Stories From The 'Savage Mountain': Death On K2 K2 — sometimes referred to as the "holy grail of mountaineering" — is just 800 feet shorter than Mount Everest, but it is a much more dangerous climb. Writer Nick Heil reviews three new books about expeditions up one of the world's most deadly peaks.
NPR logo

Stories From The 'Savage Mountain': Death On K2

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Stories From The 'Savage Mountain': Death On K2

Stories From The 'Savage Mountain': Death On K2

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Last week, an Austrian mountain climber reached the top of the world's second-highest mountain. Christian Stangl was the first to reach the summit of K2 in the past two years. K2 is the second-highest peak in the world. It's a little shorter than Mount Everest, but it is a far more treacherous climb. High-altitude climbers have referred to K2 as the Holy Grail of mountaineering.


This morning we're going to review three new books about the people who attempt to climb that mountain, on the border between Pakistan and China. Nick Heil has written extensively about climbing, and he's with us. Welcome to the program.

Mr. NICK HEIL (Writer): Nice to be here.

INSKEEP: The first of these three books that we're going to look at here is called "No Way Down: Life and Death on K2," by Graham Bowley. What's it about?

Mr. HEIL: It was a complicated story. K2 is a little different than Everest. Everest has this calm weather window, and K2 is a little bit different. It doesn't quite get that sort of extended calm, but what it gets is little breaks in what's typically very turbulent weather. And so they had this little break in the weather in - I believe it was the very end of July, in 2008, and about 30 people from several different expeditions were positioned way high on the mountain, and they decided they were going to make their summit attempt during that weather window.

INSKEEP: This book begins with a description of one of the climbers who realized that this was a catastrophe and backed away. But you see, from this man's perspective, what it looks like as more than a couple dozen people are scrambling around in the most dangerous part of that mountain and passing climbing ropes back and forth, and you see the little mistakes that are going to cause disaster later.

Mr. HEIL: Yeah, the crux of the climb on K2 - at least on the Abruzzi Spur, which is the standard route on the mountain - is called the bottleneck, and it basically funnels all the climbers into a very, very exposed, steep and dangerous part of the mountain. And everybody has got to move through there. And you're going to go just as fast as the guy in front of you. So...

INSKEEP: With a glacier with a glacier overhanging - over your head.

Mr. HEIL: Yeah, the scariest part, really, of that part of the climb is this massive, 300-foot ice cliff that just towers over you for hours while you're on the route. And it's prone to just halving off building-size chunks of ice and flushing down to the couloir, and if you're there at the wrong time, you're in big trouble.

INSKEEP: What did you learn from the descriptions of some of the survivors of that event?

Mr. HEIL: You know, here I think you had a combination of a lot of people in a dangerous place, things moving not quite as efficiently as they could, and people getting trapped when conditions started going bad. And this wasn't necessarily a storm, but when the ice cliff did actually shatter and flush down over the mountain, people were in a bad place.

INSKEEP: The second book on our list, "One Mountain, Thousand Summits," goes after that same, 2008 season, but from the perspective of some people who are not the foreigners - or at least, not the outsiders to South Asia.

Mr. HEIL: "One Mountain, Thousand Summits" is really this incredibly meticulous, almost forensic analysis of what transpired during the season, you know, from a very experienced climber. And I really appreciated Freddie Wilkinson's effort to tell the story from the point of view of the sherpas and the high-altitude porters who are, you know, a very, very big part of Himalayan mountaineering and very often get short shrift in, you know, the media accounts of what transpired, particularly when it comes to disasters up high.

INSKEEP: So what did the sherpa guides who spoke for this particular book do to get themselves and other people down off that mountain when everything went wrong?

Mr. HEIL: What's happened is, is that the serac has broken off and it's flushed down through the bottleneck, and it's torn out the fixed lines. Fixed lines are ropes that are anchored into the slopes so that the climbers have some safety protection.

INSKEEP: And the serac, that's this overhanging glacier?

Mr. HEIL: That's the overhanging ice cliff.

INSKEEP: Coming apart.

Mr. HEIL: That's exactly right. So the serac has collapsed, and it's ripped out the fixed ropes. And the climbers come back down, and they discover that the ropes in the most dangerous part of the route are not there. And so one of the climbing sherpas down-climbs, without any kind of protection, through this very steep, fully exposed section of ice - and according to Wilkinson's account, actually has another sherpa attached to his harness. So not only is he picking his way down using his crampons and his ice axes through this very difficult section, but he actually has another climber, another sherpa with him. And he was the one that gets back down to the high camp, and sort of informs people exactly what's going on up there, and starts getting a rescue operation going.

INSKEEP: This same book brings up some criticism of people who test mountains like K2. Here's a quote from one of the critics: What these men and women do is impressive, but are they heroes? They go out of their way to experience something very dangerous that has zero utility except to themselves.

Mr. HEIL: You know, I think there's a point to be made there. Im not sure that that's the end of the discussion but certainly, you know, it's difficult to justify going to a big summit when you're talking about folks who have families, folks who have lives at home, and anybody who may be putting someone else on the mountain at risk.

INSKEEP: Let me ask about one more book. This is called "The Last Man on the Mountain." Once again, we're on the slopes of K2; it's really cold; but the year is 1939, and it's the story of a man named Dudley Francis Wolfe. Who was he?

Mr. HEIL: Dudley Wolfe was this wealthy American who was invited onto an expedition of K2. It was actually the second U.S. attempt. The person who invited him, Fritz Wiessner, needed somebody to kind of help bankroll the expedition. And Wolfe, though an inexperienced climber, had a lot of financial resources at his disposal. So he got the nod for the expedition and ended up being, along with Fritz Wiessner, the only two people to make it up above 25,000 feet on K2. It was a very, very impressive accomplishment at the time.

INSKEEP: But it was a one-way trip. What happened?

Mr. HEIL: Well, Wolfe got up high. He found himself exhausted in a tricky technical section and decided he couldn't go any further. And so Dudley parked himself at a high camp. You know, in what turned out to be the very controversial part of the book, Fritz Wiessner came down just short of the summit. They had a very nasty fall, trying to get the three of them back down off of the mountain. Wolfe was injured and still very fatigued, and they decided they were going to leave him at a high camp.

And Fritz Wiessner and the sherpa descended to base camp. They made repeated attempts to get up to Wolfe. They actually reached him at one point, but were unable to get him back down the mountain, and that was the last time anyone saw him alive.

INSKEEP: He, according to some accounts, actually refused to go down the mountain. Is that true?

Mr. HEIL: Thats the account that will survive him. It's hard to know what the reasons were. I mean, he'd been at this extraordinary altitude for more than a month. You know, he must have just been in such a debilitated state, so who knows if he was even aware of what he was telling the sherpas?

INSKEEP: I wonder if there's something symbolic about that moment, though, that some guy would climb up so high and be in such peril and finally have an opportunity to get down - and he would say no.

MR. HEIL: There's an interesting, sort of dignity to it. You know, I mean, he was really the description, the physical descriptions of him when they finally get back up to him are really horrible. I mean, he's messed himself. He was just he had lost like, 30 pounds, and I think there was this sense of him being like, you know, I just I made it this far, and I don't want this to be the last image of me. I don't want to go back to the world like this.

INSKEEP: Nick Heil, thanks very much.

Mr. HEIL: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: He's a writer for Outside magazine, and author of the book "Dark Summit: The True Story of Everest's Most Controversial Season." He reviews here for us three books about K2: "No Way Down," "One Mountain, Thousand Summits," and "The Last Man on the Mountain."

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.