In profile, K2 looks like a child's drawing of an idealized mountain: a jagged, snow-clad pyramid of black stone, nightmarishly steep on all faces and plunging 10,000 feet to the surrounding glaciers. Spotted and named by members of a British trigonometric survey in 1856, K2 stands astride the Pakistan-China border in the Karakoram Range, at the center of the greatest agglomeration of high peaks on Earth. An Italian team first reached the summit in 1954, a year after Sir Edmund Hillary knocked off Everest.
Everest may be 800 feet higher, but K2's notorious weather, its mind-boggling exposures, and its immense technical challenges make it far more dangerous than its taller sibling. In all, more than 3,679 climbers have summited Everest, while 210 have died. For all the righteous critiques of Everest and its commercial cattle drive, that mountain is actually getting safer. Only two climbers were lost in the 2008 season. The odds on K2 are much worse: Just 299 people have reached the top, and 77 have perished in the attempt, many after reaching the summit. Although numerous climbers have summited Everest multiple times, just three people have ever reached the top of K2 twice. Some years, nobody makes the summit at all.
For many among the obsessive, competitive fraternity of high-altitude mountaineers, K2 symbolizes the greatest test of will and ability a mountain can pose. American climbing legend Ed Viesturs, who summited after climbing through a storm, calls it "the holy grail of mountaineering." Many who fail and live are drawn inexorably back, as though the mountain has its own gravitational pull.
"Everest is a circus," says Wilco, who summited that peak in 2004. "It has nothing to do with mountaineering." But his ice-blue eyes light up when he tries to describe the allure of K2: "It is the mountain of mountains. It's the most difficult, the most dangerous, the most savage, the most ... you can't imagine."
It was a sentiment he shared deeply with Gerard McDonnell, even though both men had nearly been killed on K2 before. This August marked Wilco's third trip to the mountain. In 1995 he was climbing between Camps 1 and 2 on the Abruzzi spur, the most common route, when he got caught in a massive rockfall. A chunk of rock slammed him in the face and shoulder, shattering his cheekbone and snapping his arm. His humerus was jutting through his skin, and he lost a liter and a half of blood as his team desperately evacuated him to Base Camp, where he waited five days for a rescue helicopter to arrive. But he recovered, kept climbing, and returned again in 2006, this time in a large expedition that included Gerard.
The competitive, no-nonsense Wilco got along well with the amiable Irishman, whom he met for the first time on that expedition. A folk musician, motorcyclist, sometime oil worker, and avid mountaineer who'd lived in Alaska for nine years, Gerard showed a penchant for fun that was countered by his serious, professional approach to climbing. Wilco knew right away that this was someone he could trust.
During the 2006 expedition, Gerard too was almost killed by falling rocks, not far from where Wilco had nearly died a decade before. One stone struck his Kevlar helmet with such force it caved in a golfball-size section of his skull. He was evacuated by helicopter to the military hospital in Skardu, the closest major town.
Wilco visited Gerard in Alaska the following year. The Dutchman already had in mind a plan to assemble a small team of highly skilled, well-equipped climbers who wouldn't need to depend on hired porters to make a summit attempt. Gerard was eager to return with him. They agreed that they should avoid the rockfall-plagued Abruzzi Route, which Gerard likened to climbing through an asteroid belt. "We did not even discuss whether we should return to K2 or not," Wilco recalls. "We simply agreed that we would go back."