Mount Everest may be the tallest mountain in the world, but K2 is the “most feared and respected,” said Graham Bowley in The New York Times. At 28,251 feet, the icy crag in the heart of the Karakoram Mountains, between Pakistan and China, falls just 778 feet short of Everest and is much steeper. “As perilous as it is beautiful,” K2 is also more deadly. For every four climbers who have reached its summit, one has died trying. Last year, 450 climbers reached the top of Everest. Not a soul summited K2. While Everest has been “largely demythologized” over the years, K2 remains a “distant and reclusive” beacon for those attracted to danger.
Nowhere near qualified to attempt K2’s summit, I hoped merely to tackle the 16,400-foot climb to base camp. That required a 27-hour trip by bus from Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, to Skardu, a “dusty town of bazaars, stores, and waterlogged polo fields grazed by cows.” This was the “main stop-off before the mountains.” As we ventured deeper into the rugged, white cliffs, we drove through villages where barefoot Balti children waved us on from mud huts. Caves high up on the hillsides, “like black eyes watching us,” warned of what was to come. From Paiju, the camp in the mountains where we would begin our trek, I caught my first glimpse of the ominous peak ahead. That night, our porters killed and cooked three goats for us in celebration.
The next morning, we began our punishing journey. The Baltoro Glacier cracked beneath my boots as we climbed along an “avenue of immense mountains.” Descending a hill too quickly, I dislocated my finger, but there was no turning back. It took days of grueling climbing in the cold just to reach the base camp, a mass of “multicolored tents on a long, gray spine of rocks.” But once there, looking up at K2’s “distant, jagged outline against the blue sky,” I realized the secret of its allure. In this “lonely vastness,” climbers come not just to marvel at nature but also “to explore themselves and their limits.” Standing near the Gilkey Memorial—a bare, rocky outcropping filled with the “icy graves” of those who’d aimed for the summit and failed—I was relieved my journey ended there.