Historical Badass: Mountaineer Pete Schoening and ‘The Belay’

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There are thousands of famous climbs, but maybe only one truly famous belay: Pete Schoening’s on the American K2 expedition in 1953.

The eight-man American team had established Camp VIII 25,200 feet on K2’s Abruzzi Ridge, in position to set up one more camp to put two climbers in position to summit, when Art Gilkey developed thrombophlebitis. Gilkey had blood clots in his calf muscle and if they moved to his lungs, they would kill him. The team knew a rescue of Gilkey was next to impossible, considering the terrain, the altitude, and the weather — a storm had moved in. They decided to attempt to lower him down the mountain anyway, wrapped in a sleeping bag and tent. Everyone in the group knew the rescue would endanger their own lives.

On the descent, the climbers reached a 45-degree slope ending in a massive cliff thousands of feet high. They started to work to pendulum Gilkey across the steep slope. The 26-year-old Schoening (far right, in photo with Don Wilde, left, and Fred Beckey) drove his wooden-handled ice axe behind a rock frozen in the ice. He was roped to Gilkey, the rope running around the big rock and down to Gilkey 60 feet below. The rest of the team waited 40 feet straight across from Gilkey, starting to suss out an anchor to pull him across. Dee Molenaar had taken a rope from Gilkey and tied it around his waist.

Then George Bell, roped to Tony Streather, suddenly lost his footing and fell. The rope pulled Streather off his feet, and both men started to hurtle towards a drop of thousands of feet. Streather hit the rope between Charlie Houston and Bob Bates, knocking them both off their feet, and sending them toward the edge. Then they hit the rope between Molenaar and Gilkey, and Molenaar flew down the slope. Schoening put all his weight onto his ice axe, and five men slowed, and stopped, and did not fall thousands of feet to their deaths. This would become known as “The Belay.”

The men gathered themselves and anchored Gilkey to the slope as they set up an emergency camp nearby. When they returned, his body was gone — the slope had been swept by an avalanche. Some of the group would later speculate that Gilkey, knowing the danger his rescue posed to his friends, somehow wriggled himself free and fell to his death.

In 2006, 53 years later, the descendents of those men got together in a sort of celebration, calling themselves “The Children of ‘The Belay.’” At that time, there were 28 children and grandchildren who would have never been born if it were not for Pete Schoening and his ice axe high on K2.

The Belay was far from Schoening’s only notable act in the world’s big mountains. A lifelong mountaineer, he made several first ascents in the Cascades and in the Yukon in his late teens and early 20s.

Schoening and Andy Kauffman completed the first ascent of Gasherbrum I in 1958, becoming the first Americans to stand on top of an 8,000-meter peak. Gasherbrum is the only 8,000-meter peak first climbed by Americans. Schoening also was one of several men who made the first ascent of Vinson Massif, the highest peak in Antarctica, in 1966. In 1974, he went on the first American expedition to the Pamirs, which were at that time in the Soviet Union.

Schoening had a long battle with blood cancer, but remained active up until his death in 2004. At age 68, he climbed Aconcagua and Kilimanjaro and joined an Everest expedition, but turned back before the summit. Three weeks before he died, he went hiking with his longtime friend Tom Hornbein.

In his 2004 obituary in the Los Angeles Times, Dennis McLellan wrote, “The characteristically humble Schoening always downplayed his lifesaving actions on K2, telling the Tacoma, Washington, News Tribune last year that ‘I’m surprised that it attracts interest, frankly.’”

Schoening’s ice axe from K2 is on display at the Bradford Washburn American Mountaineering Museum in Golden, Colorado.

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