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Last Updated: Friday, 30 July, 2004, 15:38 GMT 16:38 UK
Recalling epic K2 first ascent
By Alastair Lawson
BBC News Online South Asia

Lino Lacedelli on the summit
The achievement of the Italians rivals the first conquest of Everest (All photos courtesy of K2 2004 - 50 years later)
Over the years it has been called the mountain of mountains, the savage mountain and in more contemporary parlance, a death trap.

So perilous is K2, that Hollywood movies have been made that dramatically chronicle its perils.

Fifty years ago on 31 July, two Italian climbers, Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni, braved wind, rain and storm to climb the second highest - and arguably most dangerous - mountain in the world.

Their ascent was every bit as heroic as the conquest of Everest by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953.

Close run thing

At 8,150 metres, immediately below a 200m steep wall leading to the summit, four members of the Italian team faced an agonising decision.

Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni after the ascent

Their oxygen had run out, so should they carry on or do the sensible thing and descend?

In the event, Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni decided to go on and make history, while two others opted for the safer alternative.

But it was a close-run thing. The difficulties of breathing at such a high altitude and the fact that the weather was closing in made it a tough struggle for the exhausted pair.

They did not even have that much time to savour the experience. With visibility fast deteriorating, they were unable to stay on the summit for long.

Their descent resembles a cliff-hanging Boy's Own adventure story.

'Great experience'

One of the partners fell but saved himself falling thousands of metres by clinging on to the mountain-side with his ice axe.

The pair worked together to extricate themselves from their predicament and returned to base camp where members of their party greeted them with a mug of tea.

As part of the 50th anniversary celebrations, Mr Compagnoni returned to Pakistan.

"It was a great experience," he said.

Wading through a creek on the way back from K-2
The treacherous return from K2 in 1954

"We left Italy with a dream of conquering K2 and had lots of enthusiasm combined with a sense of foreboding over the dangers we might face.

"We knew it would not be easy, yet we were determined to see the challenge through to the bitter end.

"We stayed 70 days at base camp and of those at least 40 days were in bad weather.

"Although it was very hard not to lose hope at times, such was the high morale in our team we never stopped believing that eventually we would do it. Collaboration and teamwork were the keys to our success."

Fatality rates

For Mr Compagnoni, there was an additional source of pride at the 50th anniversary. His nephew, Michele Compagnoni, successfully scaled K2 on 26 July this year.

The scale of their achievement can easily be put in perspective.

Just 198 people have climbed the world's second highest peak, which stands 8,611 metres above sea level.

Of those, it's estimated that around 53 have died, making K-2's overall fatality rate over 26%.

Compare that to Mount Everest, which has been climbed close to 2,000 times. Of those around 179 people have perished - a fatality rate of around 9.3%.

The two Italian climbers succeeded in 1954 above all because they were well organised, fit and experienced.

The 10 Italians in the party all had to pass a strenuous medical test before going to Pakistan, which included time spent in a pressure chamber to see how they reacted physically and mentally to high altitudes.

It was obviously time well spent: such is the reputation of the mountain that it's arguable that climbers fear it more today than they did 50 years ago.

During the three years prior to the anniversary, it has not been climbed.


SEE ALSO:
Mountaineer postpones 14-peak challenge
09 May 03 |  North Yorkshire
Remembering climbing's unsung hero
02 Jul 03 |  South Asia
Hillary laments Everest changes
26 May 03 |  South Asia
In pictures: Ian Evans' favourites
21 Feb 03 |  Photo Gallery


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