K2 survivors defend attempt on summit

Steve Boggan in Skardu, Pakistan, reports on the controversy surroundin g the death of the British climber Alison Hargreaves
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Two climbers who survived six nights on K2 without a tent have defended Alison Hargreaves's decision to climb the mountain despite Pakistani army warnings that it was "suicidal".

Lorenzo Ortas, 42, and Pepe Garces, 38, spoke out yesterday in an attempt to counter growing claims that Ms Hargreaves' doomed assault on the 28,251ft mountain was tragic folly. They said the six dead were simply the victims of a freak violent storm.

The two survivors were with a Spanish party that made for the summit on 13 August with Ms Hargreaves, the American Rob Slater and New Zealander Bruce Grant. Six of the eight-strong party died when high winds swept them from the slopes less than an hour after they reached the summit.

On Saturday, Captain Fawad Khan, the expedition's liaison officer with the Pakistani army rescue services, said he had pleaded with Ms Hargreaves not to challenge the mountain. He said the weather had been appalling for 10 days before the final climb, thwarting two earlier attempts and burying ropes, tents and equipment under 2 metres of snow.

"It was suicidal and I told her so," said Capt Fawad. "She had already tried twice and came down to base camp. There was a big conference where most climbers from other expeditions decided not to climb. There was 2 feet of snow at base camp and 2 metres at Camp 4 at 8,000 metres. I said: 'If you go back up you will kill yourself because at Camp 2 you will not be able to find your ropes and tents and equipment and you will die'."

For a time, it appeared Ms Hargreaves was heeding the advice and she packed up her equipment and arranged for porters. "She was all ready to leave, but suddenly she said: 'I will climb'. I was very surprised. I thought she was crazy," said Capt Fawad.

Yesterday, Mr Ortas and Mr Garces, who stayed at Camp 4 because they were suffering from frostbite, argued that Ms Hargreaves' judgement was sound. "The conditions on the mountain were very very good," said Mr Garces, a professional mountain guide. "It was cold, but that's normal. It was -20F which made the snow very firm and ideal for climbing. There was nothing wrong with Alison's judgement.

"When the others in our team reached the summit, there was no snow and no wind. That was between 6pm and 7pm, but then within 15 minutes the wind came up incredibly strongly. One minute it was fine, the next it was very dangerous."

The Spaniards, whose equipment blew away in the wind, were rescued from K2 base camp after six days and flown by army helicopter to Skardu in the Karakoram range of the Himalayas. They told how, during their descent, they saw Ms Hargreaves's boots, distinctive violet jacket, and harness. Finally, from a distance of 300 metres, near Camp 3, they saw a body which they believe was Ms Hargreaves. She had fallen some 1,500 metres.

"I was the last to see her alive," said Mr Garces. "I was coming down to Camp 4 because I couldn't make the summit as my hands were very, very cold. She saw me and asked what I was doing, so I told her. She said: 'I'm going up'. She was in good spirits and was climbing very strong and very fast."

Mr Ortas said the 33-year-old mother of two spent much time with him at base camp. "We have children about the same age, and she said she would like to go home to be with her's. She missed them very much. Some Dutch climbers had a fax machine and she would send letters to the children regularly.

Mr Garces said he believed the climbers who decided not to tackle the peak - including Peter Hillary, son of Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to climb Everest - had been simply "cold and tired", not concerned about the weather. Mr Hillary is not expected to reach Skardu until tomorrow at the earliest.

Last night, controversy over the weather conditions was fuelled further when another Spaniard, Jon Lazkano, 26, who has climbed with Lorenzo Ortiz, one of the dead, returned to Skardu from K2. He said: "I was at Concordia below base camp and from there I could see swirling clouds covering all of K2 above Camp 2 on the day the climbers died. I would not have climbed. The weather was fine everywhere else, but not around the mountain. The problem was that many people were pushing each other for the summit and they felt a false sense of strength in numbers."