K2: The Killing Peak
Credit: Courtesy Joel Shalowitz/Sharedsummits.com
VI: Lost on the Mountain

Ten hours later, on the last morning of his life, Gerard McDonnell woke up shivering in his down suit. He had managed to doze off on a small snow ledge that Marco had carved for him. The first light brightened the sky at around 5 am, and he could see that Marco and Wilco were also alive; they had all miraculously survived the night on the mountain. But even in daylight, the route down was still not clear. Gerard and Marco stood and traversed back and forth across the slope, trying to find the way. Wilco, whose water bottle had disappeared somewhere on the way up, was severely dehydrated and beginning to go snowblind.

"I said, 'Listen, I'm not going to discuss anymore. I'm going down. I have to survive. Doesn't matter if this is the right direction or not; I'm going down. Directly down.'" He didn't care which side of the mountain he ended up on: "If it's China, it's China." With that, he left his companions and set off alone.

Throughout the night there had been chaos and confusion up and down the mountain, with no one certain who was attempting to climb down or who was bivouacking above the Bottleneck. Worried teammates sent out frantic calls to find out who was trapped in the death zone, above 26,000 feet, but communication was a mess: Batteries had died in the cold, radios were switched off, and sat-phones had been handed off to other climbers. Meanwhile, the mountain exacted a terrible toll.

Worried about the time and feeling fatigued, Rolf Bae had turned back before the summit, while his wife Cecilie and his friend Lars pushed on. Rolf waited for them above the Bottleneck; when they returned he began to lead them to Camp 4. Rappelling down the fixed lines as the moonless night deepened, the three had been the first to reach the traverse at around 10 pm, crossing back beneath the immense overhanging serac. Cecilie watched the beam of Rolf's headlamp bobbing in front of her as they made their way across the difficult traverse. Suddenly there was a rumble, a shower of snow and ice, and a huge jolt on the line
that knocked Cecilie off her feet. Rolf's light had vanished.

Rolf Bae had walked to the North Pole. He had skied across Antarctica. He had made all the right decisions, turning back less than 200 yards from the summit.

But on K2, fate always plays the last card: A huge section of the hanging glacier had calved off and slid down the Bottleneck, sweeping him to his death. The falling serac scoured the fixed ropes from the Bottleneck and left the 17 climbers trapped above with the choice of climbing down without a safety line – in the dark – or waiting in the death zone for a rescue that would probably never arrive.

Unaware of the icefall that had killed Rolf, Cas followed Pemba down through the Bottleneck an hour or so later. In the darkness, he passed Hugues, who was descending alone. The 61-year-old Frenchman was out of bottled oxygen, and his porter Karim Meherban, last seen on the summit, had by now vanished.

Continuing on, Cas blithely descended a 50-meter emergency rope the Norwegians had hung at the spot where Rolf had been killed. He could feel that the rope was unanchored, dangling into the couloir, and he went very slowly to avoid slipping off its end. Minutes later, as Cas picked his way down the Bottleneck in the darkness, a human form tumbled past him a few meters away. He believes it was Hugues, either coming off the end of the rope or falling in the descent.

Not far behind Pemba, a Nepalese member of the American team named Chhiring Dorje and another Sherpa, nicknamed Little Pasang, reached the top of the Bottleneck. Somehow Little Pasang had lost his ice ax in the descent. Down-climbing without an ax would be suicidal. So Chhiring, a 10-time Everest summiteer, did something astonishingly selfless. He tethered Pasang to his own harness, and the two Sherpas began the 500-meter down-climb together. "If we stay, we will die," Chhiring told Little Pasang. "If we fall down, we will die together." Twice they slipped, and both times Chhiring managed to arrest their fall with his single ice ax.
The next morning, Wilco somehow stumbled upon the correct route down to the top of the traverse. But the rope was indeed gone. Partway down the slope he found out why. A group of three Korean climbers were badly tangled in ropes, with one dangling upside down. They had been out all night and were in very bad shape, semiconscious and unable to stand. One Korean told Wilco that they had radioed for help, and a rescue party of Sherpas and other Koreans was on its way up.

Wilco gave the Korean his spare gloves and kept descending. At a press conference after the tragedy, another member of the Korean team stormed up to Wilco and basically accused him of leaving the three Koreans hanging on the mountain. "It was a question of survival," Wilco told him. "There was nothing more I could do to help them, and they said that they were waiting to be rescued."

A hundred yards below, Wilco looked back up and saw that Gerard and Marco had followed his route down and arrived at the Koreans. Too exhausted to climb back up the slope, he shouted at them. There was no response; all five seemed to be barely moving. Disoriented, Wilco wandered farther and farther down the steeps, free-climbing down an unknown route. He was utterly lost, with no idea where he was in relation to Camp 4. His only notion was that down was good.

This is where events become confused in the memory fog of hypoxia, exhaustion, and cold. Later on Marco would claim that he and Gerard had stopped for three hours to try to help the dying Koreans; Wilco thinks that if they had stopped for so long it would have been suicide. Whatever the case, Marco said that every time he tried to get the Koreans to stand, they would slump over. One Korean was bootless, he recalled, and Marco had tried to cover one foot with a spare glove.

By mid-morning Marco and Gerard had left the Koreans and continued toward the traverse. A trained mountain rescuer, Marco felt sick that he hadn't been able to help the Koreans, but his own situation was growing desperate. He could barely feel his frozen toes as he kicked his crampons into the ice. Suddenly, Marco said later, Gerard turned around and began to climb back up the slope, back toward the Koreans, offering no explanation.

Marco continued along the traverse and down into the couloir. He had been out on the mountain for more than 30 hours, and he later said he dozed off in the snow. He woke up to a loud cracking noise far above. Another icefall roared down the Bottleneck, slamming into Gerard. Marco watched in horror as his friend was swept toward him in a roiling mass of ice and snow, coming to a halt 50 feet away. He could see Gerard's boots sticking out of the ice, his body ripped apart and strewn across the slope by the force of the slide.
Marco had only met Gerard in Base Camp that spring, but weeks later, he would break into tears at the memory of his friend "Jesus," with whom he'd conquered the greatest mountain of his life and with whom he'd survived one of his worst and scariest nights. "He was always smiling," Marco told an interviewer. "He was a flower." Gerard touched people that way. In Ireland, his memorial service would draw more than 2,000 mourners.