K2 and Everest

 Mick Conefrey|   | 

How a film on Everest reveals a secret about K2

What K2 has to say about Everest

Recently I was interviewed for a BBC film on Everest. It was interesting to be on the other side of the lens; when you are the interviewer it is easy to forget how stressful it can be for the interviewee and just how hard it is to remembers things, particularly facts.......

In order to get ready for the interview I watched the official 1953 film again, The Conquest of Everest. I've see it many times but this time round a I noticed a tiny detail that I had never paid any attention to. 

Message in a Bottle

There's a story that I'd heard about the end of the first summit attempt. Apparently when Tom Bourdillon came down,  after failing to climb Everest by just 300 ft, he picked up a Drager oxygen bottle abandoned by the Swiss team a year earlier. I'd never really been quite sure what to make of this. Surely he would have been so exhausted that the last thing he would have wanted to do was pick up anything, never minds a heavy oxygen cylinder?

Watching the film again, I noticed the bottle: a small blue cylinder just popping out of his rucksack. It is just visible in the still on the front page of this blog but easy to spot when you blow the film up - if you know what you're looking for. 

K2 on Everest

As part of my research for my current book , I've been looking into one of the bitterest controversies in the history of mountaineering, about whether or not Achille Compagnoni and Lino Lacedelli reached the summit of K2 using oxygen, or only after it ran out.

I'm convinced that the oxygen did run out, partly because as it turned out they were using two different types of oxygen cylinder, one made by an Italian firm, one made by a German firm Drager. It's a complex story, but the colour of the cylinders is a crucial clue. The italian cylinders were red, the Germans blue.

Seeing that blue Drager cylinder poking out of Bourdillon's rucksack is one more proof that in fact Compagnoni and Lacedelli were telling the truth, but I would never have spotted it before because it is not really that important to the Everest story (though it does prove what a generous character Bourdillon was). 

You see what you're looking for

And that maybe is the lesson here: the questions you ask of an image, or any kind of documentary evidence, are a crucial determinant of what you find. You don't just bump in discoveries- you go looking for them......

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