K2: The Killing Peak

Mj 618_348_k2 the killing peak
Courtesy Joel Shalowitz/Sharedsummits.com

When we first reported about last summer’s disaster on K2 [“The Killing Peak,” by Matthew Power, November ’08], a few facts had not yet come to light. As Gerard McDonnell and Marco Confortola began their descent, they came across three members of a Korean expedition, injured and tangled in their ropes. Despite the memory fog of hypoxia, Marco recalled that after trying to save them, he and McDonnell began to head down, but then McDonnell turned around and went back to help. Because McDonnell and the Koreans were killed, what happened next became clear only after press time. Photographic evidence recently showed that McDonnell had in fact freed the Koreans, and that the entire group had begun the trek down. Marco had reported seeing McDonnell’s body that morning, but evidence now points to him having seen the body of Karim Meherban, a Pakistani porter. Gerard McDonnell was killed by icefall during the descent. Minutes later the Koreans and the Sherpas were swept away by an avalanche. It’s now clear that McDonnell had performed a selfless and heroic feat: a successful rescue attempt above 8,000 meters. He could have proceeded down and saved himself, but he sacrificed his life in order to try to save others.

The three climbers watched as the last sliver of sun traced the curvature of the Earth in a belt of dying flame. Two miles below, the striated expanse of the Baltoro Glacier was already dark, matching the cold interstellar blackness overhead. One by one, the massive peaks of the Karakoram winked out: Gasherbrum I and II, Broad Peak, Muztagh and Trango Towers, Chogolisa. Then the sun vanished, and the brief twilight swallowed the mountain on which they stood: K2, the highest and least forgiving in the range. For every four climbers who have reached its summit, one has died in the attempt.

The three – Gerard McDonnell, Marco Confortola, and Wilco van Rooijen – knew they had just seen something no sane mountaineer would ever wish to witness: a sunset from above 27,000 feet. Precious few who have seen one have lived to describe its glory. At that altitude every breath is a labor; each lungful of air holds only a third of the oxygen at sea level. Their bodies and brains were already beginning to shut down, and the coming darkness would bring brutal, minus-40-degree cold that would singe any exposed flesh. Experienced mountaineers all, Gerard, Marco, and Wilco knew they had pressed their luck by continuing to the top so late in the day.

Only an hour earlier, they had been jubilant. Standing on top of K2, at 28,251 feet, Marco had waved an Italian flag from a trekking pole, and Gerard had held an Irish one overhead with an ecstatic grin. An adventure-loving 37-year-old from Limerick by way of Anchorage, Gerard had made a giddy sat-phone call to his girlfriend on the far side of the world. Wilco, a lanky 40-year-old Dutchman with a wife and nine-month-old son, was not given to displays of patriotism and had not carried a flag to the summit, but he was still overjoyed. He grabbed his friend Gerard in a huge bear hug, the two jumping with a delight that overpowered their exhaustion.

Now they were perilously late, and, given their state of fatigue, they knew they had no time to waste. But where was the rope?

On the ascent they had relied on a single rope to guide them up through the treacherous labyrinth of ice and stone near the summit. They needed the rope even more on the descent, when one misstep could send them plummeting off the face. (To save weight they carried no ropes of their own, planning instead to rely on the ones that had been anchored to the ice.) They switched on their headlamps and scanned the slope, their crampons crunching back and forth on the snow. Nothing. The rope was gone. They had no way down, not in the dark.

Atop the world but cut off from it, the trio had no idea that they were key figures in an unfolding tragedy, rumors of which were already bouncing around the globe, from garbled internet updates all the way to page one of the New York Times. As they had pushed to the summit, a series of snafus and errors in judgment – some of their own making – had cascaded into one of the worst disasters in the history of mountaineering. More than 20 climbers had set out for the summit that morning. By the time the devastating chain of events of August 1 and 2 had run their course, 11 climbers from seven countries would be dead. Not one in four now, but closer to one in two.

Even as their families and friends awaited word on Gerard’s, Marco’s, and Wilco’s fates, laptop and armchair debates began to rage over their purported selfishness and misguided reliance on fixed ropes and porters. It seemed, from the outside, that K2 had become the latest stop of the Into Thin Air circus train that started on Everest in 1996. But a fuller investigation of the tragedy shuts down all those old clichés. In interviews with key participants, including Western climbers, Pakistani authorities, and Nepalese Sherpas – as well as real-time eyewitness reports from some who never returned and even GPS data from satellite phones and altimeter watches – a far more complex tale emerges, marked by moments of selflessness and even heroism, as well as heartbreaking loss and staggering overconfidence.

As night fell on August 1, far too high on the flanks of the world’s second-highest peak, the only thing that mattered was survival. Using his ice ax, Marco dug makeshift seats for himself and Gerard. Wilco descended to them, and the three prepared for every climber’s nightmare, an open bivouac above 27,000 feet. “We said nothing to each other,” Wilco recalls, “because we had nothing to say.”

Despite the heavy down-filled climbing suits they all wore, Gerard’s legs were dangerously cold, so Marco rubbed them, tending to the shaggy, bearded Irishman he’d jokingly nicknamed “Jesus.” Wilco had lost his water bottle, and none of them had any food. (Not that it mattered: The human body can’t digest food at that elevation.) And they had no bottled oxygen because they did not believe in climbing with it. All knew rescue was impossible; they could only save themselves. Wilco steeled himself, his mind coalescing around one thought: Just survive until first light.

II: The Climber’s Obsession

In profile, K2 looks like a child’s drawing of an idealized mountain: a jagged, snow-clad pyramid of black stone, nightmarishly steep on all faces and plunging 10,000 feet to the surrounding glaciers. Spotted and named by members of a British trigonometric survey in 1856, K2 stands astride the Pakistan-China border in the Karakoram Range, at the center of the greatest agglomeration of high peaks on Earth. An Italian team first reached the summit in 1954, a year after Sir Edmund Hillary knocked off Everest.

Everest may be 800 feet higher, but K2’s notorious weather, its mind-boggling exposures, and its immense technical challenges make it far more dangerous than its taller sibling. In all, more than 3,679 climbers have summited Everest, while 210 have died. For all the righteous critiques of Everest and its commercial cattle drive, that mountain is actually getting safer. Only two climbers were lost in the 2008 season. The odds on K2 are much worse: Just 299 people have reached the top, and 77 have perished in the attempt, many after reaching the summit. Although numerous climbers have summited Everest multiple times, just three people have ever reached the top of K2 twice. Some years, nobody makes the summit at all.

For many among the obsessive, competitive fraternity of high-altitude mountaineers, K2 symbolizes the greatest test of will and ability a mountain can pose. American climbing legend Ed Viesturs, who summited after climbing through a storm, calls it “the holy grail of mountaineering.” Many who fail and live are drawn inexorably back, as though the mountain has its own gravitational pull.

“Everest is a circus,” says Wilco, who summited that peak in 2004. “It has nothing to do with mountaineering.” But his ice-blue eyes light up when he tries to describe the allure of K2: “It is the mountain of mountains. It’s the most difficult, the most dangerous, the most savage, the most … you can’t imagine.”
It was a sentiment he shared deeply with Gerard McDonnell, even though both men had nearly been killed on K2 before. This August marked Wilco’s third trip to the mountain. In 1995 he was climbing between Camps 1 and 2 on the Abruzzi spur, the most common route, when he got caught in a massive rockfall. A chunk of rock slammed him in the face and shoulder, shattering his cheekbone and snapping his arm. His humerus was jutting through his skin, and he lost a liter and a half of blood as his team desperately evacuated him to Base Camp, where he waited five days for a rescue helicopter to arrive. But he recovered, kept climbing, and returned again in 2006, this time in a large expedition that included Gerard.

The competitive, no-nonsense Wilco got along well with the amiable Irishman, whom he met for the first time on that expedition. A folk musician, motorcyclist, sometime oil worker, and avid mountaineer who’d lived in Alaska for nine years, Gerard showed a penchant for fun that was countered by his serious, professional approach to climbing. Wilco knew right away that this was someone he could trust.
During the 2006 expedition, Gerard too was almost killed by falling rocks, not far from where Wilco had nearly died a decade before. One stone struck his Kevlar helmet with such force it caved in a golfball-size section of his skull. He was evacuated by helicopter to the military hospital in Skardu, the closest major town.

Wilco visited Gerard in Alaska the following year. The Dutchman already had in mind a plan to assemble a small team of highly skilled, well-equipped climbers who wouldn’t need to depend on hired porters to make a summit attempt. Gerard was eager to return with him. They agreed that they should avoid the rockfall-plagued Abruzzi Route, which Gerard likened to climbing through an asteroid belt. “We did not even discuss whether we should return to K2 or not,” Wilco recalls. “We simply agreed that we would go back.”

III: Waiting in Base Camp

On May 17, 10 weeks before they stood on the summit, Wilco and Gerard and the rest of their team gathered in sweltering Islamabad, Pakistan. From there it was a two-day drive along the Karakoram Highway to Skardu, then another day by jeep to the village of Askole: the end of the road. With an army of 100 porters, each carrying a 50-pound barrel of gear and provisions for the long siege of the mountain, they marched for a week up mountain trails to K2 Base Camp, a moonscape of shattered rock atop the crevasse-riven Baltoro Glacier at 16,000 feet.

Wilco had recruited seven climbers he really trusted and secured sponsorship from Norit, a Dutch water-purification company. Along with Gerard there were Cas van de Gevel, a broad-shouldered and soft-spoken boyhood friend whom Wilco had climbed with for decades, and Pemba Gyalje, a Nepalese Sherpa who had summited Everest a half-dozen times, as well as several younger climbers.

The first team to arrive for the 2008 climbing season, Norit K2 had Base Camp to themselves for several weeks, and they quickly set to work. Wilco’s plan was to follow the Cesen Route up the flanks of K2, establishing a series of camps connected by fixed safety lines. It was to be a classic siege-style attack, setting 2.5 miles of fixed ropes up the mountainside to ferry supplies and equipment among four rather precariously situated camps. Their camp had a mess tent, a shower tent, a solar-powered internet hookup, even a refrigerator hacked into the glacier.

None of the team members would use supplementary oxygen, and the only Sherpa that they would rely on was Pemba, a full member of the expedition and the team’s most experienced mountaineer. Climbing K2 is a colossal physical undertaking, but the work of fixing the lines – setting up higher and higher camps and moving up and down the route – would help prepare them for their final push to the summit. Only 50 climbers had ever reached the top of K2 via the Cesen, but both Wilco and Gerard considered this newer route to be safer.

During downtime Gerard wrote occasional dispatches to friends and family: a good-luck wish to his girlfriend back in Alaska, who was climbing Denali; a thanks to his mother for sending some holy water. For the most part the outside world faded away, and the team focused on the vast brooding pyramid that “we hope to befriend over the coming weeks,” Gerard wrote. The mountain did not seem overly friendly. Jet-stream winds raked the summit, and avalanches rumbled ominously down its sides, sometimes sliding almost to Base Camp itself. At night the glacier groaned and cracked as it inched its way down the valley, sometimes disgorging the remains of dead climbers brought down from the upper slopes by avalanche: a human rib, a skeletal leg sticking out of a boot, an entire torso with the face half-pecked away by crows.

The climbing season is short in the Karakoram, from mid-June to early September, and in the first weeks of June a virtual UN of expeditions began to arrive to prepare for their own summit bids. A French team came, then a large, heavily outfitted Korean expedition, which had flown in several Nepalese Sherpas at great expense. Most other expeditions relied on Pakistani high-altitude porters, or HAPs, who were paid $2,500 each, with a $1,000 summit bonus, roughly equal to the average annual income in Pakistan.

They were followed by Serbians, Austrians, Singaporeans, and an Italian pair that included Marco Confortola, a 37-year-old alpine guide from Padua, with a gold hoop earring and a buzz cut. There was also an American-led expedition that included Eric Meyer, a 44-year-old anesthesiologist and specialist in high-altitude medicine from Steamboat Springs, Colorado. The only medical doctor in Base Camp, Meyer became the de facto GP, doing everything from diagnosing acute mountain sickness to pulling rotted teeth.

Gerard’s friend Rolf Bae, 33, a Norwegian polar-exploration legend, arrived in camp fresh from a 27-day ascent of 20,623-foot Great Trango Tower. He came to climb K2 with his wife Cecilie Skog, 33, the only woman to reach the seven summits and both poles. They formed a strikingly beautiful and charismatic couple, having been recently married and full of plans for a life of adventures together. By late June the population of Base Camp had swelled to around 80, the brightly colored tents scattered across the gray expanse of the glacier like candy sprinkles. It was still a far cry from Everest, with its internet cafe and high-paying clients.

Of all the international mountaineers who had arrived in Base Camp by the end of June, only Shaheen Baig, a skilled Pakistani HAP, had previously stood atop K2. Despite all their preparation and training, none of the other climbers was familiar with the uppermost reaches of the mountain. If for some reason Shaheen Baig could not make it, the summit push would become that much more difficult.

As June wore into July, the peak remained almost perpetually shrouded in storm clouds. The Norit K2 team made a dash for the summit around July 4, only to turn back before reaching Camp 4 when a brief weather window slammed shut. “Morale hit a new low for the team,” wrote Gerard on July 16.

Whiling away the seemingly interminable days in Base Camp, Wilco worked on a meticulous model of an old barn he was renovating in Holland. Gerard, a talented musician, kept his spirits up by playing drums with the HAPs and camp staff on upturned supply barrels. When a pregnant mouse started hanging around the mess tent he named her Sheena and serenaded her with the old Ramones tune “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker.” Voluble and friendly, the Irishman was well-known and well liked in every expedition’s camp. He kept his hopes up for a change in weather, but he knew the short season was dwindling away. Even some of the food barrels were beginning to run low. Still the team tried to stay hopeful. A snapshot shows a party they threw for their Italian friends, a few precious cans of beer scattered on the table, Marco’s arm thrown around Gerard’s shoulders.

To keep their hard-won acclimatization, small groups would hike to the Base Camps of neighboring peaks, or trek up to the Gilkey Memorial, a cairn of glacial stones erected by an American expedition in 1953 after the death of their 27-year-old teammate Art Gilkey. The entire team had abandoned its summit bid in a fruitless effort to save Gilkey’s life, at great risks to themselves. Their actions are now legendary among mountaineers and are often cited as representing the highest ideals of selflessness and teamwork, the very soul of mountaineering. The cairn has since become a monument to all K2’s fallen, adorned with plaques and tin plates stamped with the names and dates of those who never returned.

So late in the season, it became clear that any sign of decent weather would lead to a rush on the peak. There were big egos on K2, of course, not the least of which was Wilco, who worried that some of the other expeditions weren’t as well organized as his own. Wilco was especially critical of independent climbers who show up in camp and sponge off more prepared expeditions. He mentions Nick Rice, a 22-year-old self-styled “extreme high-altitude athlete” from California, who brought a generator to run his blogging laptop but no rope. “This is not how you climb K2,” says Wilco.

With so many climbers on the mountain, the teams recognized that their best hope was to work together, to avoid getting in one another’s way. A successful summit push would require careful planning of who would bring what supplies to Camp 4 at 26,000 feet – particularly the final sections of rope to be fixed on the route toward the summit. “The expedition leaders met 10 times. We were really ready for it together,” says Wilco.

Only, the weather failed to cooperate. On July 20, frustrated by the heavy snow and wind, a 61-year-old independent French climber named Hugues d’Auberede decided to give up and head home. But two days later there was a great surprise: Four independent weather reports, paid for by different expeditions, identified a likely shift in the jet stream by the end of July. “Just skip your work for another two or three weeks and then you can summit K2,” Wilco told him. Hugues phoned his wife in France and decided to stay.
“Morale in camp is very high,” wrote Gerard in a dispatch. “Electric.”

Final preparations were made, and the strategy was set. A large group – the Koreans, Serbians, Norwegians, Americans, Austrians, Spaniards, and Italians – would start up the standard Abruzzi Route on July 27. The following day the Norit K2 team, along with Hugues and a few others, would ascend the Cesen Route. The two teams would converge July 31 at Camp 4, on a corniced ridge called the Shoulder. They would join forces to set fixed ropes for the final push to the summit, more than 2,000 vertical feet above.

Before leaving Base Camp, Gerard sent one final message, finishing with the lines: “Let luck and good fortune prevail!!! Fingers crossed. Sin e anois a cháirde. Ta an t-am ag teacht.”

The last lines were in Irish Gaelic. They mean, “That’s all for now, friends. The time is coming.”

IV: Rush for the Summit

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.”

IX: No Regrets

In his hotel room in the monsoon swelter of Islamabad, a week after he had stood on the summit of the world’s deadliest peak, Wilco van Rooijen unwraps the bloody bandages from his feet. The toes are hideously swollen, shading from magenta to black like overripe plums, the skin bursting. He grimaces as he soaks them in a tub of warm water. Hopefully the experimental treatment Meyer gave him at Base Camp will save them, but he won’t know for months. Cas, his friend and climbing partner for 20 years, dabs them gently with iodine before bandaging them again.

Soft-spoken and shy by nature, Cas chokes up when he talks about Gerard as he tries to reconstruct and understand what happened on the mountain. Cool and dispassionate, almost aloof, Wilco talks for hours, going over every moment of what he remembers from the climb, of what went wrong. Having finally conquered the peak of his dreams, he is not afraid of the rumor mill of the mountaineering world or of the opinions of pundits.

“I have nothing to hide,” he says. “With this tragedy, if you’re really surprised about this, then you don’t understand anything about it. If you don’t want to face the risk, don’t go to K2.”

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