In 1902, a six-man expedition made up of Swiss, Austrians, and Britons made the first serious summit attempt on K2. Among them was the English climber and occultist Aleister Crowley, who a few years later would assume the name “666,”and whose wild-haired antics earned him the title “Wickedest Man in the World” in the British press and a place years after his death on the cover of the Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Following a nine-week trek, undertaken while carrying three tons of luggage, including volumes of Crowley’s library, the expedition made as many as five attempts at the summit. Crowley preferred a route up the southeast spur of the mountain but the other climbers argued for a switch to the northeast ridge. They reached about 21,000 feet on K2’s side. But the effort broke down when, among other things, one of the Austrians collapsed with pulmonary edema—an acute mountain sickness involving a buildup of fluid in the lungs. A disappointed and semidelirious Crowley, suffering himself from malarial fevers and chills, threatened one of his colleagues with a revolver and was disarmed by a knee to the stomach. The expedition made its retreat in disarray, although they had climbed higher on K2 than anyone before.