By July 13 we established Camp II at 20,200 feet and began supplying it while advance teams opened the route higher up. Despite the tougher going at increased altitudes we made excellent progress, reaching the site of Camp III at 22,300 feet within five days. And there, as Lou Reichardt puts it, the weather did a number on us.
The number turned out to be eight—eight precious days in which we hardly advanced a foot. Relentless storms lashed the mountain, the driving snow at times blinding us even to our own outstretched hands.
During periods of relative calm we were able to move from Camp III to lower sites, but any advance upward was out of the question. Beyond Camp III our route lay along the spine of an exposed, razor-thin ridge several hundred yards in length, with a sheer drop on either side, one into Pakistan, the other into China. To be caught on the ridge without fixed ropes in a sudden storm was to risk a fatal plunge thousands of feet into one country or the other.
Prolonged delays at high altitude can spell the end of any climb. Every day spent marooned in camp exacts a physical toll from each climber and also requires another day's supplies from below—not just from the next camp down, but in relays all the way from Base Camp. The added burden of resupply robs a team of vital energy that can never be regained at high altitudes.
Fortunately we were all in good condition, and I sent the Hunza porters back to Base Camp while the rest of us shuttled between there and higher camps to cache supplies as the weather permitted.
The bulk of the portage was food—cartons of freeze-dried beef, chicken, beans, and assorted vegetables and fruit. They were lightweight and did the job, though the vote was unanimous in regard to taste. As Dianne says of mountaineering fare: "Food is the one thing everyone can rally around to hate."
The most cumbersome items were 14-pound oxygen tanks that we had stored at the base of the mountain in 1975 for a subsequent attempt. Although we might be able to scale K2 without oxygen, the tanks were good insurance against the rarefied atmosphere near the summit. As it turned out, one of the tanks may have helped Jim Wickwire through a nearly fatal night.
On the morning of July 30 the weather was clear, and within four days we had crossed the ridge, secured fixed ropes along it, and set up Camp IV at 22,800 feet. We had only 5,450 feet left to go, yet in terms of total effort we were barely halfway up the mountain.
Throughout the previous four weeks I had studied each team member carefully, analyzing his or her climbing technique, endurance, and instinctive will to reach the summit. By the time we established Camp IV, I had selected our summit assault team: John Roskelley, Rick Ridgeway, Jim Wickwire, and Lou Reichardt.
The week following establishment of Camp IV was literally a blur of driving snow, of winds gusting to near-hurricane force, and of endless reopening of routes obliterated by drifts. On August 5 the storm reached such intensity that we had to evacuate the mountain in order to conserve supplies at the higher camps. Our spirits fell step by step with the retreat.
Once more the weather cleared and we struggled back up the mountain. On the welcome afternoon of August 19 we established Camp V at 25,200 feet. A major victory, yet weeks behind schedule.
Camp V gave us our first climbing record. In reaching that altitude, Dianne and Cherie Bech stood higher than any woman on an American expedition. The record was to be superseded several weeks later when the American Women's Himalayan Expedition conquered the peak known as Annapurna I, at 26,504 feet.*
From Camp V we had two possible routes to the summit, one pioneered by an unsuccessful Polish team in 1976 by way of the northeast side, the other taken by the victorious Italian expedition in 1954 and by the Japanese in 1977, known as the Abruzzi route.
Following my announcement of the assault team, we tentatively chose to continue up the Polish route, convinced that our team could finish the route the Poles had all but completed.
Our climbers would have only one chance. Food, fuel, and our physical reserves were draining rapidly at high altitude in the face of marginal weather. On August 29 Jim Wickwire and Lou Reichardt broke trail through deep snow to the site of the former Polish camp and supplied it for the final summit assault. While waiting out a storm, the climbers discussed routes, at last deciding to divide into two teams and try different approaches.
By September 2 we were all in position: the two summit teams poised at Camp V, with Terry and Cherie Bech in support; Dianne and I as further backup at Camp III, where we had a clear view of the summit through Dianne's powerful telephoto lens. The lens was part of a generous loan of photographic equipment to the expedition by Nikon Inc.
That evening I radioed Base Camp via walkie-talkie and spoke with our friend Subedar Major Mohammad Saleem Khan, Pakistani liaison officer.
"It's now or never, Saleem," I said. "We haven't enough supplies for a second attempt. We must meet the porters at Base Camp on September 10. Win or lose, that's our deadline." Within hours we were in the grip of another storm.
For an agonizing day we rode it out, our hopes diminishing by the hour. On the 4th the weather cleared and the assault teams at Camp V wasted no time. John and Rick advanced to the Polish Camp. Meanwhile, Jim and Lou attempted to reach the Abruzzi route but were finally turned back by hip-deep snow.
The next morning Lou and Jim decided they would try again for the Abruzzi route. With Terry Bech to help carry supplies, they forced their way through the snow to a point 2,450 feet below the summit. There, in full view of Dianne's telephoto lens, they pitched camp for the night. It was the memorable night that began with snow and ended with stars.
In the article accompanying this one, Jim Wickwire describes the final victory over K2 and the terrifying ordeal that followed. Through Dianne's telephoto lens she and I witnessed the triumph, but we could only imagine the terror.
At midmorning on September 6 the lens picked out two microscopic figures on the Abruzzi route, silhouetted against an incredibly cloudless sky. Hour by hour the figures advanced toward the summit, now and then lost in the shadow of the mountain.
At 5:20 p.m. there was a sudden flash of color at the peak—the unmistakable red of Lou Reichardt's parka. He and Jim had emerged into full sunlight with nothing above them: For the first time Americans stood atop K2!
Almost instantly Lou began his descent. As we learned later, his oxygen system had never functioned, and he preferred not to risk a prolonged stay on the summit. Jim, who was using oxygen, remained longer to take photographs and to deposit a microfilmed list of some 4,000 names on the peak. The list represented those who had supported our expedition and whom we chose to honor in a special way.
Through the long lens Dianne and I had seen one figure, in shadow once more, begin the descent. With growing concern we waited for the second climber to follow.
Finally around sunset we saw the second figure start down, and worried that in the gathering darkness he could never make the Abruzzi Camp. At ten o'clock that night John Roskelley confirmed our fears.
During the day John and Rick had abandoned the Polish route and followed Jim and Lou's traverse to the Abruzzi Camp, where they planned next morning to continue to the summit.
"Lou's back, but Jim's still up there," John announced grimly to me over the walkie-talkie. "He has no tent or sleeping bag, only a bivouac sack. As far as Lou knows, Jim's had nothing to eat and only a sip of water since morning."
After a triumphant day it was dreadful news. With nothing but an unlined nylon sack for protection, Jim faced a night of almost complete exposure near the summit, with temperatures as low as minus 40°F and winds gusting to 50 miles an hour. Also, Jim was suffering from dehydration and could well be unconscious or out of his mind. To the rest of us John and Rick's planned ascent the following day seemed more a rescue mission than a summit attempt.
We were wrong. As Jim describes that night in the following pages, there were moments of extreme danger but never a loss of hope. At midmorning on September 7 our telephoto lens picked Jim out on the Abruzzi route, slowly descending as John and Rick climbed to meet him. We saw the figures pass one another with only a brief pause, then Jim continued down alone.
By that night K2 had been scaled a second time without oxygen, and we began our retreat from the mountain.
The cost to Jim Wickwire proved greater than we had realized, and without Rob Schaller's constant medical care on the trek out, Jim might not have survived the combination of pleurisy, pneumonia, and blood clots resulting from his night below the summit.
That Jim did survive and that all of us returned safely is a victory perhaps greater than that of reaching the summit. In a dozen attempts on K2 the mountain has claimed seven lives, heavy odds by any standard.
In addition to the first American conquest of K2, we had achieved several other successes on the Savage Mountain: Including porters, ours was the smallest expedition to scale the mountain, and the first to include women climbers. Three of our four summit team members reached the top without using oxygen. We had also established a new route near the summit, between Camp V and the Abruzzi Camp.
Each ascent of a high and dangerous mountain, whether the first or a sequel attempt, adds new knowledge and therefore a greater margin of safety for those to come. Certainly we climbed K2 on the shoulders of previous expeditions. We owed our success to those who had tried and failed, and to those who had tried and won. Perhaps others will someday say that of us. Inshallah.