AdventureStats Special: The unclimbed faces of K2

Posted: Aug 17, 2007 06:04 am EDT

( It's a big season on the Mountaineers' Mountain. Out of 13 routes on K2, Abruzzi and Cesen share two hundred summits. After that numbers thin out sharply, down to the very zeros: The East Face, the North Face and the West Face still await a first ascent.

For the first time in many years, mountaineers once again attempt such impossible missions.

K2 Route Statistics

Last the peak had a new route made was 10 years ago, by a Japanese team forging a new line on the West Ridge/West Face. Since then, only Spanish Jordi Corominas has summited K2 by a different route that the Abruzzi or Cesen - in a repetition of the Magic line.

Yet yesterday, an SMS from the unfinished NW ridge said that the climbers spent all day in C4 - weathering high winds and pondering how to find a safe traverse at 8000 meters to the summit couloir.

On the unclimbed West face meanwhile - following months of work, 6 nights in the deathzone and a screeching halt by a Berlin wall 100 meters below the summit - Russian Jannu and Everest North Wall legends try to figure out what to do next.

Soon, also the unscaled North Face will have a visit, and few Americans realized the challenge of Shared Summit's failed attempt on K2's East face earlier this season.

This unique situation is a rare mountaineering drama - and reason at last for AdventureStats to be updated with cool information on the peak's unclimbed faces and sharp ridges, compiled on a 3D map.

Face to face with K2

Out of the peak's four faces - three are still unclimbed. Attempting them is calling the intemperate mountain eye-to-eye. And like a rabid animal; K2 is rarely tolerant to top-dog behaviour.

The two normal routes are dangerous enough, and some of the little attempted alternatives are even worse. With a higher number of deaths than summits in one case K2 always offers a good reason to think twice.

When it comes to difficulty, the unclimbed faces are in a league of their own. But also the northwest ridge attempted by the Kazakhs right now has never been completed. The two French summits there had to re-route to the North Ridge. "The traverse from rock to ice (near the summit) couloir, as used by the first ascenders is very dangerous," the expedition reported two days back, hoping to find a safer line.

The ruthless judge

The peak cares little for fame or breed. I never said the Magic Line was suicidal I meant the Polish route instead, Reinhold Messner vented sulkily, while five bold Catalan climbers tried the first repetition of the route, which follows the SSW Pillar.

The Polish route, on the south faces central rib, had only been climbed once - by Jerzy Kukuczka and Tadeusz Piotrowski in 1986. Tadeusz never made it back, and the route is so avalanche-prone, that no one else has ever considered a new attempt.

The Magic line is better - but no less deadly: Messner himself was the first to consider it - but changed his mind almost immediately. It would be too difficult for the porters, he explained - and went for Abruzzi.

In fact, the Magic Line does seem suicidal indeed - on only 4 summits to date it has claimed 6 lives in return. In 1986 Polish climbers Piasecki and Wroz, along with Slovak Bozik at last achieved the first complete ascent of the route (without porters). Wroz fell to his death while descending via the Abruzzi Spur.

That year, the line also claimed Renato Casarotto, who had been a member on Messner's team. Renato died almost down from his solo - and third - shot at the summit on the Magic Line. This infamous 'black summer', also Americans Alan Pennington and John Smolich, died after they were caught in an avalanche below Negrotto Col.

As for the Catalans who went for the Magic line in 2004, Jordi Corominas summitted but the team lost Manel de la Matta in C1.

The just judge

K2s climbing history shows a slow, shady path to excellence. Five men died before the first summit was achieved: American Dudley Wolfe vanished on an early attempt on the SE ridge back in 1939, in Camp VII at 7550 meters. His three Nepalese Sherpas; Pasang Kikuli, Pasang Kitar and Pintso disappeared the next day between Camp VI and VII.

American Art Gilkey was lost in 1953 on the same ridge, while his teammates were trying to lower him down from the mountain in extreme storm conditions.

Even the huge Italian team led by Ardito Desio who planted the first flag on the top had a casualty; Mario Puchoz died of pneumonia. The first summiteers Compagnoni and Lacedelli used supplementary O2 on their march to glory and it was almost a miracle that Walter Bonatti and a Pakistani porter survived a night in the open above 8000 meters, when their mates chose to prepare for the definitive summit push instead of helping them.

The shameful act put a dark note to the Italian ascent and sparked a controversy lasting for 50 years, ruining Bonatti's reputation until last year when he was offered an apology by Lacedelli. But it was "too late" Bonatti said.

In fact, even before Lacedelli's coming clean, the Magic line Catalan climbers had dedicated their expedition to Bonatti's spirit. In a twisted replay of Bonatti's fate, Magic Line's expedition leader Oscar Cadiach was recently subject to an attempt on his own reputation - when accused by Liz Hawley and a US/British team to have lied about his ascent of Everest second step. But in this age of internet justice travels fast; only one week later Cadiach was cleared on ExplorersWeb - by his expedition Sherpa summiteers.

The land of the brave

The most remarkable climbers have left their traces on the mountain: In the first no O2 summit of the peak, Americans John Roskelley and Louis Reichardt traversed from the NE ridge to the Abruzzi and reached the top in 78; Polish Kukuczka forged the route on the south face in 86; the Japanese opened the north ridge in 82 and so on.

In addition to the current West face and NW ridge attempts, Kazakh star climbers Denis Urubko and Serguey Samoilov will shoot for the ultimate K2 dream: A new route up the unclimbed and frigid North Face, without O2 in Alpine style.

The peak also awaits its first winter climb - previously attempted by two teams, without success.

Cesen route - the less dangerous

Yet for those looking for the straightforward routes, "theres no real easy way up that skyscraper," as Don Bowie pointed out earlier this summer. Stats show that the most frequently tackled route is not necessarily the safest: The classic, Abruzzi Spur route (SE ridge) has166 summits, but also 47 deaths, resulting in a summit/fatality rate of 27.1%.

On the other hand, 49 climbers have summited through the Cesen route (SSE ridge), but only six have died on the attempt; thus, the Cesen route is statistically the safest route of K2, with a summit/fatality rate of 12.2% (watch out for the small sample though).

Finally, the total figures show 270 climbers have summited K2, while 66 have perished on the mountain, making K2s overall summit/fatality rate 24.4% - a much higher percentage than on Everest.

But that comes as no surprise to altitude climbers; a quick glance at the huge pyramid is all it takes to realize the high stakes on the Mountaineers Mountain.


K2 Route Statistics

#Mountaineering #Mountaineering #Stats #classic

The west face of K2, courtesy of the Russian West Face expedition / Russian Climb (click to enlarge).
Bogomolov and the Kazakhs are attempting to complete the NW ridge. The previous few attempts there had to re-route to the north ridge. Map courtesy of Russian Climb (click to enlarge).
Another pendant matter: K2's dark and frigid North Face. Image by Denis Urubko (click to enlarge).
K2 memories: the 2004 Magic Line team members, under the Jolly Roger flag. L/R: Oscar Cadiach, Agustin Giró, Manel de la Matta, Jordi Tosas and Jordi Coromminas.
Sharp spurs on K2's yet unclimbed east face. Aerial image courtesy of Shared Summits (click to enlarge).
"The traverse from rock to ice (near the summit) couloir, as used by the first ascenders is very dangerous," the expedition reported two days back. Hanging out in a stormy C4, the Kazakh climbers are pondering the route problem today: "There is information that somewhere near 8000 meters, there is a safer traverse to the ice (summit) couloir." Image of high camp on the NW ridge, courtesy of the Kazakh team/ Russian Climb (click to enlarge).
Renato Casarotto's burial ground in K2 Base Camp Memorial, also burial for Manel. Copyright Magic Line.
K2 routes by AdventureStats (click to enlarge).