Fatal attraction of a savage mountain

Many have perished on the freezing, hostile slopes of K2. Doug Scott almost became one of them
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The Independent Online
IT CERTAINLY looks like a mountain ought to look - like a child would draw it - steep on all sides. Where there is snow a climber can go, providing of course the snow does not avalanche. Where there is rock is another matter. There is a lot of rock on K2 and that is the main reason it has proved such a hard mountain to climb. Even today, just more than 100 climbers have reached its summit, whereas more than 1,000 have climbed Everest.

K2 is also a very cold mountain, being a long way further north than Everest and Kangchenjunga. It is hard to approach: heat and dust down in the almost desert-like lower valleys give way to the long and difficult glacier systems which lead up to the base of the mountain. But it is beautiful, too: few sights can compare with sitting up on the roof of the world watching the sun go down into a purple sky.

It was during the Indian survey mapping of the Karakoram in 1856 that the name "K2" was given to what was found to be the world's second highest peak at 28,250ft. It was survey policy to go in and find local names for the newly identified heights, but K2 was so remote that the local Balti villagers were hardly aware of its existence, let alone its significance. And so it is still just K2.

The first climbing expedition arrived in 1902, and included the notorious self-styled magician, Aleister Crowley. They made it 6,525m up the north- east ridge before giving up in the face of storm, illness and dissension in the ranks (Crowley threatened one member with a revolver).

An Italian expedition in 1909 and three American attempts, in 1938. 1939 and 1953 encountered far harder conditions than on Everest, and failed. In 1939, one American and three sherpas perished either from falling or by avalanche but certainly suffering from extreme exhaustion. K2 had by now a reputation for death and disaster. But its fascination continued to lure climbers onto its flanks despite the 300-mile approach march.

The mountain was finally conquered in 1954 by 11 determined Italians and their Hunza high altitude porters using fixed rope, winches and supplementary oxygen. One man died.Shortly afterwards foreigners were banned from this part of the Karakoram for 20 years. The first British expedition to K2 took place in 1978 and followed the huge Japanese effort of the year before. It was organised by Chris Bonington and I was a member, getting my first taste of "the Savage Mountain". Our team of eight friends was attempting a new route up the west ridge and making good progress until a freak avalanche struck. Nick Estcourt, Quamajan, one of our Hunza porters, and I reached the edge of the big snow basin and we put more gear into our rucksack from the dump of the days before. We anchored Quamajan to ice pegs screwed into the ice cliff and I set off, towing 800ft of 5mm rope. We thought that since we had two Hunza lads up with us, we had better put a hand rail across the basin.

As I was approaching the tents of Camp 2, I suddenly froze, noting a prickly sensation at the back of my neck in response to two shudders, one after the other, that went through the snow, followed by a loud cracking noise. I instinctively pressed down on my ice axe to belay as the rope around my waist came tighter and tighter until I was catapulted off my stance into the air and went hurtling down totally out of control towards the cliffs below the snow basin. In my head-long rush downhill there was absolutely no fear. I registered only curiosity at being in my first big avalanche and also the fact that I was about to die. This all happened in a few seconds, though I observed myself having these thoughts and also a warm feeling about the prospect of dying, that it would not be a bad place to go.

Suddenly my fall came to an end, halted by my 65lbs of heavy climbing gear, sufficient to anchor me firmly in the snow. I stood up and realised that the rope had snapped. I looked around for Nick, as the whole snow basin I had just crossed poured down and over the cliff. I yelled Nick's name until I realised that he was right in the middle of it. I never saw him. He was part of that huge mass of snow, thousands and thousands of tons of it pouring down onto the glacier below.

I scrambled back up to Camp 2. Peter and Joe (two other members of the team) came down. They had seen the whole thing. Pete said, "you're the luckiest bugger alive". We went back across the avalanche slope to Quamajan, who burst into tears. His hands were badly burned, for he had tried gallantly to arrest the fall, and the thin line had burned right through to the bone. We bandaged him up as best we could and took him back down with us to Camp 1.

I flopped down on the snow next to Chris and we both hugged each other, crying. Chris was in a state of shock. Nick had been his best and most loyal friend. I knew that night that I didn't want to climb any more on K2 that season. We also had our wives and families to consider. We had a poke around the edge of the ice fall and walked off down the glacier. On impulse, I turned back to check the avalanche debris, going right into the middle of it to make sure that Nick's body wasn't exposed to the Himalayan ravens flying around. There was no sign of him.

Altogether I have spent about a year of my life on and around K2 on four expeditions. I have not got a lot to show for it in terms of climbing achievement. I did make a new route up to the shoulder in 1983 via the south pillar but that attempt ended when one of our four-man group was overcome with cerebral oedema. On the same expedition Peter Thexton died from pulmonary oedema while acclimatising for K2 on neighbouring Broad Peak. Three years later many experienced climbers and good friends perished in a storm on the shoulder of K2, including Julie Tullis and Alan Rouse. They had been the first Britons to reach the summit but had been caught out by one of the notorious summit storms.

Alison Hargreaves was a dedicated and determined mountaineer and well qualified to make the standard route up K2. She was a fine, rare young woman in her physical prime and yet she was destined to die on K2. Really all that can be said is that, ultimately, it is often just a matter of luck surviving on the big mountains of the world.

It only needs a slight shift in the great wind systems of Asia and a once safe mountain is turned into a raging holocaust of swirling snow and wind. And then when the snow on the mountains slides off - well, it's no problem for the climber on it, for there is no fear or pain, only curiosity at riding the avalanche. It is for those left behind to suffer the consequences of living one day as a tiger.

The author was the first Briton to climb Everest. While writing this piece, he heard that two other British climbers, Paul Nunn and Geoff Tier, had also died in Karakoram.