Mount Everest is more crowded than the Long Island Expressway (a record 54 people reached the peak in a single day last May), more overexposed than Martha Stewart and only slightly more strenuous than a trek up Lombard Street. Indeed, Everest is doable by almost any hale soul with $50,000 to spare, because you can now trek to the summit with little need for technical climbing skills. The average steepness of Everest is a palatable 30 degrees, and there are fixed ropes to latch onto along much of its most popular route, the South Col. As for the infamous Khumbu Icefall, just bring some extra rupees to tip the Ice Doctors, a group of sherpas who set up ladders and ropes in the Icefall daily during the climbing season. Of course, Everest does pose challenges. Pizza and beer deliveries to Base Camp take a few hours because the trail down to Thangboche isn't paved, and sending faxes and updating your website is occasionally disrupted by scratchy satellite connections.
"K2 is the full-meal deal of climbing," says Ed Viesturs, one of America's best mountaineers. "It's relentless, unpredictable and unforgiving. It's just a whole other league from anything else on Earth." Numbers tell why hardcore climbers have dubbed K2 the savage peak. While more than 1,500 people have scaled Everest—the most of any of the world's 14 8,000-meter peaks—just 196 have reached K2's summit. K2's danger ratio, a statistic measuring the number of people who reach the top versus those who've died attempting to get there, is 4 to 1, while Everest's danger ratio is a relatively benign 9 to 1. "There's no easy way up this beast," says Viesturs. "Every route is super-steep and very technical." As grueling as the trip up K2 is, the way down is harder because climbers must tackle the same fearsome terrain while numb and exhausted. That's why K2's deaths-on-descent rate is twice as high as any other mountain's and four times that of Everest's. "I've been to the summit of Everest five times, and I enjoyed it each time," says Viesturs. "I made it up K2 once and got down alive. That was enough."