Dateline 1902: First Attempt to Climb K2 PART I

Crowley and Eckenstein Lead Expedition To K2 Base

The official portrait of the 1902 K2 expedition. Climbers, from left to right, are Wessely, Eckenstein, Guillarmond, Crowley, Pfannl, and Knowles.

First Attempt to Climb an 8,000-Meter Peak

The first serious attempt to climb an 8,000-meter peak, one of the fourteen highest mountains in the world, was in 1895 by Albert Mummery, an Englishman who was one of the best alpinists in the world in the late 19th century. Mummery, with his partners, Norman Collie and Geoffrey Hastings, attempted to climb 26,658-foot (8,125-meter) Nanga Parbat, the ninth highest mountain, in a pure alpine style with no oxygen, no Sherpas.

The attempt ended when Mummery and two Gurkhas died in an avalanche.

First British Expedition to K2 in 1902

The next serious attempt on an 8,000-meter peak came seven years later when an international team, led by Oscar Eckenstein and Aleister Crowley, went to the Karakoram in Pakistan to try K2, the world's second highest summit, in 1902. Eckenstein was an experienced British mountaineer whose claim to fame was the design of lightweight flexible crampons and the short ice axe, both ancestors of today's modern ice tools. These new pieces of climbing equipment did not put Eckenstein in good stead with the conservative Alpine Club in Britain, who considered crampons to be a form of cheating-better to chop steps with an ice axe and risk life and limb.

Aleister Crowley: Climber and Satanist

Aleister Crowley was also a superb climber and well respected by his peers for his rock and mountain skills.

Crowley did, however, rub people the wrong way with his self-aggrandizement, liberal self-promotion, and excessive libertine ways. His motto was "Do what thou wilt," and Crowley followed that creed throughout his life. After his climbing days were over, Crowley became famous for satanic practices involving, of course, drugs and sex and was either praised for his individualism or cursed for his evil ways.

One newspaper even dubbed him "the wickedest man in the world." Crowley undoubtedly loved all the attention.

Small Climbing Team for K2

Eckenstein and Crowley came up with the plan to attempt K2, which was then called Chogo Ri, in 1900 while climbing Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihautl, a couple of 17,000-foot volcanos in Mexico. They failed on Ixtaccihautl after deviating and trying to climb Colima, an active volcano, but succeeded on Popo, which is now active. They put together a good but small team of international climbers, including Guy Knowles from Britain, Swiss doctor Jules Jacot Guillarmond, and a couple crack Austrian guides, H. Pfannl and V. Wesseley, and met in March, 1902 in India.

Party Heads North to Kashmir

The party headed north by train from Delhi into the unmapped regions of northern India in the Punjab Province to the remote outpost of Rawalpindi in today's Pakistan. Here they hired an army of porters to carry three tons of equipment and food. A snag, however, occurred as the party set north to the mountains. Oscar Eckenstein, the expedition's official leader, was arrested on the order of the Viceroy of India, who apparently had been told to stop the group from going to K2.

Aleister Crowley ignored the orders and, assuming leadership, led the expedition. Three weeks later Eckenstein was released and joined the group in Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir.

Crowley Keeps His Poetry Library

After Eckenstein rejoined the expedition, they continued north toward K2 through rough country which Crowley described as "Hideous heaps of shapeless drab." At Askhole, the last village before the high mountains, Eckenstein discovered that Crowley was packing a library of poetry books and suggested dumping them. Crowley wouldn't think of that, later writing, "I could not have stood on the Baltoro Glacier in the absence of Milton!" By late May the expedition included 225 porters besides the five climbers, along with a traveling menagerie of sheep, goats and chickens, and was slowly marching north toward the great mountain.

Read Dateline 1902: First Attempt to Climb K2 PART II for details on the five attempts made on the mountain and how lots of bad weather made lots of bad behavior, dooming the first K2 expedition to failure.