to Mount Everest in height, but not in treachery, “the Savage Mountain” had been scaled but twice. Four decades had seen five U.S. expeditions fail. In 1978 Jim Whittaker returned to lead a team determined to reach the top.

By James W. Whittaker
Photograph by William Q. Sumner

An hour before midnight the snow began to fall—beautiful, silent, heartbreaking. Huddled in the relative warmth of the tent, I knew our last hope was fading.

We were two in the tent, my wife, Dianne, and I, perched on a ridge 22,300 feet high on the world's second tallest mountain, the peak known as K2 in Pakistan's Karakoram Range. On the slopes far above us four teammates lay camped beneath the summit, poised for the final assault. A snowstorm now would cost them the victory and possibly even their lives.

Weather, more than the mountain, had been our problem from the start. During the two months since we had established Base Camp at the foot of K2, violent summer storms had swept the mountain, immobilizing us about half the time and setting us far behind schedule.

Now, on September 5, 1978, we faced a last-chance situation. Food, fuel, and—above all—human endurance had reached dangerously low levels. Only clear weather could open the way to the summit.

As the snow continued to fall, Dianne and I dozed inside the tent, occasionally waking to peer grimly out at the weather. Sometime in the early morning she opened the tent flap for a routine check, then turned to me.

"Jim," she said quietly. "There are stars."

In a third of a century of climbing mountains, including that mightiest of all, Everest, I recall few moments so vividly. Dianne's discovery of a change in the weather meant not only the revival of hope but also an agonizing choice: whether to risk everything on a slender chance, or to wait for better odds that might never come.

The decision belonged not to me as expedition leader but to our teammates high up near the summit. If they chose to risk it, they would start long before daylight. Even with the summit in plain view of our camp, we would not know until midmorning.

Sunrise took an eternity. At length the first rays touched the peak above us, and the mountain began to emerge in a great wash of light. After a time Dianne trained her camera with a telephoto lens on the summit. Slowly she panned along the southeastern ridge, then stopped.

"They're going for it," she said. "I can see two climbers."

The final choice had been made.

For years I had longed to climb K2, as a sequel to our conquest of Mount Everest on the 1963 American expedition led by Norman Dyhrenfurth.* Although Everest is the higher mountain by 778 feet, K2 at 28,250 feet is to me a more difficult and dangerous challenge.

* As a member of the 1963 expedition, sponsored primarily by the National Geographic Society, the author was the first to plant the U.S. and National Geographic flags atop Earth's highest mountain (October 1963 National Geographic). He also wrote about the first ascent of the Yukon's Mount Kennedy in the July 1965 issue. The first ascent of Everest was reported by Sir John Hunt and Sir Edmund Hillary in the July 1954 issue.

Chief among the difficulties are the violent storms that can load the slopes of K2 with snow during the summer climbing period. Furthermore, the slopes of K2 are generally steeper than those of Mount Everest, with a higher risk of avalanches. Finally, despite the snow, K2 is a high-altitude desert, with very little moisture in the surrounding atmosphere. The extreme dryness, the high altitude, and the need for rapid breathing threaten climbers with severe dehydration, a condition that can lead to exhaustion and death.

Both the Karakorams and Himalayas are formidable opponents. On an average, one climber out of twenty is lost there through accident, illness, or exposure. K2 has taken its own grim share: seven climbers killed, five of them on United States expeditions. Small wonder that only two teams before ours, an Italian one in 1954 and a large Japanese group in 1977, had managed to scale K2. Since the valiant U. S. effort of 1953, which was battered by a 12-day storm, it has been called "the Savage Mountain."

I had had a taste of that savagery in 1975, when I organized my first K2 expedition. Bad weather and difficulty with porters had finally forced us to abandon the attempt, although we reached 22,000 feet. By the spring of 1978 we were ready to try again.

Like a military invasion, a high-altitude climb takes planning, experience, knowledge of the terrain, and adequate supply lines—plus that indispensable and elusive ingredient, luck. With all but the last item assured, our team of 14 climbers flew from the United States to Pakistan in mid-June.

During the following three weeks, with the help of 350 local porters, we moved nine tons of equipment and supplies in 55-pound loads more than a hundred miles from the end of the road at Baha to the base of K2. Finally, on July 5, we established Base Camp on the Godwin-Austen Glacier at an altitude of 16,300 feet.

"Inshallah [As Allah wills], this time we make it to the top," declared Jim Wickwire, an old friend and Seattle attorney who took part in the 1975 attempt.

All agreed, though only four of us had firsthand experience on K2. Besides Jim and me, the 1975 team had included my wife, Dianne Roberts, a professional photographer, and Rob Schaller, a Seattle surgeon.

The newcomers were all experienced climbers from a variety of professions: Craig Anderson, a zoologist; Terry Bech, a musician and anthropologist; Terry's wife, Cherie, a nurse; Diana Jagersky, an art student; Skip Edmonds and Chris Chandler, both physicians; Lou Reichardt, a neurobiologist; Rick Ridgeway, a filmmaker and writer; John Roskelley, a photographer-lecturer; and Bill Sumner, a physicist.

Tragedies during the previous 19 months had removed three expert members from the original list—Dusan Jagersky, Diana's husband, and Alan Givler, killed climbing in Alaska, and Leif Patterson, who died in an avalanche in British Columbia.

After we set up Base Camp, the weather began to assert itself, alternately treating us to sparkling days in the 60s and to wild snowstorms. At lower levels such storms were largely a hindrance; higher up their cost was to become appalling.

From my previous experience and my knowledge of past attempts on K2, I laid out a route up the mountain. From our Base Camp we would thread our way up Godwin-Austen Glacier to the base of K2's Northeast Ridge. There we would establish Camp I, at 18,500 feet.

From Camp I the route ran up the Northeast Ridge, traversing slopes as steep as 65 degrees, many of them glazed with solid ice or carpeted in waist-high snow that threatened to avalanche under the first climber.

Camps II, III, and IV would take us by stages to about 22,800 feet, slightly higher than we had reached on a different side of K2 in 1975. From there, Inshallah, we would attempt the last 5,450 feet to the summit.

In addition to climbing, we would haul most of our own supplies, for I had dismissed all the porters below Camp I except four natives of Hunza, in Kashmir, who had done some high-altitude portage.

After one particularly grueling stretch, carrying the 55-pound loads, Rick Ridgeway surveyed the Hunzukuts. "I can see doing this for the sheer fun of it," he said dryly, "but there have to be better ways to make a living."

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