Book Review: K2: Life and Death on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain

It is known as the “mountaineer’s mountain”, and unlike the taller, but technically less challenging Everest, it remains off limits for all but the most talented and dedicated of climbers. It is K2, the second highest mountain on Earth, but arguably the most deadly. It also happens to be the subject of a new book by Ed Viesturs which hits bookstores today, entitled K2: Life and Death on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain.

While the general public remains fixated on Everest, K2 seems to epitomizes the dangers of high altitude climbing unlike any other mountain. For the mountaineering community, both armchair and actual, it is a mountain of mythical proportions, both literally and figuratively.

Located in the Karakorum range of Pakistan, K2 stands 28,251 feet in height, some 778 feet shorter than Everest. Despite this difference in height however, K2 remains orders of magnitude more challenging to climb than the Himalayan giant.

Few people know this better than Viesturs, who has climbed both mountains. In fact, Ed is the only American to have reached the summit of all 14 of the 8000 meter peaks, accomplishing this feat without the use of supplemental oxygen. Ed’s quest to complete that task was chronicled in his earlier book No Shortcuts To The Top, in which he gave insights into his climb on K2, which was quite possibly the most dangerous climb ever.

Despite the fact that K2 played a prominent role in his first book, Ed still had more to share about his experience on that mountain, and that is at the core of this new book, although it isn’t the sole focus. Viesturs says that he learned the most important lesson of his career on K2 when he pressed on to the summit despite terrible weather, when every instinct was telling him to turn back.

With conditions worsening, he reached his goal, and turned back down the mountain, knowing full well that many climbers have died on K2 while descending the mountain, and although he lived to climb another day, he promised himself that he would never ignore his instincts again. That lesson would serve him well on future climbs, including several on Annapurna.

As I said earlier, Viestur’s K2 climb isn’t the only focus of this new book however. He also takes a look at some of the most important historical expeditions to the mountain as well, recounting a number of the legendary tales from the legendary mountain. Some of the other expeditions that Ed shares with readers include the 1938 team, led by Charlie Houston, that paved the way for eventual summit success in 1954.

Houston’s ill fated 1953 expedition also receives plenty of attention as well, as it gave us one of the most enduring mountain stories in “The Belay”, and of course the 2008 season is also examined as one of the most tragic climbs in the history of mountaineering.

Anyone who has read No Shortcuts knows what to expect out of Veistur’s writing style. Ed is once again assisted by co-author David Roberts, and their collaboration once again results in a book that is easy and fun to read.

At times, it is almost as if you’re sitting around the fire with Ed himself, sharing tales of high adventure in the Karakorum, which turns K2 into quite the page turner, especially when reading about the historical expeditions, where you know the gear and apparel were not up to the standards of today, and climbers suffered mightily while high on the mountain.

For fans of Ed or mountaineering in general, picking up this book is a no brainer. It is a very quick read that serves as a perfect introduction to K2 and the lore that surround the mountain.

If you’ve read a lot of other books on the subject, there isn’t a ton new here, although it is interesting to get Viesturs’ insights on the history of the peak. Personally, I’d still recommend the classic Savage Mountain as the preeminent book on K2, but this book is a worthy heir to that throne, and an excellent read in its own right.

Kraig Becker

6 thoughts on “Book Review: <i>K2: Life and Death on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain</i>”

  1. Congrats on being published William, but your post isn't exactly relevant to this blog or this book review. I'll leave it in place for now, but please don't make off topics posts

  2. Nice review. I actually checked your claim about Viesturs being the only American to climb all 14 8,000 meter peaks, and you are correct.

    For what it's worth, the two spam comments above are distracting. IMHO, they should be deleted.

  3. Thanks for the comments Sam. They are appreciated. And I try to keep an open mind about posts on the blog, but you're right, they are kind of distracting. I've removed the spam. 🙂

    Seems to be a lot of that showing up lately.

  4. Unfortunately Ed got it wrong in his analysis of the events on K2 in 2008. He based his research on early media reports and did none of his own. He ignored evidence that came out later that specifically points to the fact that Gerard McDonnell did in fact rescue the climbers stranded high on the traverse. They were hit by ice fall much lower on descent. His book is a disservice and a disappoint to his readers.

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