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

The survivors trickled into base Camp like soldiers defeated in battle. Wilco, Cas, and Pemba made it by late evening on August 3, and in the mess tent hospital, Meyer began the delicate process of warming up Wilco's frostbitten toes and Cas's fingers in a bath of heated water. He also tried an experimental application of Alteplase, a $1,000-per-dose medicine usually used to prevent tissue damage in stroke and heart attack victims.

Marco was still out on the mountain, exhausted and in agony from his frozen feet. After Gerard was killed, he had fallen asleep again in the snow. "I would have died there if it were not for Pemba," he later said. The Sherpa had climbed up from Camp 4 carrying a bottle of oxygen to revive the unconscious Italian. As they descended together another avalanche rumbled through the Bottleneck, a chunk of ice hitting Marco in the head. Pemba still managed to drag him, half-­conscious, back to the relative safety of Camp 4. But Marco still had to get the rest of the way down on his crippled feet.

In the morning an army rescue helicopter picked up Wilco at Base Camp, then took a pass over Camp 2, hoping to make a risky high-­altitude sling rescue of Marco. The pilot decided against it and flew Wilco to the military hospital in Skardu. (Cas was evacuated on a separate helicopter.) As Wilco was lifted up and away from the vast wind-scoured peak that had haunted him for so many years, he clutched the model he had made of his barn back in the Netherlands.

Meyer, Klinke, and the remaining members of the Norit and American teams gathered in Base Camp, exhausted and shattered. In Gerard's tent someone had found a final precious can of beer, which Gerard had been saving to celebrate a successful return from the summit. The group sat around in a circle on the glacier, while each took a sip from the can, sharing memories of their lost friend: his endless jokes, his broad smile, the way he would sing in Gaelic, the way he was friendly to everyone he met. The president of Ireland proclaimed him a national hero.

Marco limped in a day after Wilco and Cas were evacuated, having spent a total of four days on the mountain. His feet were black with frostbite, and he too was airlifted out. The surviving members of the Korean team hired a military helicopter to carry them back to Skardu. For the rest there were the somber tasks of packing the gear of their dead friends for the long trek back to civilization and hammering the names of the dead into tin plates to hang at the Gilkey Memorial, a symbol of how the mountains bring out the best in us even as they exact a heavy price.

Whether the events on K2 displayed the highest ideals or the final degradation of mountaineering remains unanswered. Meyer and his teammate Paul Walters returned from the Karakoram with similar conflicted feelings. The greatest moments of heroism and selflessness in the entire tragedy were displayed by those who'd been pushed hardest, the Sherpas: Pemba going out again and again on the mountain to save Marco, to search for Wilco in the snowy wastes; Chhiring descending with Little Pasang clipped to his harness. Saddest of all, a Sherpa named Big Pasang had ascended the Bottleneck to try to save his Sherpa friend Jumic, who in turn had tried to rescue the three stranded Koreans. Pemba later saw the two Sherpas' lifeless bodies, broken and tangled in rope, in a debris field at the base of the Bottleneck.

"People underestimate what an entirely different level the Sherpas are on as climbers," says Meyer. Even more remarkable, he adds, "is their enormous sense of responsibility for the people they are climbing with."
But despite all those acts of selflessness, many climbers feel that something must change in K2 mountaineering. Walters feels that some of the summiteers had approached K2 with the "mentality of clients, almost," relying on the Sherpas' skills and endurance. "There were so many useless climbers on the mountain," says Pemba. "Lazy, didn't want to do hard work. Always looking for a HAP or a Sherpa to set the lines or break trail. It was not fair mountaineering."

Meyer lays some of the blame on the business model of expedition sponsorship. "If what they're after is publicity," he says, "their sponsors were probably not disappointed." Walters takes it further. In his view, everybody involved has a commercial interest in pushing mountaineering to its limits, from the lowest-paid HAPs to the multinational corporate sponsors. That money has poisoned mountaineering, he believes. "For all the people backing climbing, this is a good result," he says bitterly. "People know if they can push it to some sort of an edge, they'll get more sponsorship. They want to be at that limit, I think. And that's why nobody took the decision to turn around and go back. Rather than coming back as great survivors or heroes, they would have come back as failures. Just ordinary failures."