“In height, it may be second to Everest. But in notoriety, well, I shall leave the words unsaid.”
At a regular Christmas party or for that matter, even at the bar or the library, if you declare you are an Everest summiteer, you’ll undoubtedly be catapulted to instant fame and accorded the title of a hero, much more than the average fifteen-minutes-of-fame the average Joe achieves in a lifetime.
However, if you have climbed a mountain which goes by the name of K2 (or Mount Godwin Austen), your jubilant declaration is likely to meet with a horde of confused stares. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll receive a couple of congratulations, although half-hearted ones at that. And only if you are lucky, that is.
Most people have never heard of K2 or really any mountain other than Everest, of course. In mountaineering parlance, it is the same way a ‘novice’ climber who is ‘escorted’ up Everest thanks his lead guide profusely but utterly overlooks the contribution of the Sherpas, without whose help any ascent would be impossible. In cricketing parlance, it would be akin to people having heard of a certain Andre Russell, but not a Ryan Harris. However, it wouldn’t be right to blame them since they hardly know better. After all, all of us in school only learnt that the highest (mind you, not the tallest - the tallest is Mauna Kea, Hawaii) mountain in the world is Mount Everest, and that was it. Consider this - we learnt the highest mountain was Mount Everest, however what we never learnt is why or what makes it the highest et cetera, which probably would have been the more important question. But that is another story, for another day.
K2, situated in the Karakoram range of Northern Pakistan, is the second highest mountain in the world, rising a staggering 8,611 metres above sea level. To put that into perspective, imagine going vertically upwards for more than eight kilometres. Daunting, eh? Well for all it’s height, it still falls short of Everest’s by the length of a couple of football fields, something which, I daresay, has haunted it since eternity.
Having said that, The Himalayas, The Karakoram and The Hindu Kush Mountains boast some of the highest mountains in the world, with all of the fourteen ‘eight-thousanders’ (mountains reaching a height of 8000 m) situated in one of the former two ranges and the latter boasting the highest number of ‘seven-thousanders’. Most of these mountains are located in either Nepal, Tibet, Pakistan or Afghanistan. However, even India and China find themselves taking a slice of the cake, with a number of mountains sitting on the borders of these countries, most notably Kanchenjunga (India-Nepal) and K2 (Pakistan-China).
Put simply, the human body simply lacks the ability to survive, let alone function, at the kind of heights we are talking about here. And at a point in time that happens, even attempting to climb a structure which covers one’s entire vision of the horizon from even as much as 100 miles afar, becomes an intrinsically irrational act. Regardless, despite the obvious fallacy of the thought, the 1900’s saw the birth of the belief that these mountains could be climbed, with more than a few tragic cases of going to the extent of believing that nature could be overpowered. However, until 1950, none of the eight-thousanders were climbed, with the more prominent ones to have failed including George Leigh Mallory and Andrew Irvine. After Maurice Herzog climbed the mountain with the highest ascent-to-fatality ratio, Annapurna, in 1950, the belief saw a mighty resurgence, with expeditions one after the other. And when the hallowed Everest was finally conquered by a certain Edmund Hillary and the affable Tenzing Norgay, the floodgates well and truly opened. The last eight-thousander to be climbed for the first time was Shishapangma Peak, in 1964.
The latter part of the 1900’s saw a number of successful ascents on the world’s highest peaks, owing to greater technology, advanced fitness regimes and established routes to the summits. However, for all the technology, these mighty peaks, in winter, withstood the onslaught of the human race. Slowly and steadily, humans found themselves on the top before February 26 (the designated date marking the end of the winter season) on 13 of the 14 eight-thousanders, with the most recent one being the successful summit of Pakistan’s infamous Nanga Parbat (Naked Peak) in 2016. There are no prizes for guessing which is the last peak to remain. A number of mountaineers, including the legendary Reinhold Messner, deem the task “as close to impossible as it gets”. While the first summit of Mount Everest in winter was in as far back as 1980, an age where equipment could be considered archaic in comparison to today’s standards, K2 still remains unclimbed in winter.
Why K2 is a much more difficult climb than Mount Everest
You might argue that if K2 was commercialised as heavily as Everest is today, we would see the mountain being conquered much more easily. However, this argument would fall flat in the face of the 26% fatality ratio of K2. One only has to look at the list of the people who have died on the mountain, and would easily notice that the list contains a number of accomplished and all the more celebrated climbers. What is more is that, the statistic of 1 in 4 deaths only includes those climbers who have summited K2 and does not include people who died on the mountain’s perilous slopes without summiting. If that was added, the statistic would look much more ominous, if it does not already.
Furthermore, let’s come to the topography of the respective mountains in discussion, K2 and Everest. For starters, Everest Base Camp is relatively easier to get to, requiring only a few days trek from Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital. In comparison, one has to trek over 100 kilometres on dangerously steep country from the nearest village (Askole) to reach K2’s base camp, making it one of the most physically demanding hikes planet Earth has to offer. To provide further perspective and well, allure, the mountain is so remote that Pakistani locals never even bothered to name the mountain. It’s counterparts K1 (Masherbrum), K4 (Gasherbrum), K5 (Gasherbrum-II) and Broad Peak (Faichan Kangri) all had local names before the venture of the British, but not the then-unnamed Mount Godwin-Austen, owing to its unparalleled remoteness. Furthermore, K2 and the Karakoram house a much more unpredictable climate and harsher winds than the Himalayas. The easterlies that blow in from the Central Asian highlands are hindered in their journey by the Karakoram, which is located north-west of Nepal, thus significantly reducing their speeds before they reach the Himalayas. Owing to the same dangerously fickle weather, the Karakoram is more prone to avalanches, a sure sign of doom for any mountaineer, however experienced he or she might be.
When it comes to the routes, Everest is usually climbed through either the North Face route or the South Col Route. The trails are so well established that many a climber has commented that he/she simply ‘walked upto the top’. Of course, there is the infamous Hillary Step and the Khumbu Icefall lower down, whose might is not to be underestimated, but these obstacles can be overcome with precise application of basic technicalities. However, K2 does not have as many twists and turns, which increases its ‘steepness’ by a considerable margin. As a result, an ascent of K2 requires skilful manoeuvring, something that cannot be expected of the fifty-year-old average Joe who eats chips and drinks cola thrice a day. In addition, if one is skilled, or rather lucky enough, to cross the lower areas of the mountain and successfully evades the ubiquitous avalanches along the way, one is confronted by the mighty ‘Bottleneck’, an outrageous couloir of overhanging ice seracs, which x-ray the climbers underneath and could topple at the slightest misstep. One can only hope and pray that one is not underneath a serac which surely will come hurtling down, sooner or later. Upon crossing the Bottleneck, one still has to climb a long distance as the summit still stands far away. This has given the mountain the reputation of having the ‘longest (summit) day’, despite the distance to be covered being roughly equal to the distance one has to cover on Everest’s summit day.
Hence, the fact that the mountain hasn’t been summitted yet in winter should come as no surprise. Mountaineers, both established and (informed) amateurs, regard K2 as the Holy Grail of Mountaineering, and the toughest assignment a climber could ever face in his lifetime. Therefore, if one were to complete this unlikely feat, they would have claimed one of the last remaining great prizes in mountaineering - the first winter ascent of the world’s second-highest mountain.
This piece could come off as slightly disrespectful, towards Mount Everest in particular. However, that is not the case. It’s immense altitude still fazes many climbers, with more than 200 bodies on the mountain’s slopes being a testament to this fact. Despite the development and usage of brutal technology on Everest, the mountain still remains an incredibly difficult one to climb, particularly along the Eastern (Kangshung) face. The tragedy of 1996, an event narrated in ‘Into Thin Air’ by Jon Karakeur and adapted multiple times into the cultural arena, and the more recent 2015 earthquake in Nepal which took 18 lives, is justification of Sagarmatha’s eternal might. However, what is merely being contested through this write-up is that K2 receives the respect it deserves. And perhaps, on an arguably more aesthetic level, this article deals with how human nature is obsessed with only the best and the biggest whilst blatantly ignoring both the runners-up and the dark horse, be it whatever field. Needless to say, in this case, the best refers to Everest, with K2 donning the mantle of the classic ‘so-near-yet-so-far’ trope, in popular human perception.
Also, as I write this, two simultaneous cross-cultural expeditions attempting to climb K2 in the 2019 winter have failed, with disputed reasons.
To end with a little trivia, Annapurna, Nanga Parbat and potentially the isolated Kanchenjunga boast a higher ‘deadly’ rate, with Annapurna leading at 34% and also having seen the least number of ascents to date. However, the difficulty of attempting K2, much less summiting, is not up for debate at the ‘Elite Mountaineers’ Club’.
So even if your mate at the library does not fully appreciate the enormity of your achievement, you have managed to huff and puff your way into the Elite Mountaineers’ Club, er, I mean, the summit of K2.
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