In 1953, Pete Schoening found himself and five climbing partners 25,000 feet high on the northwest ridge of K2 – the second tallest peak in the world. One of the five, Art Gilkey, was suffering from a leg clot and was being slowly lowered by the other five in snowy conditions. As they carefully worked their way down the mountain, roped together with little protection beyond their ice axes, they knew each step brought them closer to base camp – but also the possibility of a slip or fall. The snow squeaked beneath their crampons, and the men grunted and swore as they worked. The Belay on K2 was only a few seconds away…
In 1953 K2 was the tallest unclimbed mountain left in the world
On May 29th, 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay completed the world’s first ascend of Mt. Everest, the world’s tallest peak. 900 miles to the northwest, a group of American climbers suddenly found they were now climbing the world’s tallest un-summited peak, K2. While the peak is 800 feet shorter than Everest, the standard route is far more technical and objectively risky. The seven Americans trying to summit had been carefully selected to meet the challenge by the expedition’s leaders, Charles Houston and Robert Bates.
Assembling the Expedition Team
Houston had no illusions about the difficulty of ascending K2. In 1938, he had led a previous American expedition to the peak, which located the main route to the summit up the Abruzzi Ridge. It was followed in the tragic 1939 expedition where four climbers lost their lives, partially due to issues with team unity and morale. Houston set out to put together a team of climbers with personality traits front of mind. The group included Robert Craig, Dee Molenaar and Pete Schoening from Seattle, Art Gilkey from Iowa, George Bell from Los Alamos, and Tony Streather, an Englishman. With the group of eight assembled, they set out for K2 in the spring of 1953.
Moving Fast & Light Without Porters.
As they planned their ascent, the team had a major new problem. Following the partition of India, the sherpas that traditionally helped move supplies to high camps were not allowed in Pakistan. The group decided they would take a lighter approach to the peak, carrying supplies themselves to high camps. This required numerous trips up and down the mountain to stock the various camps, which helped the team acclimate and gain familiarity with the route. By August 1st, they had reached camp VII near 7,800 meters. The entire 8-man team gathered there for their final push for the summit. This was when their good luck finally gave out.
Disaster Strikes High on K2
On August 2, as the team cast a secret ballot to decide who would make the first summit attempt, a severe storm set in. At first, the team wasn’t discouraged and set in to wait for better conditions. However, as the days passed and supplies began to dwindle, things became more serious. On August 7th, the weather improved slightly. Just as they began to consider an attempt, Art Gilkey collapsed in front of his tent. Houston quickly diagnosed him with a blood clot in his leg – a serious condition at sea level and almost certainly fatal at 7,800 meters. The storm set back in, and the team waited for an opening to descend and get Art to safety.
On August 10th, The Team Chose to Retreat.
After three more days of waiting for an opening in the weather, the team reached a breaking point. Art was showing signs of pulmonary edema, and they knew he couldn’t last much longer. They decided to begin descending in the middle of the storm. They wrapped Art in a makeshift stretcher using a sleeping bag and the shredded remains of a tent and began slowly lowering him down back to Camp VII. The team was exhausted, frostbitten and traveling through a severe snowstorm. However, there was never any discussion of abandoning Art. They had grown close throughout the expedition and were committed to the rescue.
The Belay on K2
As the team neared Camp VII, they reached a final traverse across an icy slope. The team was utterly exhausted, having lowered Gilkey on his stretcher nearly 1,500 feet in the middle of a snowstorm. George Bell led the group, connected via ropes to the others. As he made his way across the frozen face of the mountain, he stepped on a patch of ice and slipped. Bell began to fall, pulling his rope-mate Tony with him. However, their ropes tangled with the others as they went, dragging Houston, Bates, Gilkey and Molenaar off the mountain as well.
In the rear, Pete Schoening, the team’s youngest member, had been belaying the stretcher, wrapping the rope around his waist and ice axe. As his six teammates were swept off the peak, he sat down, dug deep, and secured his axe as best as possible. Against all odds, at 27,000 feet in the middle of a snowstorm, he stopped the fall and saved all six of the fallen men. While Shoening brushed off the moment as good luck, this lifesaving action has been forever remembered simply as “The Belay on K2.” However, the team wasn’t safe yet.
The Mysterious Fate of Art Gilkey
After their fall, the team was battered, bruised and suffering from more than one set of broken ribs. They reached Camp VII in the still-howling storm and secured Art to the slope while they set up their tents. While the utterly exhausted team worked on camp, they heard Art’s muffled cries from afar. Upon returning to return him, they found nothing but a scrape in the snow where he had been lying.
The official report found that Art was swept off the mountain by a small avalanche. However several of his teammates are convinced that Art, aware of the risk his recuse posed to the others, cut himself loose off the mountain in order to save the others. While we’ll never know the truth, Art’s disappearance did give the team the extra energy needed to make it back to Base Camp. His remains were finally found in 1993, however with no evidence as to his final end.
The Lesson of The Belay on K2: Servant Leadership & Luck.
What does the belay on K2 mean? Each of us draws different lessons from a story, depending on our life and our experiences. To me, what stands out is the selfless example of servant leadership demonstrated by the team. When the life of Art was at risk, his mates dropped everything, the goal of a lifetime, to help him to safety. While the team was unsuccessful, it may very well have been servant leadership on the part of Art who helped them make it to safety. Leadership and friendship at its finest is sacrifice, serving those we love. As climbers, we need to remember the lessons and examples of those who came before. We can all be servant leaders at one time or another; you don’t need an ice axe to be a hero.
Want to see and learn more about the belay on K2? Visit the Golden Colorado Mountaineering Center to see Pete’s lifesaving Ice Axe for yourself!