The debate inside the snow cave swirled as turbulently as the blizzard outside. Is mountaineering a sport, or is it, rather, some rare and masochistic mental disease, a madness of the heights that besets only the strongest and most romantic of men? Judging by the weather outside, one would have been tempted to plump for madness.
The American K2 team, whose aim is to climb the world's second-highest mountain this summer, was encamped halfway up Washington State's glacier-clad Mount Rainier for a spot of midwinter foul-weather training. The mountain had accommodated them. Winds up to 60 miles an hour ripped through the camp, whirling in from every point of the compass, lifting grown men from their feet and threatening to blow the tents away. The temperature out of the wind (if one could have found such a place) would have registered a tolerable 20� above zero, but with the wind-chill factor in play it was impossible to go gloveless for more than a minute without one's fingers turning into so many skin-flavored Popsicles. Moreover, three feet of snow was falling, though that verb seemed hardly precise. The whimsical gale blew it up, down and sideways all in the same endless breath.
The American K2 team loved every bit of it.
"A splendid day!" whooped Jim Whittaker as he slid in a cloud of powder snow down the tunnel of the cave. Whittaker, the team leader, is the first American to have climbed Mount Everest, having achieved that pinnacle of mountaineering success on May 1, 1963, with a sore throat and a headache. Now, nearly a dozen years later, at the age of 46 but seemingly strong as ever, he is looking to become the first American to master Everest's junior partner.
"This is just the kind of weather we're likely to face on K2," Whittaker said, batting the ice from his parka and stomping his triple-lined boots on the snow cave's floor. "Only with less oxygen in it."
A lot less. With a summit elevation of 28,250 feet, K2 is only 778 feet lower than Everest—mere inches on the scale of those Himalayan giants. Above the altitude of 18,000 feet, human tissue begins to deteriorate from lack of oxygen. "Body tissue doesn't replenish itself," Whittaker explains. "In fact, it dies." And the fragile brain tissues that control thought and judgment are the first affected. Thus Whittaker and the eight other members of the team face a full 10,000 feet of climbing on oxygen, and indeed, one of the aims of this shakedown climb on Rainier was to familiarize the team with a new oxygen system ordered for the expedition. Using tanks of extruded aluminum wrapped in fiber glass and demand-regulator valves similar to those employed by scuba divers, the system is a pound lighter than the steel-wrapped, steady-flow outfits carried by the 1963 Everest team and far more efficient. "Our tanks can hold oxygen at a pressure of 4,000 pounds per square inch as opposed to 3,300 for the earlier apparatus," Whittaker continues. "We can carry more oxygen in the same number of tanks. We'll have to tote the 200 tanks up to Camp III at 23,000 feet, but we'll have that much more oxygen than we had on Everest."
Even with this and other technological advances—stronger ice axes, warmer tents and clothing—the American K2 team still faces an opponent that many mountaineers consider far tougher than Everest. Significantly, of the world's 14 known "eight-thousanders," i.e., peaks of more than 8,000 meters elevation (26,247 feet), K2 is the only one without a native name. That is because it stands so far within the Karakoram region of the Greater Himalayan range, on the border between Pakistan and China, that no one ever got around to naming it. Not until the mid-1800s, that is, when a British survey team led by Colonel H. H. Godwin-Austen measured it and applied the geographical designation that sticks to this day.
"Even the local hill folk call it Ke Tu Chogori," Whittaker says. "Chogori translates as Great Mountain. I kind of like the simple, mathematical ring of it. K2. No nonsense, none of this Goddess Mother of the Land or Doomsday Peak bunkum."
Because of its remoteness, K2 has suffered only seven assaults on its summit over the past 73 years, compared to dozens mounted against more accessible peaks such as Everest, Annapurna and Dhaulagiri. And K2 defeated all but one of those efforts, the Italian expedition of 1954, led by Ardito Desio. The Italians put two men on the top, but they lost the strongest member of the team to pneumonia on the way. All told, K2 has taken six lives on three separate expeditions.
The first attempt on the mountain was made in 1902 by Britain's Oscar Eckenstein, the man who invented such valuable mountaineering tools as crampons and the ice axe. He scouted K2 for routes but was driven off the Godwin-Austen Glacier before he could try for the summit. Eckenstein declared that there were only two possible ways to the top: the northeast or the southeast ridge.