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

As the climbers trudged up into the bottleneck, just after 11 am, a Serbian climber named Dren Mandic unclipped himself from the rope. Numerous early press reports claimed that Mandic was trying to pass other climbers, but Lars Naesse, a Norwegian who was right behind him, says this is not true, that Mandic was merely adjusting his oxygen system. While unclipped, the Serb stumbled and fell backward, crashing into Cecilie Skog and knocking her down. Still falling, Mandic grabbed wildly at the rope, jerking two other climbers off their feet. He then lost his grip and tumbled down the steep couloir, pinwheeling hundreds of feet back down toward the Shoulder. "Just one moment, and he was gone," says Wilco.

A few minutes later Meyer and Sträng got a radio call reporting that Mandic was still moving and decided to climb back up to see if he could be helped. At the same time, two Serbians and an inexperienced Pakistani HAP, Jehan Baig, were descending to the spot where Mandic lay. By the time they arrived he was dead, but on orders from their team leader in Base Camp, the Serbians decided to try to bring the body back to Camp 4. Body recovery above 8,000 meters is usually considered an unnecessary risk, but it wasn't a steep slope, and it didn't seem overly dangerous to the group. But not long after they started moving Mandic, Jehan Baig began to lose his balance, grabbing in a panic at the ropes attached to the body, then at Sträng, who screamed, "Use your ice ax!" As Jehan Baig began sliding down the glacier, picking up speed, he made no effort to self-arrest with his ice ax – perhaps a mountaineer's most hard-wired act of self-preservation – and rocketed headfirst over the edge of a huge cornice. Deeply rattled, the group covered Mandic's body with a Serbian flag, anchored it to the mountainside with an ice ax, and trekked back to Camp 4.

In the Bottleneck, things were not going well. Near the back of the line Wilco, Cas, and Gerard were growing impatient as the group slowly made its way along the traverse, waiting as ropes were put in place. In such a high-altitude traffic jam, one can move only as fast as the slowest climbers. Pemba, a world-class mountaineer climbing without oxygen, watched in frustration as an exhausted Korean climber spent almost an hour moving just a few paces up the rope. "When you are going up so slowly in a group of maybe 20 people, it's like an inchworm," says Wilco. "With more people around, everyone thinks it'll be okay. But on K2 there is no safety in numbers."

One of the strictest rules of mountaineering is the turnaround time: an agreed-upon hour at which a summit attempt will be abandoned, no matter what, to allow enough time to return to camp in daylight. It was already 2:30 pm when the group made it through the traverse and out from beneath the overhang. They had lost six hours in the Bottleneck, but the remaining climbers did not turn around. They could almost see the summit now.

News reports and climbing blogs later ascribed the decision to press on so late in the day to groupthink, a case of summit fever. Reinhold Messner, widely considered the greatest living mountaineer, called the decision "pure stupidity."

But the climbers knew that if they didn't go for it now, there would be no second chance. K2 has one of the longer summit days in the Karakoram, as much as 22 hours, and the weather was perfect. Marco Confortola shouted to the group that the Italian expedition of 1954 had reached the summit at 6 pm. "K2 is not a matter of making a time schedule," Wilco says. "Once it gets dark, you go back, but if you have ropes it's not a problem."

But the ropes were questionable at best. At the end of the traverse the trailbreakers had found a section of climbing rope made out of 8mm cord, fixed into the slope from the season before. The line had spent a year being exposed to the punishing elements and intense UV radiation at 27,000 feet, but it was the group's only protection as they began the final pitch toward the summit, a thousand feet up a 50-degree ice face.
The Norwegians reached the summit at 5:20 pm, followed by the Koreans and their porters. Next came Pemba and Gerard, who reached the summit at 6:30, then Hugues and his porter Karim. Wilco and Cas made it by 7 pm. All told, 18 people reached the summit, a patch of ice-covered rock no bigger than a living room, marking a tie for the single-day K2 record.

The Norit K2 team spent maybe a half-hour on top, snapping photos and congratulating one another, shouting and embracing and delighting in their achievement after so many foiled attempts. The first Irishman atop K2, Gerard held up his flag with an ecstatic smile, then placed a victorious call to his girlfriend in Alaska. He handed the phone off to Pemba, and the three of them started down just as Marco arrived, the last to reach the top, at 7:30. In Marco's summit shot, taken by Cas, the sun can be seen fading behind him. The Italian's photo was taken with a flash.