Christopher Sebela

writer, wronger, rearranger

Pete Schoening was the youngest of eight members of the 1953 American expedition to K2 led by Charlie Houston, America’s most experienced high-altitude mountaineer. The party reached base camp on June 19. By August 1 they had reached an altitude about 1,000ft short of the 28,251ft summit. But as they pitched their tents, a violent storm hit the mountain, forcing them to remain inside.

On the seventh day Art Gilkey, a 26-year-old geologist, collapsed with blood clots in his leg which were induced by the high altitude. Realising that if he did not get urgent medical attention he might die, Gilkey’s comrades decided to brave the blizzard and attempt to bring him down the mountain.

Wrapping him in his sleeping bag and tent, they set out but were forced back after a few hundred yards when they found themselves on a slope that posed a high risk of an avalanche. Three days later, finding that the blood clot had reached Gilkey’s lungs, the climbers decided to try again.

They reached a steep, 45-degree ice slope across which they planned to swing Gilkey to a small ice shelf from an anchor point, or belay, fixed above. Schoening placed himself at the top of the slope, wedging his ice axe head firmly behind a rock embedded in the ice. His rope, attached to Gilkey who was dangling 60ft below, passed over the axe and around Schoening’s body, an arrangement known as a “hip axe belay”.

Some 40ft away from Gilkey, the five other team members, lashed together with three more ropes, two of which were attached to Gilkey, looked for a position from which to pull him across the slope. Suddenly one of them lost his footing, knocking the others off their feet and pulling them down after him as the three sets of ropes fouled together. Within a few seconds, all five men, together with the stricken Gilkey, were dangling over a huge precipice thousands of feet over the glacier below, hanging from Schoening’s belay.

Seeing his comrades fall, Schoening held on tight to the rope and braced himself for the impact, praying that the axe and belay would hold. “The force came in a series of shocks,” he recalled. “For minutes it seemed the rope was as taut as a bow string. Snow squalls blotted out everything below and I couldn’t tell what was happening. My hands were freezing, but of course I couldn’t let go.”

The belay held and, for several tense minutes, Schoening managed to sustain all five falling climbers, and Gilkey, as they struggled to retrieve the situation.

After making their way back up the slope and anchoring Gilkey in his sleeping bag, they pitched an emergency camp nearby. But when they returned to retrieve Gilkey, he had disappeared; he had either been swept away in an avalanche or, possibly, had decided to sacrifice his own life to save those of his colleagues. No trace of him was found until 1993. The remaining climbers, frost-bitten and injured, finally returned to base camp on August 15.

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