Jim Wickwire (born June 8, 1940) was the first American to summit K2, the second highest mountain in the world (8,611 m - 28,251 feet). K2 is notable for its steep pyramidal relief, dropping quickly in almost all directions, and the inherent danger in climbing it. Wickwire is also known for surviving an overnight solo bivouac on K2 at an elevation above 27,000 ft or 8,200 m; considered "one of the most notorious bivouacs in mountaineering history". Between 1977 and 1982, Wickwire lost four climbing partners to fatal accidents on three separate mountains.
Wickwire was raised in a small town called Ephrata in Washington State, by a mother who was an alcoholic and an emotionally restrictive father. As a boy he viewed the tales of climbers on mountains as a "magical" escape.
K2: summit and bivouac
K2 has been termed the "Savage Mountain" in writings about its high altitude climbing. Among its dangers are its notorious weather conditions, stretches of technical climbing on rock and ice, marked cliff exposures, and enormous, high-altitude serac. It has the second-highest fatality rate among the "eight thousanders" for those who climb it. For every four people who have reached the summit, one has died trying. Unlike Annapurna, the mountain with the highest fatality rate, K2 has never been climbed in winter.
When Jim Wickwire finally climbed K2 for the first time, seven climbers had already died becoming victims of the mountain (however no one has died on any of Jim Wickwires climbing expeditions on K2). His first attempt on K2 was in a 1975 expedition that broke down in disputes and never got above 22,000 feet (6,700 m).
Wickwire reached the summit of K2 with Louis Reichardt on September 6, 1978. (This ascent was emotional for the American team, as they saw themselves as completing a task that had been begun by the 1938 team forty years earlier). The pair took photos on the summit, and then Reichardt started his descent immediately because he was out of supplemental oxygen. Wickwire lingered a little longer, with the intention of catching up. Upon his descent it was beginning to get dark however, and Wickwire did not have a headlamp. Concerned with being able to move safely in the dark, he decided to spend the night where he was, which was below the summit, above 27,000 ft or 8,200 m. Wickwire had done bivouacs before, and knew that he just needed to gut it out until daylight which was risky because of the thin air and severe cold. Risks include: hypoxia, hypothermia, frostbite, and cerebral and pulmonary edema.
Wickwire did not have a tent, sleeping bag or water. His oxygen ran out half way through the night, and his gas stove became inoperable. His only protection other than his immediate winter clothing was a thin nylon bivvy sack, which is uninsulated but windproof and helps to retain body heat. He shivered uncontrollably from the extreme cold (estimated to be -35 degrees below zero F.). He consequently kept slowly sliding down the slope. He was forced to get out of his sack to remedy the problem and discovered that he was at risk of sliding over an edge that rolled off to drop 10,000 ft or 3,000 m below. "No one had ever survived a solo bivouac above twenty-seven thousand feet".
The next morning, John Roskelley and Rick Ridgeway found him continuing down while on their way to the summit. Wickwire lost parts of two toes and underwent lung surgery due to blood clots on his lungs (pulmonary emboli); he also caught pneumonia, and pleurisy. Wickwire was taken by helicopter right from the glacier at the bottom of the mountain by the Pakistani army and immediately went into lung surgery. The surgeon expressed uncertainty of Wickwire ever climbing at high altitudes again. Nevertheless, Wickwire continued high-altitude climbing after a couple years of his ordeal and surgery by climbing the slopes of Alaska’s Mount McKinley getting ready for his climbing expedition on Mt. Everest.
Crevasse on McKinley
In 1981, Wickwire was traversing a glacier on Mount McKinley (also known as Denali) with a 25 year-old Mount Rainier guide named Chris Kerrebrock in the lead. They were roped together and dragging a sled. Glaciers often have deep crevasses, which can be concealed by thin layers of snow. A crevasse opened up underneath Kerrebrock who fell in headfirst, pulling Wickwire and the sled in on top of him, since they were roped together. Wickwire was able to slowly climb out with an ice axe, but was unable to rescue Kerrebrock, who was alive but wedged in tightly (Kerrebrock couldn't feel his hand when Wickwire touched it) still wearing his backpack and upside down. Wickwire had broken his shoulder, but had slowly scaled the ice walls of the crevasse, 6 inches at a time, with his ice axe and crampons. Once upon the rim surface he attempted to dislodge Kerrebrock, who was still very much conscious, by pulling forcefully on the rope. Wickwire then descended on rope anchored to a snow picket and attempted moving Kerrebrock's tightly-wedged backpack from within the crevasse, but all efforts were futile. Resigned to his fate, the two men said their goodbyes. Kerrebrock subsequently died late in the night. (Kerrebrock had instructed Wickwire to leave it up to his father to decide whether to leave his body in the crevasse or not. Wickwire led park rangers to the site and they extracted Kerrebrock from the location).
Upon getting down from the mountain, which took several days and was fraught with more crevasse dangers, Wickwire was bullied by his guilt for months for not being able to save Kerrebrock. He thought about quitting the upcoming expedition of Mount Everest stating, “the furthest thought in my mind was Everest at that point”. His wife talked to him at that point and convinced him to think about it for a length of time before deciding one way or the other, so there would be no regrets later on down the road. Wickwire listened to his wife and in 1982 he was climbing the slopes of Everest with the planned group for the expedition.
At the time of Kerrebrock's death, Wickwire had been working for twenty years to become "one of the world's most accomplished mountain climbers". He was also known to have neglected his marriage to his wife, Mary Lou, his five children, and his law practice, just to risk his life on mountain peaks.
North face Everest attempts
Wickwire made four (unsuccessful) attempts on the north side of Mount Everest: 1982, 1984, 1993, and 2003. During the 1982 expedition, Wickwire formed a relationship with female climber, Marty Hoey. While ascending Everest, one day Wickwire and Hoey were taking a brief rest on a slope within a steep and icy couloir at 26,000 ft (7,900 m). When the two climbers above needed more rope Hoey got up to allow Wickwire to move into position to ascend. As she did so, something went wrong. As Wickwire explains:
In the midst of lifting my pack I heard a sudden pinging sound and turned my head to see Marty pitching backward, head-down the icy slope. I yelled, "Grab the rope!" Though she rolled onto her side and reached out, she missed the fixed rope, sliding past it just as it curved away toward the edge of the Great Coulier. I watched in shock and disbelief as she slid at an ever increasing speed, disappearing into a tunnel of mist, over a huge ice cliff, and onto the glacier six thousand feet below. Not once did she cry out.
Wickwire looked back at the fixed rope and saw Hoey's open climbing waist harness still attached via a jumar. He couldn't compute at first what had happened, but later realized that her harness strap had not held because Hoey hadn't threaded "the end of her belt back through the buckle (the only way to assure it would not come loose)". Retracing the route down, Wickwire found one of her crampons, but her body was lost below in the mountain's bergschrund. After Hoey's death, the three remaining climbers of the first summit team of the expedition turned back.
After his adventures came to a halt, Wickwire was still able to return to have a relationship with his wife, children, and now his grandchildren. His wife had supported him during the years that he was a risk taker in the mountains. She never gave up hope and always told their children that their daddy was coming home.
Wickwire is a retired attorney living in Seattle, Washington.
- Addicted to Danger: A Memoir about Affirming Life in the Face of Death (with Dorothy C. Bullitt) (New York: Pocket Books, 1998) ISBN 0-671-01991-0
- "Climber Jim Wickwire Says 'K2' is Pretty Accurate - for Fiction". News Tribune. 1 May 1992. Retrieved 18 January 2011.
- Stephen Graham (4 August 2008). "11 Feared Dead in Mountaineering Disaster on K2". Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Associated Press. Retrieved 18 January 2011.
- "Triumph and Tragedy: The Mountain Zone Interviews Jim Wickwire". Retrieved 2012-06-12.
- The Kansas City Star, 18 Feb 1999, Eric Adler
- "K2 list of ascents and fatalities" (PDF). 8000ers.com. Retrieved 2010-01-23.
- American Alpine Journal, 1979, pp. 1–18
- Wickwire; Bullitt; — p. 120.
- Jim Wickwire; Dorothy Bullitt (1 February 1999). Addicted to Danger: A Memoir About Affirming Life in the Face of Death. Simon and Schuster. pp. 120–. ISBN 978-0-671-01991-4. Retrieved 10 June 2012.
- Jim Wickwire (11 May 2010). Addicted to Danger: A Novel. Simon and Schuster. pp. 125–. ISBN 978-1-4391-1783-5. Retrieved 13 March 2013.
- Wickwire; Bullitt; — p. 1-7.
- Jim Wickwire; Dorothy Bullitt (1 February 1999). Addicted to Danger: A Memoir About Affirming Life in the Face of Death. Simon and Schuster. pp. 167–. ISBN 978-0-671-01991-4. Retrieved 11 June 2012.