Book Talk: K2 – The Story of The Savage Mountain

Standing atop the Mt Haramukh in Kashmir on an assignment of the Trigonometric Survey of India to study heights in September 1886, Lt TG Montogomerie was rewarded with an outstanding view towards the north; where over 200 km away the then almost totally unknown Karakoram range stood imposing in a clear sky. Little did he know that his markings of the two most prominent peaks – labelled K1 and K2 by himself – would one day command prime attraction of the mountaineering world.

While K1, the peak with a distinctive double summit was subsequently popularised with its local name Masherbrum but the random mark applied by Montogomerie to the other distant triangular massif was retained as it is. In the years to come, this “Mountain of Mountains” massif, K2 became tantamount with adventure, exploration, difficulty, danger and impersonal savagery.

Written by Jim Curran, K2 the Story of the Savage Mountain was first published in the year 1995. Having won numerous awards, this bestseller traces the mountaineering history of the remote K2 and attempts to search for the common thread – laced with high adventure and exploration – that has been uniting all attempts to summit the peak for more than a century now. Himself a mountaineer, Curran happened to be the climbing cameraman on the British expedition in the tragic year of 1986 for K2. That year, after a long, terrible summer he was one of the few people left at base camp to witness the final tragedy when five climbers, including his friend Alan Rouse, perished in a storm high on the Abruzzi Ridge of K2. With the objective of making climbing safer and more practical, a debate followed worldwide to evaluate the rationing of human intervention in a fragile ecosystem up at such Himalayan heights.

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Not only had the year 1986 but with K2, tragic events on the Abruzzi Spur in 1939, 1953, 1954 and 1986 become subjects for intense discussion, speculation, disagreement and occasionally lifelong rancour. Circumstances governed by variables like the weather, human frailty, ambition and misjudgement had indeed produced epics of endurance, suffering and often, a stark tragedy. Although Mt K2, the highest peak in the Karakoram Range, falls 784 ft short of Mt Everest, it is far harder to climb and has claimed more casualties as compared to success. Even as this book was being published in 1995, seven more people had died in a freak storm on K2. The author has masterfully highlighted the commonness in all such attempts.

Starting from Montogomerie to the contribution of Godwin Austen and Francis Younghusband to giving due thought to the prevailing politics and spying on newer and derelict trade routes to Mustagh Pass, Curran retraces nearly everything known. The arrival of the Duke of Abruzzi in 1909 along with the legendary mountain photographer Sella at the base camp of K2 is also presented in an enthusiastic manner. From Wiessner and Durrance’s attempts to the first casualties in 1939, Charles Houston, Bob Bates, the tragic end of Art Gilkey in 1953, Ricardo Cassin and Desio to other important mentions including the colossal expeditions involving more than 1500 porters have been given their due share; all of which contributed to popularise climbing at K2.

After the first successful summit attempt at the K2 in 1954, attention in the Karakoram focused on the superb collection of spectacular but lower peaks scattered right across the range. The Mustagh Tower, Gasherbrum IV, Gasherbrum II, Broad Peak, Hidden Peak and Rakaposhi were becoming major scalps. Names like Uli Biaho, Paiju, Trango Tower, the Ogre and the Latoks epitomised the huge potential of the area. After a decade of inactivity, in 1970s the range became climbing hotspot again with world’s top class climbers like Reinhold Messner, Peter Habeler, Bonington, Doug Scott, et al making their efforts through a different route to the summit of K2.

In writing this book, Jim Curran, has lucidly achieved three objectives of much value to mountain enthusiasts: First, he makes available a well-organized mass of history on K2. Second, his text introduces a powerful cautionary element badly needed for future visitors to the mountain. And third, he supplies a great deal of statistical data not previously available in any one volume on K2. K2: The Story of the Savage Mountain would appeal equally to a mountain climber, Himalayan expert or a layman. The maps, sketches and tabular data mentioned at the end are quite useful. The book has some well-captioned photographs as well. With 255 pages, the current edition of the book continues to be unfortunately out of print. I bought this edition from an online store in UK.

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