Mountaineering is a dangerous and thrilling sport.
For climbers, there is nothing like the exhilaration of summiting a peak, no matter how hard or treacherous the expedition may be.
Unfortunately, because of the dangers posed by mountain climbing, even experienced mountaineers with the best survival gear get caught in bad situations that leave them injured, crippled, or even dead.
Nonetheless, the sport attracts the attention of people far and wide, and it has been that way for centuries.
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While there are plenty of climbs that end in disaster, usually it means that we get a glimpse of the human spirit and how people push themselves to their upper limits in order to survive.
We have seen plenty of tragedy out on the trail, but we’ve also seen a lot of hope and triumph.
Today we are going to look at one such story that took place all the way back in 1953.
This was an expedition of experienced climbers who were attempting the impossible.
Along the way, they learned a lot about luck and what it takes to be a successful mountaineer.
This expedition would change the lives of the men who were on it, and would even take the life of one of them in the process.
Today we are going to look at the K2 Expedition led by Charles Houston.
Throughout history, there have been plenty of people who wanted to make their mark on the world.
There is something so gratifying about being the first to accomplish something, which is why fortune favors the bold and the ambitious.
In this case, the world-famous K2 mountain in Pakistan was the golden prize, having never been successfully summited before.
This same year, Sir Edmund Hillary and his guide, Tenzing Norgay, would make headlines for climbing Everest, but it is this story that has far more grit and heroism to it.
Whereas Edmund would stake his claim to history, Charles set out to do the same.
As the leader of the expedition, Charles was a man who kept a cool head and was able to think quickly to keep everyone alive.
His efforts to climb K2 were built around his desire to understand mountains and see why they are so exciting.
However, after this venture he would put down his climbing gear and focus more on the study of high-altitudes, including how thinner air affects the body and lungs.
In fact, Charles is more well known for his work in that field than he is for climbing.
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When he joined this expedition, Pete was a young buck of only twenty-five years.
Still, climbing was in his blood, and he would not miss the opportunity to achieve something so memorable.
He had already been a preeminent mountaineer before this journey, exploring tall peaks all around the world after the war.
Unlike Charles, he would continue to climb after this expedition, and would even avoid another mountain disaster forty years later.
Although this trek would be Art’s last, it’s important that we pay homage to the man who lost his life on the mountain.
It’s always a tragedy when anyone perishes on a venture such as this, so we want to take the time to honor his loss.
As we mentioned earlier, Everest was in all the headlines in 1953 due to the media frenzy surrounding the first successful summit.
Being the tallest mountain in the world, Everest usually gets all the glory, but when it comes to being more difficult, K2 is a much tougher beast, which is why it’s usually the main event for serious mountaineers.
It’s helpful to think of it this way; on Everest, there are lines to get to the base camp, while on K2 about a third of everyone who has climbed it has died.
In fact, Everest boasts over seven thousand people who have stood on top of the world, while K2 has only had 306.
K2 in Pakistan
So, why is this mountain so deadly?
Well, first of all, it is a much harder climb.
Everest, although taller, has a wider stance, meaning that it’s much easier to make your way up and down since there are not as many vertical faces.
K2, on the other hand, has drop offs and ledges that can kill you on sight.
To make matters worse, the weather on K2 is much more troublesome than on Everest.
Blizzards, high winds, and storms routinely trap expeditions on the mountain and make it much harder to make progress up or down.
In fact, it was such a storm that made Charles’ trip so deadly.
History and Statistics
The first genuine attempt at climbing K2 happened all the way back in 1938, but it failed before it could reach the upper levels of the mountain.
Then, in 1939, a group managed to get almost all the way to the top, but inclement weather and injuries forced them to retreat.
Because of its reputation (and World War Two), there weren’t any serious attempts until Charles and company tried in 1953.
Standing at over 28,000 feet, K2 is only 773 shorter than Everest.
It is also the site of one of the worst climbing disasters ever recorded in history when eleven climbers died on an expedition in 2008.
According to statistics, for every one hundred people that have tried to climb the mountain, twenty-nine of them have died.
As such, this peak has been unofficially dubbed “the world’s deadliest mountain.”
During this period of climbing history, many groups that tried to ascend K2 would pack lightly and not bring any extra oxygen.
Such was the case with Houston and his crew; they would be a lightweight expedition.
Unfortunately, while doing things this way makes it easier to climb, since you aren’t carrying as much gear, it does put you in a bind should anything unexpected happen.
The trip set out in early August, with the climbing going relatively well at first.
In fact, the group made it to the 25,000-foot mark before a storm came in and forced them to hunker down and dig in.
The storm lasted ten days – well beyond what they had anticipated – leaving them short on supplies when the air cleared and they were ready to go.
To make matters worse, during the storm Art Gilkey developed blood clots in one of his legs, otherwise known as thrombophlebitis.
This meant that he couldn’t walk.
Understanding the gravity of the situation, Charles decided that the best course of action was to take him back down immediately.
Otherwise, Gilkey would not likely survive the rest of the journey.
Since he couldn’t walk, the crew wrapped Art’s leg and carried him down the mountain.
However, this made the going even worse than normal, especially with the recent storm turning the slopes into icy death traps.
It was slow going, and each step could result in disaster.
As with all climbing expeditions, the crew had tied themselves together so they could form anchors in case any of them fell.
As they maneuvered down the mountain, they came to a spot called the Abruzzi Spur.
It was a sheer rock face that stood in their way.
Their biggest challenge was to try and get Gilkey across safely.
They decided that the best way to do it was to swing him across, using a belay line as an anchor.
Pete happened to be the one belaying Art, while the other four men made their way across to pull Gilkey to the other side.
During the trek, one of the team members, a man named George Bell, slipped on the ice and crashed into Tony Streather, who was behind him.
This created a domino effect wherein both of them tumbled down, taking Charles and the fourth man, Bob Bates, with them.
There was only one thing that kept the entire group from perishing in that moment.
Pete and his ice ax.
The ax itself was dug into a boulder, with just a single belay line wrapped around his waist, holding up five men.
Gilkey, meanwhile, was still lashed to another rock on the mountain, waiting to be pulled to the other side.
Remarkably, Pete was able to hold on as, one by one, they managed to make it back up the peak.
He single-handedly saved the entire crew.
This is when things get tragic.
When they came back for Art, he had disappeared.
There is some speculation as to what happened, but the most reasonable consensus was that he was swept away by an avalanche.
However, some speculate that he may have cut himself free as a way to relieve the burden on the rest of the crew.
Perhaps he felt responsible for their near death and decided he wouldn’t put them through that again.
Regardless of what really happened, Art would never make it back to base.
Even more disturbing about the situation was that they had only left him alone for about ten minutes, making his death all the more shocking.
Even after the loss of one of their men, the crew stayed together and helped each other make it back down safely.
It took five more days to reach base camp, and many of the men were tired, hungry, and hurt.
But, they managed to each get back in one piece.
As mentioned above, the events of this climb were a bit too much for its leader Charles Houston, who decided he would study the effects of altitude sickness and thin air.
He dedicated his life and efforts to that study and wrote a book in 1980 called “Going Higher: Oxygen, Man, and Mountains.”
His work led to a lot of development in treating the effects of high altitude, helping other climbers, pilots, and medics better understand how to stay healthy.
It’s fair to say that his work has saved many lives over the years.
Interestingly enough, while this expedition was not successful in reaching the top of K2, an Italian group managed to make it the following year in 1954.
Their journey was filled with plenty of drama and high-stakes danger, but that’s another story for a different time.
Nonetheless, that expedition is a source of great pride for Italians everywhere.
Pete’s Second Close Call
While Charles hung up his climbing ropes after 1953, Pete continued to explore vast mountain peaks, all while setting records and making history.
In fact, thanks to his efforts on K2, Pete became a legend in climbing circles, with “the belay” being a story told around the campfire as a feat of heroism that has never been matched or surpassed.
Notable achievements include summiting Gasherbrum 1 in 1958, climbing the highest peak in Antarctica (one of the first) in 1966, and venturing to the Soviet Pamirs in 1974.
Overall, during his illustrious career, Pete managed to climb the tallest peaks on five different continents.
Over the years, Pete has been on plenty of excursions that were as dangerous as K2, and he’s also been on ventures where not everyone made it back alive.
However, it wasn’t until he decided to take on Everest in 1996 that he would get a second close call to a historical tragedy.
Mount Everest Disaster
In May of 1996, thirty-four people were on a mission to scale the mountain, one of them being Pete and another being author Jon Krakauer.
However, because there were so many people on the trip, it led to delays getting up the mountain.
This caused further complications resulting in the deaths of nine people.
During the expedition, the weather turned sour and oxygen levels dropped by fourteen percent, leading to a dearth of altitude sickness in crew members.
Pete was one such victim, which is why he avoided trying to reach the summit.
Fortunately, it is part of the reason why he made it back.
Still, being part of two legendary tragedies has to be quite a feat for one person.
Overall, this story of heroism and remarkable feats shows us that we should respect the awe of mother nature and her raw power.
Nowhere is this more noticeable than on top of a mountain, which is why mankind is always so eager to climb to the top.
To be on top of the world is a truly amazing experience, even if you don’t make it all the way.