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The Endless Knot: An excerpt from the action

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Kurt Diemberger

The Endless Knot is a harrowing account of the 1986 K2 disaster. A rare first-hand account from a survivor at the very epicentre of the drama, The Endless Knot describes the disaster in frank detail. Kurt Diemberger's account of the final days of success, accident, storm and escape during which five climbers died, including his partner Julie Tullis and the great British mountaineer Al Rouse, is lacerating in its sense of tragedy, loss and dogged survival.

Below is an excerpt from the book, to give you a taste of the emotion and drama involved in this epic tale. At this stage in the story, Kurt is high on the mountain and they have not yet summitted.


The China Wind is blowing! Its whisper along the snow rim, through the undulating formations which air turbulence has created almost everywhere on the surface of the Shoulder, sounds like a reassuring voice. ‘Luck will go with you’ – it says – ‘Tomorrow you will go to the top.’

Yes, we’ve calmed down again. They’ve possibly reckoned with a bivouac up there. That must be it, otherwise they would have already turned back. After all, the weather is beautiful!

Out in the distance, far away, Nanga Parbat has appeared, immediately to the side of the SSW Ridge of K2. Considerably closer, in the same direction, just beyond the Baltoro Glacier, soars the Matterhorn-shape of Masherbrum, 7,821 metres high.

Julie and I have now reached Alan and Mrufka again. They have set up their tent on a moderate incline below a somewhat steeper slope – just within calling distance of the plateau above, at the edge of which the Korean tent can be seen standing. But I want to get up there – if the China Wind blows up more strongly, the Korean tent will offer a sort of windbreak for our small shelter. I wish Alan had set himself up there as well: it would make it easier for a common start tomorrow. Well, we can always shout! Was it Mrufka who chose this place, I wonder? She always has firm ideas about things. Perhaps she ruled out settling on the plateau because of the huge ice balcony which hangs above it from the summit face? Or did Alan want to be closer to the exit route through the Ring Wall? All he will say in response to my question is a laconic ‘I like it better here ... '

And Mrufka? While she is tightening the guys of the British two-man tent, her keen eyes repeatedly turn towards the summit. She is small and delicate like an ant, busy like an ant … yes, and as obstinate, too (that’s something we have in common). This time the mercurial, energetic ‘Ant’ – in 1984 we often used to rock-and-roll together in our ‘glacier disco’ at 5,000 metres – is absolutely set on reaching the summit. Her expression is cheerful enough – but it masks strong determination. The summit of Nanga Parbat escaped her by only a few metres. She has no intention of letting that happen a second time!

Briefly we discuss arrangements for tomorrow with Alan, then we plod up the slope to the Korean tent.

While everybody on the Shoulder is preparing for a summit attack, 3,000 metres further down in the K2 Base Camp Alan’s friend, Jim Curran, the British cameraman, is enduring considerable heartache over the way things are going on the mountain. ‘Four days up and two down,’ Alan had told him. A feasible estimate, if somewhat optimistic for a mountaineer who is carting everything he needs for a summit attack on his own shoulders up the full length of the Abruzzi Ridge. This was on 29 July – and in the evening of the same day Alan had started out with Mrufka. Since then, Jim has been trying in his mind to follow Alan’s ascent; it is true there is a Korean radio link between the Abruzzi Spur and Base Camp, but because of language difficulties Jim seems unable to get in touch with his friend or to leave messages for him.

He is, however, in contact with the Poles; their leader Janusz Majer has put Jim personally in charge of the walkie-talkie connection between Base Camp and the SSW Ridge. Julie and I don’t know yet that the Poles’ summit assault on their ‘Magic Line’ is in full swing (Reinhold Messner’s projected route, with a different upper section). There has been no news of its progress, but Alan must have been aware of Jim’s unexpected com­mission: ‘ … to act as Base Camp Manager, and more important, maintain radio contact each evening with their team … Weather forecasts each evening could be picked up from Radio Pakistan. We also arranged to open up the radio at eight each morning in case any message was necessary’ is how he was later to outline his role in his book K2, Triumph and Tragedy. Radio Pakistan may or may not have proved helpful as regards the weather outlook, but Jim himself was a careful observer, as his notes describing these days reveal. Whether his conjectures were on target and whether or not his worries well founded – no doubt they carried the usual uncertainty inherent in all weather forecasting – none of us were in a position to judge, because up where we were we heard nothing from him. How much Jim agonised only appears from his tape recordings. So, for instance, 2 August seems to him ‘to have been a perfect summit day’ for Alan, yet at the same time Jim has the greatest misgivings for the day after that, should Alan be late … ‘I very much fear that the weather may be deteriorating and by tomorrow be bad again’, he confides to his recorder with his next breath. The 2nd was the day we reached the Shoulder. Around us the China Wind was blowing – the fine weather wind.

Had we had any worries (then or later), any concern over the weather, we could easily have asked the Koreans for a walkie-talkie connection to Base Camp. Jim’s silent reservations were no help to anybody on the Shoulder.

Not far from the gently rounded rim of the plateau Julie and I have trodden down a patch of snow to make a platform for our parapluie in the wind-shadow of the Korean tent. By ramming our ski-sticks deeply into the snow (we won’t be needing them any more, higher up), we anchor the little French wonder. Its intense red shines cheekily in the sun. The snow piton we brought up from Camp 3 serves as another anchor, and then, near the ground, we connect our ‘umbrella’ to the massive dark blue dome of the Koreans at two points. How high are we? It’s difficult to say, given the strongly differing figures quoted for altitudes on this mountain – around the 8,000-metre level at any rate. Judging by the scenery, we are not far from where Walter Bonatti’s bivouac site must have been. In 1954 he spent an icy night in a snow scoop with the Hunza Mahdi, after the two of them (together with Eric Abram) had carried up oxygen destined for the summit assault of Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni. Their tiny shelter was somewhat higher than this, further up on a rocky step.

We’ve plunged our two ice-axes in the snow of the narrow space between the two tents, and attached to them our crampons and karabiners. Julie crawls into the tent, and I pass to her the short yellow mats (we have halved a normal one) which insulate against cold and humidity, then the rope, the rucksacks … Astonished, I suddenly notice that one of the Koreans is starting to descend. The two Hunza lads are already off. What’s the matter? Has a new walkie-talkie directive of Kim’s arrived from Base Camp? With the Koreans, so it seems to me, all goes according to plan. And now? The Korean waves to me as he leaves the tent.

‘No summit?’ I ask him. ‘Not possible. Three climbers in this tent. No space …’ is his answer. Was there a note of regret? He says it with a smile and shrugs his shoulders. Then he plods down along the wide white curve towards Camp 3.

So then, there are three Koreans in this tent – and they ‘attack’ tomorrow. Curlyhead is among them: I noticed that earlier.

Julie calls for snow! She pushes the empty plastic bag out through the entrance and I hurry to fill it with wind-pressed chunks … thirstiness is a faithful companion in the cold dry air of high altitude. But until the tea is ready, I still have time on my hands. While she is brewing, I can tighten the guylines, arrange one more anchor (it’s blowing, in fluctuating waves, this China Wind); some kind of step in the slope in front of the entrance wouldn’t be a bad idea either …

Occasionally I look up to the ice cliffs of the great balcony. Like ants, the three are attached below it. Yes, they are definitely fixing some ropes there …

Don’t lose too much time! Go on …! I silently bid them. They must surely have looked down and seen what is happening here. One of them must have counted heads?

Possibly they are planning a bivouac, further up, there where Wanda and her companions passed the night … ‘Tea is ready!’ Julie’s hand with the steaming mug appears in the entrance and then she too emerges. ‘What’s the matter up there?’ she asks, looking up with a frown. But I cannot give her a satisfactory answer … Beside us, in the Korean tent, things have gone silent. The quiet before the summit storm.

Julie goes on cooking: soup with mushrooms. With it, we have Bresaola – air-dried meat – and crispbread; we cannot complain of lack of appetite. Next thing is to fill the drinking bottles – at least one for the night! Without porters, we have of course no Thermos bottles – they are heavy as well as being liable to break too easily; we’ll have to leave cooking our tea for the summit assault until tomorrow morning – at least we can partially anticipate the time­-consuming process of melting the snow. In the English aluminium bottles liquid stays hot for a long time, if you take them into your sleeping bag – and everyone loves hot-water bottles. On Nanga Parbat, I had …

Hallo – things are moving up there at last! They are no longer fixing, they’re climbing on! Slowly, it’s true – but gaining height … Announcing this to Julie, I crawl into the tent beside her. She smiles: for both of us it is as if ‘a stone fell from our hearts’ – the Austrians have gone beyond the crucial passage now; even the fragile French umbrella seems to draw breath, in the Sinkiang breeze.

I snuggle into the sleeping bag, continuing to spin my thread of thoughts: … well then, on Nanga Parbat in 1982 I took a real rubber hot-water bottle up to the high camps – the contents of which I usually drank during the night, even if the taste wasn’t that special. I rarely remind Julie of this expedition as she leaps into a fighting mood whenever she thinks of Pierre Mazeaud, the leader – he wouldn’t allow her to go above 5,000 metres and even tried to imply she was lazy. Since then we have been to 8,000 metres three times – to err is human! ‘I need more snow!’ I am put out like a cat from my warm place … (Never a moment’s peace! Not that I complain … )

And up there, how is it going now? Slowly my gaze sweeps over the wall. Neither beyond the compact rock barrier in the first third of the 600-metre high summit wall (which you can only overcome by climbing through the narrow, icy Bottleneck) nor on the difficult and terribly exposed traverse which follows, overshadowed by the giant ice balcony, is there anyone to be seen. Instead the three tiny figures are working their way in slow motion up close to the left edge of the ice overhang. It is less difficult there, just snow, but enormously steep … I know that from our first attempt at this monstrous feature, a month ago. Its sheared end alone, with its dangerous lustre, beckoning and terrifying at one and the same time, must be 150 metres high. What is a human against such dimensions?

Willi, Hannes and Alfred could now be about 8,300 metres. Why do they keep going directly upwards, hugging the scalloped edge of the balcony?

Julie and I traversed that steep snowfield a bit lower down, at the end of the difficulties, before we turned back in order to avoid the risk of a bivouac …

I collect chunks of snow, then crawl back with my bag through the sleeve entrance. It’s still a tight fit – I haven’t yet acquired the sleek lines of a Frenchman – but at least it’s downhill, like the entrance of the Korean tent next door, which makes it somewhat easier; Julie passes me the last mug of tea from the previous brew. It’s tepid. While drinking, I reflect … even if they follow the edge of the overhang, from the top of the ice balcony, that heads summitwards as well! Soon they will be at 8,400 metres; yes, they can still make it to the top today. They should be up there by evening, they will certainly experience a beautiful sunset – tomorrow they can sleep it off down here. I don’t begrudge them the ‘first Austrian ascent’, which means so much to Willi; Julie and I are an international rope, but we are here neither for Britain nor Austria, we simply climb for ourselves, it is our dream mountain, we are climbing beyond any classifications …


The Endless Knot by Kurt Diemberger

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