Book Review: The Ghosts of K2-the Epic Saga of the First Ascent

Amongst the general public, Mount Everest will always be “the mountain” – a place that is fascinating and amazing. However, among mountaineers, “the mountain” will always be K2. This is no slight to Everest – it will always be one of the seven summits, and it will always be the world’s tallest mountain. But in 2015, while Mount Everest remains a challenge because it is the tallest mountain on the planet, it also is a place where many of the challenges have been minimized due to the proliferation of professional guide services, and “mountain tourism”. While K2 has experienced some of the changes in the field of mountaineering, even today it remains one of the most dangerous climbs a mountaineer can undertake.

At 28, 251 feet, K2 is the second tallest mountain on the planet, and in the field of mountaineering, it is still considered one of the top – if not the top technical climbs on the planet. For most of the twentieth century, and into the twenty-first century, K2 had one of the highest death rates amongst climbers, and for a brief period of time, had the highest, at a rate of one in four mountaineers attempting the mountain. It is against this backdrop – the difficult technical aspects of the mountain – and the mystique and mystery of its history that Mick Conefrey has written a new book, The Ghosts of K2. Mr. Conefrey’s book has a narrow focus of the expeditions that attempted to climb the mountain beginning in 1902 that ultimately culminated with the successful Lacedelli and Compagnoni ascent in 1954.

From the beginning of the book, Conefrey does an excellent job focusing the reader’s attention on the serious risks that have surrounded K2 by focusing on the Gilkey Memorial near the mountain. From this point on, while the risks that the various expeditions faced are never overly accentuated, they are foremost in the reader’s mind, which is appropriate, because as George Bell noted, K2 “is a savage mountain that tries to kill you”. As K2 is not as popular a mountain as Everest, some of the more interesting details surrounding the early expeditions have been lost to popular culture, and mountaineering culture, which are again brought to the fore by the excellent research and writing of Conefrey.

For example, even though I am an experienced mountaineer, and have a great knowledge of mountaineering history, I had forgotten that the 1902 expedition to climb K2 was led in part by Aleister Crowley, who was among other things, a noted aficionado of all relating to the occult. Conefrey expertly details the failings of this initial expedition in 1902, and documents the early naiveté that Crowley and his team had about such a climb. After detailing such failings, Conefrey moves on to more familiar ground in the mountaineering world in discussing the details of the Duke of Abruzzi’s expedition, along with its ultimate failure as well. From the Abruzzi expedition, Conefrey transitions to a subject that as an American climber, I found fascinating, the details surrounding the 1938 and 1939 American Alpine expeditions with Charlie Houston and Fritz Wiessner. These expeditions have, among the American mountaineering community had a great deal of significance, in part due to the later controversies that arose with Wiessner’s leadership of the 1939 K2 expedition that lingered well into the 1980’s.

The author of the Ghosts of K2: the Epic Saga of the First Ascent, Mick Conefrey in the Himalayas

In this regard, as he does in the book as a whole, Conefrey adroitly manages to cover the historical context of the expeditions, and the various backstories behind the personalities at issue, while at the same time discussing the technical aspects of the climbs. In preparing to write the book, Conefrey had access to many of the climber’s diaries – source material, which is in some respects – unprecedented access. In addition to this, Conefrey was also able to interview some of the surviving members of the twentieth century expeditions, along with their families. This research – along with Conefrey’s succinct yet descriptive style allow him to weave a compelling narrative not just about the 1938-1939 American expeditions, but about the early expedition histories of K2 as a whole. This narrative, from the 1902 expedition through the 1954 first summit, allows the reader to remain engaged with the human personalities within the mountaineering community in the twentieth century, while also remaining engaged with the technical challenges that the mountain provided – and does provide to this day.

This point is something that should not be understated in Conefrey’s work. Mountaineering is a tricky subject, in that for non-mountaineers, there are many technical terms and aspects that the sport contains that may seem esoteric. Similarly, for mountaineers, these technical terms if used incorrectly demonstrate that an author does not know his subject. Fortunately for Conefrey, his book ably strides the line between providing too much technical information and demonstrating a knowledge of the sport. In this regard, Conefrey also is able to discuss an issue in a historical context that is still relevant today – when to turn around on a high peak. In this regard, Conefrey provides excellent historical advice from veteran climbers that is still relevant today in this quote from Charlie Houston, “…We lived to climb again, for many years…in true mountaineering, the summit is not everything, it is only part”.

As today K2 remains more popular than it has ever been, Conefrey’s book is topical in providing a solid window into its past, in order that people can understand the history of the mountain, and the challenges that the mountaineering community faced as a whole in attempting to climb it. In my opinion, The Ghosts of K2 is an excellent addition to the growing twenty-first century field of mountaineering literature, and is a must read for anyone considering climbing the mountain, in order that they may understand the challenges that others have faced, and that they will face. The Ghosts of K2 is also an excellent read for those not considering climbing the mountain, in that it also provides an excellent historical account of the climbs and expeditions through accessible and well-written prose. If you are interested in reading the book, it will be available from November 10, 2015 onward.

Disclaimer:  I was provided a preview copy of the novel to review in advance of the November 10, 2015 release date. While I was not compensated for this review other than being provided with the book, readers should be aware of the underlying arrangement that exists, and know that the opinions provided herein regarding this product are based solely on my experience reading the book, which I did enjoy immensely.