Pete Schoening

Mountaineer celebrated for single-handedly averting disaster on K2
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The Independent Online

Pete Schoening was one of the most prominent of the school of mid-20th-century American mountaineers who contributed energetically to the exploration of the world's high mountains in the period after the Second World War. But he will always be best remembered for his role in pulling off one of the most extraordinary life-saving actions in the history of climbing.

Peter Schoening, mountaineer: born Seattle, Washington 30 July 1927; married (three sons, three daughters); died Kenmore, Washington 22 September 2004.

Pete Schoening was one of the most prominent of the school of mid-20th-century American mountaineers who contributed energetically to the exploration of the world's high mountains in the period after the Second World War. But he will always be best remembered for his role in pulling off one of the most extraordinary life-saving actions in the history of climbing.

In 1953 Schoening, then 25, became the youngest member of Charlie Houston's élite US team attempting the second-highest peak in the world, K2 (8,611 metres/28,251 feet), then still unclimbed. Houston, post-war America's most experienced high-altitude mountaineer, was concerned to ensure that he recruit only the most competent all-round mountaineers in his quest to climb a mountain which is a much tougher proposition than Everest. But, as a veteran of many expeditions, he also realised the importance of selecting a blend of personalities that would approach the task harmoniously.

Despite the fact that the young Schoening's experience consisted mainly of long rock climbs in the Cascade Range near his hometown of Seattle and that he had never before climbed outside the United States, Houston recognised other, equally important qualities. "He was always cheerful," Houston recalled. "I never saw Pete lose his temper. I never heard him say an unkind thing about anyone else."

By early August 1953, with the entire expedition dangerously committed high on K2, one of the six-man party, Art Gilkey, developed thrombophlebitis. The chronic blood clotting was caused by prolonged exposure to the thin air at 25,500ft and crippled Gilkey: he could no longer walk. The development did not just mean the thwarting of the team's ambition to reach the summit; it suddenly turned the very survival of all six men into an open question.

Because Gilkey was immobilised, it was necessary to lower him thousands of feet over technically difficult ground on a makeshift stretcher - a task incredibly difficult on just about any mountain, let alone one built on the scale of K2. Even today, with modern equipment and the possibility of outside help, the chances of returning alive from high on K2 after a serious injury are extremely low. Back in 1953 the climbers were thrown entirely on to their own resources. The longer they remained at altitude, the greater the risk they would become prey to storms, frostbite or altitude sickness - all too common on a peak Houston would later dub "The Savage Mountain".

But, in contrast to the self-preservation instincts displayed in many modern emergencies in the world's high places, it never occurred to Houston and his comrades to abandon their friend and save themselves. "We all knew that some of us might never get down the mountain alive," remembered the expedition's deputy leader Bob Bates:

Each had long recognised the near impossibility of evacuating an injured man from the upper ledges of K2. But now that we were faced with Gilkey's helplessness, we realised we had to get him down. We didn't know how, but we knew that we had to do it.

The party began laboriously pulling and lowering Gilkey down steep ice and rocks while buffeted by a storm. At 24,500ft, a 45-degree sheet of ice was encountered. The team paused to regroup, in order to get the stricken climber down the impasse. Their plan was to try to swing Gilkey across the slope one stage at a time using an anchor point, or belay, from above.

Schoening took up the position of belaying the injured Gilkey, while the other four climbed across the ice to locate a position from which to pull him across. Disaster struck when George Bell, roped to the only non-American in the team, the Briton Tony Streather, slipped, pulling Streather off with him. This precipitated a giant domino effect as Streather crashed into the separate rope of Charlie Houston and Bob Bates, pulling them off too. The remaining team member, Dee Molenaar, was then also pulled off when Bates and Houston cannoned into his rope, which was attached to the helplessly prone Gilkey, which in turn led to Schoening. Thus it was that the last hope of saving all the falling climbers lay with Schoening, holding a perilously thin rope round his hips and the head of his ice axe jammed in snow behind a boulder.

Despite the combined weight of the five falling men, whose ropes had now all tangled together, and such a puny anchor point, Schoening somehow contrived by sheer strength and speed of reaction to stop the disaster in its tracks. "He had the strength of a bull and the heart of a Boy Scout," Nick Clinch, one of Schoening's later climbing partners, once memorably said. "I was lucky," Schoening himself would later say modestly:

The force came in a series of shocks. For minutes, it seemed, the rope was tight as a bowstring. Snow squalls blotted out everything and I couldn't tell what was happening. My hands were freezing, but of course I couldn't let go.

Schoening single-handedly saved the entire expedition from certain death.

Gilkey meanwhile, who had been left unattended, anchored to a boulder, had disappeared when they climbed back to recover him. At the time, it was conjectured that an avalanche had swept him away. Recently Houston admitted that, not unlike Captain Scott's famous Antarctic colleague Titus Oates, Gilkey probably sacrificed his life, in order to give the others a chance. Without the burden of the injured man, the remaining five made it back to safety.

Ever after, the notoriously humble Schoening played down his part in stopping what could easily have been the worst mountaineering disasters since the Germans had lost 16 men on Nanga Parbat before the war. "I'm surprised that it attracts interest, frankly," he said. But he became a legend in mountaineering circles, the equivalent of a goalkeeper who saves the crucial shot in a penalty shoot-out by an incredible feat of athleticism. His actions became known in American climbing circles simply as "The Belay".

Schoening was born in Seattle in 1927 and dropped out of school to join the US Navy, serving in the final year of the war. He then took a degree in Chemical Engineering at Washington University, where he began his climbing career in earnest, pioneering long new rock and mixed climbs in the nearby Cascade Range and becoming a leading light of the close-knit climbing community of the North-West United States. Following his heroics on K2, Schoening continued high-standard climbing while simultaneously pursuing a successful business career (he founded a company manufacturing fibreglass) and raising a large family.

In 1958, he and Andy Kauffman became the only Americans to make the first ascent of an 8,000-metre peak when they climbed the 8,068m (26,470ft) Gasherbrum 1 (often known as "Hidden Peak") in the Pakistani Karakorum. Another notable first was his role as part of the team to make the first ascent of the highest mountain in Antarctica, 4,897m (16,067ft) Mount Vinson, in 1966, along with three other peaks. This represented not just a mountaineering feat but also one of considerable geographical significance, being the last continental high point on the planet to be ascended.

In the midst of the Cold War, in 1974 Schoening was also part of a groundbreaking US mountaineering trip to the Soviet Pamirs which unfortunately was to have more than its fair share of tragedy when several climbers were killed. More happily, Schoening would go on to climb the highest peaks on five of the world's continents, often taking his family along with him on his climbing trips.

After he sold his fibreglass business in 1995 he gave notice that he had no intention of "retiring". It was simply an opportunity to do more mountaineering. In 1996 he duly attempted to climb Everest and was witness to the terrible disaster that took the lives of eight people associated with commercially guided expeditions (chronicled in Jon Krakauer's best-selling 1997 book Into Thin Air). Schoening abandoned his own attempt after struggling with the altitude.

But, although now well into his sixties, he continued to climb high elsewhere, summiting Aconcagua, at 6,962m (22,841ft) the highest peak in the Andes, and 5,895m (19,340ft) Kilimanjaro, the highest in Africa.

Colin Wells