Early expeditions to K2 hoped to get close enough to paint it; the first documented assault, whose team included Aleister Crowley – ‘a flamboyant bisexual drug fiend with a penchant for the occult… not a typical 20th century mountaineer’ – was defeated by storms and life-threatening illness. The centrepiece is the fateful 1939 expedition led by Fritz Wiessner, the build-up to which reads like the opening chapters of an Agatha Christie, with its supporting cast of refugees, Nazi bankers, and men whose wealth was measured in boats. Four men died on that expedition – among them Dudley Wolfe, ‘the hermit of K2’, who proved better at going up mountains than he was at coming down – and the recriminations that followed soured into slow-burning hostilities still sparking into life half a century afterwards.
More expeditions followed, with controversy dogging even the successful assaults; the mountain claimed more lives, and the cairn memorialising those who have died on its peaks grows ever larger. Conefrey has a thriller-writer’s eye, capturing the tension of attempts to light a stove at 24,700 feet with only nine matches to hand, the hallucinations from a lack of oxygen, and the horrors of emergency dental work. A fine study of a deadly obsession.
THE GHOSTS OF K2: by Mick Conefrey; Oneworld; £20 (hardback)
This review was published in the January 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.