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Bob Craig: Remembering the 1953 K2 Expedition

K2: In 1953 Bob Craig, Dee Molenaar, Pete Schoening, George Bell, Art Gilkey, Charlie Houston, Tony Streather and Bob Bates were attempting what would become the Abruzzi Ridge. When Gilkey became dangerously ill at Camp 8 (7770m), the team made one of the most famous rescue attempts in mountaineering history. [Photo] Maria Ly

[Alpinist contributor Bob Craig passed away at age 90 on January 16, 2015. He’s legendary for his role in the 1953 K2 expedition and the attempt to rescue team member Art Gilkey. Read his story, originally published in Alpinist 37, below.]

On August 10, after ten nights and eleven days at 25,500 feet, we were running low on food and fuel. Each of us–Art Gilkey, Dee Molenaar, Pete Schoening, Charlie Houston, Tony Streather, Bob Bates, George Bell and I–were continuously cold and dehydrated. We were much weaker than we realized since the effects of altitude weren’t well understood at the time. According to Charlie’s diagnosis, Art was now close to death from phlebitis in both legs, with clots in his lungs. Pete, Dee and I had a fair amount of mountain evacuation experience, but we knew our chances of getting Art down thousands of feet of varied and demanding terrain weren’t promising. And yet there was no other option: we couldn’t leave him at Camp VIII to die, and the rest of us couldn’t live much longer at this elevation.

We’d tried to descend with Art on August 7 when he first collapsed, but three feet of new snow covered the ice slope and the fixed rope, waiting to avalanche, and we had to return to Camp VIII. Later that day, Pete and I reconnoitered an escape route down a rock and snow ridge, and we found a cliff from which we could lower Art to Camp VII. On August 8, Charlie sent me and Pete above VIII in what he later described as “un geste gratuit.” We post-holed up 400 to 500 feet in dense fog and unrelenting wind, over and around a few crevasses. It was a sort of salute or a frustrated finger to the mountain we so coveted.

Three days later, the storm seemed to be blowing its hardest as we wrapped Art in a sleeping bag and a tent, leaving his arms free so he could carry his ice axe. Pete, Dee and I started pulling him down the snow toward our escape route. George, Bob and Charlie belayed from above until we reached the cliff. I then belayed Pete and Dee down the sixty- to seventy-foot drop. George, who had badly frostbitten feet, took over lowering Art and me to what appeared to be the next belay stance, where Pete and Dee were setting up. Unroped (I can’t remember why–probably I was hypoxic), I held on to the rope secured to Art. Halfway down, the rope cut through a section of wind slab. Art and I were engulfed in layers of loose and hard-packed snow. The belay held, and Art seemed undisturbed. His face was gray, but cheerful. I felt exhausted and breathless. The avalanche had nearly pulled me off. Snow plugged my mouth and nostrils.

We got Art across to Pete and Dee, but it was slow going. After a short rest, while Pete was getting into a strong belay stance, Dee belayed me partway to Camp VII, where I untied and proceeded to the site to pitch the tents. The wind seemed stronger than ever. Snow was swirling from below and tumbling from above. The cold now felt so overwhelming that I doubted I could get even one tent up. Between the blasts of crystals, I could just make out the seracs of the hanging glacier toward the west face, but we were enveloped in an overall gray. Only the upper bodies of my teammates appeared as they struggled to bring Art across the slope. Art himself was hidden behind a slight rise in the snow.

There was just one narrow tent platform at Camp VII. Four men would have to sleep sitting up in the larger tent, and perhaps three in the two-man Gerry tent–rigged as a bivy and hanging over the edge. We’d have to cut a ledge in the snow for Art as there was no way to get him into a tent. After an hour or so, I had one tent up in fair shape, and I looked to see how the others were doing with Art.

There was no one there! As I looked across and above the slope west of Camp VII, where there’d been five climbers guiding Art down from Pete’s belay, there was only one rope running up to Pete. Dear Jesus, I thought. This is Nanga Parbat again! In 1934, high on that 26,660-foot mountain sixty miles south and west of K2, a group of German climbers and Sherpas had been trapped in storms. One by one, they’d died.

A minute or so later, a figure appeared from below. It was Tony. He was soon followed by Dee. Even at a distance, they looked desperate. “What happened?” I called out to Tony. “Somebody slipped, and we were all pulled off,” he responded. “Pete saved us, but it is not at all good. Some of the chaps are hurt.”

As I traversed out to Art, I called up to Pete that I’d anchor the litter so he could descend. George had fallen the farthest. His pack had been torn off; he’d lost his gloves, and most critically, his glasses. Below us, Bob was giving him a spare pair of mitts to cover his severely frozen hands. Bob was also trying to get a disoriented Charlie up to Camp VII. It became clearer what had happened: someone (as it turned out, frostbitten George) closest to Pete had lost a crampon, slipped and fallen into the ropes of the others. Pete had held five falling men in a series of jolts that stretched the 7/16″ nylon rope to half its diameter. It was miraculous. I’ve often thought that only Pete could have held that belay.

When I reached Art, he was conscious and aware of the accident. There was little color in his face, half shrouded in a balaclava. “Don’t worry about me,” he said, with what seemed like a wistful look. “Take care of the others.”

I managed to get my axe deep into a patch of neve, and I anchored Art with one of the loose ropes. He handed his axe to Tony, who by now had placed a second axe anchor below mine. “You need this more than I do,” Art said. We assured Art we’d return and bring him to Camp VII after we got the injured men settled in their tents. We just couldn’t tell him we might have to leave him at the anchors because Tony and I weren’t strong enough to move him without the others’ help. Pete, still suffering above us, cold and in pain, was finally able to go off belay and pick his way cautiously toward VII.

At VII we all assembled. Charlie had a concussion and cracked ribs, and he’d lost his pack. He kept asking, “Where are we?” Bob, who was unhurt, had shepherded him to the camp. Dee had a gash in his thigh and a broken rib. Pete had severe chest pain and was struggling to breathe. It took about forty minutes to get them all settled in the larger tent. From time to time, we heard muffled shouts from Art with what seemed like an encouraging tone. We called back that we’d soon be with him. Bob, Tony and I roped up to go to Art.

The traverse wasn’t all that technical, but we didn’t dare have an additional accident. As we crested the rise in the fading light, there was no sign of Art, no rope, no ice axes. Just emptiness and howling wind. The only indication of what had happened was a groove in the snow, the trace of an avalanche that had come down with enough force to uproot the anchors and carry Art down the mountain. Charlie later liked to speculate that Art had pulled up to the anchor and released himself to spare the rest of us. But Bob, Tony and I had no doubt: although Art had that kind of nobility, the ice axes were too far above him. In his condition he could not have freed himself from both.

We traversed back to VII with the numbing news that Art was gone. Each of us knew that we’d done everything we could to save him. The epic of our return to Base Camp has been well-chronicled elsewhere. Some minor miracles occurred along the way: one of the most poignant was Tony’s discovery of a small cloth bag 1,000 feet below VII, which contained George’s spare glasses, unbroken. Yet, I should note that while luck was undoubtedly a great factor, I believe the underlying reason we survived those four days, each of us in some way frostbitten or injured, descending through verglas-coated slabs and sections of blue ice, past a ledge coated with Art’s blood, was that we’d all become special friends on that mountain.