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From the Archives: Pete Schoening and The Belay
Posted on October 21, 2015

The 1953 team on the Eddie Bauer outfitted Third American Karakoram Expedition

Our archives at Eddie Bauer run deep with stories of pioneering adventure and serious expedition climbing, but no story resonates more powerfully than that of “The Belay.” A legendary save in mountaineering lore, the story of Pete Schoening’s self-arrest with a hickory-handled ice axe to save his team on the Eddie Bauer-outfitted Third American Karakoram Expedition and its 1953 attempt at the first ascent of K2 is a gripping story from the Golden Age of Himalayan Mountaineering. We asked Colin Berg, our brand historian, to recount the tale for our throwback mountaineering history lesson this week and once again we were mesmerized by the tale. —LYA Editor

Words by Colin Berg, Images courtesy of Mark Schoening


When Pete Schoening was preparing to leave for Pakistan as part of the Third American Karakoram Expedition and its 1953 attempt at the first ascent of K2, he got a visit from friend and fellow climber, Tom Miller. The two men were going over the gear and, looking at Pete’s ice axe, Tom said, “You’re not using that thing, you’re taking mine.”

At the time, ice axes were made with a wood shaft. Pete’s, like most, was European ash. It wasn’t uncommon for these shafts to break under stress.

Tom had replaced the shaft of his axe with hickory, a much stronger wood. He insisted that Pete take the hickory axe to K2.

The eight-man team led by Charles Houston reached Base Camp on the Baltoro Glacier on June 19, 1953. By August 2, they had all made Camp VIII at 25,500 feet. The plan was to send two men up the next day to establish Camp IX, and if all went well, to make a summit push on the 4th.

All didn’t go well.

Archival: Pete Schoening and K2

On the night of August 2, a huge storm hit, pinning the team down in their tents for more than a week. Five days into the storm, Art Gilkey crawled out of his tent, stood up and, crying out in pain, fell over. Houston, a medical doctor, examined him and discovered that he had thrombophlebitis—blood clots in his leg—a life-threatening condition at altitude.

Houston crawled from tent to tent, explaining the situation. Without hesitation, the team elected to abandon the summit attempt and devote all their energy to getting Art off the mountain. Devising a makeshift litter from a tent and sleeping bag, they strapped Gilkey in and started into the blizzard. But after struggling down 200 feet, they found the avalanche conditions too severe.

They had to go back.

Rebuilding Camp VIII, they waited two more days, hoping that the storm would abate. It didn’t, and Gilkey’s condition continued to deteriorate. On the morning of August 10, realizing this was Art’s last and only chance to survive, they started down in the storm again, this time taking a different route.

They had descended more than 1,000 feet, and were within 200 yards of their Camp VII, when disaster struck.

The Eddie Bauer 1953 Schoening Karakoram Parka, alive and well

Schoening was belaying Gilkey, slowly lowering him down the steep ice slope while four of the other team members—Houston, Tony Streather, Bob Bates, and Dee Molenaar—worked to pull the inert Art across the slope toward VII. A fifth climber, George Bell, was making his way down to join them when he slipped on the ice and fell.

He was roped to Streather, so as he tumbled past, he pulled Tony off his feet. Their rope tangled with the double hauling ropes attached to Gilkey, which arrested their fall temporarily, but dislodged the other three haulers. All five fell to the end of the ropes, when their combined weight hit Pete Schoening’s ice axe belay.

Incredibly, Pete held on, and the axe shaft—the hickory shaft of Tom Miller’s axe—withstood the force. Had either not done so, all seven men would have fallen to their death.

It’s considered one of the greatest saves in mountaineering history, called simply “The Belay.” Pete’s borrowed ice axe is now something of a holy grail of mountaineering artifacts, on display at the American Alpine Club museum in Golden, Colorado.

It’s a testament to one man’s extraordinary strength and skill in the face of catastrophic need, to a team’s willingness to work selflessly together, and to the serendipity of a chance visit from a friend several months before, 6,500 miles away.

The hickory-handled axe that saved the expedition, resulting in a place in mountaineering lore

Author: - Wednesday, October 21st, 2015

  1. woodstove

    Really like seeing the old vintage photos.

  2. Joe Anzilotti

    What a wonderful, inspiring story. Heart warming.

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