meters/ 28,251 feet): A Brief History
The 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.
the first to die
The 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.
Controversial First Ascent
The 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.
Summits, 55 Deaths
To 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
Women of K2
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.
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
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
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.
The 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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
Western interest in the Karakoram began during the colonial era, as Britain consolidated the limits of its empire in
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