All routes up the southeast ridge of K2 – by far the most popular way to the top – converge at a steep ice couloir known as the Bottleneck. About a mile up the slope from Camp 4, climbers must head straight up the 50-degree couloir, then traverse left beneath a nightmarish overhanging wall of ice more than 300 feet high. After the traverse, the route angles up steeply toward the snowfield that leads to the summit. Climbing through the Bottleneck is like staring into a loaded gun, as fissured ice blocks called seracs, ranging in size from refrigerator to school bus, can crack off and fall without warning.
To negotiate the Bottleneck the teams agreed to send a nine-man trailbreaking party, along with 600 meters of rope, to fix a safety line along the route and pack down the snow in advance of the main summit party. Pemba was in the first group, as were several of the Pakistani HAPs, but one key person was missing: Shaheen Baig, the HAP leader who had been atop K2 before. He was vomiting uncontrollably from drinking bad water and had been sent down to Base Camp by Eric Meyer, the doctor. Wilco believes Baig's absence fatefully crippled the trailbreaking party.
There was another problem: ropes. Wilco's team had agreed to bring up 400 meters of rope, while the Italians had pledged 200. But when the teams reached Camp 4, the Italians' HAPs had brought only 100 meters. That left them with just 500 meters, which might be enough to navigate the Bottleneck, but nobody was sure. "It was our first inkling that things were not going to go well on the summit push," Meyer says.
The trailbreakers were meant to set out at 10 pm, but due to delays over the rope and the hypoxic slowness of humans at high altitudes, they didn't leave Camp 4 until half past midnight. Wilco says several of the planned nine trailbreakers "just didn't show up," so there were only four or five headlamps creeping up the slope in the darkness.
The strategy had been to start placing the ropes at the Bottleneck itself, where the gentler slope of the Shoulder steepened into the 50-degree couloir. But somewhere in the dark early hours of August 1, the trailbreaking party began fixing the ropes too soon, several hundred feet below the mouth of the Bottleneck. Pemba was helping break trail at the head of the group when the climbers unexpectedly ran out of rope. They were forced to fix their last anchor near the top of the Bottleneck, leaving the long traverse beneath the hanging glacier unprotected. Marco would later accuse the trailbreaking crew of using a section of Pakistani rope "not fit to tie hay bales with."
Meanwhile, huddled in their down suits in their tents, Wilco, Cas, and Gerard had barely slept, so anxious were they to begin the impossibly long summit day. They got up, melted snow for water, and affixed crampons by headlamp in the black night. At 2:30 am they joined the ragged line of climbers that had set out along the Shoulder. Within hours, as a beautiful sunrise lit up the Karakoram's spires, the group began to stack up in a long line at the base of the Bottleneck, with more than 20 people waiting directly beneath the precipitous ice wall.
The Bottleneck was jammed up, and Wilco was furious that the rope had been fixed through the "easy part" of the passage. "We lost many, many hours because of this stupid thing, which we already talked about many, many times in Base Camp," he says, deeply frustrated. A decision was made to cut a lower section of the rope and use it to protect climbers as they made their way across the traverse. A knife was passed down to cut the rope near its bottom anchor, and the rope was pulled back up to the head of the line. The weather was perfect, the sunshine brilliant. A photo of Gerard shows him helmetless, down jacket tied around his waist, looking up from the back of the long line at the immense white, hanging glacier. Beautiful as it was, the scene was anything but benign.
"It's really difficult to describe how ominous this overhanging serac was," recalls Meyer. Still far below the crowd at the Bottleneck, Meyer and his Swedish teammate Frederik Sträng realized they could never make the summit before dark and made the difficult decision to turn around and return to Base Camp. The situation, Meyer says, "had badness written all over it."