Published: May 1979
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

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."

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.*

* Arlene Blum, Irene Miller, and Vera Komarkova told of this history-making Himalayan climb in the March 1979 National Geographic..

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.