August 2, 2022 Akshanth Gunda

1939 K2

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The K2 stands out like a force of nature on the Pakistan-China border, waiting to strike you down if you dare step on it. 

On August 27 1939, several newspaper offices including the Times of India received some weary reports, that a mountain expedition high within the Karakoram Range had gone sideways. Days later the American Alpine Club received confirmation of the same. But what went wrong?

In a meeting at the American Alpine Club(AAC) in 1937 Fritz Wiessner, a 39-year-old German American free climbing expert, proposed in a room filled with mountaineers an expedition to climb the K2.

The Karakoram 2 or K2, as it is more commonly known, is the highest point in the Karakoram range rising up to 8,611 meters, second only to the mighty Everest/Sagarmatha. For many years mountaineers tried to climb the K2 but had failed.

The most famous of these failed expeditions was probably in 1909 led by Prince Luigi Amedeo, Duke of the Abruzzi, a member of the royal house of Savoy.

The duke and his team reached about 20,510 feet (6,250 m) on the southeast ridge of the mountain setting up a world record then. But  ultimately they abandoned the climb as it was deemed too dangerous at the time.

The path taken by the Duke would later become the Abruzzi Ridge, the normal route to the top. The AAC decided to make two attempts, the first one in 1938 was more of a reconnaissance mission led by American mountaineer Charlie Houston.

Houston was able to chart a suitable way to the top following the Abruzzi ridge, marking places to set up camps along the way. Wiessner’s job now was to get a team of experienced mountaineers and people with deep pockets, since the expedition was costly.

Eaton Cromwell was selected as Wiessner’s deputy. George Trench, Chappell Cranmer, George Sheldon, and Jack Durrance were also selected. And the final member was Dudley Wolfe, the American socialite who had a knack for wild adventures of this kind. The team had 9 sherpas, chief among them was Pasang Kikuli.

On April 27, the entire team met up in Srinagar, the Sherpas had come in from Darjeeling. They traveled in stages of about 15 miles (24 km) a day. Trekking via Sonamarg and the Zoji La pass into Baltistan, they reached Skardu and crossed the Indus River into the Karakoram.

On May 26 they reached the source of the Braldu River at the Baltoro Glacier at 11,500 feet, where they were held up by a porter’s strike for a couple of days. On May 30 they reached the Concordia, the confluence of the Baltoro Glacier and the Godwin-Austen Glacier.

Turning into the Godwin Austen, they could finally see the mighty K2. Eight camps were set up, including the base camp, along the Abruzzi route. Wolfe managed well until the base camp,  but he struggled to climb the steep wall of K2 as the team made their initial runs up to camp vii.

By mid-July, Durrance had to climb down to camp ii as he was suffering from severe Hypoxia, and Cromwell and Trench who stayed back at camp ii were completely disillusioned.

Meanwhile, Wiessner, Wolfe, and Pasang Lama were up at 25,300 feet at Camp VIII, ready to attempt the summit at 28,251 feet assuming that supplies were being ferried to the camp from the lower ones. They were clearly wrong.

While Wiessner and Pasang pushed towards the summit, Wolfe stayed back since he was completely spent; it’s believed that Wiessner and Pasang made it within a few hundred feet of the summit, only to be stopped by superstition.

Pasang urged Wiessner to turn back for fear of upsetting the ‘night spirits’ of the mountain. On their descent, they somehow lost both pairs of crampons and a second summit push became impossible.

With no communication between the camps, people at the base camp thought their colleagues were dead and they decided to pack everything up. With supplies depleting, Wiessner decided to descend, but Wolfe had to stay back as he had no energy  to make the journey back.

Wiessner returned to the base camp and sent Durrance to bring down Wolfe, but he returned empty-handed. The sherpas tried their hand next, and while they managed to find Wolfe alive, the rescue attempt failed and none of them were found again.

Soon after, the weather broke over K2 and the party decided to head home. Several incriminating letters were later sent to AAC questioning Wiessner’s leadership and planning, though nothing was proven and Wiessner and his deputy Cromwell both resigned from the AAC.

The K2 was ultimately summited in 1954 by a team of Italian mountaineers. In 2002, a group of mountaineers stumbled upon a skeleton on the base of K2. Close by were equipment and a leather mitten marked “Wolfe”. 

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