Pete Schoening, 77, 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 -- died Sept. 22 at his home in Kenmore, Wash. He had multiple myeloma.
A Seattle native who began climbing in the mid-1940s, Mr. 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 the 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 Charles S. Houston, the only members who had 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 had broken loose and lodged in Gilkey's lungs, it could have been fatal. The team had to bring Gilkey down the mountain.
In Houston and Bates's 1954 book, "K2: The Savage Mountain," Houston wrote that most of the team members believed that 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 lower 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. So 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.
Mr. 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 Mr. Schoening's body, a seldom-used stance known as a "hip ax belay." Forty feet across from Gilkey, who later died on the mountain, five team members searched for a spot to stand and anchor the rope to Gilkey, 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.
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, Mr. 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."
Mr. 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."
Survivors include his wife of 51 years; six children; two brothers; and 12 grandchildren.