Death or glory: The truth about K2

Swept away by avalanches, left dangling at the ends of their ropes and crushed by falling ice – these were the fates of 11 mountaineers who perished on K2 earlier this month. In Pakistan, Andrew Buncombe talks to the survivors, and pieces together a horrifying chain of events that led to one of the worst climbing accidents in history

Sunday 23 October 2011 02:01

Somewhere above 8,000m things are going very badly wrong for Wilco van Rooijen. All but blinded by altitude sickness, his brain and body slowed by lack of oxygen, he staggers and stumbles helplessly down the precipitous slope of the mountain. The searing elation that the 40-year-old had experienced just hours before on reaching the peak of K2, perhaps the world's most dangerous mountain, is long extinguished. He has already seen two other climbers fall to their deaths and he knows that all around him others are battling for their lives, struggling to get off the slope.

Stranded in the so-called Dead Zone, he forces himself to block out all other thoughts from his numbed mind – his wife and nine-month child at home in the Netherlands, the safety of base camp – and focus simply on surviving. Somehow he has to get off the mountain. "All you are thinking is that you have to survive," he recalls later, sitting with bandaged, frostbitten feet in a hotel in Pakistan. "You have to get out."

Van Rooijen was lucky: 11 other climbers were not. They died in the space of a few hours in a series of incidents that together represent probably the worst mountaineering tragedy on K2, the world's second highest mountain. Among them were some of the sport's most experienced climbers. But when the situation turned against them – a combination of bad luck and poor weather, poor communication and perhaps hubris – their experience was not enough. Even now, all the details of the disaster are unclear. But, pieced together from interviews with survivors and other first-hand accounts, what follows is an attempt to explain what happened when things went drastically wrong on the Savage Mountain.


K2 is enormous. It soars from the rubble-strewn ice of the Baltoro glacier straight and steep, a massive Himalayan pyramid formed not by the labour of slaves but by the massive forces of plate tectonics. The northern, little-climbed Chinese side is the steepest. But even from the south, the pyramid rises an average of 9,200 feet in less than two and half miles. Viewed from the south-east, in Pakistan, its looming vastness dominates the Karakoram landscape.

Though several hundred feet lower than Mount Everest, K2 is a considerably tougher challenge. While there have been more than 3,700 successful ascents of Everest – the mountain these days being routinely ascended by inexperienced "corporate climbers" – up until the end of last year there had been only 284 successful attempts on K2. Since it was first summitted in 1954, 66 people have died on the mountain, almost all on the way down. Which makes climbing K2 more dangerous than playing Russian roulette.

Until this month, the deadliest disaster on the mountain took place in 1986. During that so-called Black Summer, 13 people were killed in a series of incidents triggered primarily by the mountain's notorious bad weather. Among those to perish were British climbers Al Rouse and Julie Tullis.

Why is the mountain so dangerous and difficult? Experts say that it is both physically demanding and technically difficult, with a notorious couloir or gully towards the summit known as the Bottleneck that has traditionally been a major challenge for even the most adept climbers.

"It's a lot steeper than Everest. Basically, it's a giant pyramid," explains Jim Curran, a climber and documentary maker, who was filming Rouse's ill-fated 1986 expedition and who helped in the desperate rescue mission. Curran, who wrote of the disaster in K2: the Story of the Savage Mountain, adds: "There are no easy routes, they're all hard. It also has its own weather system. The good weather rarely lasts long enough to complete an ascent." But for the hardcore, this is much of the attraction. For climbers and adventurers seeking the ultimate challenge for body and mind, there is nothing to match reaching the 8,611m (28,250ft) summit of K2. It is the mountain of mountains, the climbers' summit. And for those who do succeed on reaching the top, it is an accomplishment virtually none have dared repeat. Even for those prepared to risk everything, there are limits.

Among those willing to risk everything this summer were six separate expeditions: Van Rooijen's Dutch-led Norit team that also included the Irish climber Gerard McDonnell from County Limerick, a Serb-led team, a number of Korean climbers, a French and American team and teams of Norwegian and Italian climbers. Leading the Italian contingent was Marco Confortola, an experienced climber and Alpine guide from Valfurva.

By the end of July, the teams were in advanced base camp waiting for the all-important break in the weather. Their expensive long-range forecast predicted there would be a short break over the first weekend of August and that all the climbers, more than 30 all together, would have to try for it over the course of couple of days. It was going to be very crowded. They needed a plan. So the leaders of the various expeditions gathered and agreed an arrangement whereby different teams would provide various ropes, flags and sight-lines. It was agreed that once they reached Camp IV, the highest camp, at 7,800m, a team of the best climbers would set out to lay the fixed ropes, a safety line attached to the mountainside with ice screws and pitons. But even the best laid plans – and these could not be described in such a way – can go wrong.

Friday 1 August 2008

In the early hours of 1 August, the first group of climbers and high-altitude porters – the Pakistani equivalent of Sherpas, but without the history or culture of climbing – start out to lay the fixed ropes. Among this first group are Korean climbers, who apparently insist on laying out the fixed rope earlier than had been planned.

"Not everyone was as capable," says Pemba Gyalje Sherpa, a Nepalese Sherpa invited to join the Norit team by Van Rooijen and McDonnell.

This simple decision means that by the time they reach the bottom of the steep Bottleneck there is insufficient rope. When Van Rooijen and

the second group of climbers arrive they order the ropes from the lower sections to be repositioned higher up. This causes a delay and also means the climbers are crowded together waiting to climb the couloir. There is a bottleneck at the Bottleneck.

Jelle Staleman, a 26-year-old climber from the town of Nieuwegein, near Utrecht, in the Netherlands who is making his way from Camp IV to the Bottleneck, can already see what is happening. Calculating his own speed and the likely delay at the couloir, he realises he will not get to the summit until perhaps 8pm. He takes the decision to turn around. He says it probably saved his life. "I had been walking for four or five hours and it was starting to get light," Staleman says afterwards, as he waited in Pakistan to fly home. "You choose between life or the mountain. At the time, you are asking yourself, 'is this the right decision?', but afterwards you realise it's the right decision."

Others decide to press on even though the pace is slow, taking the climbers 12 hours to pass an area that might normally take five. And then the first tragedy strikes. Dren Mandic, a member of the Serb team, unclips himself from the fixed rope to overtake another climber, but as he does so he slips and falls. There is a discussion as to whether to try to recover Mandic's body. In the confusion, a Pakistani porter, Jehan Baig, tries to help but also falls to his death. At this point, some of the climbers decide to turn around. Among them is Cecilie Skog, a Norwegian climber who is making the ascent with her husband Rolf Bae. The couple have only been married a month.

Bae, a highly experienced climber and Arctic explorer presses on. He is be among the first to reach the summit, at around 3pm. He then starts back down the mountain, passing through an area known as the traverse above which are vast ice cliffs or seracs. These huge pieces of ice are notoriously unstable; they routinely fall, weakened by the strength of the sun in the late afternoon or at night, when the ice starts to contract and harden. It is Bae's misfortune that they should break just as he is passing below. As his wife, Skog, watches from further down the mountain, Bae and the two fallen climbers are subsumed by tons of ice.

Skog, the only woman to have climbed the highest mountain on each of the seven continents, has returned to Stavanger. She has yet to publicly talk of what happened, but her manager, Bjorn Sekkesæter, said the team had been preparing for the climb for several years. At the time of the accident that killed Bae, the weather was perfect. "This accident was not caused by any human failure," Sekkesæter said in an email. "Rolf was on the wrong place at the wrong time. But since K2 was one of Rolf's dreams we have also said that he was at the right place at the wrong time."

It is 7pm and dark when Van Rooijen reaches the summit with colleagues Pemba Gyalje Sherpa and Cas van de Gevel. They celebrate briefly and start their descent. Van Rooijen is slower than the others. They push on while he descends with Confortola and McDonnell. Several hundred metres ahead of them, visible by a humble torchlight strapped to their climbing packs, are a group of the Korean climbers. Suddenly, the light disappears.

The three men continue to try to make their way down the mountain, searching for the fixed rope that would indicate the top of the traverse. Unknown to them, the falling ice seracs that killed Bae and his two colleagues have also destroyed the lines. The falling ice also traps Sherpa Jumic Bhote in the Bottleneck. His colleague Sherpa Pasang Bhote tries to help him but both men fall to their deaths.

Also trapped above the Bottleneck by the destruction of the fixed ropes is veteran French climber Hugues D'Aubarede, descending with Pakistani porter Meherban Karim. Just days before, D'Aubarede, 61, a grandfather from Lyon, had written on his expedition blog: "I would love it if everyone could contemplate this ocean of mountains and glaciers. They put me through the wringer, but it's so beautiful. The night will be long but beautiful."

Now, with no obvious route down the mountain, D'Aubarede is concerned that he will run out of bottled oxygen and tells his colleagues that he has to descend at all costs. He tells Karim to go ahead. Later, Van de Gevel will tell his colleagues that he saw D'Aubarede fall to his death in the darkness. Perhaps as little as 10 minutes later, his climbing partner, Karim, also falls.

Somewhere at the top of the couloir, Van Rooijen, Confortola and McDonnell decide they can go no further in the darkness. "We were very tired, we said then that we would bivouac [camp] for the night," remembers Van Rooijen.

Saturday 2 August

Van Rooijen can barely see. He wakes up some time in the early freezing hours and realises his vision is severely impaired, all but blinded by the mountain's icy glare. He has been wearing goggles, but the altitude and exhaustion are taking their toll. If he were able to see, he would notice that the weather has worsened overnight and that snow is swirling and creating a white-out. The situation is critical.

For mountaineers, the altitude above 8,000m is called the Dead Zone for a very simple reason. At this height, there is about a third of the normal amount of oxygen available. The body tries to cope with the lack of oxygen by creating extra blood cells and increasing the heart-rate. It is hard to digest food and even the simplest of tasks is exhausting. It's common to spend a lot of time being sick. After more than just a couple of days without additional oxygen, the body begins to die.

"Just turning over in your sleeping bag can leave you fighting for breath," says another climber involved in the expedition, who asked not to be named. "It is very difficult."

And yet for all these dangers, many still opt to climb at this height without the help of bottled oxygen. Some say it is more of challenge, more pure. Reinhold Messner, the legendary mountaineer who first summitted all 14 of the world's 8,000m-plus peaks, said it was the only "fair means" of climbing. It is certainly many times more lethal.

"I had not drunk for 16 hours, it was 8,000m and it was freezing cold," Van Rooijen says afterwards. He has spent the night in the open with Confortola and McDonnell, but he knows he cannot wait for help to come. He starts his way down the mountain and somehow finds his way to a section of fixed ropes that had not been destroyed and starts edging his way down. Then he encounters the next disaster.

Hanging in a mess of tangled climbing ropes are the three Korean climbers whom he had lost sight of the previous evening. It is unclear what has happened but two are hanging upside down, unconscious. Van Rooijen shouts to the one who is able to speak, saying he is unable to help, that he can barely see. To cut the ropes would send them plummeting to their deaths. The Korean asks for some gloves, which Van Rooijen throws to him. He promises that he will send for help.

Some time after this, Confortola and McDonnell arrive at the spot where the Koreans are entangled. The details of what happen next are not precise; at that altitude is easy to lose track of time and the sequence of events. But afterwards, Confortola says that for three hours he and McDonnell tried to free the Koreans but were unable to do so.

The pair make a decision to continue their descent but at that point the Irishman starts back up the mountain. Why? No one knows for sure, but his friends are convinced that he was still trying to help those still trapped. Confortola decides that he has to continue downwards. Exhausted, he soon falls asleep on the slopes, only to be wakened by the sound of rumbling.

Confortola opens his eyes to see an avalanche racing down the mountain less than 100ft from where he lies. In the rubble of snow and ice he can see human debris and yellow boots sticking from the ice. It is the bodies of McDonnell and the three Koreans. After he is rescued several days later, Confortola, tearful and emotional, recalls: "All of a sudden I saw an avalanche coming down. It was only 20 metres to my right. I saw the body of Gerard sweep past me."

The previous day McDonnell had become to the first Irishman to top K2 and had telephoned his partner, Annie Starkey, from the summit using his satellite phone. Shortly before the summit bid, the 37-year-old had written on a blog: "Let luck and good fortune prevail, fingers crossed."

Last week, with the body McDonnell and those of the other climbers unrecovered, his family held a memorial service at his hone in Kilcornan. The Irish President, Mary McAleese, said of the climber and his family: "Following so closely on their righteous pride, and that of the country... it is truly heartbreaking that they must now contemplate the loss of a beloved son and brother."

On that fateful Saturday early this month, meanwhile, Van Rooijen, is still staggering blindly down the mountain. The Serb team has failed to bring flags to place on the fixed rope so he has no idea where the safety line is. He does not even know in what direction he is heading. Then he discovers he is at the top of the Bottleneck. He searches for the fixed ropes that should have been there but fails to find them. What he does not know is that they have been destroyed by the avalanche that killed Rae and the others. He has no alternative but to descend the Bottleneck without the safety lines. One slip will mean an instant death.

Sunday 3 August

Van Rooijen wakes at 5am. He has been forced to spend his second night bivouacked in the open on the mountain. He has managed to descend the Bottleneck and use his radio to call his colleagues at Camp IV. But unable to see, he has had to simply follow their directions and he ends up getting lost again. Overnight, he has eaten some snow to try to rehydrate his body. He realises it will further lower his body temperature but – desperate for water – he has no option. Waking at first light he has walked for another three hours. And then he sees some tents.

Somehow he has walked as far as Camp III, but reaching it from a different direction. Situated at 7,100m the Dutchman knows he is safe. Waiting for him at Camp III is Pemba. After Van Rooijen called his colleagues, experts in the US were able to help locate his position from the location of his satellite phone. Then his orange-jacketed figure was spotted the previous afternoon by a spotter at base camp and Pemba, waiting at Camp IV with Confortola, had moved down to Camp III to intercept him.

Pemba, a lean, quiet man from the Everest region of Nepal, is one of the disaster's heroes. After summitting K2 he had descended without fixed ropes, rappelling down (using rope and harness) with three other Sherpas and arrived at Camp IV at around 1am in the early hours of 2 August. Pemba had been vomiting repeatedly. He was given liquids and salts and slept. At 10am he had got up, put his climbing gear back on and headed back up the mountain to find his friends.

Pemba was particularly close to McDonnell – the pair had previously climbed Everest together – and that Saturday he tried in vain to help him. However, he had been able to find Confortola. "There was a lack of manpower and equipment," he says afterwards, also recovering in Pakistan. "I was able to help Marco. I found him at 8,000m. He was sitting in the snow, unconscious. He was completely flat, lying down. I had taken one small bottle of oxygen for emergencies and I was able to use that. After about 10 or 15 minutes he started to move and became conscious."

Pemba helps Confortola down the mountain, slowly and cautiously. The Italian is suffering severe frostbite in his toes and fingers but Pemba is able to assist him to Camp IV. There the Italian is given more oxygen and water and allowed to rest. It is at that point he learns that Van Rooijen has been spotted somewhere on the mountain between Camp III and Camp IV and he hurries down to intercept him.

At around 10pm, Van Rooijen, Gevel and Pemba make it into advanced base camp having walked down the mountain via the so-called Cesan route. Nick Rice, the young American, is among those to receive them. He writes in his blog: "Tonight will surely be yet another test of their courage, as their limbs are thawed and the extent of their injuries is revealed."

Monday 4 August

As the world is slowly learning of the full extent of the disaster that has taken place on K2, efforts are underway to send Pakistani military helicopters into the mountain basin to rescue the last climbers – by that point, only Confortola. But the altitude is simply too great for helicopters to operate safely.

There is no alternative but for the Italian to continue down on foot, trying to ignore his near exhaustion and agonising frostbite.

Van Rooijen and Gevel are picked up from the base camp by separate helicopters and flown to the northern Pakistani town of Skardu, where they are taken to hospital. Van Rooijen rages that people had failed to work together for their survival. "They were thinking of 'my gas, my rope', or whatever. Everybody was fighting for himself and I still do not understand why everybody was leaving each other," he tells Reuters from his hospital bed.

Meanwhile, Confortola is accompanied on the remainder of descent from Camp IV by an American climber and three Pakistani porters sent up from lower down the mountain meet up with him. As he makes his way towards advanced base camp at 6,000m, Confortola makes a number of radio calls to his colleagues.

One call is to Agostino Da Polenza, head of the Ev-K2-CNR, the expedition organiser in Italy. He tells him that he is alive and that is determined to get off the mountain. "Of course, of course, I'll keep going," he tells Da Polenza. "Imagine if I gave up now."

Wednesday 13 August

Those who survived are safe. Confortola has returned to Italy. The Dutch team is gathered in the Regency Hotel on the outskirts of Islamabad. Close to the hotel's large glass doors is a huge pile of climbing equipment – tents, sleeping bags, crampons and other hardware brought back from the mountain.

Pemba is due to fly to Nepal and will then travel to China to participate in a corporate expedition. "This is my profession," he says by way of explanation. The following day the rest will fly home to Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport and from there to Ireland to attend McDonnell's memorial service.

For now, they sit drinking tea, tending to their injuries and thinking about what has happened. Much of the time is spent updating their expedition's website and speaking with officials and relatives of those who died. They are determined to try to provide as much insight as they can.

The sunburnt climbers are friendly if, unsurprisingly, somewhat shell-shocked. After all, they have survived while so many of their friends perished. But even at this point, it is clear that the experience will only deter them from climbing for a while. To a non-addict, the lure of this high-altitude drug appears monstrous, unfathomable.

Van Rooijen, the expedition leader, suggests that while McDonnell's death is a tragedy for his family, for climbers it is an acceptable way to die. When he speaks, he does so very matter-of-factly. There is no false bravado. "It's hard to believe, but our passion is in the mountains," he says. "If you die in the mountains... it happens at the highlight of your life... You are living for your passion. If you die when you are 90, then that is great. But for mountaineers it's acceptable to die where your heart is."

Tragedy at 8,000m: the adventurers who did not return
By Simon Usborne

GERARD MCDONNELL, 37, Irish oil engineer living in Alaska. He had reached the South Pole and was the first Irish person to reach the summit of K2. Died after trying to free Korean climbers from their ropes.

HUGUES D’AUBAREDE, 61, French mountaineering veteran from Lyon. Divorced with two daughters and two grandchildren. Worked in insurance. Fell while descending.

MEHERBAN KARIM, a young Pakistani high-altitude porter from the Hunza Valley. Climbed with D’Aubarede. Fell while descending.

DREN MANDIC, 32, a member of the Spartak Mountaineering Club in northern Serbia. The first of the 11 to die when he slipped passing another climber.

JEHAN BAIG, young Pakistani porter from the Hunza Valley. Climbed with D’Aubarede. Fell during the ascent while trying to rescue Dren Mandic.

KIM HYO-GYEONG, 33, Korean member of the South Gyeongsang arm of the Korean Alpine Federation, which sent an eight man team to the peak of K2 in 2000. Struck by falling ice.

PASANG BHOTE, 34, Nepali Sherpa. Died attempting to rescue his friend, Jumik Bhote. They were from the same village but were not related.

HWANG DONG-JIN, 45, renowned Korean mountaineer, who had climbed three of the Himalayas’ 14 peaks above 8,000 metres. Led the Korean team. Struck by falling ice.

ROLF BAE, 33, Norwegian explorer and owner of an adventure company. Survived by his wife, the mountaineer, Cecilie Skog, who witnessed his death. Killed by falling ice.

JUMIK BHOTE, ABOUT 25, Nepali Sherpa with the Korean team. From the village of Hungung. His girlfriend, Dawasangmu, gave birth to a son days before Bhote was killed. Struck by falling ice.

PARK KYEONG–HYO, 29, one of 20 Korean climbers who reached the summit of Everest in May 2007. Struck by falling ice.

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