Published: September 2004The First Ascent of K2

K2: The Bitter Legacy

K2 Update: With 11 feared dead after last weekend's tragedy, David Roberts and Ed Viesturs weigh in on what could have gone wrong. Read the story>>

The first ascent of K2, arguably the deadliest mountain on Earth, had its 50th anniversary in 2004. In Italy, the half-century-old triumph of the countrymen who first stood atop the 28,250-foot summit remains a source of intense national pride. But simmering beneath the official glory is a legacy of backstabbing and betrayal that would ultimately drive one climber to change the course of mountaineering history forever.

Text by David Roberts
Map by Computer Terrain Mapping

The exhausted climber scanned the frozen slope above him as darkness began to engulf the mountain. “Lino! Achille! Where are you?” he cried. The only answer was silence. It was July 30, 1954. At the end of a marathon day of load-hauling, Walter Bonatti and his gritty companion, the Hunza porter Amir Mahdi, had reached an altitude of 26,575 feet on Pakistan’s K2, the world’s second highest mountain.

At that moment, the K2 summit—arguably the greatest mountaineering prize of the day—lay tantalizingly close to the grasp of a large Italian team. Just four years before, with the French first ascent of Nepal’s Annapurna in 1950, what would come to be called the golden age of Himalayan mountaineering had been launched. By the mid 1960s, all 14 of the world’s peaks that surpass the benchmark altitude of 8,000 meters (26,240 feet) would be climbed for the first time.

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