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

Late that night, Eric Meyer arrived back at Base Camp, where the Norit K2 team's mess tent had been hastily converted into a triage unit. Nobody knew what injuries would be coming down off the mountain, and with no certainty of a quick helicopter rescue, he had to be prepared for anything. He had been nearly killed himself when a rappelling line snapped and he flipped head over heels to the next anchor. "If I needed another sign that it was time to get off the mountain, that was it," he says.

His teammate Chris Klinke tried to organize communications, which had all but broken down in the panic on the mountain. Rumors and theories bounced between the camps like a game of sat-phone "operator," compounded by the fact that only a handful of people on the mountain spoke English as their first language. It was clear that bad things were continuing to happen on the mountain, but reliable details were hard to come by.

Picking his way down the icy wastes of the mountainside in the afternoon of August 2, Wilco heard his sat-phone ringing. It was his wife in the Netherlands. She next called the manager of the expedition's website, who contacted Thuraya, the satellite phone company, whose staff searched their computer server in Dubai and managed to get a rough GPS fix on the spot from where the call had originated. Klinke and a Dutch team member traced the location onto a map of the mountain and realized that Wilco had somehow wandered down off the Shoulder and was now well below Camp 4, far from any established route.

Peering through a telescope at around 5:45 pm on August 2, Klinke spotted a lone figure in an orange climbing suit moving slowly through the wastes of snow and shattered rocks far to the left of the Cesen Route. He thought it was Wilco, but there was no way to know for certain. He radioed Pemba and sent him down toward Camp 3 to try to intercept the lone climber.

Wilco still had no idea where he was on the mountain. His headlamp batteries had died; he tried to scavenge some from his walkie-talkie, which he promptly lost. He punched his fists into the snow to anchor himself as he descended. Nothing looked familiar; he knew he was taking greater and greater risks, but he was running out of strength. He was so thirsty he began to eat snow, which caused blisters to form inside his mouth, making his dehydration worse. It was growing dark again, so he stuck his ice ax into the snow and roped himself to it, and prepared to spend a second night on the mountain. He had been exposed to K2's elements for 40 hours and was beginning to hear voices. "That second bivouac – I was thinking this isn't going to end well," he says.

Knowing Wilco was not far away, Pemba tried to reach him on the sat-phone Gerard had given him on the summit. Somewhere in the blackness, across the vast expanse of an avalanche slope near Camp 3, Pemba heard Wilco's phone ringing, echoing across the peak. But this time, there was no answer.

In the early morning the spotters in Base Camp called Pemba and told him the orange dot was just a few hundred meters from the tents of Camp 3. He and Cas traversed the slope, guided to Wilco's location by radio from Klinke, who witnessed the scene through a telescope at Base Camp. Klinke watched as the three tiny spots of color reunited against the white enormity of the mountainside.