There is no shortage of explanation as to why K2, the King of Mountains, is the most treacherous in the world of mountaineering. Standing at 28,251-feet or 8611-meters, the peak measures just below the height of Mount Everest and sits at number two in the roster of 8,000-meter mountains.
Although it is smaller than Everest, that does not take away from the devastating reputation that has seen mountaineers call it the “Savage Mountain” for generations.
K2 Climbing Seasons
K2’s high season is in the summer, between June and July, with Mountaineers usually attempting to steer clear of an August summit bid when most accidents tend to occur. However, even with the most precautions being taken, it has seen its fair share of deaths and tragedies.
Still, teams have tried to scale its many routes in the summer and succeeded, and some have even dared to traverse them in winter; however, K2 remains unconquered in the winter season.
K2 Summer Expedition Accidents
The mountain has had four major accident events that resulted in the deaths of multiple climbers, with the most recent being the 2008 K2 Tragedy. However, the disasters that have followed this mountain throughout time go as far back as 1939 before it was ever conquered by Achille Campagnoni in 1954.
The 1939 K2 Disaster
Coming just 800-feet short of the summit, a German-American mountaineering team made up of five ill-prepared men and one strong, dedicated climber set out to be the first to summit K2 after a lengthy reconnaissance expedition to the mountain in 1938. The ascending team was forced to descend for more supplies only to find their camps abandoned and cleared of any useful tools or food. One man chose to descend further, leaving one man at camp alone, who later had to be rescued.
The events of this expedition remained marred in mystery for decades until a newly available trip diary shed light on what happened, why the camps were abandoned and what role each man played in the tragedy.
In total, four men were killed during the expedition.
The 1953 K2 Disaster
One year before the mountain was eventually first ascended by Achille Campagnoni, K2 was again the site of an expedition gone-wrong in 1953 that saw an entire climbing team ravaged by illness and relentless storms upon their descent. What they endured and how they were able to make it to safety remains a tale of championing survival cemented in the annals of mountaineering history.
The 1986 K2 Disaster
In 1986 27 men and women succeeded in climbing K2, but 13 would die in their attempt. In a series of ill-fated tragedies, an avalanche buried two Americans and seven climbers were left trapped at 26,000-feet for six nights in the world’s most inhospitable terrain. As a final insult to an already depleted crew, one man was killed after falling into a crevasse just feet from the relative safety of Base Camp.
This became the worst mountaineering tragedy in history, until that is, the approach of the 1996 Everest Disaster and the 2008 K2 Tragedy.
The 2008 K2 Disaster
The 2008 K2 Disaster is the most recent of the four major tragedies to ever plague K2. During this expedition, 11 climbers would die both on their ascent and descent of the mountain, with many versions retold as to what went wrong.
What is agreed upon is that the climbers that decided to make a summit bid on 1 August 2008 did so late in the afternoon under conditions when individual teams were not working together as they had previously agreed. All who summited were affected by a series of ice falls and accidental falls of climbers with the exception of Alberto Zerain, who summited first that day and descended without injury, he later died in June 2017 on Nanga Parbat, also known as the “Killer Mountain.”
Part of those expeditions was Fredrik Sträng who would later give accounts of the tragedy with fellow climbers and attempt to climb the mountain two more times in the summers of 2017 and 2018 without success.
K2 Winter Attempts
With an abundance of fatalities in the summer on K2, climbers still have attempted to be the first to climb K2 int he winter. The most recent expedition was that of the polish team led by Krzysztof Wielicki attempting to climb K2 in February of 2018.
The 2018 K2 Winter Expedition
The team experienced several delays, which included the incredible overnight rescue of Elisabeth Revol on Nanga Parbat in January. Revol had suffered severe weather on the mountain and left her partner Tomasz Mackiewicz above to reach help below. The K2 team was able to rescue Revol but did not think an attempt to save her partner would be successful, he was left behind and declared dead the next day. This led to controversies on the motives of the rescuers and whether or not Revol’s partner could have been saved, leading climbers like Vannessa O’Brien to claim they could have “climbed higher.”
At some point, after the Polish team returned to K2 from their rescue mission, they had split from their united front on their summit dib day, Denis Urubko decided to make a solo climb to the mountain on 25 February but later called off his attempt after spending a night out in severe weather at 26,322-feet or 7,200-meters.
Eventually, the expedition was called off on 5 March 2018. Heavy snowfall and bad weather covered their fixed ropes and made the climb unsafe.
The 1988 K2 Winter Expedition
Another expedition was also attempted in 1988 by a primarily Polish expedition led by Andrzej Zawada. In the three months the team spent on K2, they’d only see about 10 days worth of promising weather, the rest was plagued by strong winds and heavy snowfall. Eventually, the expedition was canceled and no summit occurred. It would be another decade before a winter ascent would be attempted again.
The 2003 K2 Winter Expedition
In 2000 Andrzej Zawada attempted to scale K2 again, however, he fell ill and died six months later, his team continued the effort in 2002-2003. But a series of bad weather and infighting within the team led three men to leave the expedition. The remaining men attempted and succeeded in establishing Camp 3 and Camp 4. Cerebral edema and bad weather resulted in a failed attempt but one that showed promise in the idea that an ascent of K2 in winter could be done.
The 2012 K2 Winter Expedition
In 2012 a Russian expedition attempted to climb K2 in the winter but bad weather and a climber’s bout with pneumonia, which eventually led to his death, required that the expedition be called off.
It would not be attempted again until 2018 by Krzysztof Wielicki’s team. But there was an unsuccessful plan in 2015 to try, but the team led by Denis Urubko was denied a permit due to a terrorist attack in the area.
As of 2018, K2 remains unconquered in winter, but not because of the lack of trying. Overall, each successive attempt to climb K2 in the winter leads to more information and techniques that allow future generations to build upon the hard work of those who came before them. The 2003 expedition proved that a winter ascent could be done; which expedition will succeed will be determined by time.