Camp VIII, K2, August 6, 1953

All they needed were three good days. Three days without winds strong enough to blow them off the mountainside. Three days without those tiny ice crystals that filled the air so thoroughly they had to cover their mouths with a mitten to breathe. Three days of weather clear enough to see the route between their lonely tents and the top of the second-highest mountain on Earth.

K2, second-highest mountain on Earth, rises more than 5 miles above sea level.
K2, second-highest mountain on Earth, rises more than 5 miles above sea level.

On the afternoon of August 6, 1953, Charlie Houston knew those three days might not come soon enough. He was a doctor in his other life, 7,000 miles away in New Hampshire. Now, in the relative shelter of their tents, he examined his climbing partners one by one. When he made George Bell take his boots off, he could see that two toes were starting to blacken from frostbite. Bob Craig didn’t look much better. There were nasty spots on his heels, the first sign that ice crystals were forming in the flesh. Dee Molenaar was struggling, too. He had lost at least 30 pounds since leaving home three months ago. He had a painful sore throat, and his right foot had turned blue and itchy in places.

Outside the tents, the wind howled. Snow blew sideways through the air. Fresh white powder piled up on the mountainside. Some slopes held tons of the stuff, ready to avalanche thousands of feet to the valley with one misplaced boot. Climbing was out of the question. During the worst of the storm, just walking from tent to tent felt like too big a risk.

Camp VIII, high above the highway-like tracks of two glaciers.
Camp VIII, high above the highway-like tracks of two glaciers.

It was maddening, really. Twice before, Houston had been within a day’s climb of one of Earth’s highest summits. And still he hadn’t made it.

Now he was within reach again. For six days the team had been camped on a shoulder of the mountain known as K2. They were eight men packed into three tents, 25,000 feet above the Asian nation of Pakistan.

Three thousand feet above them stood the summit. No one on Earth had ever set foot there. Seven weeks of painstaking work had gotten them to this nearly level sliver of ground. But once they arrived, the sky had closed in on them.

Day after day, blizzard conditions hid both the summit above and the valley below. They still had radio contact with Base Camp. But that weak voice scratching through their speaker was the only sign of the world below. Otherwise, it felt to Houston like they were the only people in existence.

Some days had been so brutal they’d barely left their sleeping bags. But even then, the cold stalked them. It forced its way through the tent walls, through the insulated down bags, through layers of wool and cotton and nylon. No matter how deep they burrowed, they never got warm.

They did what they could to keep from going crazy with boredom. Sometimes, Houston’s longtime friend and climbing partner, Bob Bates, read to the rest of them. Sometimes they just lay there while the wind-whipped tent walls slapped at their shoulders and heads.

Mostly, they planned their push to the summit.

The day before, on August 5, they had picked the summit teams by secret vote—two pairs of climbers who would set out as soon as the weather broke. Both teams were prepared never to reveal that they had been to the top of the world. If they succeeded, the expedition’s official announcement would say only, “Two men reached the top.” Houston wanted the entire team to get credit.

The team, with the flag they hoped to place on the summit. Left to right: Bob Bates, Tony Streather, Charlie Houston, Dee Molenaar, George Bell, Bob Craig.
The team, with the flag they hoped to place on the summit. Left to right: Bob Bates, Tony Streather, Charlie Houston, Dee Molenaar, George Bell, Bob Craig.

It was the way he had planned it from the start. To Houston, climbing was teamwork—”the fellowship of the rope,” he called it. On the mountain, they climbed tied together at the waist, bound in a partnership. If one climber fell, the other could be swept a mile down a mountainside to his death. Or he could save his partner’s life with an ice axe, jammed into the snow at the last possible moment. The climbers held each other’s lives in hand. They succeeded together or failed together.

Too often it didn’t happen that way. Fourteen years earlier, just a few hundred feet below Houston’s high camp, an American climber named Dudley Wolfe lay in a tent, alone and dying. His expedition had fallen apart. Most of the party sat at Base Camp, recovering from exhaustion and altitude sickness. In the chaos, Wolfe had been left behind. Three climbers from Nepal struggled back up the mountain and tried to reach him in a howling storm. The four men were never seen again.

By 1953, all trace of Wolfe’s final camp had been swept from the mountain. But no one in Houston’s expedition had forgotten his story.

When Houston’s team began to poke their heads outside the tents on August 7, the weather looked promising. The wind had calmed a bit. Skies were overcast, but the clouds hung high. Visibility was good enough for climbing. The mountain, it seemed, had finally given them a break.

In the morning light, the men began to stumble around in the snow. To Houston they looked like castaways from a shipwreck just reaching shore.

Bob Craig emerged from his tent. If the weather held, it looked like he and Pete Schoening, the youngest of them all, might make a dash for the summit.

Craig was standing outside his tent, fumbling with his camera, when he saw Art Gilkey come out into the light. More than anyone else on the team, Gilkey had his heart set on reaching the top of K2. He’d been complaining of leg cramps for a couple of days, but he’d proven himself strong enough to be voted onto the second summit team.

Craig was about to snap a photo when Gilkey stumbled and collapsed in the snow.

The climbers made their way to their fallen teammate as fast as they could. It looked like Gilkey had passed out for a moment, but he lifted his head and said, “I’m all right. It’s just my leg, that’s all.

In fact, he was far from all right.

They pulled Gilkey up and half dragged him back into his tent. Houston helped him peel off a couple of layers of clothing and did not like what he saw. Gilkey’s left ankle was red, swollen, and painful to the touch. The skin felt warm.

Gilkey looked at Houston hopefully. “It’s sure to clear up in another day, isn’t it?”

Houston could hear the doubt in his climbing partner’s voice. There may have been a hint of desperation, too. Mumbling some words of reassurance, Houston wrapped both of Gilkey’s calves tightly. Then he excused himself and went back to the others to report the bad news.

Gilkey, Houston said, had developed clots in the veins of his left calf, blocking his circulation. Even with perfect blood flow, the extreme cold put limbs at risk. Without it, Gilkey’s leg was in dire trouble. “What’s more,” Houston went on, “sometimes bits of clot break off and are carried to the lungs. At sea level, it’s often fatal. Up here…” Houston trailed off, not wanting to finish the thought.

It was every climber’s nightmare, becoming disabled near the top of a mountain. And the moment it became apparent was full of unasked questions. If Gilkey truly couldn’t climb, there was only one way for him to get down: Houston, Bates, and the others would have to carry him. That was a task that would put each of them near the edge of death.

No humans had ever spent this much time this high above sea level and survived. For a week now, they had been on the edge of what climbers call the Death Zone. As a doctor, Houston knew exactly what that meant. For seven days they had been breathing air without enough oxygen in it. Their bodies and their brains were slowly dying. Every step took extreme effort. The simplest decisions required intense concentration.

Each climber barely had the strength to be responsible for himself. How could they possibly get Art Gilkey down alive?