The history of K2 is rich with stories of triumph and tragedy, as Simon Usborne reported on in this week’s Slow Newscast.
So it’s no surprise there is an abundance of books and films chronicling the mountain, and the other 14 high-altitude peaks that punch into the 8,000m “death zone”.
To understand more about the motivations behind this year’s unprecedented winter summit of K2, you should follow the stories of two climbers in particular: Nepalese mountaineer and former Gurkha Nirmal “Nims” Purja, and American endurance athlete, Colin O’Brady.
Purja’s autobiographical and motivational book, Beyond Possible, details his record-breaking attempt to summit all 14 mountains over 8,000m within seven months. “It presented an opportunity to prove to the world that everything, anything, was possible if an individual dedicated their heart and mind to a plan,” he writes. In Colin O’Brady’s The Impossible First, the former triathlete logs his solo trek across the Antarctic.
Nims and O’Brady aren’t the only mountaineers to temporarily swap the crampon for the pen. Italian climbing legend Reinhold Messner’s The Crystal Horizon details his successful solo summit of Everest without supplemental oxygen, in 1980. He reflects on how he reached the extreme limit of his body and mind. Messner was also the first mountaineer to climb all 14 of the 8,000ers in 1986, which he also wrote about.
If you want to escape Everest and K2, French climber Maurice Herzog in 1997 published his book Annapurna, an account of another of the most dangerous mountains. Although Herzog and his partner Louis Lachenal reached the mountain’s summit, their descent was a nightmare of frostbite, snow blindness, and near death.
To see images from the K2 winter expedition, check out award-winning photographer and documentary maker Elia Saikaly. You might recognise some of his photos from our long read, ‘Disaster at Camp 3’. Saikaly’s photo of Ali Sadpara, who disappeared on K2 in February, went viral in the wake of the tragedy. His blog also has a collection of images and films documenting mountains from Asia to South America.
The work of photographer and documentary maker Jimmy Chin is also worth your time. Chin directed the Oscar-winning film Free Solo, following Alex Honnold’s momentous climb of El Capitan, a kilometre-high sheer face of granite, without any ropes. Gulp.
If Hollywood is more your style, try the 1991 film K2 starring Michael Biehn and Matt Craven. Think bromance meets mountain drama. The plot has a lot to answer for, but the filming in the Karakoram range does help bring to life the immensity of the task to climb the “savage mountain”. It’s also a chance to marvel at its breath-taking beauty. As Biehn’s character says: “Did you think I would take you to an ugly mountain?”
The Moth and the Mountain
For an insight into what drives climbers to take on these epic challenges, listen back to our ThinkIn with journalist Ed Caesar, on why we climb mountains. Or read Caesar’s book, The Moth and the Mountain. It tells the story of Maurice Wilson, a British eccentric who in the 1930s decided to try to climb Everest solo. He flew a Gypsy Moth plane to the mountain, crash-landed on its lower slopes… and, well – no spoilers here. You’ll have to read it – it’s a thrilling, moving tale. For more astonishing mountain madness, you could also watch this video of Polish mountaineer Andrzej Bargiel, who was the first person to ski down K2’s slopes in July 2018. You can read more about Bargiel’s descent here.
As you may have noticed, mountaineering is a sport still very much dominated by men. But there are a whole host of women who have faced astonishing challenges on K2 and the great peaks around the world. Jennifer Jordan tells some of their stories in her 2004 documentary Women of K2 which follows the summit attempt of Spanish climber Araceli Segarra. At the time of filming only five women had summited K2, and all of them died – three on descent from K2, and two on other 8,000ers. Jordan has also written an excellent book, Savage Summit: The Life and Death of the First Women of K2.
To hear about more feats of endurance, watch this lecture from Austrian mountaineer Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner who in 2011 became the first woman to summit all 14 of the world’s 8,000m peaks without supplemental oxygen.
Behind the data
If you want to dig more into our data piece ‘Straight Up’, look to Xtreme Everest’s blog and research. They are a team of intensive care doctors, nurses and scientists – including Jeremy Windsor who helped us explain the impact of the death zone on the body. Their 2015 research into hypoxia in Nepalese Sherpa communities found that it could help with drug treatment for critically ill people at sea level. Dr Edward Gilbert-Kawai, a co-author of the research said: “The mechanisms identified in this study, such as increased blood flow and oxygen delivery to working tissue, feasibly describe an alternative means to aid oxygen delivery in critically ill patients.”
History of guides
Too often left out of the story of western triumphs are the mountain communities and guides who often enable these victories. They are an essential part of getting people up the mountain. Nepalese Sherpas are perhaps the best known, but the Pakistani guides are equally as impressive. Filmmaker Lara Lee and her team chronicled the lives of both Pakistani porters and Nepalese Sherpas in the 2015 documentary K2 and the Invisible Footmen. See also this interview with Kami Rita Sherpa for the BBC in 2019 where he lays out that the pressure on Everest isn’t overcrowding, but the pitching of Everest as an “easy” trek – and Kami should know. At the time of the article he had been to the summit of Everest more than any other person.
Finally, to understand more on how the commercialisation of mountain climbing is no good thing read Margaret Grebowicz in The Atlantic on why “Everest selfies” could spell the end for the world’s highest peak: “If success in climbing indeed depends on knowing when to quit, now might be the time for climbers and everyone else to stop romanticising the Everest summit and instead focus on ways to protect this revered place.”