It’s a savage mountain that tries to kill you.

– George Bell, 1953

The world’s second-highest mountain straddles the border between China and Pakistan. Known as K2, the peak rises 28,251 feet above sea level; just under 800 feet separates K2 and the world’s roof, Mt. Everest.

The name of this beastly crag actually has nothing to do with its stature as the second-highest in the world. Instead, the moniker is a result of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of the early 1800s. The K stands for Karakoramthe name of the range of which K2 is the pinnacle. Oddly, though K2 is the tallest, there was a K1. That mountain, now known as Masherbrum, is nearly 3,000 feet shorter than K2. The Survey attempted to use local names as much as possible; eventually, the K1 designation was altered to the native name. K2 is an extraordinarily remote mountain. Despite its grand height, it is barely visible from most vantage points. The nearest villages to the north and south cannot see it. K2 is even difficult to see from the end of the Baltoro Glacier, a point beyond which few humans had ever ventured before the middle of the 20th century. The world’s second-highest mountain is so remote that it does not have a native name. To this day, K2 is the official descriptor.

Despite the lack of local nomenclature, K2 has amassed a slew of nicknames. Occasionally, mountaineers use Mount Godwin-Austen, a title suggestion in the early days that honored Henry Godwin-Austen, an explorer of the Karakoram Range. Since it was not a native name, the Survey rejected it. Some locals use the term Chogori, which means Big Mountain, but little evidence suggests this word was used in antiquity. That alias produced the official Chinese name for the mountain: Qogir. In climbing circles, nicknames include The King of Mountains, The Mountaineers’ Mountain, The Mountain of Mountains, and the aforementioned Savage Mountain.

Why is K2 the Savage Mountain? Most simply, it is one of the planet’s deadliest peaks. Of the five highest, K2 is the most fatal. For every four humans who reach the apogee, one perishes. By contrast, since the year 2000, only 1.4 people per 100 lose their lives on the Everest ascent; historically, the death rate of Everest lingers around the 4% mark. As of 2018, only 367 people had tread atop K2. The number of successful summits of Everest, meanwhile, is nearing 10,000. In 2018, 800 people – double the complete total of K2 – reached the top of Everest.

Why is K2 so much harder to climb than Everest? The popularity factor is certainly part of the equation. Adventurers are drawn more often to the highest, not the second highest. But that factor does not explain the entire story. As we discussed above, K2 is extremely remote. Everest is tough to get to, but the journey to base camp there is a breeze when contrasted to K2, whose starting point requires traversing a glacier. Further, K2’s latitude places it in a colder region that is prone to weather even more severe than the doozy climate that surrounds Everest. The wind patterns on Everest line up, in most years, to allow a few windows of decent climbing weather. K2, on the other hand, is a notoriously fickle rock; storms seem to arise from the ether.

K2 from the Pakistan side - photo by Svy123

115 to 120 million years ago, Cretaceous granite formed from large amounts of magma at a subduction zone that was, at the time, the continental margin of Asia. When the Indian plate slammed into the Asian plate, the granite was buried up to 20 kilometers beneath the surface of the planet. There it deformed and metamorphosed into gneiss. Massive and rapid uplifting along thrust faults raised the K2 gneiss to the surface and into the sky somewhere between 5 and 25 million years ago. This uplift formed the Karakoram range; to date, erosion has done little to soften or lower these towering monoliths.

Another reason for the difficulty in climbing K2 comes from its geography and geometry. The mountain is essentially a giant pyramid. Sheer faces rise strikingly from the glacial valleys. All its faces appear to be vertical. The north face of the mountain rises 10,500 feet above the K2 glacier. That vertical relief occurs during only 9,800 feet of horizontal distance. The result is a technical challenge for climbers. Nearly the entirety of the climb is a test. Everest, with all its pitfalls and obstacles, does offer some “time off” during the ascent.

Famed mountaineer, Ed Viesturs, said of K2, “I’ve called it the Holy Grail. As a mountaineer, it’s the total test of your ability, not only technically, but endurance, patience, and your willingness to get slapped in the face repeatedly by the mountain, go down, regroup, and go back up.”

The west face of K2 in 1909 - photo by Vittorio Sella
The east face of K2 in 1909 - photo by Luigi Amedeo

Despite the danger – or perhaps because of it – humans have risked their lives to summit K2. The first legitimate attempt occurred in 1902. The group spent 14 days traveling to the foot of the crag. Despite a lack of modern climbing gear, they spent 68 days on the mountain and reached an elevation of 21,407 feet, but ultimately failed to reach the apex. The expedition reported that of the 68 days on the slopes, only eight provided clear weather.

In 1909, a serious caravan made progress on K2. They reached 20,500 feet and a location now known as the Abruzzi Spur, which is part of the standard route, but found its verticality insurmountable. They spent time circling the great mountain (see photos above), but left in defeat.  Prince Luigi Amedeo, Duke of the Abruzzi, declared K2 would never be climbed.

In 1938, Charles Houston and entourage used intelligence from the 1909 expedition to hit 26,000 feet via the Abruzzi Spur, before abandoning the quest due to a lack of food and terrible weather. A year later, another expedition hit a spot just 660 feet short of the summit when disaster arrived; four men disappeared at that elevation. Houston returned in 1953. The team was trapped at 26,000 feet for 10 days by storms. One member of the squad, Art Gilkey, became critically ill, which forced a desperate retreat down the mountain in terrible weather, during which they lowered Gilkey wrapped in a sleeping bag. A climber named Pete Schoening saved the entire team during a mass fall that is now famously referred to as The Belay. Despite the heroics, Gilkey died during the ordeal, though many posit he deliberately sacrificed his life to unburden the rest of the group from his difficult rescue.

Achille Compagnoni on K2's summit on the first ascent - photo by Lino Lacadelli

Finally, in 1954, two Italian climbers emerged on K2’s summit.  Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni were the beneficiaries of the work of a massive group, including two men who carried oxygen tanks to 26,600 feet and were forced to spend the night on the mountain with no shelter. K2 is so arduous to climb that it took another 23 years for an expedition to reach the top.

Since then, several hundred human beings have replicated the effort to summit K2, but the mountain has not ceded its deadly reputation. Climbers still perish on this vertical slab of ice and gneiss regularly. 2021 on K2 has already been fatal.

Still, the mountain is a thing of beauty. Please enjoy these photographs and videos of the splendor and terror of the world’s second-highest mountain!

Nirmal Purja begins his descent from the summit of K2 in 2019 - Photo by Bremont Project Pos
The Bottleneck, a notorious impediment on K2 - photo by Rolf Zemp
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