Shared Summits Expeditions Shared Summits Home
Buy The DVD
chris headhead 1 column

Makalu 2010
Nanga Parbat '08
K2 '07
The Team
K2 2007 Photos
K2 : Facts
Past Expeditions
Students and Teachers
Chris Warner
Learn To Climb
Dispatch Sign Up
Sierra Designs left 01
Priority Worldwide : left

K2 : Facts Print E-mail
K2 (8611 meters/ 28,251 feet): A Brief History

aerial-image-of-k2-th.jpgThe mountain is so remote, lying more than 65 miles of rugged mountain terrain from the nearest village, that it had no name. Instead it was given a surveyor’s designation (K for Karakorum Mountains), and a number, based on an initial guess that it was the second highest peak in the range. Once within a region nominally controlled by British India, K2 stands near Afghanistan, on the border between Pakistan and China, in an area most closely related by history to Kashmir. To say the least, it is a very colorful corner of the world in which to embark on an adventure.

K2 was long considered un-climbable, but it still drew exploratory mountaineers. At the same time that the British were laying siege to Everest, large teams of Italian and small teams of American climbers were risking it all on K2. Attempts in 1902, 1909, 1929, 1938, 1939 and 1953 all failed. In 1954, the Italians persevered: two climbers finally reached the summit. Even now, years can go by without a successful ascent. In five of the last ten years, no one summited K2. In 2006 four people summited K2 (and four others died trying), while hundreds climbed Everest.

Americans, the first to die

gilkey-memorial-th.jpgThe early failures were as colorful as later ascents. The 1902 expedition was exciting, with the leader being imprisoned and another climber threatening his teammates with a revolver at their highest camp. The 1909 expedition was lead by the Italian Duke of Abruzzi, traveling in style with his brass bed. This team was unable to climb more than a few hundred feet up the mountain. Twenty years later, the Duke’s nephew lead another K2 expedition, also failing to get much above base camp. The American attempt of 1938 reached the incredible height of 26,000 feet, only to be forced to retreat because no one remembered to carry the matches needed to light their stoves. The American attempt of 1939 ended with the mountain’s first tragedy. Millionaire Dudley Wolfe was trapped for days by a storm at 25,000 feet. A handful of Sherpas hoping to rescue him died trying to reach him. Wolfe’s remains, and much of his tent, were found at the base of the mountain in 2002, having been wiped from the upper slopes by an avalanche. The American expedition of 1953 again ended in tragedy. While lowering a dying Art Gilkey, wrapped in sleeping bags, down a steep slope in a raging blizzard, several members of the team slipped and tumbled down the face. Miraculously they were entwined in the rope holding Gilkey. Pete Schoenig arrested the fall of the 5 men by holding onto a single wooden ice axe. The exhausted and shaken team anchored Gilkey to the slope and sought a sheltered place to set up the camp. Returning minutes later, they discovered he had been wiped from the face of the mountain by an avalanche.

The Controversial First Ascent

k2camps-abruzzi-th.jpgThe first successful ascent, in 1954, started with over 700 porters, a dozen climbers, and a handful of scientists. Despite one of the climbers dying after 40 days on the mountain, the expedition pushed on. A team of two made the final ascent, with their oxygen running out and the descent being made in darkness. The successful climb, hailed in Italy as an event of national pride and unity, following their crushing defeats in the world wars, was soon embroiled in controversy. The two summiters manipulated their companions into carrying extra supplies to the highest camp, then hid the tent and ignored their cries for help. While they climbed to the summit, their teammates passed the night trapped on the slopes, without tents, stoves or sleeping bags.

246 Summits, 55 Deaths

k2_new_route-th.jpgTo date, 246 climbers have summited K2, by 10 different routes, only 5 of which have ever been repeated. At least 55 climbers have died attempting K2, some caught in avalanches low on the mountain, others dying from exposure while returning from the summit. The stories surrounding K2 are epic, some steeped in superstition. The first five women to summit either died on the mountain or on a subsequent expedition.  At the Gilkey Memorial, tin plates, with the names of the deceased stamped into them, flutter in the wind. Every year, the slowly churning glacier pushes human remains to the surface. Daily avalanches tear down the faces near base camp. While Everest looks tall, cold and indifferent to everyone that stands at its base, K2 appears fearsome and even vengeful.

Women of K2 

As dangerous and deadly as K2 has been to those who've attempted its summit, for women, that experience has been downright catastrophic. Between 1986 and the start of the climbing season in 2004, only five women had reached the summit of K2 and all of them were dead; three on their descent and the two that made it off alive died soon after on other 8000 meter peaks. For some, K2 seemed to carry a curse for its female pioneers. 

Recently, new chapters have been written in K2's climbing annals which have changed that dark history for women. Since 2004 five more women have reached the summit, and each survived her descent. 

For more information on the Women of K2, please visit K2 historian, filmmaker and author Jennifer Jordan's website.

Geography and Plate Tectonics

In the far north of Pakistan and India, the Himalaya, Karakoram, Hindu Kush, Hindu Raj and Pamir meet to form the most imposing complex of mountains on earth. It includes five mountains over 8000m in height, some 60 summits over 7000m, and many hundreds of 6000m peaks.

A good place to begin to understand these mountains is with the geological cornerstone of plate tectonics. As a result of detailed observations of fossils, rock strata, magnetic fields and simple fits of different coastlines, it became clear that different parts of our earth are moving relative to each other. The motion of these "plates" is driven by the circulation of molten rock in the center of the earth. Where plates move apart one has seafloor spreading, as in the mid-Atlantic between Africa and South America; where they grind together one has earthquakes and volcanoes, most notably in the Pacific Ring of Fire; where they move together, mountains are built.

The biggest head-on collision on the face of the earth is taking place as the Indian plate pushes up into the Asian one. The crumple zone of this collision is the world's biggest set of mountains.

Geologically, the "Himalaya" is the piece of India which is scraped off and up as the Indian plate goes below the Asian one. This mountain range starts in the west at Nanga Parbat in Pakistan and ends 2500km to the east at Namche Barwa in eastern Tibet. Behind the Himalaya, for another 1000km to the north, the Tibetan plateau is driven up to altitudes over 4000m. However, the maximum stress in this collision is concentrated at the two corners, and separate mountain ranges are formed almost in concentric circles as the Asian plate buckles under the strain.

To the east, around Namche Barwa, these rings include the very poorly explored ranges of the East Nyanchentangla, Kangri Garpo and Minya Konka. This is the densely forested region of deep gorges and incessant rains where giant pandas live. To the west, around Nanga Parbat, the rings are the Karakoram, Hindu Kush/Hindu Raj and Pamir. This region is high, dry, cold and inhabited by creatures such as mountain goats and snow leopards.

The rivers flowing out of this mountain complex betray the uplifting processes which created it. The Indus in the west and the Yarlung Tsangpo in the east both rise on the Tibetan plateau, on opposite sides of Mt. Kailas, and flow behind the Himalaya until they race down and through deep canyons carved around the corner mountains (respectively Nanga Parbat and Namche Barwa) and emerge on the plains below. The Indus, or "Lion River", is the lifeblood of agriculture in all of Pakistan, as is the Yarlung Tsangpo, known on the plains as the Bhramaputra, for Bangladesh. Very few rivers actually flow through the Himalayan barrier, and the most important one which rises in it is the Ganges, which waters all of North India.

The Karakoram range is 400km long. The name may arise from "Khara-Khelem", which means "big barrier" in Mongolian, or from the Karakoram Pass (between Indian Kashmir and Chinese Xinjiang), which means "black rocks" pass in Turkic languages. This massive range is extreme in almost every aspect: it is the highest mountain region on earth, with an average height of 3800m; including the outlying Tien Shan (to the north) and Kun Lun ranges (to the east) it is the focal point of the biggest concentration of high, wild mountains on the planet; the cold winters ensure that the range contains some of the largest glaciers in the world outside the polar regions (see below under "glaciology"); in the hot summers the temperatures in the desert valleys soar over 40C; the resulting glacial melt-off transforms the rivers into brown and black torrents carrying the highest sediment volumes anywhere in the world. The subranges of the Karakoram are known as Muztaghs, from "muz" (ice) and "tagh" (mountain).



The uplifting processes which formed the Karakoram and its surrounding ranges began approximately 40 million years ago (Eocene epoch). The landscape we know today (mountain morphology or orography) was shaped by the series of ice ages occurring over the last 1 million years (Pleistocene epoch), and by the erosion processes which have taken place during the 12000 years since the last ice age (Holocene epoch).

Some regions of the Karakoram contain valuable gemstones and fossils. The Karakoram is important to geologists and earth scientists for a number of reasons. As one of the world's most geologically active areas, at the boundary between two colliding continents, they are important in the study of plate tectonics, as well as of smaller-scale uplift and thrust processes. Another hypothesis which is the subject of ongoing investigation is that such large, young and rapidly eroding mountains might also be responsible for a global climate change since their formation. The large amounts of rock exposed to the atmosphere are weathered (broken down) by carbon dioxide, removing this greenhouse gas from the atmosphere and raising the possibility of a global climatic cooling, triggering an ongoing series of ice ages.


satellite-photo-k2-th.jpgThe Karakoram contains approximately 135 significant glaciers, the largest of which are listed below. Although the latitude of the Karakoram is essentially that of Raleigh (NC), Malta or Tokyo, because of the size of the mountains and depth of its winter snows, some of these glaciers are comparable in size with those in subpolar regions of Alaska and Patagonia. This is the highest concentration of glaciers in Asia, 8 of which are longer than 50km, and 20 longer than 30km. The Batura, Biafo, Hispar, Panmah, Siachen, Saser, Chogo Lungma and Rimo all have surface areas exceeding 350km2, and the total extent of the ice is approximately 16000km2. As such these glaciers are a huge reserve of fresh water which is essential for all of the arid downstream areas. The Karakoram glaciers irrigate not only the Karakoram valleys (below), but, through the Indus River, the entire heartland of Pakistan and some 130 million of its people. It was not without reason that Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the father of modern Pakistan, declared "the Indus is the jugular vein of Pakistan".

Some world glaciers:

  • Fedchenko (Pamir) 77 kms
  • Siachen (Eastern Karakoram) 75 kms
  • Baltoro (Eastern Karakoram) 66 kms
  • Inylchek (Tien Shan) 65 kms
  • Biafo (Western Karakoram) 60 kms
  • Koilaf, Uppsala (Patagonia) 60 kms
  • Hispar (Western Karakoram) 59 kms
  • Batura (Western Karakoram) 58 kms
  • Tasman (New Zealand) 28 kms
  • Aletsch (Switzerland) 24 kms
  • Ngojumpa (Nepal) 22 kms
  • Mer de Glace (France) 12 kms

In addition to their value as water reservoirs, mountain glaciers also offer a range of research possibilities, as they store and carry air, water, pollen and insects, and deposit sediments, at easily calibrated rates and times. They may also be used as an indicator of climate change, advancing and receding with long-term changes in temperature and precipitation.


The Karakoram has harsh, cold winters with heavy snows and very strong jetstream winds in the high mountains. Unlike in the Himalaya, not one of the Karakoram 8000ers has been climbed in winter. Summers are marked by incursions of monsoon rains from the south in July and especially August. The most stable weather occurs in spring, when temperatures in the valleys and lowlands can become very high in May and June, and in the cooler, clearer days of September and October.

The Expedition is depending upon the forecasting services of Meteotest , the renowned Swiss group. You can log on to their site for short range forecasts.


Peoples of the Karakoram

The Northern Areas of Pakistan are something of an ethnic patchwork. This is due partly to their strategic location at the borders of Afghanistan, Central Asia, China, and India, which has led to a wealth of passing cultural, commercial, religious and military influences, and partly to the inaccessibility of many of the mountain valleys, where old ways can survive untouched for millennia. The peoples of the Karakoram are Shina, Gujar, Wakhi, Burushaski, or Balti, all ethnicities large enough to have their own languages, or from a host of smaller tribes. The artistic and architectural wealth and cultural and religious heritage of the region bear witness to continuous changes. Despite the past adherence to Buddhism and many animist religions, the 3 million inhabitants of the region are now predominantly Muslim.



Even along the main Karakoram Highway it is possible to meet people, for example in the Hunza, with white skin, blue eyes and blond or red hair and beards. It is said that some of the soldiers of Alexander the Great's army ended up here. At the Xinjiang border the people show more Central Asian influences, due to mixing with Uigurs or Kazakhs who came to trade in Sost or Gilgit. Farther to the east in Ladakh (India) are Mongolian peoples of Tibetan origin. To the west and south are the mix of peoples mentioned above, whose origins are in some cases obscure. Closest to K2 and the Baltoro, in the Indus and Shyok valleys, is the region of Baltistan, where the Balti peoples are now 100% Muslim, but were once influenced by (Tibetan) Buddhism.



Islam, founded in the 6th century by the Prophet Muhammed, is the newest of the world's major religions. Following the principles of earlier religions in the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern regions, it is a monotheist faith. The "Five Pillars of Islam" are

  • Shahadah: the profession that "there is one God but Allah and Mohammed is his Prophet".
  • Salah: the requirement to pray at 5 fixed times every day, facing Mecca.
  • Zakat: the giving of alms to the poor and needy, which is obligatory for all who are able to do so.
  • Sawm: ritual fasting, during the month of Ramadan.
  • Hajj: the pilgrimage to Mecca at the appointed time each year, which should be made at least once in the life of every Muslim.

The Islamic faith spread rapidly after its founding to cover North Africa, the Middle East and Turkey, Arabia, Persia, north India and parts of Central Asia, where it remains the predominant religion to this day. It exists also as a minority religion in sub-Saharan Africa, China and parts of SE Asia, where it is also the state religion in Malaysia and Indonesia.

In the Karakoram region, Islam replaced Buddhism and (partially) some animist faiths. Like Christianity, Islam has many sects, spanning the full spectrum from radical to conservative and fundamentalist to moderate to "progressive". The main branches differ in their accepted definition of the heritage of the prophet after Mohammed. The predominant sects in the Northern Areas are Sunni, the majority sect in world Islam, and Ismaili, a sect whose adherents are followers of the Aga Khan.


Life in the Northern Areas is based on farming in the valley floors and on irrigated terraces carved into the valley sides. The region receives much sun in the spring, summer and autumn, but very little rainfall. The main crops are wheat, barley, apricots, walnuts, and different types of vegetables, while corn and potatoes have been introduced more recently, and poplars are grown widely for wood. The main sources of meat are goats and sheep, which are fed on high, green pastures beside the glaciers in summer, and also chickens.

Pasture land for grazing animals is an important commodity defining the wealth of a village. However, irrigation is the essential basis for all life in the Karakoram. In a major valley such as the Hunza the rainfall totals only 14cm per year, and the fields and fruit trees which appear as green oases among the desert mountains depend entirely on irrigation canals. The water descending from the glaciers is collected and distributed by systems of canals which are built by major community construction projects in the mountains, and sometimes cross the sides of cliffs hundreds of meters high. These public works require a high precision in their planning, as the slope of a canal must be just right: too steep and the water may erode the canal; too flat and the sand and gravel in the water will cause the canal to silt up. After a canal has brought the water sometimes more than 10km to a village, it is distributed with care through systems of gates and sluices so that each farmer's fields receive equal amounts of the village's vital resource. Indeed much of the social structure and interaction among the people of each village is determined by water and communal irrigation labor.



Like self-sufficient peoples the world over, the inhabitants of the Northern Areas have developed their own crafts to an art form in areas such as clothing, jewelry, metal-working and architecture. The most popular sport, apart from the ubiquitous cricket inherited from down-country Pakistan, is polo. This discipline emphasizes the essential need of a pastoral people for good horsemanship, and is usually played with a goat carcass as the "chuck".



The Northern Areas were for many years an isolated and underprivileged corner of Pakistan, and before that of British India. In the absence of industry or institutes of higher education, most people had to move down-country in search of non-farm work or to study. As Pakistan's economy has improved, and the strategic importance of the region has risen with the completion of roads and the emergence of China as a world power, so more development aid has arrived from the center for health care, education, public works and improved agriculture. In fact this type of development was driven for many years by the Aga Khan Rural Development Fund and the Aga Khan health centers, which were of benefit mainly, but not exclusively, to the Ismaili peoples of the Northern Areas.


Geopolitical Situation
The location of the Karakoram mountains and their peoples can be described politely as "delicate". To the west is the troubled country of Afghanistan and for the last 30 years Pakistan has been a buffer zone, refugee camp and sometimes spillover region for the various Afghan conflicts. To the south and east is the equally troubled region of Kashmir, which after 3 wars is split by a military "Line of Control" with India. Both countries claim the region in its entirety, while the people of Kashmir remain far from being given their own say. However, recent Indo-Pakistan relations hold our hope for an improvement.

To the north is the Chinese region of Xinjiang, long an economic backwater but now booming as never before while China expands its economy and trading partners. To the south, down-country Pakistan is also seeing a sustained economic upswing, and standards of living are improving significantly, although population pressure and environmental problems are also increasing. For the Northern Areas of Pakistan, somewhat insulated from the conflict zones but on the trade route between growing economies, the situation is generally positive and both urban and rural development are also improving the lot of the inhabitants. However, a serious earthquake in Azad Kashmir in autumn 2005 killed some 25,000 people, and left many hundreds of thousands still living in tents over 1.5 years later.


History of Western Exploration
Silk Road

The Karakoram mountains were known to the earliest traders on the "Silk Road", the name given to the trading route between Europe or the Middle East and China which has been in use since Roman times. The mountains were one of the most significant barriers anywhere on the route: crossing them meant the dangers of high, cold passes and deep canyons, but passing around them to the north meant many thousands of additional kilometers of desert travel.

Great Game

Western interest in the Karakoram began during the colonial era, as Britain consolidated the limits of its empire in India. India was always the jewel in the colonial crown, by far the most productive and profitable colony of any in the control of the western powers. By the early 1800s the Russians were also expanding their empire to the north of the huge complex of mountains centered on the Karakoram, and the possibility began to be considered, on both sides, of a Russian invasion into British India. This led to an extended period of exploration and by both sides, where the explorers involved had to be both scientists (surveyors) and diplomats, who could influence local chiefs with gifts and other forms of persuasion, sometimes including military might. This period of Karakoram and regional history became known as "The Great Game", and in the end the 2 sides never came close to war.

Exploration and Mapping

Among the many Westerners who made pioneering trips into the hostile ranges, suffering great danger and hardship to return (or sometimes fail to return) with new knowledge, only some who had a direct role in exploring the heart of the high Karakoram are mentioned here. In 1856 Thomas Mongomerie became the first person to realize the full, awesome dimensions of the mountain range. He studied the topography of the range from an observation post on the summit of Haramukh in Kashmir. By triangulation he obtained the positions of 32 summits, which he designated K1 to K32 (K for Karakoram). When his observations were recalculated in 1858, the one denoted K2 turned out by coincidence to be the second highest mountain on earth.
In 1861 Henry Haversham Godwin-Austen became the first person to see K2 close-up. At the end of a team expedition during which he discovered the Hispar Glacier, crossed Snow Lake and descended the Biafo Glacier, before heading down to the village of Askole he made a detour up onto the Baltoro Glacier. By climbing high above the camp at Urdukas he was able to make a rough sketch of the huge pyramid visible over the intervening ridge crests.

In 1887 Francis Younghusband made an incursion into the Karakoram during his amazing journey from Beijing to Delhi. After approaching through the Gobi desert he passed up the Shaksgam valley and the Sarpo Laggo glacier, crossing the East Muztagh Pass, Turkestan pass, Shimshal Pass, and Mintaka Pass to enter the Hunza valley from the north. He was the first to see the enormous North Face of K2 and wrote "A mountain of impressive dimensions. One might call it a perfect cone, but incredibly high."