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The west face of K2 (8611m) from 6900m on Savoia Kangri. The left skyline is the northwest ridge, which so far is unclimbed in its entirety. The right skyline is the southwest ridge: Magic Line (Bozik-Prezemyslov-Piasecki-Wroz, 1986). The blue line is the west ridge with A1 the original finish (summit reached by Ohtani and Sabir in 1981). A2 is the line taken by Osamu Tanabe’s Japanese expedition in 1997. This team followed the 1981 route to ca. 7800m, cut back to the crest of the west ridge at ca. 8000m, traversed across the upper west face to a col on the northwest ridge, continued across to the top of the north ridge (hidden), and up easy snow to the summit. The red line marks the new Russian Direct (eleven climbers led by Pavel Shabalin, 2007). [Photo] The Jules Cartwright Trust

Applying the same tactics that they used so successfully on the North Face of Jannu in 2004 and the North Face Direct of Everest the same year, the Russians have done it again on the world’s second highest mountain. After a prolonged siege of two and a half months, an extremely strong team led by the legendary Pavel Shabalin made the first ascent of the west face direct on K2, completing what is almost certainly the hardest route on this 8611-meter Karakoram mountain.

Arriving at their 5000m basecamp on June 7, fifteen climbers, most of whom had taken part in the Jannu and Everest expeditions, began fixing ropes and establishing camps on a previously unattempted line left of the west ridge. After initial snow slopes above the Savoia Glacier, the meat of the route is formed by a large mixed rock buttress, which rises from ca. 6600m to ca. 8150m. Although there is a prominent curving couloir skirting the buttress on the left, the Russians chose to tackle a direct and far more difficult line up the center. They established Camp 2 immediately below the buttress, and the climbers set about solving the problem of the steep rock wall above. The initial section proved taxing, equally as hard as Jannu, and sported a three-meter overhang. Above, the angle was not as extreme but the difficulties still sustained. Operating in close-knit individual teams without recourse to supplementary oxygen, the expedition battled through inclement weather–and the eventual loss of two of its members due to altitude-related problems–to reach the top of the wall on July 30. Here, they placed Camp 6. Above, only easier-angled snow broken by occasional rocky ground separated them from the summit ridge.

Bad weather stopped activity for a few days but then Alexey Bolotov, Gennady Kirievsky and Nokolay Totmjanin moved back up the mountain, spent four days in Camp 5 waiting for a weather window, and on August 10 left Camp 6 for a summit push. Deep snow, reported at times to be up to their chests, slowed them considerably, and then at 8500 meters they hit an unexpected, vertical rock step. Exhausted, and unable to find a way through, the three retreated.

But the Russians are nothing if not highly tenacious. Finally, on August 21, the weather allowed them another shot. This time Andrey Mariev and Vadim Popovich overcame the rock step and climbed the final ridge to the summit. On the next day nine other members, Bolotov with Totmjanin, followed by Gleb Sokolov, Eugeny Vinogradsky, the three-man team of Victor Volodin, Kirievsky and Vitaly Gorelik, and finally Shabalin with Ilias Tukhvatullin retraced their footsteps. This was a particularly notable effort for Popovich, who prior to this expedition had never climbed an 8000-meter peak, and Shabalin, who together with Tukhvatullin had spent the previous four days at or above 8150 meters and was one of two grandfathers to reach the summit.

Criticism often is leveled at the heavy-weight, traditional Russian tactics still used on big mountains, but their talent to overcome great technical difficulties at very high altitudes–and the now-famous ability to stick with it through very harsh conditions–has led to the completion of some highly impressive projects over the last few years. Individuals will need to make up their own minds about whether alpine-style ascents of the same objectives are feasible at the current time.