‘The Ghosts of K2’ Adds Twists to the Early K2 Saga

While the early attempts on K2 up until the first ascent has been told in whole and in part many times, I thought that there was enough heroism and controversy to keep people speculating. I also thought nothing could justify a new book. After all, climbers and armchair mountaineers could argue the merits of whether Fritz Wiessner’s leadership on the 1939 attempt and whether it was he or his team alone that lead to stranding Dudley Wolfe high on the mountain for dead.

Then there is the oxygen tank-controversy of the 1954 first ascent. The tanks allegedly ran out well before the summit, but was it from a fluke in the primitive apparatus or part of a conspiracy and a deadly effort to compete against their fellow climbers, which also lead Walter Bonatti to spend an extremely cold night exposed without shelter on the steep flank of K2?

Mick Conefrey, the author of The Ghosts of Everest (1999) and the documentary filmmaker, was in a unique position to share two fascinating and new pieces of information that only recently became available that makes us reconsider the controversies and the characters involved, through his new book, The Ghosts of K2: The Epic Saga of the First Ascent (2015).

Ghosts of K2 Cover

The Climbers’ Perspective

In addition to the new twists The Ghosts of K2 offers, Conefrey gives readers the nearest thing that I have read to an objective re-telling to the expeditions. Conefrey covers seven expeditions, from 1890 through 1954, by telling the story about what happened from the perspective of the expedition climbers that puts the reader in the moment. (Albeit, the 1890 attempt of Roberto Lerco was only a paragraph long, which is all the information available on that mysterious adventure.)

To some degree the book is a rehash of existing literature, so it could feel like a redundant read if you have covered any number of other books, including ones by Ed Viesturs and David Roberts, or Jennifer Jordan, except Conefrey applies hindsight and the insight of “revisionist history” judiciously and tactfully, which allows for two things:

  1. Gives the reader the feel for the expedition’s challenges as they were during the attempt; and
  2. Allows the facts as they were reported by individual climbers to mount so the controversies and biases can mount before he demonstrates how differently we can look at things.

The Ghosts of K2 tells the tales that make up the saga of K2’s firsts attempts through the lens of a documentary film director; we witness Oscar Eckenstein, Aleister Crowley, and Jules Jacot-Guillarmod in 1902, the Duke of the Abruzzi in 1909, Charlie Houston and his star studded crew in 1938, Fritz Wiessner and his rag tag bunch in 1939, Charlie Houston and his “brothers” again in 1953, and, finally, Ardito Desio’s successful all-Italian expedition in 1954. Conefrey made an award winning documentary, by the same title as the book, in 2001 that appears to have laid the track for this cog railway; the documentary was historical and matter-of-fact with a wonderful narrator that gives a suspenseful tone to the old black-and-white photos and film. But the new input Conefrey in offers in his new book is difficult to ignore for any armchair mountaineer, let alone anyone objectively looking at the events on and after the K2 attempts.

Tidbits and Twists

The Ghosts of K2 wasn’t written to be the academic history book I presumed it would be when I started reading it; rather, with the passage of time, and the deaths of some parties, diaries and other documents have surfaced by some of the climbers and their family members of those in the 1939 and 1954 expeditions. This is information that wasn’t available in 2001.

Mick ConefreyThe question of who actually stripped the camps stocked with sleeping bags and food late in the expedition in 1939 is addressed anew with evidence. Likewise, the most controversial expedition to the Karakorum, the 1954 Italian assault on K2 is revisited — with evidence. Conefrey reevaluates whether Walter Bonatti was a blameless victim and if those that made the first ascent, Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni, did or did not actually run out of oxygen as they claimed, or if they did, what does that mean for Bonatti and his allegations of Lacedelli and Compagnoni? In both instances, the evidence could be interpreted a little differently, and perhaps discounted altogether, but it doesn’t necessarily diminish the reevaluation of events. And if anything, may make the history come alive again for a younger generation.

Along the journey, the Conefrey includes insightful trivia pieces and observations on the shifts mountaineering has taken over its history, the stuff that climbers and armchair mountaineers devour. My favorite of which was when Conefrey explains the revolutionary thinking involved in climbing in the Himalaya and Karakorum and likened it to the move to climb the great north faces of the Alps, but only after all of the major ridges have been climbed. The notion had been considered reckless by some, and a natural advancement to others. For example, the attempts on the north face of the Eiger was a significant milestone in mountaineering history, but it might as well have been going over Niagara Falls in a barrel to many witnesses at the time.

Overall, The Ghosts of K2 makes the reader feel more intimately involved with the attempts on the mountain, and they are rewarded with some tantalizing new twists about what may have really happened when some great climbers tried to reach the top. After reading it, you might find yourself speculating on the controversies anew at the crag or at the bar.

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Walter Bonatti: One of the Greatest of All Time

WALTER BONATTI — 1930 – 2011. Italian.

No. 5.

Bonatti, climbed in the Alps, Himalayas, and Patagonia.

He was part of the 1954 Italian expedition to K2, and at the center of K2 first ascent controversy.

Bonatti was a prolific first ascentionist and often climbed alone, including the period test-piece Petit Dru (which he climbed over six days) and making the first winter solo ascent of the Matterhorn by the North Face Direct in February 1965.

On an expedition lead by Riccardo Cassin, Bonatti with Carolo Mauri made a daring first ascent of the entrancing mountain that may be more difficult than K2: Gasherbrum IV (26,001 ft./7,925 m.)

Courage, vision, commitment and creativity were demonstrated repeatedly throughout his career. His self reliance and resourcefulness may have enabled his ascent to greatness above much else. David Roberts wrote in The New York Times after his death, “Mr. Bonatti… fully accepted the dictum of adventure that had been true for centuries, but that may no longer hold: if you get into trouble, you have to get yourself out.”

This post is part a culmination of a series of posts that considered Who Are the Greatest Climbers of All Time. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following The Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook and Twitter.

Climbing matters, even though we work nine to five.

Click here to see who was ranked at number four.

Everest Distractions, Mooses Tooth and K2 at First Sight

The first image of K2 as taken by Jules Jacot-Guillermod in 1902 and recently purchased in auction by Bob Schelfhout-Aubertijn in 2011.

The first photographic image of K2 as taken by Jules Jacot-Guillermod in 1902 (Bob Schelfhout-Aubertijn / Top of the World Books)

So you’ve heard about the fiasco that pulled Wool Stick (ahem, that’s Ueli Steck, actually), Simone Moro and Jon Griffith off of Everest this past weekend. There was a dispute that turned physical around a protocol that was unique to siege-style climbing, which was in conflict with the freedom of climbing unsupported in alpine style. There was even some early speculation that there than me have theorized that the self-centered Western climbers (in general, who are usually guided clients) haven’t treated the Sherpa and other native assistants with the respect they deserve and that the Sherpa and other assistants are now lashing out, but doesn’t seem to be panning out to be the case.

Still, Chad Kellog through Facebook called the event a “show stopper.” Melissa Arnot — who played a leading role in settling the conflict — was disturbed by the events and had to regroup in order to continue guiding. Garrett Madison, a guide that played a role managing the Sherpas for a commercial expedition, has been attempting to explain both sides of the conflict. But Simone Moro claims Madison’s story was “completely false.”

It’s sad that whatever goes on around Everest is more akin these days to the adventures from the History Channel television show Ice Road Truckers than pure climbing. In pure climbing, it’s about the style and the achievement, but the journey alone might be the achievement. In the TV show, the goal is to go from point A to point B on treacherous terrain to deliver machine parts to a remote Canadian diamond mine, return and collect your reward. The promo calls it “the dash for the cash.” When you’re dashing for reward, what’s the journey worth?

I wish all of the mountains were a place where it’s just the climber and the wild. However, on Everest, its less wild (in the natural sense) because it’s the domain of the commercial guiding companies, and you have to play by their rules, whether you’re on their “expedition” or not. At least that’s how Moro, Steck and Griffith felt, I’m sure.

Mooses Tooth

It’s also a shame that the banter about Steck, Moro, Griffith and the Sherpas on Everest have dominated climbing news; this story from the Alaska Range has been more significant in terms of actual climbing: The Mooses Tooth, which rises like broad daggers on the east side of the Ruth Glacier, saw a lot of activity including the first free ascent by Scott Adamson and Pete Tapley. They also pitched a bivy that Alpinist accurately called “Dr. Suesse-esque”.

Be sure to click those links on the Mooses Tooth climb; they’re well worth your time.


On a gentler note, Natalie and I are unpacked and settling into our new place. It’s nice to see my gear in one pile in the basement. It’s been in an attic-like space, mostly out of site, for too long. My mountaineering library is on shelves and has also been reunited with the rest of my modest collection; its a disjointed grouping and is actually overflowing the bookcase.

Next to the bookcase is my desk set against a blank wall. I’ve been thinking about acquiring some special climbing-inspired art for years. While now may not be the right time financially while paying private school tuition, but I do like to browse and the blank space has been tempting me…

Climbing Art on K2

I would like to own my own mixed-media piece by Renan Ozturk or even a sharp, well-composed photograph by Alexander Buisse, but another piece holds a certain fascination, especially after writing that series on K2’s first photograph.

Do you remember when I talked about my acquaintance with Greg Glade? He was one of the references cited in Alpinist 37 about the first photo of K2 along with Jules Jacot-Guillarmod (the photographer) and Bob Schelfhout Aubertijn (the climbing historian and collector). Greg is the merchant.

Greg’s shop, Top of the World Books, is a unique bookstore located not far from Vermont’s Green Mountains in North America. It specializes in arctic and mountaineering books, both new and collectibles (drool), plus artifacts, historical reproductions, DVDs, and even art in the form of prints and posters.

Bob, the current owner of the Jacot-Guillarmod image of K2, has made a general print and a limited edition high-resolution print available for purchase through Greg’s shop, Top of the World Books.

This image, originally captured on delicate glass plates, was taken in haste. As you can see in the picture at the top of this post, there is some remnant equipment in the foreground on the path up the Baltoro Glacier. This was the first time the 1902 expedition probably saw the mountain. They stopped and gasped. Nothing in Europe compared. At that moment, the climbers, including Aleister Crowley, either were inspired or fearful — maybe a little of each — because they had come fully intending to, at minimum, climb higher than anyone else had ever climbed.

When you know that, you can see it in high res print of the first image of K2. Maybe it says something else to you.

It might not hang on the blank wall where I live now, but maybe at my next home. Maybe you’ll appreciate it even more than me; go check it out.

Thanks for dropping by again. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or Twitter. Climbing matters, even though we work nine to five.

Western Eyes on K2 Part III

I remember a great line from the Indiana Jones movies. In The Last Crusade the Jones character is lecturing to his students and he says most archeology work is done in the library and that X never marks the spot. He then proceeds to have a Hollywood-style adventure in archeology across Europe and the Holy Land which includes him finding a large roman numeral 10 to which he remarks, “X marks the spot,” and proceeds to dig.

Bob Schelfhout Aubertijn’s work was more like what Jones said to his students. (Unless he lied to me in our interviews and he really used a bull whip and a pistol in his work as a historian to obtain the stereo slides of K2.) As I explained in my previous two posts, these slides were of the very first image of K2 ever taken, replacing vague, inaccurate contours on a map with an avatar. Let me continue from where I left off…

French Ministry of Culture
It was a typo in the database of the French Ministry of Culture that held back Bob Schelfhout Aubertijn from connecting the image of K2 directly to Jacot-Guillarmod through more than his book, Six Mois dans l’Himalaya. He traced another image — a group shot of the members of the 1902 K2 expedition — to the French Ministry of Culture. They misspelled Guillarmod’s name: “GuillarmoT.” No search engine would have solved that puzzle.

There, he came across images just like those from the set of eight slides he purchased all credited to Jules Jacot-Guillarmod. He even found the actual photo image of K2 that was the template for an engraving in Six Mois. Finally, there it was: The slide in question. Of the eight slides in the purchase, Schelfhout Aubertijn was able to prove four of them were by conclusively made by Jacot-Guillarmod in 1902.

The image in question was a medium we don’t use or think about today. It was on high resolution glass plates meant for a stereo viewer. Think of those toys when you were a kid: a plastic viewer you might buy at a museum or aquarium gift shop. You aim the viewer to light and look in with both eyes to see a Saturn with its rings bright and real or a shark in what looks like you could put your hand in its jaw. It did this by having two separate images bent by a lens to tease our eyes.

The original stereo viewers were far more elegant (see the image at the top). They were sometimes wooden boxes with brass or other furnishings. You slide in the dual slides and look in with a or without a light behind it so the world inside, whether it was the Taj Mahal or some other nearly mythical place. This was even more true before National Geographic magazine had a wide circulation and television and the Internet desensitized us to the exotic nature of the world a continent away.

David Roberts, the author and Harvard Mountaineering Club member, recounts when he and classmate Don Jensen spent time in Bradford Washburn’s attic office at the Boston Museum of Science looking through a stereo viewer what even then was old (though perhaps not yet given the status of being called an antique.) Roberts describes how it was an ideal way to see a mountain and consider it’s virgin possibilities for new lines. He said the images “leap into three dimensions” (Roberts, On the Ridge Between Life and Death, 78).

New Again
Schelfhout-Aubertijn’s stereo plates were not the original close-up image used to make the engraving of K2 in Six Mois dans l’Himalaya, which may have helped the Duke of the Abruzzi, but as it would turn out, had a another significance. Another research colleague of Schelfhout-Aubertijn’s arranged all the photos credited to Jacot-Guillarmod and arranged them chronologically. The photos were laid out according to the schedule of their trip. When you move past the images into the towns and into the wilderness, it became clear that Crowley, Eckenstein and Guillarmod arrived at Concordia and must have paused nearby.

K2 probably dominated their attention more than Broad Peak and the other nearby mountains. A near-perfect pyramid. Jacot-Guillarmod was eager. As a photographer on a major adventure, every great moment needed to be memorialized. In haste, he set up his Verascope Richard and exposed the plates. He didn’t move the porter stick and other items in the foreground (see below). Not to mention, as Schelfhourt-Aubertijn points out, with their gear and low sensitivity materials, “[I]t’d be foolish not to shoot several images before you got there.”

The first image of K2 as taken by Jules Jacot-Guillermod in 1902 and recently purchased in auction by Bob Schelfhout-Aubertijn in 2011.

The first image of K2 as taken by Jules Jacot-Guillarmod in 1902 and recently purchased in auction by Bob Schelfhout-Aubertijn in 2011.

The other images Jacot-Guillarmod would take would be closer to the mountain. This image was the first. It shows the emotional excitement of the photographer that hoped to not only see it but had hoped to climb higher on it than anyone else, like Crowley and Eckenstein had hoped. I wonder if he knew at that moment whether it would not be possible for them.

The Cover
There has rarely been a cover of Alpinist that has been universally agreed upon among the editors. The cover of Issue 37 wasn’t any different. But the image was not only among the first but the first and so it’s place was decided; the cover it was.

Personally, I’m not sure I would have appreciated this picture of K2 so much had it not been on the cover or if Greg and Katie hadn’t introduced me to Bob himself. It was an opportunity for Bob that turned into a climbing history geek’s dream and a great mystery to be solved.

Thanks to everyone for reading this short series and to everyone that helped me tell the story!

I’ll be back soon with more to share. If you want to stay connected with updates about new posts and other climbing news, please consider following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or Twitter. Happy reading and happy climbing!

Western Eyes on K2 Part II

This is part II of my posts on the first image of K2. Now that you understand why the photo is significant, let me tell you about how it was lost and then resurfaced.There are probably countless climbing antiques and photographs that have remarkable stories to tell if only they were well researched and featured according to their merit. In fact, I don’t think that there is a dull climbing story, only tales that are poorly told.

K2 1993
In 1993 — the same year Greg Mortenson, the now infamous author of Three Cups of Tea attempted the mountain — a climber with roots in Australia and a passion for photography set forth to reach the top as well. Bob Schelfhout Aubertijn wasn’t yet interested in the history of the mountain. He hadn’t even seen the images taken by Vittorio Sella. Without topping out, Schelfhout Aubertijn returned home and his interest in K2 turned into passion. Some may say that it’s an obsession.

Since his attempt, Schelfhout Aubertijn built an extensive library around K2’s early exploration to its contemporary climbs. To illustrate how comprehensive his compilation is, he has 13 copies of Ardito Desio’s account of the 1954 first ascent of K2 — one in English, another in Italian, German, French, Spanish, Swedish… Of all the foreign language editions in print, he is only missing the Japanese edition. Schelfhout Aubertijn is also a bit of a linguist, which allows him to glean from the interesting details and nuances between translations. With those skills and his experience on the mountain itself, he’s an extraordinary authority.

His collection is greater than just books. He also owns Fritz Weissner’s ritual robe and cap, and carabiners that have been to K2’s summit that were given to him by Anatoli Boukreev. Then there is the art, ranging from paintings to photos by Sella himself.

If you read The Suburban Mountaineer regularly you can understand what Schelfhout Aubertijn sought by climbing K2. He calls it experiencing the “true essence” in mountaineering. But clearly for him it was a beginning rather than and end.

Six Months in the Himalaya
Unfortunately, one book about K2 Schelfhout Aubertijn doesn’t own is Jacot-Guillarmod’s record of the 1902 expedition, Six Mois dans l’Himalaya. It’s rare and listed by one collector at US$2,500. This book contained the Jacot-Guillarmod’s photo — the first photo — of K2 that the Duke of the Abruzzi no doubt referred to as beta for his expedition soon afterwards.

The book fell into dated obscurity. (Aside: Other books come to this purgatory and I recently noticed that Don Mellor’s out-of-print guidebook to climbing in the Adirondacks is now fetching over US$100, though Mellor’s book seems to remain in demand.) For K2, other stories from the Duke’s expedition and Sella’s superb photographs superseded Jacot-Guillarmod’s work from his six-month visit to the Karakorum.

The images Jacot-Guillarmod took were preserved on glass stereo plates, similar to slides for a projector your teacher may have used in school before SmartBoards, except there were a pair meant to be seen through a stereo viewer. They were among several others. The collection was simply labeled “Inde”, French for India.

The private owner put them up for auction on Ebay and they caught the eye of a photographer hobbyist. That same hobbyist was Bob Schelfhout Aubertijn. The images on the eight plates were of pictures you might imagine in an old book of British India with one plate devoid of people with a foreboding landscape on the lower half and on the top half a bright shining pyramid feature. He asked the seller for a larger image than the one posted online. Unmistakably, it was K2.

Schelfhout Aubertijn bid and won the auction.

Verascope Richard
Without knowing when the images were taken or by whom, the glass plates were merely a historic curiosity. The only clue was a notation on the margin of the slide, which read, “Verascope Richard.” After some digging, Schelfhout Aubertijn found that it was a French camera company that produced cameras from 1880 to 1930. That gave the image a window of time.

In addition to keeping excellent records, Schelfhout Aubertijn also has an good memory. He immediately narrowed the field of possible photographers, considering the expeditions I mentioned in my previous post. Schelfhout Aubertijn’s memory and collections for reference were also sufficiently comprehensive enough to rule out Younghusband — he did not see K2 from the south — and the others.

Schelfhout Aubertijn’s senses went on “full alert,” when he discovered that Jacot-Guillarmod used a Verascope when he went to the next highest accessible mountain in the world, Kangchenjunga in 1905.

American Alpine Club Library
Connecting the dots turned into a game of six-degrees of separation. Schelfhout Aubertijn contacted his friend, award winning author Bernadette McDonald, because he knew she read Six Mois. Unfortunately, she didn’t have a copy and referred him to Katie Ives at Alpinist. But she had actually only seen copies of pages from the rare book, which were made available by the American Alpine Club Library. That meant a call to our mutual friend, Beth Heller, who was the librarian at that time.

Heller, with Adam McFarren, got scans of pages with photos printed in the book to Schelfhout Aubertijn. I know Heller to be extremely prompt with email and she was true to character. It wasn’t the K2 image, but they matched some of the other glass slides he had acquired — exactly.

Schelfhout Aubertijn was getting close, but there was still a giant leap to be made to arrive on the cover of Alpinist. I’ll cover that in my next post about the first K2 photograph and tell you about these stereo plates and why even Bradford Washburn loved them.

Thanks for dropping by again. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or Twitter. Climbing matters, even though we work nine to five.

To read the next post in this series, click here.

Western Eyes on K2

The cover and mountain profile of K2 from Alpinist 37 (courtesty Alpinist magazine)

The cover and mountain profile of K2 from Alpinist 37 (courtesy Alpinist magazine)

On a subject tangetial to the topics on The Suburban Mountaineer, but quite impactful, Natalie and I are excited that our home is listed for rent and we signed a lease for a new home with more space for our family’s growing needs. We’ll miss a lot of wonderful things about our current home but the move means a dedicated space for my books and maps as well as room to finally use my hangboard. I’ll let you know how that goes after we move in a month.

Now back in December I teased a little project I was working on concerning the first photographic image of K2. I love this story that I am about to start telling because it makes me feel closer to the events that helped shape our world. It also makes the people from the past become more alive.

The story began last winter when I received the 2011-12 winter issue of Alpinist in the mail. It was issue 37. I usually pause whatever climbing literature I am reading and go through the magazine from beginning to end. 37’s feature was part I of a Mountain Profile piece on K2 (28,251 ft./8,611m.) and the image on its cover was of the mountain in what looked like sepia; clearly an antique. Inside on the table of contents page the citation given for the image said: “The south face of K2 (8611m), with a survey rod and a porter stick in the foreground. Taken during a 1902 expedition, and recently found at an auction by Bob A. Schelfhout Aubertijn, this is one of the earliest photos of K2. Jules Jacot-Guillarmod/Courtesy Bob A. Schelfhout Aubertijn/Top of the World Books.”

I knew the proprietor of Top of the World Books, Greg Glade. He actually reached out to me about something unrelated sometime before issue 37 came out. His shop is a wealthy resource of books and artifacts on mountaineering and arctic exploration. I reached out to Greg this past fall. He gave me the gist of the story, which unwrapped the reference in issue 37 a little better and he told me something the reference didn’t say; it was the very first photographic image of K2.

The Himalayas and its Karakorum Range were still mostly a mystery to the majority of westerners in 1902. While the Great Trigonometric Survey estimated the heights of many of the Himalayan greats in the 1850s, the valleys and features were largely unmapped. In fact, the first western explorer in the region was Francis Younghusband in 1886-87, when he documented the way through the range via Muztagh Pass (west of K2). But the point of that route was to give the British options for military maneuvers rather than an interest in mountain exploration.

Two other small expeditions of westerners visited the area around K2 in 1890 and 1892 but they were of little significance to exploring the mountain. However, these two expeditions were drawn there because K2 was the highest accessible mountain in the world.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Mount Everest was shut off to foreigners. Both Nepal and Tibet denied access to all outsiders and so the mountaineers that were heading out from the Alps seeking greater challenges focused elsewhere in the greater Himalaya. Those that traveled there were relying on the Trigonometric Survey data from the 1850s and the little beta from Younghusband. The next two highest points became a fascination and both K2, the second highest mountain, and Kangchenjunga (28,169 ft./8,586 m.), the third highest mountain, were within British-controlled India.

In 1902, Oscar Eckenstein and Aleister Crowley lead a small team to make the first attempt on K2. They pledged to climb higher than anyone had climbed previously in order to achieve the world altitude record. The team’s physician was also a photographer. Dr. Jules Jacot-Guillarmod took the first photographic image of K2 and it was published in his book Six Mois dans l’Himalaya (1904). After the mountain’s elevation recording by the Trigonometric Survey, this may have become the next piece of beta for future climbers. While I do not know for certain, I suspect the leader of the next expedition, the Duke of the Abruzzi, saw this book and this image. The Himalayas and K2 were beginning to be unmasked.

It’s a bit of revisionist history, but the 1902 attempt and this photo by Jacot-Guillarmod may have been a symbolic moment for the Himalayas. The blank on the map wasn’t just replaced by contour lines but an avatar or icon.

In my next post about K2’s first photograph I’ll tell you about how this image resurfaced and introduce you to an extraordinary linguist and K2 historian, Bob A. Schelfhout Aubertijn.

Thanks for dropping by again. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or Twitter. Climbing matters, even though we work nine to five.

To read the next post in this series, click here.

Sources: 1) Greg Glade, Top of the World Books; 2) Katie Ives, Alpinist; 3) Bob A. Schelfhout Aubertijn; and 4) Viesturs, Ed and David Roberts, K2, 2011.