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Dateline 1902: First Attempt to Climb K2 PART II

Bad Weather and Bad Behavior Dooms Expedition


Dateline 1902: First Attempt to Climb K2 PART II

Aleister Crowley, skinny and with a sunburned face, washes off two months of sweat and grime in glacial water after returning to base camp in mid-August, 1902.

Read PART I About the 1902 K2 Expedition First

We pick up the story of the 1902 climbing expedition to K2 led by British climbers Oscar Eckenstein and Aleister Crowley as they march north through Kashmir to the lofty Karakoram Range in today's Pakistan. Read PART I of Dateline 1902: First Attempt to Climb K2 for all the backstory about the expedition, including Albert Mummery's attempt on Nanga Parbat seven years earlier, how this expedition was put together, and the problems encountered on the trip north from Delhi in India.

Crowley Picks the Southeast Ridge for Ascent

On June 9, Aleister Crowley led a group of 20 porters or "coolies" up to the snout of the Baltoro Glacier, calling it "black, greasy and nearly five hundred feet high at the lowest point." Over the next few days, the expedition slowly marched up the glacier, camping on moraines along its edge. At Camp 8 at 16,500 feet, Crowley got his first good close-up view of K2 when the weather cleared. He wrote: "I was now in full view of the mountain itself, bar clouds; and, my first duty being to reconnoiter the mountain, I spent all day and all night watching it through my glasses, sketch-book in hand. The clouds shifted sufficiently to enable me to make a piecemeal picture, and I came to conclusion that while the south face, perhaps possible theoretically, meant a complicated climb with no half-way house, there should be no difficulty in walking up the snow slopes on the east-south-east to the snowy shoulder below the final rock pyramid." This route up the Southeast Ridge was to eventually become the first successful route up K2.

The Coolies Descend to Safety

Crowley continued up the glacier, establishing Camp 9 at about 17,300 feet below walls of snow and ice on K2's south face. Above here the mountain became steep and dangerous. Crowley, recognizing the danger sent the coolies back down to the lower camps even though they would have followed him upward, knowing, he wrote, "…that they would die to a man; but they didn't mind, it was Kismet, and they wanted me to know that they would gladly die because I had been so nice to them."

Camp 10 Chosen

Crowley continued the ascent another 1,400 feet to Camp 10 at 18,700 feet. This was the main camp for the final assault, although Eckenstein thought a more sheltered site from the weather should be chosen. Crowley, however, logically reasoned that camping in the middle of the glacier was safer and kept them "out of the way of avalanches and falling stones."

Bad Wind and Deep Snow

From this point forward the expedition was doomed. The Austrian guides were somewhere down the glacier below Camp 10, finally arriving on June 19. The following day Guy Knowles and Dr. Guillarmond joined the party, arriving in a snowstorm which marked the start of a long stretch of horrendously bad weather with deep snows and K2's famous gale-force winds. Crowley noted, "It was the most furious wind that I have ever known. A corner of my tent broke loose; and the only remedy was to sit on it the whole morning! The violence of the wind was indeed amazing." The storm lasted until June 27, when Eckenstein arrived at Camp 10 carrying fresh meat and bread.

Bad Weather and Bad Behavior

The appalling bad weather on K2 led to appallingly bad behavior on the expedition. Eckenstein became ill so Crowley was to start up the mountain with Pfannl and Guillarmod but the other Austrian Wessely was angry at not being included. Crowley called him "an untolerably bad piece of sportsmanship." Then both Austrians became obstinate and "made so much unpleasantness that we were soon reduced to the expedient of getting them out of the way as much as possible." On top of personality conflicts, Crowley became snow blind while "pottering about the camp for a few minutes in a snowstorm, fixing my tent." After recovering, however, another snowstorm hit from July 2 until July 6, "which made Camp 10 unpopular."

Moving to Camp 11

Before the storm hit, the two Austrians had climbed to Camp 11 on the edge of the Northeast Ridge. After the storm, they returned to Camp 10 and reported that the ridge was climbable so on Monday, July 7, the team packed up and moved to Camp 11 to try that route. Crowley, still recovering from snowblindness and illness, protested, noting that the "proposed route was in fact absurd" since it traversed avalanche-prone slopes. On July 8, a good weather day, Crowley climbed high above Camp 11, reaching an elevation of 21,500 feet, an elevation determined "out of respect for Eckenstein." Crowley, however, felt that he reached over 22,000 feet. Today his elevation is measured at 21,407 feet. That evening he came down ill with "indigestion, fever, shivering."

Sickness, Stealing, and a Loaded Pistol

Things began to fall apart for the K2 expedition. The Austrian V. Wessely "was keeping himself in comfort by stealing the supplies of the expedition surreptitiously," including most of the emergency rations. He was summarily courtmartialed from the party and sent down the mountain. The rest of the men suffered from spending so much time at high altitude. Knowles had shed 33 pounds from his 186-pound frame; Eckenstein had pulmonary problems; Knowles and Doctor Guillarmod had recurrent influenza or similar symptoms; while Crowley soldiered on with malaria and high fevers. During one of the acrimonious arguments, Crowley pulled out a loaded revolver and pointed it at Guy Knowles, who kneed him in the groin in retaliation. Crowley interestingly never mentioned this incident in his expedition account in his book The Confessions of Aleister Crowley.

Retreat Down the Glacier

Through most of July the crew sat in their tents trying to recover sufficiently to make a "dash for K2." On July 27 another bad storm began and lasted into August. The party retreated down to Camp 9 in the snow storm on August 3, rested for a few days, then descended to Camp 7 on August 8. On August 14, they marched 10 hours down the glacier to Camp 1. Crowley had spent an astonishing straight 68 days on the glacier below K2, the longest recorded time then for humans at a high altitude. He noted that there were only eight days with good weather and they made five serious attempts on the mountain.

A Glorious Failure

The team, despite the dissension, was successful simply because they reached a relatively high altitude without modern climbing equipment, proper expedition gear, and high-tech fabrics. Still it was a glorious failure that set the stage for future expeditions to K2 like the Duke of Abruzzi's attempt a few years later, which ironically failed to reach Crowley's high point.

Read PART I of Dateline 1902: First Attempt to Climb K2.

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