K2: The Killing Peak
Credit: Courtesy Joel Shalowitz/Sharedsummits.com

When we first reported about last summer's disaster on K2 ["The Killing Peak," by Matthew Power, November '08], a few facts had not yet come to light. As Gerard McDonnell and Marco Confortola began their descent, they came across three members of a Korean expedition, injured and tangled in their ropes. Despite the memory fog of hypoxia, Marco recalled that after trying to save them, he and McDonnell began to head down, but then McDonnell turned around and went back to help. Because McDonnell and the Koreans were killed, what happened next became clear only after press time. Photographic evidence recently showed that McDonnell had in fact freed the Koreans, and that the entire group had begun the trek down. Marco had reported seeing McDonnell's body that morning, but evidence now points to him having seen the body of Karim Meherban, a Pakistani porter. Gerard McDonnell was killed by icefall during the descent. Minutes later the Koreans and the Sherpas were swept away by an avalanche. It's now clear that McDonnell had performed a selfless and heroic feat: a successful rescue attempt above 8,000 meters. He could have proceeded down and saved himself, but he sacrificed his life in order to try to save others.

The three climbers watched as the last sliver of sun traced the curvature of the Earth in a belt of dying flame. Two miles below, the striated expanse of the Baltoro Glacier was already dark, matching the cold interstellar blackness overhead. One by one, the massive peaks of the Karakoram winked out: Gasherbrum I and II, Broad Peak, Muztagh and Trango Towers, Chogolisa. Then the sun vanished, and the brief twilight swallowed the mountain on which they stood: K2, the highest and least forgiving in the range. For every four climbers who have reached its summit, one has died in the attempt.

The three – Gerard McDonnell, Marco Confortola, and Wilco van Rooijen – knew they had just seen something no sane mountaineer would ever wish to witness: a sunset from above 27,000 feet. Precious few who have seen one have lived to describe its glory. At that altitude every breath is a labor; each lungful of air holds only a third of the oxygen at sea level. Their bodies and brains were already beginning to shut down, and the coming darkness would bring brutal, minus-40-degree cold that would singe any exposed flesh. Experienced mountaineers all, Gerard, Marco, and Wilco knew they had pressed their luck by continuing to the top so late in the day.

Only an hour earlier, they had been jubilant. Standing on top of K2, at 28,251 feet, Marco had waved an Italian flag from a trekking pole, and Gerard had held an Irish one overhead with an ecstatic grin. An adventure-loving 37-year-old from Limerick by way of Anchorage, Gerard had made a giddy sat-phone call to his girlfriend on the far side of the world. Wilco, a lanky 40-year-old Dutchman with a wife and nine-month-old son, was not given to displays of patriotism and had not carried a flag to the summit, but he was still overjoyed. He grabbed his friend Gerard in a huge bear hug, the two jumping with a delight that overpowered their exhaustion.

Now they were perilously late, and, given their state of fatigue, they knew they had no time to waste. But where was the rope?

On the ascent they had relied on a single rope to guide them up through the treacherous labyrinth of ice and stone near the summit. They needed the rope even more on the descent, when one misstep could send them plummeting off the face. (To save weight they carried no ropes of their own, planning instead to rely on the ones that had been anchored to the ice.) They switched on their headlamps and scanned the slope, their crampons crunching back and forth on the snow. Nothing. The rope was gone. They had no way down, not in the dark.

Atop the world but cut off from it, the trio had no idea that they were key figures in an unfolding tragedy, rumors of which were already bouncing around the globe, from garbled internet updates all the way to page one of the New York Times. As they had pushed to the summit, a series of snafus and errors in judgment – some of their own making – had cascaded into one of the worst disasters in the history of mountaineering. More than 20 climbers had set out for the summit that morning. By the time the devastating chain of events of August 1 and 2 had run their course, 11 climbers from seven countries would be dead. Not one in four now, but closer to one in two.

Even as their families and friends awaited word on Gerard's, Marco's, and Wilco's fates, laptop and armchair debates began to rage over their purported selfishness and misguided reliance on fixed ropes and porters. It seemed, from the outside, that K2 had become the latest stop of the Into Thin Air circus train that started on Everest in 1996. But a fuller investigation of the tragedy shuts down all those old clichés. In interviews with key participants, including Western climbers, Pakistani authorities, and Nepalese Sherpas – as well as real-time eyewitness reports from some who never returned and even GPS data from satellite phones and altimeter watches – a far more complex tale emerges, marked by moments of selflessness and even heroism, as well as heartbreaking loss and staggering overconfidence.

As night fell on August 1, far too high on the flanks of the world's second-highest peak, the only thing that mattered was survival. Using his ice ax, Marco dug makeshift seats for himself and Gerard. Wilco descended to them, and the three prepared for every climber's nightmare, an open bivouac above 27,000 feet. "We said nothing to each other," Wilco recalls, "because we had nothing to say."

Despite the heavy down-filled climbing suits they all wore, Gerard's legs were dangerously cold, so Marco rubbed them, tending to the shaggy, bearded Irishman he'd jokingly nicknamed "Jesus." Wilco had lost his water bottle, and none of them had any food. (Not that it mattered: The human body can't digest food at that elevation.) And they had no bottled oxygen because they did not believe in climbing with it. All knew rescue was impossible; they could only save themselves. Wilco steeled himself, his mind coalescing around one thought: Just survive until first light.