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Why K2 Brings Out the Best and Worst in Those Who Climb It

Mountaineers risk avalanches, storms, conflicts, and a curse when they attempt to summit the peak.

K2 is “a savage mountain that tries to kill you,” according to American climber George Bell. Rising steeply above the Karakoram Range along the Pakistan-China border and battered by the atrocious weather, this pyramid-shaped mountain has always been the ultimate challenge for the world’s best mountaineers—and the graveyard of many of their ambitions. In 2008, in the worst accident in its history, 11 climbers perished trying to climb K2.

While making a documentary for the BBC, Mick Conefrey was lucky enough to meet a number of the pioneers who attempted to conquer the mountain, first summited by Italian Ardito Desio’s team in 1954. Conefrey’s book, The Ghosts of K2: The Epic Saga of the First Ascent, draws on those interviews, as well as newly released diaries and letters, to take us inside the obsessions, feuds, and acts of heroism that K2 inspires in those who dare to climb it.

Talking from his home in London, Conefrey explains why K2 brings out the best and worst in climbers, what climber Charles Houston meant by the term “The Brotherhood of the Rope,” and how the first man to attempt K2 ended up on the album cover of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Most mountains have resonant, poetic names like the Matterhorn or Everest. K2 sounds like a mathematical formula. How did it get its name?

It was first surveyed as part of the British Survey of India in 1856, by T.G. Montgomery. The British wanted to work out in particular where the border was between Kashmir and China, as there was a fear the Russian Empire would extend southwards. It’s called K2 because it’s found in the Karakoram Range to the northeast of the Himalayas on the border of today’s Pakistan and China. When they were doing the original survey, they gave all of the mountains K numbers. The surveyor would get the altitude of a mountain, write that down as K1 and the next one would be K2, K3, and so forth. Later, they went back and asked local people, “What’s this mountain over here called?” Then they would give it a local name, like Gasherbrum or Kanjut Sar. But K2 is so remote even today – it’s 75 miles from the nearest village – that there wasn’t an agreed local name. So K2 stuck. I actually think it’s very poetic because it sums up a mountain that is very bare, very austere, a perfect pyramid. It’s the very epitome of a mountain.

 

Known as “666: The Beast,”

Aleister Crowley, British magician

and occultist, was the first

Westerner to attempt to scale K2.

K2 is “a savage mountain that tries to kill you,” according to American climber George Bell. Rising steeply above the Karakoram Range along the Pakistan-China border and battered by the atrocious weather, this pyramid-shaped mountain has always been the ultimate challenge for the world’s best mountaineers—and the graveyard of many of their ambitions. In 2008, in the worst accident in its history, 11 climbers perished trying to climb K2.

While making a documentary for the BBC, Mick Conefrey was lucky enough to meet a number of the pioneers who attempted to conquer the mountain, first summited by Italian Ardito Desio’s team in 1954. Conefrey’s book, The Ghosts of K2: The Epic Saga of the First Ascent, draws on those interviews, as well as newly released diaries and letters, to take us inside the obsessions, feuds, and acts of heroism that K2 inspires in those who dare to climb it.

 

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