K2 seen from Gondogoro La Pass

What makes K-2 the deadliest mountain in the world?


The word Karakorum is a Turkish word which stands for “black rubble”. K-2 traces back its creation in the last of the Orogenic Movements (mountain building movement) some 300 million years ago. The Karakorum Range is
believed to have buckled up and overthurst on the face of Earth when the  free-floating Indian plate collided against the pre-existing Eurasian Plate,  causing an earthquake of the likes never encountered before. The giant collision caused the Karakorum and the Himalayas to pop up above the face of Earth, creating to what we now refer to, as the highest mountain range in the world.

Despite of these unproven theories, K-2 has a unique shape which gives it the typical look of a mountain rather than the flatter and easier to climb Everest. This Granite pyramid is consistently steep and stands 3000 meters from the base. It has some of the steepest vertical drops on almost all sides, which makes it all the more difficult to map a route to the top.  K-2 is also ranked 22nd in Topographical Prominence as a considerably low
altitude trek can be traced all the way back to Everest in Nepal, having an  average altitude of 4,594 metres (15,072 ft), at Mustang Lo, as both peaks have been the outcome of the same geological change in the past.

K-2 is located at the Northeastern border of Pakistan and its north face is located in the Chinese territory. An estimated eight square kilometers of area around K-2 holds another three 8000er’s and some more than six dozen 7000er’s and is also home of the longest glaciers on earth after the polar caps. Gasherbrum 1 also known as The Hidden Peak, Gasherbrum 2, and Broad Peak are located adjacent to K-2, which effectively makes it the climbing heaven for mountaineers from all over the world.

The giant rock is considered the ultimate challenge for the mountaineers and hard climbers.  The deadliest recorded incident in the history of mountain climbing where no fewer than 11 mountaineers and climbers lost their lives on the “Savage Mountain” will perhaps suffice in justifying the magnitude of the lethal force K-2 exerts on the ones who attempt to conquer it.

2nd August, 2008, broke headlines all across the world when 11 mountaineers and high altitude porters (HAP) were wiped out in a blink of an eye when an overhanging Serac broke loose.  Among all the 8000er’s in the world, K-2 not only is one of the steepest but offers a dangerous combination of Seracs and bottlenecks above 8000meters. This altitude is the threshold of human endurance where lack of oxygen and air pressure cause multiple abnormalities in a human body ranging from High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) and High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) apart from severe frost bite which can often lead to permanent amputations.

HACE is the cerebral sickness where a soft mist gathers inside the human skull causing the brain to malfunction, which thereby increases the risk of injuries two folds. Climbers report that they observe severely deteriorated decision making abilities to hallucinations at times.  Meanwhile HAPE is the pulmonary sickness where dense fog accumulates inside the lungs due to lack of oxygen, heavy breathing and low atmospheric pressure.  This can lead to ruptured lungs if the climber is not shifted immediately to low altitudes for rehabilitation.

On K-2, this 8000meter threshold is probably the starting point from where the toughest of the climbs are encountered. A 400m stretch of bottleneck, a narrow vertical alley, and several hundred tons overhang of ice has allowed a very few to pass through live and kicking. The point there onwards is also called as the “Death Valley”and has recorded the most number of causalities at this place.

Graham Bowley’s New York Times Bestseller “No Way Down: Life and death on K-2”is perhaps the most widely recognised account of the gory incident.  Bowley states, “About the time many of the climbers were euphorically topping out — clicking photos and calling their loved ones from K2’s 28,251-foot summit — a giant sérac collapse wiped out the fixed ladders and ropes below, changing the terrain and creating a volatile funnel ripe for avalanches. Small errors and  bad decisions made earlier in the day had set the stage for wide-scale disaster, and an already risky descent became a nightmarish free-for-all.”

 The Serac had been hanging at the same spot for decades and although it always was a potent threat to the ambitious climbers, they have gradually started taking it for granted as it never broke off or produced avalanches.  The free falling hundreds of tons of ice not only wiped away several climbers but also left many stranded above it with no way of climbing down. Many of the bodies were never recovered, marking it the most tragic incident in the climbing history.

What made the Serac to break loose is still a mystery while many of the scientists have argued that the changing climate and Global Warming are the two most probable explanations of the incident. Bowley’s description of the gory incident helped with the intricacies of the many disastrous accidents which have happened on the notorious mountain and has also helped planning and arranging proper safety measures for the climbing expeditions.  The 2008 incident also triggered a controversy where the Government of Pakistan was blamed for loose regulations regarding the permissions to allow the expeditions to carry on with their mission without proper documentation. Several of the climbers were either not experienced enough to be a part of the expedition which intended to summit K-2 but many of them never had the experience of climbing even a 7000meter peak.

Alpine Club of Pakistan, which oversees the regulations of these climbing expeditions, now enforces strict regulations in managing the expeditions. For K-2 it has since been made mandatory that the aspiring climbers must have a climbing experience of any of the 8000er.  Coupled with that, the climbers must have adequate experience of climbing various other 7000 meter peaks in order to qualify for the pitch. For a regular aspiring mountaineer, it takes almost 8-10 long years to prepare for an attempt for the Killer Mountain.

The Government of Pakistan also strictly follows the regulations regarding the load carried by the HAP and the amount of
minimum calories which must be provided to them by their clients. HAP are not allowed to go beyond the 7,500meter limit unless otherwise they intend to do so on their own will. A serving Pakistan Army Liaison Officer is also attached with the expeditions who stays in the Base Camp for as long as the expedition lasts. He not only overlooks the safety measure adopted by the expedition but also provides logistics and airlift support in case an evacuation is called in  by the stuck climbers. Climbing expeditions usually have to submit a security fee of around $30,000 for the backup emergency support which is refundable in case no support was called in.

The incident happened in 2008, however, was not an isolated incident in the climbing history of K-2. The August 1986  American expedition met more or less the same fate when they started their ascent via the then-unclimbed Southwest Pillar, also known as the “Magic Line.”  Five mountaine
ers from the team led by John Smolich and Alan Pennington were
killed in a deadly avalanche while some eight others lost their lives in wake of raging blizzards and treacherous crevasses.
K-2 is also known to be the toughest to climb down. Causalities which occurred in the 100-years long climbing history of the mountain, most of them have happened during descent from the mountain and continues to be so this date. The technological advancements in  equipment and clothing as well as better designed climbing equipments have  considerably reduced the death ratio on the Killer Mountain and the ratio has now slide to a 1 out of three, still being one of the highest in the world.