The Big Question: What makes K2 the most perilous challenge a mountaineer can face?

Why are we asking this now?

Because at least 11 people are currently missing presumed dead on the notoriously dangerous mountain. Located in Pakistan's majestic Karakoram range, the world's second highest mountain has long been regarded as a dangerous peak to climb, but the weekend's disaster constitutes the largest loss of life in a single day on K2's slopes.

The Pakistani army yesterday managed to rescue two Dutch climbers who were caught up in the mayhem after a gruelling 48 hours stranded on the 8,611m mountain. The men were two of 22 climbers from eight expeditions who attempted to tackle the summit on Friday following a brief lull in the weather. An Italian climber, Marco Confortola, is still trying to make his way down to the 6,000m because the rescue helicopters cannot get any higher in the thin air.

What exactly went wrong?

Initial reports were sketchy but as the survivors came down a clearer picture emerged which pointed towards both a freak disaster and human error. At least nine people were thought to have been swept away by an avalanche after an enormous serac – a large overhanging pillar of ice – broke off the mountain and crashed into climbers on a treacherous part of the final ascent known as "The Bottleneck".

One of the rescued Dutch climbers, Wilco Van Rooijen, said yesterday that people may have fallen to their deaths because an advance rope line was in the wrong place. "We had to move it," Van Rooijen said. "That of course took many, many hours. Some people turned back because they did not trust the rope any more." He added: "On the summit attempt everything went wrong."

Pakistan's ministry of tourism has released a list of 11 missing climbers. It includes three South Koreans, two Nepalis, two Pakistanis and climbers from France, Ireland, Serbia and Norway.

Why is it called K2?

In the mid-19th century the British forces in India began surveying peaks and passes in the Himalayan range in order to keep a watchful eye on any possible route that a Russian army might take if it invaded South Asia.

In 1856 Thomas Montgomerie arrived in the area of the Karakoram where K2 lies and began, somewhat unimaginatively, naming all the major peaks there "K "for Karakoram" plus a number. K2 was the second peak he surveyed. All the other peaks have since been given new names such as Broad Peak and Gasherbrum, but for some reason K2 has stuck. Chinese and Balti speakers usually call the mountain Qogir or Chogori (Big Mountain).

Who first conquered it?

The first successful ascent was made by two Italians, Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni, on 31 July 1954, but not before a number of climbing disasters had already turned K2 into a legend among the world's mountaineering fraternity. The Italians used oxygen and a large party to tackle the summit along the now commonly traversed south-eastern ridge known as the Abruzzi Spur. An American expedition a year earlier resulted in one of the most dramatic rescues in climbing history when a single climber managed to hold on to five other colleagues who had fallen using nothing more than an ice pick.

And who followed?

No one for 23 years until the second ascent by the Japanese climber Ichiro Yoshizawa in 1977. Since then around 280 people have reached K2's summit – a paltry number compared to the 3,681 who have made their way to the top of Everest. The first woman to conquer K2 was Poland's Wanda Rutkiewicz in 1986. Rutkiewicz died shortly afterwards trying to scale Kangchenjunga (8,586m). The next five women to climb K2 either died on the way down or on their next major climb, leading some to speculate that K2 was cursed for female climbers. The curse, however, has since been broken.

So what makes K2 so dangerous?

"It's enormous, very high, incredibly steep and much further north than Everest which means it attracts notoriously bad weather," says Britain's most celebrated mountaineer Sir Chris Bonnington, who lost his colleague Nick Escourt in an avalanche on K2's western side during an expedition in 1978. In 1986 13 climbers were killed in a week when a vicious storm stranded numerous expeditions.

Although Everest is 237m taller, K2 is widely perceived to be a far harder climb. "It's a very serious and very dangerous mountain," adds Sir Chris. "No matter which route you take it's a technically difficult climb, much harder than Everest. The weather can change incredibly quickly, and in recent years the storms have become more violent. People who have recently been there have told me that the snow conditions are also getting worse."

So what is the secret to a successful ascent?

According to the mountaineering historian Ed Douglas, "You have to be really good and lucky." The problem, he explains, is that although the final day of climbing, from Camp 4 to the summit, is approximately the same as Everest's final day it is steeper and more dangerous, making it physically exhausting. "It's a very long summit day. The climb is technically demanding and even once you get past The Bottleneck there's still a long way to go to the top. You only have to look at the list of those who have died on K2 to see that it contains some very accomplished climbers."

Traditionally most climbers have decided against using oxygen in favour of a light, fast ascent but in recent years cylinders have made a comeback. In 2004 more than half of the 47 summiteers used oxygen.

How does it compare to other mountain challenges?

It certainly ranks as one of the most dangerous mountains in the world to climb. Only Nanga Parbat, another 8000m-plus peak at the western edge of Pakistan's Karakoram, and Nepal's Annapurna have a higher death ratio. It is estimated that 74 of K2's 280 summiteers have died, meaning that 26 per cent of those who reached the top died on the way back down.

The death ratio for Nanga Parbat and Annapurna is 28 per cent and 40 per cent respectively. At least 179 people have died on Everest, but considering how many people scale it every year the likelihood of dying whilst doing so is a relatively small 10 per cent.

Is K2 a challenge too far?

Yes

*A fatality rate of nearly 30 per cent tells its own story

*Pakistani soldiers are regularly forced to risk their lives to rescue climbers on K2

*The explosion in popularity of Himalayan climbing is damaging the local environment

No

*You can't stop the world's best mountaineers having a crack at it

*Equipment and rescue techniques have hugely improved over the past 10 years

*No mountain can ever been considered wholly safe

Suggested Topics
Arts & Entertainment
Ricky Gervais at a screening of 'Muppets Most Wanted' in London last month
tvRicky Gervais on the return of 'Derek' – and why he still ignores his critics
News
news
Sport
Vito Mannone fails to keep out Samir Nasri's late strike
sportMan City 2 Sunderland 2: Goalkeeping howler allows Man City to scrap a draw – but Premier League title is Liverpool's to lose
Life & Style
Going down: Google's ambition to build an elevator into space isn't likely to be fulfilled any time soon
techTechnology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
David Cameron sings a hymn during the enthronement service of The Most Rev Justin Welby as Archbishop of Canterbury, at Canterbury Cathedral last year
news
Life & Style
From long to Jong: Guy Pewsey gets the North Korean leader's look
fashionThe Independent heads to an Ealing hairdressers to try out the North Korean dictator's trademark do
Extras
indybest10 best smartphones
Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
News
peopleRyan Gosling says yes, science says no. Take the A-list facial hair challenge
Arts & Entertainment
tvCreator Vince Gilligan sheds light on alternate endings
Life & Style
Google Doodle celebrates the 63rd anniversary of the Peak District National Park
tech
News
Paul Weller, aka the Modfather, performing at last year’s Isle of Wight Festival in Newport
people
Life & Style
Michael Acton Smith founded Firebox straight out of university before creating Moshi Monsters
techHe started out selling silliness with online retailer Firebox, before launching virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
News
Ethical matters: pupils during a philosophy lesson
educationTaunton School's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success
Arts & Entertainment
Play It Forward: the DC Record Fair in Washington, US
musicIndependent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads on Record Store Day
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Online Advertising Account Executive , St Pauls , London

£26K-30k + Bonus, Private Medical Insurance, Company Pension: Charter Selectio...

Advertising Account Executive - Online, Central London

£25K-28k + Bonus, Private Medical Insurance, Company Pension: Charter Selectio...

Senior Infrastructure Consultant

£50000 - £65000 Per Annum potentially flexible for the right candidate: Clearw...

Public Sector Audit - Bristol

£38000 per annum + Benefits: Pro-Recruitment Group: Do you have experience of ...

Day In a Page

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
Taunton's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success

Education: Secret of Taunton's success

Taunton School, in Somerset, is one of the country's leading independent schools, says Richard Garner
10 best smartphones

10 best smartphones

With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
The pain of IVF

The pain of IVF

As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal