After five previous attempts by American expeditions, including the 1953 Karakoram Expedition which boasts one of the world's greatest stories of mountaineering skill, courage, and friendship, American climbers Louis Reichardt and Jim Wickwire stood on K2's summit at 5:17 in the afternoon. The following day, September 7, John Roskelley and Rick Ridgeway also reached the summit.
The expedition climbed a new route up the long Northeast Ridge, a dangerous ridge that included a half-mile-long knife-edge rimmed with fragile cornices. Roskelley and Ridgeway, two of the America's best-ever alpinists, led the most difficult section of the ridge.
Ridgeway wrote in his book, The Last Step: The American Ascent of K2: "We were climbing on the edge of a knife. The slope dropped away on both sides, steeply, dramatically, to glaciers thousands of feet below.... Twelve hundred feet of steep ridge was behind us, fixed with rope."
At the high camp, Wickwire and Reichardt decided to finish up the Abruzzi Spur, while Ridgeway and Roskelley tried a more direct ascent but had to turn back because of deep loose snow and severe avalanche danger.
Ridgeway wrote about Wickwire and Reichardt: "The summit of his dreams, Wick stared across the mountains stretching endlessly below him, summit after summit painted gold. They were all below him. The world curved away, in all directions, falling away, below his feet. For Lou, it was an even more remarkable victory. He was the first man to climb K2 without oxygen."
Reichardt left the summit 15 minutes after reaching it to descend back to Camp 6, while Wickwire lingered on top and enjoyed the view and solitude. He didn't leave K2's summit until 6:15 and ended up enduring a forced bivouac in the open at 27,000 feet without food, oxygen, or shelter in temperatures that dropped to -40 degrees (F). He noted: "What a place this would be to spend an eternity. Frozen up here forever on the summit of K2. The highest man in the world. ... Be careful. You'll be down soon. I'm coming home, Mary Lou. I love you."
Photograph above: K2, second highest mountain in the world, was first climbed by Americans in 1978. Photograph © Getty Images.
Buy The Last Step: The American Ascent Of K2 by Rick Ridgeway
Read K2: On to the Summit. Jim Wickwire's account of the final summit push published in the May 1979 issue of National Geographic Magazine.