If you liked Into Thin Air or have an interest in high altitude climbing this is a good book for you. Ed Viesturs is an accomplished climber; he was on Everest in 1996 during the tragedies described in Into Thin Air. He has climbed all fourteen 8000 meter peaks and unlike many others is still alive. With all of his experience, he brings credibility to his review of 8 different expeditions to summit K2 , including his own.
The most interesting of these expeditions are the earliest attempts that did not succeed. The photos from the Duke of Abruzzi’s 1909 expedition are beautiful, after making two attempts and making it only to about 21,000 feet, the Duke opined that the mountain would never be climbed. No further attempts were made until 1937. Mountaineering back then was so different than today. First off, it takes the expeditions many weeks to hike to base camp, making supply logistics quite difficult. Then there is the gear: wool sweaters, hobnail boots, hemp ropes, in all likelihood you have better stuff in your garage. As my husband often says, our gear exceeds our ability by a significant margin. The early expeditions also didn’t include radios. In one instance the climbers at base camp gave up on their teammates and started preparations to return home before the climbers returned.
The early expeditions seeking to be the first to summit K2 tried different methods to succeed. Some picked the best climbers, some sought to put together the best team. One expedition was the epitome of teamwork, another was lead by an autocrat, some lead from the front, another from the rear. The first summit by the Italian team of Desio came with great cost and controversy.
Lots of people have died on K2 for a lot of reasons. Viesturs takes issue with K2 being called a “savage mountain.” The mountain isn’t killing anyone, people are putting themselves at risk. Survivors have told their stories and passed judgment on the mistakes they or their comrades made. Viesturs is not very judgmental, except against those who selfishly put others in harms way.
Viesturs has his own standards, generally he applies them consistently to each expedition including his own. (Including chiding himself for breaking his own rules) He believes that a climber must give him or herself time to get back safely, this means turning back without summiting if necessary. He uses bamboo stakes for marking the route because it is often difficult to find one’s way back down. Finally, if possible, saving your companions is more important than the summit. It isn’t always possible to avoid an avalanche, an unseen crevice, or bad weather, but caution can increase the odds of survival. As he says, the summit is only half way, a climb is successful when you return to base camp.