How Aleister Crowley, the Infamous Occultist, Led the First Attempt to Reach the Summit of K2 (1902)

It sounds like the plot of a Wern­er Her­zog film: Aleis­ter Crow­ley, heir to a brew­ing for­tune and “flam­boy­ant, bisex­u­al drug fiend with a fas­ci­na­tion for the occult,” meets “son of a well-known Jew­ish Social­ist” Oscar Eck­en­stein, “a chemist turned rail­way engi­neer.” The two strike up a friend­ship over their mutu­al pas­sion for moun­taineer­ing, and, in four years time, co-lead an expe­di­tion to reach the sum­mit of K2, the sec­ond high­est moun­tain in the world.

The descrip­tions of these char­ac­ters come from Mick Conefrey’s The Ghosts of K2: The Race for the Sum­mit of the World’s Most Dead­ly Moun­tain, a book detail­ing the many gru­el­ing attempts, many deaths, and few suc­cess­es, in over a cen­tu­ry of climbs to the mountain’s peak. Crow­ley and Eckenstein’s expe­di­tion, under­tak­en in 1902, was the first. Though unsuc­cess­ful, their effort remains a leg­endary feat of his­tor­i­cal brav­ery, or hubris, or insanity—an ascent up the face of what climber George Bell called “a sav­age moun­tain that tries to kill you.”

In an inter­view with Nation­al Geo­graph­ic, Cone­frey sums up the doomed expe­di­tion:

 In those days, nobody had a clue about what it was going to be like. They thought they would go to the Himalayas and knock off K2 in a cou­ple of days. But as the expe­di­tion pro­ceed­ed, it start­ed falling apart. Eck­en­stein, the leader, had a bad res­pi­ra­to­ry infec­tion. Crow­ley had malar­ia and spent most of the time in his tent with a high fever. At one point he got so deliri­ous, he start­ed wav­ing his revolver at oth­er mem­bers of the team. 

There are many oth­er Her­zo­gian touch­es. In his book Fall­en Giants, Mau­rice Isser­man describes the team—also con­sist­ing of a novice Eng­lish­man, a Swiss doc­tor, and two expe­ri­enced Aus­tri­an climbers—as “unrea­son­ably bur­dened by three tons of lug­gage.” Some of that unnec­es­sary bur­den came from a “sev­er­al-vol­ume library” Crow­ley “intend­ed to haul onto the glac­i­er.” The oth­ers “object­ed to the super­flu­ous weight, but Crow­ley had read enough Joseph Con­rad to know what hap­pened to those who let go of their hold on civ­i­liza­tion in the wild.” The library stayed, and a train of 200 porters hauled the team’s lug­gage to Bal­toro Glac­i­er. (See Crow­ley in a pho­to from the expe­di­tion above, pre­sum­ably strick­en with malar­ia.)

Pri­or to set­ting off for K2 Eck­en­stein and Crow­ley had climbed vol­ca­noes in Mex­i­co, then the lat­ter had trav­eled to San Fran­cis­co, Hawaii, Japan, Sri Lan­ka, and India—along the way hav­ing affairs, learn­ing med­i­ta­tion, and devel­op­ing a “life­long devo­tion to Shi­va, the Hin­du god of destruc­tion.” While it takes a cer­tain rare per­son­al­i­ty to sub­ject them­selves to the rig­ors of scal­ing a moun­tain almost five miles high, Crowley—notorious for his “mag­ick,” sex­u­al adven­tures, drug use, lewd poet­ry, and found­ing of a reli­gious order—is arguably the most out-there per­son­al­i­ty in the his­to­ry of a very extreme sport.

But moun­taineer­ing “is not a nor­mal pur­suit,” writes Scot­tish climber Robin Camp­bell, “and we should not be too sur­prised to find its adepts show­ing odd behav­ior in oth­er spheres of life.” Like all devo­tees of stren­u­ous, death-defy­ing pur­suits, Crow­ley “want­ed extreme expe­ri­ences,” says Cone­frey, “where he pushed him­self to the lim­it.” It just so hap­pened that he want­ed to push far beyond the nat­ur­al and human worlds. After the failed K2 attempt, he would only make one more dar­ing expe­di­tion with Eck­en­stein, in 1905, a climb up the Himalayan moun­tain of Kangchen­jun­ga, the third high­est moun­tain in the world.

On the trip, Crow­ley, the leader, report­ed­ly treat­ed the local porters with bru­tal arro­gance, and when three of them were killed along with one of the expe­di­tion mem­bers, he refused to help, writ­ing to a Dar­jeel­ing news­pa­per, “a moun­tain ‘acci­dent’ of this sort is one of the things for which I have no sym­pa­thy what­ev­er.” He left the fol­low­ing day and gave up moun­taineer­ing, devot­ing the rest of his life to his occult inter­ests and the exploits that earned him the tabloid rep­u­ta­tion as “the wickedest man in the world.”

K2 was final­ly con­quered by two Ital­ian climbers in 1954, who reached the sum­mit, frost­bit­ten and half-mad, as Joan­na Kaven­na puts it in a review of Cone­frey’s spell­bind­ing book, “in a moment of sub­lime anti­cli­max.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Sur­re­al Paint­ings of the Occult Magi­cian, Writer & Moun­taineer, Aleis­ter Crow­ley

Aleis­ter Crow­ley: The Wickedest Man in the World Doc­u­ments the Life of the Bizarre Occultist, Poet & Moun­taineer

Aleis­ter Crow­ley & William But­ler Yeats Get into an Occult Bat­tle, Pit­ting White Mag­ic Against Black Mag­ic (1900)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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