After the Conquest of K2

An Italian legacy revisited through the eyes of a Hawaiʻi photographer/writer and the recollections of a great-nephew.

In life, you have to ask yourself how far can you go,” suggested Ardito Desio, the Italian adventurer-scholar who led the first successful conquest of K2 in 1954. These words have proven to be the guiding star of his great-nephew and University of HawaiÊ»i Adjunct Professor of Anthropology Guido Carlo Pigliasco, who also is an accomplished Pacific Island scholar, attorney and Explorers Club Fellow.

Unlike Sir Edmund Hillary who embraced his ascent of Mt. Everest in 1953 as his life’s singular achievement, Desio did not see the conquest of K2 as his greatest moment. Instead Desio often claimed that “Crossing the Libyan Desert by camel caravan,” was one of his most cherished memories. What he won’t tell you in the same sentence is how bandits attacked Desio’s expedition and that he was nearly killed by a stray bullet in the ensuing gun battle. Professors of geology don’t ordinarily engage in gunfights, but Ardito Desio was no ordinary man.

With Pigliasco’s introduction, I visited with Desio’s daughter, Mariela, who resides in Rome. Over the course of a week, she recounted her father’s life and showed me around her father’s impressive archives which contained not only books, but also sketches, artifacts, ledgers, notes and thousands of photographs. Desio’s body of published scholarly work reads like the bibliographical achievement of 10 scholars: His 433 publications include scientific and popular science papers; 245 articles in newspapers and journals on geographic, geological and mineral exploration, stratigraphic and regional geology, paleontology, glaciology, geology applied to engineering, and hydrogeology. Even the University of HawaiÊ»i’s Hamilton Library has a copy of his monumental textbook Geologia Applicata all’Ingegneria.

“When he was only 30 years old,” Mariela recalls, “my father founded the Chair of Earth Sciences at the University of Milan.” To this day, that department bears his name. Although his life’s work would eventually take him around the globe, Desio’s name is forever linked with the conquest of K2; the “King of Mountains.”


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Portrait of Ardito Desio by Italian artist Federico Ferrari, 1959 (courtesy Ardito Desio Archives in Rome).

My friendship with Pigliasco began more than 20 years ago through a mutual friend, and we have remained close ever since. Although born in Honolulu, I lived in Europe for six years and climbed my first mountain in Swizerland as a Boy Scout. I knew then I loved the cold of high, glacial ice. When the 50th anniversary of the first ascent of K2 began to loom in the horizon back in 2004, Pigliasco’s solution to paying homage to his great-uncle’s legacy was simple. “You go!” he said, skipping over the question that would normally be the predicate to such a declaration. “You’re a climber,” Pigliasco commented while listing my bibliography of mountains, “and you can represent our family.”

“I’ll make some calls,” he said. And that was how a half-Italian, half-Japanese adventure travel writer and photographer from Honolulu ended up being loosely attached to the 2004 Italian K2 National Climbing Expedition.

After a year of road work and weight training, equipped with state-of-the-art gear to endure temperatures that dip to minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit at night, I arrived at K2 base camp on the Pakistan side of the mountain at 17,000 feet and set up my North Face VE25 as my home for next two and a half months.

I confess that at that very moment, gratitude toward my friend for getting me there was not one of the emotions I was feeling.

As a memento, I had stuffed into my pack a HawaiÊ»i state flag which flew over my one-man “2004 K2 Hawaiian Expedition,” and which I later presented to Pigliasco in remembrance of his great-uncle’s landmark achievement.

No less than 11 expeditions from around the world came to climb K2 in honor of the jubilee celebration. The difference in height between Mt. Everest (8,849 meters) and K2 is more than just 238 meters. In the first 50 years, since both mountains were successfully climbed, more than 4,000 people reached the summit of Mt. Everest but barely 300 have done the same on K2. Mountaineers will agree that the combination of unpredictable weather, the severe angle of ascent along the Abruzzi Ridge, the technical aspects of the route, the cold and the lack of oxygen above 8,000 meters, gives K2 the edge as the meanest mountain on earth. When Desio was at K2 more than 60 years ago last summer, it was the culmination of years of planning, millions of dollars, the back-breaking work of 500 Baltistani porters and, as always, a huge chunk of luck. The historic telegram announcing that the summit had been achieved stated simply: “Victory dated thirty first July. All well. Together at base camp.”

Pigliasco reflects on his great-uncle’s legacy, “Ardito’s life spanned three centuries (1897-2001), two World Wars and five continents.” After a moment, he continued, “As long as I live, I will always recall the emotions I felt every time I joined my great-uncle for his afternoon tea; the big window open onto a central boulevard of Milano bustling below with a Burmese bronze Buddha statue sitting in the foyer and in the living room, Afghan rifles, Ethiopian spears, a 1929 expeditionary ice axe, an Indian mandala and an endless array of exotic artifacts that populated my childhood dreams.”

On the 60th anniversary of the ascent of K2, Desio’s life is remembered as a man driven by enormous intellect, scientific curiosity and the thrill of adventure. In that same way, the “Ardito gene” flourishes today in his great-nephew and my dear friend, Guido Carlo Pigliasco.

Along with numerous other national and international awards, honorary citizenships and medals, below is a just a few of Desio’s titles and honors:

Knight of the Grand Cross of the Order of the Italian Republic
President of the Italian Geological Society
Vice-President of the French Geological Society
President of the Italian Geological Committee
Honorary Member of Gesellschaft für Erdkunde (Berlin Geographical Society)
Recipient of the Patron’s Medal of the Royal Geographical Society
Recipient of the Explorers Club’s Medal (New York City)
Recipient of the U.S. Antarctic Service Medal

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