Just 0.8% of Everest mountaineers are killed each season, compared to a 23% kill rate on K2. That’s almost one in every four attempts resulting in a death.
It was described as “a savage mountain that tries to kill you” by American climber George Bell in 1953 who himself lost an expedition member on his failed attempt.
Over this article we will look at why K2 may be described as ‘the true mountaineer’s Everest’, and why it remains to be the last mountain to be fully conquered in the world.
The mountain with no name
The mountain was named K2 during the 1856 Great Trigonometrical Survey of the Karakoram Range of the Himalayas, simply because it was the second mountain in the range surveyed.
Legend has it that after the surveyors named a mountain they would ask the locals for their own name.
Located 70 miles from any village and it was called Chhogori (Big Mountain) in the local Balti dialect, so the label K2 stuck.
A remote mountain sitting between two countries
One of the biggest reasons so few visit this mountain is its sheer remoteness.
It is 70 miles from the nearest village so requires hardcore trekking for several days unsupported to get to basecamp.
This again makes Everest seem like a gentle stroll with villages along the route from the airport every few miles and a chance to stop in a hotel to acclimatise every day.
If Kashmir was a country then K2 would not sit on a critical national border.
Thanks to British line drawing in the 1940s as the Empire departed the Indian subcontinent, the mountain now has a border on its ridge between Chinese-administered Kashmir and Pakistan.
K2 has three second places in human and geological terms:
- It is the second highest mountain in the world, measured at 782 feet shorter than Everest at 28,251 feet
- It was the second mountain in the Karakoram Range to be measured by the British
- It is the second biggest killer among all mountains in terms of percentages with one in five climbers dying on the mountain.
Only Annapurna in Nepal kills a greater proportion of climbers, with one in three not making it home.
This makes the mountain one of the biggest challenges in the world for expert climbers.
First summited in 1954
After several attempts for around 50 years by different mountaineers, K2 was first summited in July 1954 by Milan University’s Professor Ardito Desio (although this was not without controversy).
The mountain had already killed one of his team on that expedition, with Mario Puchoz dying of pneumonia on a previous summit attempt.
The year before an American team was forced to abort when they too lost a team member on the mountain.
An aesthetic beauty that makes K2 a beast
The mountain is unarguably beautiful – almost as an artist would imagine one with its almost perfect pyramidal shape.
That very shape makes climbing so difficult as there are so few flat stretches in the climb.
The Abruzzi Spur route is the commonest route for climbers, with 75% of those trying to conquer the mountain attempting it. This has a flat spot on a shoulder where climbers can rest from their otherwise brutal four day ascent.
Though considered the easiest route, the Abruzzi Spur route is still a killer – 11 climbers died on this route on one day in 2008 alone.
Everest has several flatter spots on its commonest route up the south face. Even with bottled oxygen the flatter spots are unremittingly tough with just tens of metres taking an hour or more.
Climbing K2 by comparison is unrelenting from the start for the first few days with steep, hard climbs from start to finish.
K2 has yet to be ‘fully conquered’
Every mountain over 8,000 metres in height except K2 has been climbed with and without oxygen in summer and winter.
K2 has been climbed with and without oxygen in summer – at the time of writing every attempt at climbing the mountain in winter has failed.
An expedition from Poland is set to attempt to take this on in January 2020 and there is every reason to believe they will achieve it.
There is an argument among mountaineers that this last great challenge should never be attempted as what else is left in extreme mountaineering?
Killer weather systems
One of the reasons why K2 hasn’t been conquered in winter is that its weather systems can be extremely bad even in summer.
Unlike Everest where people summit every year, there have been blocks of several years where no one has summited K2 thanks to its extreme winds and blizzards.
These cannot be accurately predicted as the mountain makes its own weather. Sudden blasts of high winds have been known to blow people and their equipment off the mountain.
K2 hates women
Those who attempt the hardest climbs in the world lose friends all too regularly and can get a bit superstitious about certain mountains.
One infamous superstition is that the mountain hates women!
Women had made several attempts to climb the beautiful beast since 1954 but it wouldn’t be until 1986 – 34 years later – that Polish climber Wanda Rutkiewicz would finally beat the curse.
After summiting in 1995, highly experienced mountaineer Alison Hargreaves was on an expedition to summit the 8,000+ metre peaks Everest, K2 and Kangchenjunga but fell in bad weather on her descent from the summit of K2.
The mountaineer’s Everest?
If you’re a super-fit walker with some climbing skills and around $50,000 to hand including lost earnings, you should be able to summit Everest with a high chance of returning intact.
K2 is in a different league.
Even the most experienced extreme mountaineers in the world have either been turned back or been killed outright as much due to their skills being stretched as because the mountain god decided to brush them from its surface.
While more than 4000 people have summited Everest, only hundreds have returned from K2 to tell the tale.