Map: K2 First Ascent
Map by Computer Terrain Mapping
Time Line:
The Conquest of K2
September 2004
The Bitter Legacy

Located deep within Pakistan’s Karakoram Range, K2 would ultimately prove the most difficult of the world’s highest peaks. Prior to the Italian expedition of 1954, just five teams had launched assaults. And of those, only three, the American expeditions of 1938, 1939, and 1953, made it anywhere close to the top.

1938: On a lean, five-climber expedition, Wyoming guide (and future National Outdoor Leadership School founder) Paul Petzoldt reaches 25,700 feet before dwindling provisions and deteriorating weather turn him back.

1939: An assault led by famed German-American climber Fritz Wiessner establishes a new high point of 27,510 feet—just 700 feet below the summit. The decisive moment comes when Sherpa Pasang Lama—afraid of the mountain demons his people believe emerge at night—forces Wiessner to abandon the bid just 25 feet short of an easy summit slope. The expedition turns tragic when team member Dudley Wolfe is stranded in a high camp. Three Sherpas who make a last-ditch effort to rescue Wolfe vanish, probably swept away by an avalanche.

1953: Co-leaders of the 1938 expedition, former Harvard pals Charles Houston and Bob Bates, launch an encore attempt. The effort is doomed when climber Art Gilkey falls ill. As the team tries desperately to lower him down the mountain, six men are pulled off their feet by tangled ropes. All six are saved by climber Pete Schoening’s “miracle belay”—a single ice ax plunged behind a boulder. The next day, Gilkey is swept to his death by an avalanche.

1954: An Italian team lays siege to K2 at a time when most assumed the peak would be claimed by Americans. A day before the summit bid, Walter Bonatti and Amir Mahdi carry oxygen to the summit team stationed at Camp IX. The camp, however, is not in its agreed-upon location, but instead is hidden behind rocks 600 feet higher on the peak. After calling for help and being told to return to the lower camp, Bonatti and Mahdi bivouac at 26,575 feet.

Text by David Roberts