During a vicious storm on one of the world’s deadliest mountains, a team of mountaineers struggle to rescue a stricken team member. When a further fall saw five men pulled from the mountain, the heroic intervention of another member has entered climbing folklore, remembered simply as ‘the belay’.
In August 1953, three months after Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay summited Everest for the first time in history, an American team set out to climb K2, the world’s second tallest mountain. The tallest peak in the Karakoram mountains along the Pakistan-China border, K2 has earned the moniker the ‘Savage Mountain’ due to the difficulty of the climb and a frightening death rate: for every three climbers that stand on the summit, another will lose their life on the mountain.
The US team was led by physician and acclaimed mountaineer Charles Houston. In 1936, Houston had been amongst the men of a British-lead expedition that conquered the highest mountain in history at that time when they summited Nanda Devi in India. Two years later, he led the first American expedition to the Karakoram range, intent on climbing K2. While the attempt failed they made significant progress, carrying out vital route-mapping work that was used in subsequent, successful attempts.
Houston returned to K2 in 1953 at the head of the Third American Karakoram Expedition. His team consisted of seven other climbers:
- Robert Bates, a writer and mountaineer from Philadelphia and co-leader of the expedition
- Robert Craig, a ski instructor from Seattle
- Art Gilkey, a geologist from Iowa
- Dee Molenaar, a geologist from Seattle
- Peter Schoening, a chemical engineer from Seattle
- George Bell, a nuclear scientist from New Mexico
- Tony Streather, a British Army officer
After travelling though Pakistan, the team arrived at K2 on 20th June 1953. Recent disasters on 8,000 metre peaks and the decision to climb with only a light load of equipment meant that the team spent time cautiously stocking each camp with supplies as they progressed, requiring multiple trips up and down to each camp to accomplish. By 1st August they had established Camp VIII, at a height of 7,800m. A severe storm then trapped the team in their tents for several days, even forcing Houston and Bell to squeeze into other tents after theirs was blown away.
After a week the weather broke and the team began to consider a summit push. However, they were forced to abandon their attempt after Gilkey fell gravely ill, collapsing due to a blood clot. While members of the team have since stated that they knew there was little chance of getting the man down alive, all seven joined in the rescue attempt anyway. The risk of avalanches due to the snow deposited by the recent storm held them in place for four more days, until Gilkey showed signs of the lethal condition pulmonary embolism, forcing their hand. Carrying Gilkey in a makeshift stretcher, the team would need to traverse a steep, treacherous ice slope to reach Camp VII.
During the descent George Bell slipped, pulling Streather with him. Their fall resulted in the rope between the two climbers becoming tangled with those of Houston, Bates and Molenaar, dragging each climber off the mountain. Peter Schoening, moments before being pulled to his death alongside them, wedged his ice axe against a rock frozen into the ice face, wrapped the rope around his shoulders, and successfully arrested the fall of all five men. At the same time, he continued to bear the weight of Gilkey’s stretcher. His feat of strength and skill has since become one of the most famous incidents in mountaineering, sometimes called the ‘miracle belay’.
Tragically, Gilkey was lost as the team prepared the tents at Camp VII. Left secured to a snow anchor in his stretcher, the team heard faint shouts before finding him gone, divots in the snow suggesting that a small avalanche had swept him away. Houston later admitted that Gilkey’s death likely saved the lives of the remaining climbers, although Schoening remained adamant that he could have been carried down successfully. Some commentators have even speculated that Gilkey, understanding the risk he was posing to his teammates, deliberately untied his snow anchor and allowed himself to fall, although Houston maintains that he had been in no state to do so. The seven remaining men successfully made their way down, passing bloodstained rocks and a broken ice axe on the descent but no sign of Gilkey’s body.
A cairn built by the team in memory of their comrade is now well known as the Gilkey Memorial, bearing the names of many climbers lost on K2. A year later, an Italian team became the first to successfully summit K2, following the route the Americans had pioneered. Schoening continued mountaineering and was present for the tragic events of the 1996 Everest Disaster, where he reached Camp III at the age of 68. He was awarded the David A Sowles Memorial Award for heroics by the American Alpine Club, and Schoening Peak in Antarctica bears his name. In 2006, a gathering known as the ‘Children of the Belay’ saw the 28 children and grandchildren of the men he saved on K2 gather to honour him. Schoening passed away in 2004, at the age of 77.