Friday, November 18, 2016

Book Review: Ghosts of K2 by Mick Conefrey

K2 is known as the savage mountain. At 28,251-feet, the peak is the second highest mountain in the world. It is also arguably the most deadly. Ten percent of those who summit die on the descent. That's literally one out of every ten people who don't make it off the mountain.

The reason the mountain is so dangerous is because the starting point is higher than on Mt. Everest, the routes up the mountain are steeper, and indeed, the weather is less stable. The mountain has been home to two large scale tragedies where multiple people died during a short period of time on the mountain. In 1986, 5 climbers perished in a storm, and 8 more climbers were killed in unrelated incidents. And in 2008, 11 climbers died over a two-day period.

In other words, the mountain is extremely dangerous...

Though dangerous, the the history of K2 is also the setting for some of mountaineerings greatest triumphs as well as some of the most fantastic stories surrounding any mountain anywhere. Indeed, there are few other mountains in the world that have woven themselves so deeply into mountaineering lore.

Author and filmmaker Mick Conefrey dove headfirst into K2's incredible history. His new book, The Ghosts of K2 chronicles early attempts on the mountain and caps off the story with not only a narrative account of the first ascent on July 31, 1954, but also with the aftermath of that ascent on the climbers who were involved.

Conefrey has previously worked on a documentary about K2 with the same name. He is incredibly knowledgeable about the mountain and its history. The Ghosts of K2 is a meticulously researched book that follows several expeditions over a fifty-two year period, but even reaches beyond that to follow those who were impacted by the mountain until - in some cases - the ends of their lives as old men.

I have to admit, I was skeptical about this book when it was first sent to me. I regularly receive books from individuals who would like me to review their work. Often these are histories of a certain mountain or a range. Sometimes they're biographical...and often they're boring.

This was not at all the case with The Ghosts of K2. Conefrey is an exceptional writer who used his talent to get into the heads of real people in order to tell the story of the mountain. We are right there with some of the biggest names in mountaineering history as they fail to climb the mountain. And we are right there when the Italians are finally successful.

It's interesting to note that early on, K2 was thought of almost as an American mountain. Three of the five early expeditions to the mountain were made by American teams.

In 1938, Americans Charlie Houston and Paul Petzoldt climbed to 26,000-feet on the mountain. It was there that they had supply problems. Specifically, they were out of matches and couldn't light their stove. And as such, the team had to descend.

In 1939, Fritz Weissner lead a second American expedition. Weissner made it to within 700 feet from the summit, but had to turn around. And unfortunately, the team lost four members...

Bob Bates, Tony Streather, Charlie Houston, Dee Molenaar, George Bell and Bob Craig

And then finally in 1953, Charles Houston returned to the mountain. This was a famous expedition for two reasons. First, Peter Schoening held the weight of five men when they slipped during a dangerous descent. And then second, the team tried valiantly to save Art Gilkey, another individual who succumbed to altitude. Unfortunately, Gilkey was lost in an avalanche.

It's interesting to note that almost every single expedition had problems after the trip ended. People questioned the leadership, lied about things that took place on the mountain, and questioned decisions. This too is part of the mountain's lore.

All of these stories - the American attempts and then finally the Italian first ascent - are truly the stuff of legend. These men are woven into the fabric of our sport and Conefrey takes us deep into the world they inhabited.

The Ghosts of K2 are still with us today. These stories float around us like spirits in the air. People mention the Schoening belay, or the Gilkey memorial. People talk about the Abruzzi Spur or the Savage Mountain. And though most of us will never set foot on K2, it is a part of our collective heritage as climbers. The Ghosts of K2 is an absolutely fantastic voyage into the heritage and the stories that live within it.

--Jason D. Martin

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