» » K2: The 1939 Tragedy/the Full Story of the Ill-Fated Wiessner Expedition

Download K2: The 1939 Tragedy/the Full Story of the Ill-Fated Wiessner Expedition epub

by William Lowell Putnam,Andrew J. Kaufman

Describes the events of the 1939 American expedition to K2 in the Himalayas that led to the expedition's failure and the deaths of three guides and an expedition member
Download K2: The 1939 Tragedy/the Full Story of the Ill-Fated Wiessner Expedition epub
ISBN: 0898863236
ISBN13: 978-0898863239
Category: History
Subcategory: Asia
Author: William Lowell Putnam,Andrew J. Kaufman
Language: English
Publisher: Mountaineers Books (August 1, 1992)
Pages: 224 pages
ePUB size: 1889 kb
FB2 size: 1546 kb
Rating: 4.1
Votes: 267
Other Formats: mbr rtf mobi lrf

While "disaster" may be more usually applied to events which take the lives of more than the few people who climb mountains in any given expedition, the word seems well-applied to Weissner's 1939 expedition to K2. In light of more recent understanding about altitude sickness and the pernicious effects of "thin air" on rational function the description of this expedition's strategy for summitting and the sheer number of days members of this party spent at what we would now call killing altitudes boggles the mind.
The 1939 K2 expedition remains a milestone in the mountaineering literature for the cautionary tale it represents. Reading about the differences between challenging a mountain then versus challenging a mountain now is fascinating. Especially interesting to me was the discussion of how only newly available information illuminates one of the critical controversies surrounding the expedition.
An absorbing review of the facts and circumstances surrounding the tragic 1939 K2 expedition and its aftermath. Weaving a newly discovered, first hand account by one of the expeditioners, with already known, heretofore, controversial historical data from others on the expedition, the authors masterfully reconstruct the events which led to the deaths of four individuals, three Sherpas and one American, on K2 in the wild Karakoram range.

After many weeks in the mountains, overcome by altitude sickness and inexperience, only three members of the expedition are physically able or willing to push on to the summit. The only ones so inclined are its expedition leader, Fritz Wiessner, the rich American who bankrolled part of the expedition, Dudley Wolfe, and the plucky Sherpa porter, Pasang Lama.

Dudley Wolfe, with whom Fritz Wiessner seems to have developed a client-guide relationship, is unable to continue past camp VIII, limited by his own inexperience. Fritz, a superb climber, continue along towards the summit with Pasang Lama. They set up Camp IX and continue on towards the summit, where they manages to make it up to within 8oo feet of the summit. There, the plucky Pasang Lama is unable to continue. They decide to return to Camp IX with the intention of resting and returning the next day for a new assault on the summit.

It was not to be. On their descent, they lost their crampons. After they rested in Camp IX, they realized that they needed more supplies, so they went down to Camp VIII. There they found Dudley, but no new supplies had been brought up from the lower camps. So, they all decide to go down to Camp VII to investigate and restock.

On the way down, Dudley's inexperience causes them to have an accident on the ropes. They fall but manage to survive. Pasang Lama, however, is seriously injured, and the sleeping bag and air mattress that Dudley carried is lost to the mountain. Fritz, having left his bedding in Camp IX, expecting to find some in the lower camps, is disappointed when they manage to reach camp VII, only to find it in disarray and stripped of all bedding and sleeping bags! Remarkably, both Dudley and Fritz had by this time spent nearly a month in the dead zone without supplementary oxygen. Therein lies the tale.

Read on! The account is at times mesmerizing. This remarkably well researched chronicle manages to paint a riveting picture of the the travails of this expedition from its confused beginnings to its tragic end. It shows what can happen when all members of the expedition are clearly not on the same page.
Full disclosure: Oliver Eaton (Tony) Cromwell was my grandfather. I grew up in Europe in the 60's spending winters with him in Zermatt, and as a young officer commanding a border camp spent quite a bit of time with him in the 70's and early 80's when he moved to Interlaken before he and Georgia's death in the mid-80's. He willed me his personal notes and book collection.

The book is an excellent study in leadership or the lack thereof. The strength of the work is its focus on the personalities and the authors do a very nice job, presenting some interesting information re: Weissner, Durrance, Cromwell and the others members as well. After reading "K2: the 1939 Tragedy", you would be well served if you read "Last Man on the Mountain".

The authors appear to make a real effort to avoid biases. They do a very nice job of helping the reader understand the relative backgrounds of the tream members. In the attempt, four people died, one of which was Wolfe, the other three were Sherpa's, who died heroically trying to bring Wolfe down, for which role they were not trained, equipped or being paid to do. While there is plenty of blame to go around, Wolfe's death needs to be laid at Weissner's feet.

Something touched on but not really explored is that as Kaufman noted, Cromwell - at least in terms of quantity (Weissner was undoubtedly more skilled) - had more experience than anyone except Weissner -there's at least one mountain named after him (Mt. Cromwell) in Canada. Cromwell was also mature (47-the rest were MUCH younger) and well-educated and again, as Kaufman notes, discussed with Weissner his (Cromwell's) concern about prolonged exposure to high altitude for human health and performance - which is why Cromwell made it clear from the very beginning that he would be glad to join the K2 expedition - help lead the effort - and help fund the effort ($1,700 then was like $45,000 today) - but that he was not interested in going any higher than the base camp. Cromwell, with decades of experience, had a better perspective on maintaining health than the younger men - who had the approach that they would simply "gut thru" any discomfort - which is fine for an afternoon's climb but not so practical for weeks on end. Cromwell's personal observations re: prolonged exposure to high altitudes was not widely accepted until much later - and Weissner and the younger member simply paid it no attention. As Kaufman notes, Weissner subscribed to the opposite theory that remaining at extremely high altitudes allowed the human body to gradually adjust - something we now know to be untrue - with significant impact on the expedition.

The author's comments re: the Counsul's observation that Weissner's characteristic central European "bluntness" did not wear well with the American's is spot-on. That characteristic has softened a bit since WWII, but it's still a valid observation - and is especially true for central and east Europeans. It's quite possible for an eastern German to completely offend an American/Englishman without realizing that his form of address is the culprit. "K2: the 1939 Tragedy" does a good job of exploring the impact of the different cultures- western and Sherpa - on the actions that ultimately doomed the 1939 expedition.

Cromwell was a seasoned, experienced, mature mountaineer, who found that Weissner`s unwillingness to accept any team input other than money and physical labor (ie. Weissner refused to even appear to consider ANY advice Cromwell tried to give him, be it mountaineering, or the best approaches for leading Americans, and then tried to order him up K2 after promising him that he would ONLY be the base camp commander - health concerns be damned) - put the expedition at risk, with tragic consequences. As the authors note: the American's essentially mentally "checked out" with regard to Weissner - they were perfectly happy as long as he was anywhere but where they were.