Pete Schoening, 77; Saved Fellow Climbers From Icy Plunge on K2

Times Staff Writer

Pete Schoening, an American climber whose skill and quick actions on K2, the world’s second-highest peak, saved five team members from plunging to their deaths down an icy slope in 1953 -- a legendary moment in mountaineering -- has died. He was 77.

Schoening suffered from multiple myeloma and died Wednesday at his home in Kenmore, Wash., said his son, Eric.

A Seattle native who began climbing in the mid-1940s, Schoening made several first ascents of peaks in the Cascades, east of Seattle, in 1948, and in the Yukon (Mt. Augusta and King Peak’s East Ridge) in 1952.


In 1958, Schoening and climber Andy Kauffman completed the first ascent of Hidden Peak (a.k.a. Gasherbrum I) in Pakistan, one of the 14 mountains in the world higher than 8,000 meters (26,246 feet).

“He and Kauffman were the only Americans to first climb an 8,000-meter peak, an accomplishment that solidified Schoening’s place as one of the top American climbers of his generation,” said Lloyd Athearn, deputy director of the American Alpine Club in Golden, Colo.

In 1966, Schoening, who then owned a fiberglass manufacturing company, joined nine other climbers in making the first successful ascent of 16,067-foot Mt. Vinson, the tallest peak in Antarctica.

But for all his mountain-climbing accomplishments, Schoening received the most notoriety for one thing: his role in stopping the perilous fall of his fellow climbers as they attempted to lower a stricken team member down a steep, icy slope on storm-battered K2 in 1953.

“That,” Athearn said, “is one of the most dramatic moments in American mountaineering history.”

Schoening was a 26-year-old University of Washington graduate with a degree in chemical engineering when he joined the Third American Karakoram Expedition to 28,250-foot K2. Known locally as Chogori, the peak was dubbed K2 by British surveyors charting Pakistan’s Karakoram Range.


He was one of eight members of the expedition led by Robert H. Bates and Dr. Charles S. Houston, the only members who had ever been on K2 before. Other members included Dee Molenaar, Robert Craig, George Bell, Tony Streather and Art Gilkey.

The climbers reached base camp June 19, and on Aug. 1 they established Camp VIII, at 25,200 feet. From there, they figured it would take three days to stock one more camp before sending a two-man team to the summit.

But a violent storm hit the mountain and changed their plans, the fierce wind and blinding snow ruling out any climbing for days. Forced to remain in their tents, they spent their time contending with hunger, boredom and frostbite.

On Aug. 7, team member Gilkey, a 26-year-old geologist, collapsed. Examining Gilkey, Houston discovered blood clots in his left calf, a circulation-restricting condition known as thrombophlebitis. If a clot broke loose and lodged in Gilkey’s lungs, it could be fatal. The team had to bring Gilkey down the mountain.

In Houston and Bates’ 1954 book, “K2: The Savage Mountain,” Houston wrote that most of the team members believed their chances of successfully lowering Gilkey down the mountain were slim and that the time-consuming effort would risk the lives of those fighting frostbite and other altitude- and weather-related problems.

But they had no choice.

Their initial attempt to take Gilkey, whom they wrapped in his sleeping bag and battered tent, ended within a few hundred yards when they encountered a slope that posed too much of a threat for an avalanche and they had to return to camp.

But two days later, at least two clots had moved to Gilkey’s lungs. And on Aug. 10, despite the continuing storm, they tried again.

They reached a steep, icy slope where they would attempt to gain a firm anchorage and swing Gilkey like a pendulum across the slope to a small ice shelf, a dangerous maneuver even in the best weather conditions.

Schoening was positioned at the top of the slope, his ice ax firmly wedged behind a big rock frozen into the ice. His rope, which was tethered to Gilkey hanging 60 feet below, passed over the rock and ax and around Schoening’s body, a seldom-used stance known as a “hip ax belay.”

Forty feet across from Gilkey, five team members searched for a spot to stand and anchor the rope to Gilkey in order to pull him across the slope. Craig had gone to establish a temporary camp.

Bell and Streather were roped together; Houston and Bates were roped together; and Molenaar had just tied one of the loose ropes from Gilkey around his waist when Bell suddenly lost his footing and began tumbling down the slope.

When Bell fell, he pulled Streather with him. Streather then hurtled into the rope between Houston and Bates and became entangled with it. The impact knocked Houston and Bates off their feet and all four men were now tumbling uncontrollably down the slope.

“Only thousands of feet of empty space separated us from the glacier below,” Bates wrote. “It was like falling off a slanting Empire State Building six times as high as the real one.”

Their fall sent them into the rope between Gilkey and Molenaar, with Streather somehow becoming entangled in that rope as well. Now five rope-entangled men, including Molenaar, were headed to their doom -- until something unexpected happened: All five men suddenly stopped sliding as the rope from Gilkey to Molenaar tightened.

Seeing Bell slip and the others pulled off the slope, Schoening had swung his weight onto the head of his ax and, with freezing hands, held on tight to the rope.

“For minutes, it seemed, the rope was as taut as a bowstring,” he later said. “Snow squalls blotted out everything below, and I couldn’t tell what was happening.”

Schoening’s rendition of what he did on K2, Bates wrote, “failed to stress the remarkable fact that one man had held five men who slid 150 to 300 feet down a 45-degree slope and that he had done it at nearly 25,000 feet, where the mere job of survival absorbs most of the strength of a man. Such magnificent belay work has rarely been recorded in mountaineering anywhere. Nor have I read of any other climbing miracle when three separate ropes fouled together to save the lives of five men.”

After making their way back up the slope and anchoring Gilkey to the snow in his sleeping bag, the battered climbers went about setting up an emergency camp nearby.

But when they returned to retrieve Gilkey after setting up their tents, he was gone -- the slope having been swept clear by an avalanche. No trace of Gilkey would be found until 1993 when his red parka and a few remains were found thousands of feet below.

The injured and frostbitten climbers finally reached base camp Aug. 15, and five days later Schoening was back in Seattle.

The characteristically humble Schoening always downplayed his lifesaving actions on K2, telling the Tacoma, Wash., News Tribune last year that “I’m surprised that it attracts interest, frankly.”

In a manuscript he intended to self-publish for his family, Schoening wrote:

“The media has made much of stopping the fall as saving the lives of expedition members. The group’s staying together, helping each other and making realistic decisions based on our collective experience is what got the team off the mountain safely. This was the real drama of our K2 experience. It was a triumph over tragedy for the entire team.”

In addition to his son, Schoening is survived by his wife of 51 years, Mell; children Kim, Kristiann, Mark, Lisa Schoening Jertz, and Kurt; 12 grandchildren; and two brothers, Bill and Paul.