Published: May 1979

Americans Climb K2

Toward Camp V

On to the Summit

James Wickwire describes the final push to the summit and a harrowing bivouac on descent that tested human endurance.

By James Wickwire
Photograph by James Wickwire

I am slipping and cannot stop myself. Stretched on my side in the darkness and the cold, I doze off, then come awake to find myself a few feet closer to the sheer drop-off below me. The drop-off is 10,000 feet, a thought that strikes me as oddly funny.

I dig the heels of my climbing boots into the snow crust, and the sliding stops. But only for the moment. Somehow I must make myself get out of the nylon bag I have pulled around me and climb back to safety. In a minute I will do it. Any minute now…

Something snaps me awake again. The drop-off is considerably closer, perhaps only 30 feet away. Time for action. No more delays; get out of the bag, crawl back up the slope, and find the makeshift platform dug into the slope below the summit. Now.

Slowly I crawl upward, pushing the bag, which contains my pack and my nearly empty oxygen tank. Their weight drags at me, as does the wind. I estimate the gusts at 40 or 50 miles an hour. The temperature has fallen to around minus 40°F (-40°C), maybe even lower. Quite a chill factor—say, minus 115°F (-82°C)? Cold, anyway. No argument there.

Finally I reach the platform I had scraped out of the slope hours before. It is narrow, and I have a sudden inspiration. Battling the wind, I manage to lay my bag flat, jabbing my ice ax through one corner of it into the snow beneath. I pin the other corner with my ice hammer. No more slippage. Again I crawl into the bag, which still contains my oxygen tank and pack. And wait. Wait for the sun to bring warmth and light enough for me to start back down the mountain.

In retrospect, that night under the summit of K2 was both an ordeal and a minor victory. No one to my knowledge had ever bivouacked—that is, camped without tent or sleeping bag—alone as high as 27,800 feet. It was undeniably risky, but the alternative was worse: a perilous descent in the dark.

The risks of bivouacking were increased to some extent by a series of small mishaps that had occurred during the final assault. But on mountains the unforeseen is a basic fact of life.

Lou Reichardt and I decided the night of September 5 to go for the summit. By 4:30 the next morning we were under way from the Abruzzi Camp with Lou in the lead, toward our goal 2,450 feet above us.

Lou started off smoothly, but I had trouble developing my normal climbing rhythm. At 26,500 feet I decided to use oxygen. When I turned the valve, I discovered that the tank was only a little more than half full; someone had brought up a used cylinder. Small mishap number one.

With added oxygen I was able to spell Lou in the lead, and we continued roped together through deep snow toward a sheer ice cliff rising some 200 feet abruptly above the slope. Rounding the cliff, we encountered even deeper drifts, and I began to question whether we would ever reach the summit.

At around 27,200 feet I turned to look at Lou. He had stopped 75 feet below me and had unroped to remove his pack. Then he struggled up beside me.

"My oxygen system's no good," he said. "I'm going to risk going on without it; I'll leave the pack. Keep talking to me. If I act strange or sound funny, send me back down." Small mishap number two.

Higher up, we separated to look for firmer snow. Lou traversed left toward some rocks on the skyline; the summit was still out of sight. I plowed on through deep drifts until Lou yelled, "I've got better snow over here."

To reach him, I had to climb unroped across a steep slope of windslab snow, a dangerous formation produced by heavy winds, with a tendency to sudden avalanche. It was not a pleasant ten minutes.

Hours had passed, and still no summit. Finally, at about four in the afternoon, we crested a rise and there it was—a converging of ridges, beyond which lay only the cloudless sky. Only 500 feet more, and it was ours.

Lou had performed magnificently without oxygen, but the last stretch seemed to tire him. I took the lead up the final, 45-degree slope, concentrating with each labored step on the family and friends whose love and support had carried me this far.

Stepping onto the nearly flat summit ridge, I stopped and turned to Lou. "We've done this together," I said as he caught up, "and that's the way we'll finish it."

At 5:20 p.m. we set foot on the highest point. I remember hugging Lou and thinking that after so many years of heartbreak and defeat, Americans had finally made it. Not Lou Reichardt and Jim Wickwire, nor Jim Whittaker and our other teammates. Simply Americans.

The view was magnificent. To the west the sun appeared low and as if balanced on the lesser peaks of the Karakorams. To the north we could see over dun-colored mountains deep into China's Sinkiang region. Below and to the south lay the massive Godwin-Austen Glacier, named for the Britisher who explored its approaches in 1861. A few years earlier the mountain was first surveyed and named K2: the second peak designated in the Karakoram Range.

As Lou and I had agreed, he stayed only long enough for us to take a few photographs. Then he started down to retrieve his pack and make for camp.

I remained on the summit a while longer, depositing the microfilmed list of our supporters beneath the snow and trying to change the film in the camera. It was a ludicrous exercise, my bared fingers turning numb within seconds from the low temperature and a stiff breeze. Then the lens coated up with ice, and I simply couldn't clear it. With a final look around I started down. Too late.

One glance in the direction of the camp 2,450 feet below convinced me that I couldn't make it. Sunset was approaching, and I had failed to bring a flashlight. Small mishap number three.

On the slope 450 feet below the summit I scraped out a bivouac platform. It was dark and I had virtually run out of oxygen, but I had a small propane stove for warmth. I lit it and crowded close for the welcome heat. Then the fuel cartridge ran out, and I reached for the spare. It wouldn't fit, thanks to a faulty gasket on the stove. Small mishap number four.

I was concerned, but not overly worried. I had bivouacked at high altitude before, though almost always with teammates who could lend a hand in an emergency. One thing that troubled me was the prospect of dehydration. I had had only one small sip of water from Lou's bottle. I had lost mine leaving camp that morning. I had no pot in which to melt snow (you can't melt enough in your mouth). Lack of water and food could result in progressive weakness and impaired judgment, neither of which I could afford.

But I could afford even less to dwell on my difficulties. I had a night to get through and I would do it; it was that simple. Huddled in the thin bivouac bag, I moved my arms and legs constantly to maintain circulation. Eventually, I told myself over and over again, this night will end. Then I began dozing and sliding down the mountain.

After the close call with the drop-off and my return to the platform, I dozed again, but now the ice ax and hammer anchored me.

And at last the morning came, a first faint gathering of light, then full sun on the peak above me. My ordeal nearly over, I slid out of the bag and got unsteadily to my feet. At that moment, I believe, I approached the point of greatest danger.

I became confused and disoriented, aware that I had to get down the mountain, yet unable to make the necessary moves. Part of my mind said, "Look, there's ice down there between you and the camp; get your crampons on." Another part said, "It doesn't matter, let's just sit here."

After what seemed a long time, I did get one crampon on, but the strap was dangerously loose. The sight struck me as funny, and I began to giggle incoherently, although conscious that I was in serious trouble.

For the second time in less than a day my family in far-off Seattle came to my help. Abruptly my thoughts turned to my wife, Mary Lou, and our five children, and everything suddenly seemed to focus. I tightened the one crampon, strapped on the other, and set off down our trail toward the camp.

As Jim Whittaker has recounted, I met Rick Ridgeway and John Roskelley on their ascent to search for me and perhaps to reach the summit. In Rick's words I seemed "like an apparition emerging from a cloud of snow," though apparently a welcome apparition.

Once assured that I could make it down alone, the two continued their ascent, and in passing, John patted me affectionately on the head. It struck me as the first human contact I had had in 14 hours, a much appreciated gesture.

Lou greeted me with obvious relief at the camp and offered me water. Although I was severely dehydrated, it seemed vital to me that we clear away the snow that had drifted overnight onto Rick and John's tent as well as our own. Once inside the tent, I had my first taste of water in nearly an entire day, and I sensed somehow that I had made it.

The fifth and final mishap was hardly a small one. That night when Rick and John returned, exhausted after their own great victory achieved without oxygen, their stove blew up inside their tent. Rick's sleeping bag, with Rick inside it, instantly caught fire. He managed to free himself and throw the bag out into the snow; the tent was a charred ruin. The four of us spent the night in our remaining two-man tent, an episode that would have been comic but for our weakened condition.

The weather had been kind to us during the climb and the crucial first part of the descent, but a storm harassed us at Camp III. At Camp I Rob Schaller diagnosed the severe pains in my chest as a combination of blood clots in my lungs, pneumonia, and pleurisy. In addition my toes were frostbitten, two of them seriously. But for Rob's prompt and skillful treatment with antibiotics and intravenous fluids, K2 might have claimed its eighth victim.

During the week's trek out to the end of Baltoro Glacier, I suffered far more than I had during the night below the summit. Beyond the glacier two Pakistan Army helicopters rendezvoused with us, and I was evacuated along with John and Lou, plus Rob as attending physician. Our other ten teammates were judged fit to walk the remaining fifty miles to the road at Baha.

I don't begrudge them the experience.

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