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The greatest mountaineering story ever told

Femaelstrom
Alison Osius
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Alison Osius
ALL |

Walk down the stairs, over a musically trickling white-and-blue “crevasse” under a plexiglass sheath, and there it is: the most revered ice axe in the world.

I stepped across the room to its case, at the new Bradford Washburn American Mountaineering Museum, in Golden, and stared, bizarrely surprised to see nicks in the wooden shaft, as if I expected them to have healed themselves. Because the axe represents magic, the greatest mountain story of them all.

In 1953 Dr. Charles Houston, Art Gilkey, Bob Craig, George Bell, Dee Molenaar, Tony Streather, Bob Bates and Pete Schoening attempted to climb K2 (28,253), the world’s second-highest mountain, in Pakistan. The climbers reached over 25,000 feet, but were pinned, tentbound, by a violent storm. After nine days, Gilkey, 27, collapsed, unable to stand.



Houston determined that Gilkey had altitude-induced blood clotting in his leg, potentially fatal if a clot reached his lungs. His only chance was evacuation from Camp VIII, even in a blizzard.

The crew wrapped Gilkey in a sleeping bag and tent, and tried to rope-lower him down the route they had climbed, but were thwarted by avalanche danger.



The next afternoon, reaching 24,700 feet on unknown terrain down a ridge, the men gained a steep gully leading to Camp VII. Schoening was lowering Gilkey, using his axe, driven behind a boulder, as an anchor. The rope ran over the boulder, around the axe and around his waist to his hand. Craig had moved to Camp VII to set up two tents.

All were exhausted by effort and altitude, when Bell slipped. He pulled Streather down onto the rope between Houston and Bates, knocking them off their feet, then Streather hit Molenaar. As careened toward a drop-off, their weight came across Gilkey ” and the rope to Schoening.

Schoening stood his ground and held the fall, watching the rope stretch, narrow, and then stop.

Houston was knocked out, three others injured. Craig, Bates and Streather anchored Gilkey on the slope, and helped set up the tents to regroup. When two returned for Gilkey, he was gone, apparently swept away in an avalanche.

Ironically, had Gilkey not been taken, the others would probably all have died trying to get him down.

I was fortunate, over 20 years ago, to see a slide show by Houston, who said, “We never considered leaving him.” Gilkey, he said, never complained, saying only, “Oh, I’m fine.”

Over the years a question arose, becoming one of the mysteries of mountaineering.

Charles Houston said in an interview in 2004: “I think it’s more than likely that Art Gilkey, knowing that we were hurt, knowing that we would never leave him, and knowing that we probably couldn’t get him down … wiggled himself loose, and gave up his life to save ours.”

That seemed implausible, but I wasn’t there. It was, anyway, a lovely question.

It was answered for me a few weeks ago, when I saw Bob Craig, an old friend who used to live in this valley, and asked him the story.

Craig remembered anchoring Gilkey in with his and Streather’s axes.

“I don’t think that Art could have pulled himself up and released himself,” Craig said. “I certainly think he had those instincts, but the axes were quite a bit up the slope, and he was in a very weakened condition.” He thinks Gilkey was carried away; several avalanche runnels from the long ice slope above had been releasing sluffs all day.

Craig said his axe was about 30 feet above the stretcher; Streather’s, about 25. Surely an ill man could not pull himself upward 30 feet. Both axes were gone, found lower, near the top of a precipitous face. Gilkey’s remains were finally found in 1993, at the bottom of the mountain.

What really remains of the story is the tale of closeness and solidarity in great danger. Houston concluded, “We all returned the very best of friends, and we remain the best of friends to this day.”

Alison Osius lives in Carbondale. For information on the American Mountaineering Museum, see http://www.bwamm.org.


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