TRAGEDY ON K2 : Steve Boggan in Islamabad talks to the man who organise d a fateful ascent
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On the wall in Abdul Quddus's gloomy and cloying office is a menacing photograph of K2. The picture hangs darkly above his desk, a constant reminder that, like the sea, some of nature's creations demand respect.

It is a respect earned not only by the harshness of the unpredictable storms and the sheer, imposing rock and snow edifice, but by the bodies of at least 40 climbers it holds in its icy grasp.

At Mr Quddus's desk in an area of Islamabad known as G/91, he planned the expeditions to challenge K2's summit, assaults that would lead to the deaths of seven climbers, including Alison Hargreaves.

And it was in this dim strip-lit room that news of the tragedy first came through.

"It had been a mixed season," said Mr Quddus, general manager of Nazir Sabir Expeditions. "We were pleased because a Dutch team had made it to the top, then there was disappointment because a Spanish team tried and failed in July and one man died.

"Then, on 13 July, three expeditions from New Zealand, America and Spain attacked the summit." He said the company's tour guide at the scene, Imam Yar Baig, told him by satellite telephone of the impending assault on the summit.

"He said he would give further news by the evening but there was no call from him," said Mr Quddus. "We heard nothing for two days and then Peter Hillary called to say there had been a big mishap. People were missing on K2. One of the climbers, the Canadian, Jeff Lakes, had already died at camp two and Peter had buried him. He said six more people were killed."

More disturbingly for Ms Hargreaves's family, Mr Hillary said the guide had seen a body from Abruzzi Ridge, several thousand feet away. From the corpse's clothing - which he did not describe - he believed it was Ms Hargreaves.

"I don't know how they can be sure, but they seemed to be positive," Mr Quddus said.

Among those missing are three unnamed Spaniards, the American, Rob Slater, and the New Zealander, Bruce Grant. It is not yet known what fate befell them. There was speculation yesterday that they may have caused a build- up of snow to avalanche, or that the group was roped together and fell whenleading climbers lost their footing, or that they were simply overcome by bad weather.

"I believe they were descending and that is more difficult than ascending," Mr Quddus said. "There was a north-easterly storm blowing, and that would have hit their backs, making it almost impossible to stay upright.

"I'm afraid that after so many days on the mountain at 25,000ft and in such bad weather, there is no hope of survival."

At Mr Hillary's request, Mr Quddus told no one of the tragedy until fellow climbers leaked the news. Even when a fax arrived from Ms Hargreaves's husband, Jim Ballard, telling how their children Tom, six, and Katie, four, had been enjoying their summer, he said nothing. The fax remained on his desk in the vain hope that the news could be broken gently on Mr Hillary's return.