The Descent of Men

By Maurice Isserman, a professor of history at Hamilton College and the co-author of the forthcoming Fallen Giants: A History of Himalayan Mountaineering From the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 10/08/08):

Wilco Van Rooijen, a Dutch mountain climber, managed to survive the debacle this week that took the lives of 11 others in Pakistan on K2, the world’s second-highest peak. Describing the chaotic events that ensued when a pinnacle of ice collapsed and swept away fixed ropes that climbers from several expeditions high on the mountain had counted on to aid their descent from the summit, Mr. van Rooijen lamented: “Everybody was fighting for himself, and I still do not understand why everybody were leaving each other.”

Himalayan mountaineering is an inherently dangerous pastime, and climbers are always at risk from the unexpected. But mountaineering has become more dangerous in recent decades as the traditional expeditionary culture of the early- and mid-20th century, which had emphasized mutual responsibility and common endeavor, gave way to an ethos stressing individualism and self-preservation.

The contrast between the two eras is vividly illustrated by the experience of an earlier expedition that ran into peril on K2. Fifty-five years ago this month, Dr. Charles S. Houston, America’s premier Himalayan mountaineer, led a team of seven Americans and one British climber attempting a first ascent on K2. They made steady progress up the mountain, and by Aug. 1 all eight climbers had reached a campsite at 25,300 feet. From there, given good weather, they expected to reach the 28,251 foot summit in two days.

Instead, they were pinned down by a blizzard in their high camp for the next week. And one member of the team, Art Gilkey, who was on his first Himalayan venture, was struck down by a case of thrombophlebitis, a clotting in the veins, in his left leg. It left him unable to walk and in danger of death if a blood clot were to reach his lungs. Houston and the others knew that there was little chance that they could carry an incapacitated man 9,000 feet down treacherous slopes to the safety of base camp. But they did not for a minute consider leaving their teammate behind.

On Aug. 10, they started down the mountain. Gilkey was sedated with morphine, wrapped in a sleeping bag, and alternately towed and lowered by his comrades. The climbers descended in roped pairs and, when they could, held their partners on “belay” — that is, one climber would keep a tight, protective hold on the rope as the other made his way down the slope. Encumbered as they were, and with the storm raging, it took them six hours to descend a few hundred feet from their camp.

At around 3 p.m., the eight men were arrayed across the slope to the west of one of their previous campsites, Camp VII, their destination for the day. Gilkey in his sleeping bag was belayed from above by Pete Schoening, a climber from Seattle. The other climbers, roped in pairs, stood nearby.

Suddenly, one of them lost his footing, and as he fell he pulled his partner off his feet. They became entangled in the ropes of the other climbers, until practically the whole party was slipping downwards toward a precipice. Schoening remained on his feet, but his rope was entangled with the others. If he had fallen, it would have been the end for them all as they would have tumbled thousands of feet to their deaths on the Godwin-Austen Glacier below. If there had been no surviving witnesses, the 1953 American K2 expedition could have entered mountaineering lore as one of those enduring puzzles to be endlessly debated in the climbing journals, like the disappearance of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine on Everest in 1924.

But at that moment of impending doom, Schoening saved them all. In his effort to belay Gilkey down a rock cliff, Schoening had jammed his ice ax into the snow behind a small boulder, wrapping the rope once around the ax and then around his waist. When he saw the others fall, he instantly put all his weight onto the ax. The nylon rope stretched and tightened on him — but it held, and Schoening held.

Several of the climbers, including Dr. Houston, were injured. They could go no farther that day. They would have to work their way over to Camp VII and set up the two tents they were carrying to get shelter for the night if they were to survive, and they could not do it with Gilkey in tow. For the moment, they left him anchored to the slope with ropes and ice axs, about 150 feet west of the campsite. Another climber, Bob Craig, explained to Gilkey, who was sedated but conscious, that they were leaving him for a short time but would return. “Yes, I’ll be fine,” Gilkey told Mr. Craig, “I’m O.K.”

They got their tents up. In the distance, they heard through the howling wind what sounded like a shout from Gilkey. Then there was silence. In a few minutes, three of the climbers returned to check on their injured teammate. To their horror, they saw that the gulley was now empty. Gilkey was 27 years old when he disappeared; he had completed his doctoral thesis in geology at Columbia University on the day he departed for K2. In the years that followed, the others would wonder whether he had been swept away by an avalanche, or caused his own death, somehow releasing the ropes that held him in place in an act of self-sacrifice that allowed the rest of them to live.

It took the survivors five more days to fight their way off the mountain. Finally on Aug. 15, they reached base camp. They built a 10-foot high cairn as a memorial for Gilkey on a rocky point near the confluence of the Savoia and Godwin-Austen Glaciers. It stands there to this day.

The K2 expedition became legend among mountaineers, its members honored for the gallantry of their conduct under extreme conditions. As Nicholas Clinch, a rising American climber, would write a few years later, the “finest moment in the history of American mountaineering was the Homeric retreat of Dr. Houston’s party of K2 in 1953.”

Houston himself summed up the highest ideals of expeditionary culture when he wrote of his K2 comrades: “We entered the mountains as strangers, but we left as brothers.” Today in contrast, as was evident last week on K2, climbers enter the mountains as strangers and tend to leave the same way.