Article: In the Name of the Father

In 1995 Peter Hillary turned his back on a climb of the world’s second highest mountain, the notorious K2. He was just a few hundred metres from the summit. This is the story of how he made that decision, and why, and the ferocious storm that nearly defeated him on his descent. He survived, but the storm claimed the lives of seven others he’d been climbing with.

In the Name of the Father

By Peter Hillary

A year before I left for the K2 expedition I wrote about the challenge that lay ahead. It’s an interesting exercise as it is an opportunity to measure expectation against the events that transpire.

To climb K2 is to make the ultimate ascent. This is the most difficult of the world’s highest mountains and its steep pyramidal profile has become a symbol for achievement.

Reaching the summit of K2 will be the crowning moment after months of determined climbing, following carefully-made strategies and backed up by solid teamwork. K2 will not yield that fleeting moment for success without our total dedication and a preparedness by each climber to put himself on the line.

Even as I write this now, with the expedition a year away, I feel fear; a growing anxiety over the monumental challenge that lies ahead. That’s good. If you don’t know fear, then you haven’t challenged yourself. And you haven’t really lived.

There will be times when the fear is so great that there will be an overwhelming desire to flee to more familiar climes. But it is the fear that raises the ante and makes the summit even sweeter. Let me tell you, there’s nothing like the retrospective pleasure of “We knocked the bastard off”. (These were the words my father, Sir Edmund Hillary, used to tell his longtime climbing friend, George Lowe, who was waiting for him on the South Col at 8000 metres, that they had successfully climbed Everest for the first time in 1953.)

Home again and it is time to reflect, for although we shared “teamwork, dedication, and a preparedness to put ourselves on the line”, we got to know fear and the awesome power of nature far more than I would have liked, let alone anticipated.

At noon on the 13 August there were eight climbers between 8200 and 8300 metres ascending slowly up the Bottle Neck ice gully and out across the terrifyingly-exposed traverse above K2’s vast South Face, which is three and a half kilometres high. The summit lay enticingly above.

Geoff Lakes before the storm on K2, 1995I was troubled by the weather. An ominous bank of cloud had blanketed western China and had drifted up against the northern boundary of the Karakoram Range. The northerly wind was driving towers of rising cloud up over K2, and as it drifted over the summit, periodically obliterating my view of the mountain, it would sweep the flanks with showers of falling snow. I needed to make a decision as the weather seemed to be worsening. I looked down to where Jeff Lakes was climbing up towards me and then up the gully above to where Bruce Grant and five other climbers from Spain, the United States and the United Kingdom were moving slowly in the rarified atmosphere. Some of them had halted at the top of the Bottle Neck, and I wondered if they too were reconsidering because of the bad weather.

Jeff cut a platform for his pack and sat down upon it; we shared drinks from our thermoses, and from time to time we discussed our predicament. Looking up through a clearance in the cloud we could see that the others had gone on as they filed out across the notorious traverse. It seemed as if none of them had the energy to climb as they all leaned against the ice-face motionless, and then one by one they would climb up a couple of moves upward. Someone called down to us. It was a woman’s voice. Alison Hargreaves encouraged us to follow. “Come on up. Use the red rope.”

Ten minutes later I had made up my mind. I tried logically to assess the situation but in my altitude-debilitated condition, nothing seemed clear-cut and with the others continuing above, I wondered if they knew something I didn’t. After all, going up meant you had a chance of reaching the summit of K2, whereas going back down was failure.

A little voice spoke softly and clearly within me. Sometimes it whispers and is too often ignored, however, that intuitive part of our intellect is remarkable in its capacity to assess an overall feeling for situations, predicaments and relationships. My intuition said go down; go down now.

I told Jeff what I had decided to do. He eventually decided he would go on for a short time, just to see if things improved. I gave him my radio and set off down into the thickening cloud and promptly became lost on what was to be a frightening and very lonely descent.

At 5 pm, as I clipped into the ropes at the top of the Black Pyramid, a great bank of steep rock and plummeting ice-gullies dived like huge funnels to the foot of the mountain 7,000 feet below. The storm had struck. The wind threw me off my feet and swung me on the rope against the ice-wall at the top of the Pyramid. “This is how it happens,” I thought, thinking of mortality. “I must concentrate on the rope and my figure 8 descender device and nothing else”. Snow and wind thrashed the mountain as I painstakingly abseiled down the Black Pyramid trying to block out my fear of the storm raging about me. Concentrate, concentrate, concentrate!

At 7.30 pm I reached the tiny ledges where our Camp 2 tents were pitched and tied down with old climbing ropes to prevent them from being blown off in storms. I called down hoping Kim and Matt would be there. Kim shouted back and then told me that Bruce had reached the summit an hour before. There was no jubilation among us for we all knew they were out on a very long limb.

I was exhausted as I had been climbing for 20 hours. I crawled into my tent that was being lashed by the screaming winds and wriggled into my sleeping bag fully dressed. All my climbing equipment was laid out around me in case I needed it during the night for we half expected the tents to be shredded by the storm.

By 8 am the next day the storm had passed and we found ourselves presented with a magnificent day; blue skies, a gentle northerly breeze and fabulous views across western China and the Karakoram mountains. We longed to hear the clanking sound of mountaineering equipment as our friends abseiled down the Black Pyramid or even call down to us, “Put a brew on, ya buggers.”

There was only silence and the sunshine, and the blue sky seemed a cynical finale to the horror of the previous night’s storm.

Seven people died on K2.

What would it have been like up there? Imagine yourself in a large commercial freezer; its minus 40 degrees, there’s a 747 engine at one end of the freezer, blasting freezing air at you at 300, perhaps 400 kilometres per hour. Tilt the entire freezer on to a 50 degree angle, so that you are clawing with your ice-axes and the crampons on your boots to secure purchase. Bear in mind that at over 8,000 metres there is less than one third the amount of oxygen in the air as at sea level and your lungs are heaving with a wild rate of hyperventilation that is only sufficient to enable you to move at a snail’s pace; your circulation is impaired by the acclimatisation process and the cold is eating into your toes and fingertips. Now turn off the light.

That is what it was like on K2.