Fritz Wiessner and Dudley Wolfe on K2

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K2 on Fire. (All rights reserved)

I just finished reading The Last Man on the Mountain: The Death of an American Adventurer on K2 by Jennifer Jordan (2010).  Jordan will be at National Geographic tonight presenting on this book.  I was planning on going to see her, ask some questions and report to you tomorrow, but unfortunately, I have a conflict that is unavoidable.  In any case, here is my review of her take…

Jordan tells the story of Dudley Wolfe, the wealthy American on the 1939 K2 expedition lead by Fritz Wiessner.  However, the story of Wolfe on K2 is the story of that tragic expedition and its leader.

Wiessner was a German-immigrant and was the finest mountaineer in America at the time.  Until later in life, he always struggled with debt and having sufficient income.  He deferred the leadership of the 1938 K2 expedition to rival Charlie Houston because of his business obligations at the time.  The team in 1938 was experienced stars, but for a variety of reasons, personal and economic, Fritz could only put together a second-rate team – most of whom, except Wolfe, never went higher than Camp IV.

I have read a couple of different takes on the 1939 attempt and Jordan’s book follows the pattern of most others, but brings the available research together more thoroughly.  The questions Jordan tries to answer, or at least provide the best information about, was whether Dudley Wolfe belonged on the expedition, was he qualified to reach the high camps and remain there for an extended period of time even though his outlook on summiting was dim, and lastly, was he stranded out of negligence or the occupational hazard innate in mountaineering?

Wolfe reached Camp VIII only with Wiessner’s assistance.  Eventually, Wiessner had to descend for supplies – or possibly help to get Wolfe to the top.  There is a lot of speculation here on why this really happened.  Wolfe managed to descend to Camp VII and he never climbed any lower.  He would spend nearly two months in those high camps withering away and likely suffering from cerebral edema.

Wolfe was the first casualty of climbing K2, and for a variety of reasons (both justified and muddy) he was left stranded and helpless in Camp VII.  Jordan discovered his body at the base of the peak while visiting the K2 base camp in 2002 while writing her first book Savage Summit.

This book paints Dudley Wolfe in a more favorable portrait.  Ed Viesturs and David Roberts in K2: Life and Death on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain make Wolfe seem more incompetent – but to say he was unqualified (which Viesturs and Roberts do not) to be high on the mountain is wrong too.  It is worth the read to see the relationship between Fritz and Dudley.  Wiessner wanted to the summit desperately for glory and notoriety.  Wolfe was an adventure junkie and needed Wiessner to get him as close to the top, if not the top itself, as reasonable.  This arrangement, and the affects of altitude, which were not fully understood, was their collective undoing.

As a mountain junkie, I don’t recommend this book unless you are either interested in the mysteries of the 1939 expedition or want to know everything about K2 specifically.  There are other more informative K2 books, like Viesturs’ and Roberts’ story, and better climbing stories in general.  On the other hand, Jordan’s story might also appeal to readers that enjoy the age of romance in mountain exploration as it tugs at that string.

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Comments

  1. Lillian Kuo says:

    I’ve always found this particular expedition to be the most tragic
    one of all the mountaineering lore. Imagine when Fritz discovered
    that all his well stocked camps were stripped bare….it’s heart wrenching
    just to think. Would Dudley have survived if the supplies were mostly
    ferried as planned and nothing was stripped? Dudley certainly wasn’t
    Ed Viesturs, but was he worse off than the average “client” these days?

  2. I had read Ed Viesturs’ K2 book detailing the 1939 expedition. Pasang Kikuli and Pasang Kitar’s story remained foremost on my mind, till I recently read abt Jordan and how she’d discovered Wolfe’s body. Bone chilling! Despite what may have happened, referring just to the mountaineering skill of Fritz Wiessner – it’s pretty remarkable too. Thanks for the review. I intend on reading this.

  3. I read Viestur’s K2 book after finishing Jordan’s,and gained much appreciation for Weissner’s grit and skill. Previously I seemed to have more impression in his unflattering personality. Thank you for this great blog. I like your recommended reading,there are two I have not read but will definitely check them out. Personally I do not climb more than a few flights of stairs but mountain reading is dear to my heart.

  4. I’m glad you found this helpful. It’s a complex story and there is a lot to speculate about. I’d love to hear your thoughts after you read it.

  5. Weissner certainly has his positive attributes. I’m also a little partial to him because he climbed extensively in and appreciated my Adirondacks. Also, thanks for the compliment and I hope you have a good reading chair like I do!

  6. Christine says:

    I agree with Lillian- this 1939 expedition is the most tragic of K2 mountaineering lore. The deaths of 4 men – 1 in a horribly lonely manner- could have been prevented if the teammates were not disloyal. The the ones who not only could not climb higher but caused the others’ deaths by stripping the camps against direct orders, blamed the ones who actually tried to climb, and disparaged the one who died as inexperienced- although he climbed higher than they did.

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