Text by David Roberts
On August 1, 2008, in a single disastrous chain of events, 11 climbers were killed high on K2’s Abruzzi Ridge in Pakistan’s Karakoram Range. One of the worst accidents in mountaineering history, it made headlines around the world. Surprisingly, along with outpourings of sympathy for the victims, the tragedy generated a virulent backlash.
The vast majority of the public assumed that the climbers on K2 (a much harder and more dangerous peak than Everest) had duplicated the scenario indelibly captured in Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air—affluent novices buying their way into a deadly ordeal. Web posts on the New York Times’s site commented, “Heroes my ass. No one should feel an inch of sympathy for these eggheads” and “They engaged in marginally suicidal behavior and wound up dead. To me, they were stupid and reckless beyond all limits.” Even the great Tirolean mountaineer Reinhold Messner railed against purported “K2 package deals” luring beginners to the mountain, and concluded that “something like this is just pure stupidity.”
Upon further analysis, however, this year’s K2 disaster bore no resemblance to the storm-generated fiasco on Everest in 1996. The climbers who perished on the Abruzzi Ridge were not dilettantes purchasing spots on guided “Yellow Brick Road” expeditions; they were, for the most part, experienced mountaineers. Several had attempted K2 before; several had climbed Everest; and others had performed big-wall climbs in the great ranges.
Most of those who died, it seems, simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was not incompetence that doomed them so much as incredibly bad luck, all of it hinging on the spontaneous collapse of a mass of ice.
“I called it the Motivator,” says Ed Viesturs, “because you sure wanted to get out from under it as quickly as possible.” Viesturs, who climbed K2 in 1992, is referring to a huge overhanging serac above the Bottleneck, a 60-degree couloir at 27,100 feet that most climbers agree poses the trickiest and most dangerous passage on the popular Abruzzi route.
American climber Carlos Buhler, who traversed the same terrain in 1994, concurs. “You break every rule in the book when you go up the Bottleneck,” he says. “That serac is just hanging over you—it’s a nightmare.”
“And yet,” Viesturs adds, “the Motivator looked the same year after year. It seemed to be pretty stable.”
On August 1, after waiting weeks for a window of good weather, some 20 to 30 climbers from separate expeditions set out for the summit. While Dren Mandic, a Serb, and Jehan Baig, a Pakistani, fell to their deaths during the ascent, at least 18 made it to the top. Descending after dark, most were in the vicinity of the Bottleneck when the serac that had hung in place for decades suddenly collapsed and sloughed off the mountain.
As ADVENTURE went to press, the precise sequence of events that snuffed out the lives of three Koreans, two Sherpas from Nepal, a Frenchman, an Irishman, a Norwegian, and another Pakistani was far from clear. Such uncertainties are common in big-range mountaineering. But it seems likely that the collapsing serac took three or four climbers with it on its 9,000-foot plunge to the Godwin-Austen Glacier. And by wiping out the fixed ropes that had been strung up the Bottleneck, the collapse stranded a number of other climbers above the lethal couloir, where they faced a bivouac at some 27,200 feet without shelter, sleeping bags, food, or water. Some of the remaining climbers may have frozen to death, and others may have fallen in desperate efforts to climb down the Bottleneck without fixed ropes. At least four men, however, performed that last-ditch descent successfully, collapsing exhausted into lower camps on the mountain, some of them with severe frostbite.
In the immediate aftermath of the accident, the accounts of the survivors verged on incoherent, and their various stories could not be reconciled. The Italian Marco Confortola, for instance, the last survivor evacuated from base camp, told reporters that he and Irishman Gerard McDonnell had bivouacked above the Bottleneck. After resuming the descent, they were caught in an avalanche. “I saw my friend Gerard’s boots falling among the blocks of ice and snow,” said Confortola. “That was the worst moment.”
Dutchman Wilco van Rooijen, meanwhile, insisted that he had joined Confortola and McDonnell on the mountainside. He later told Reuters that after the serac collapse, panic had set in: “Everybody was fighting for himself, and I still do not understand why everybody [was] leaving each other. People were running down but didn’t know where to go.”
Van Rooijen informed Adventure that he eventually parted ways with Confortola and McDonnell and descended alone. “I was on the wrong side of the mountain,” he said. “I was lost. . . . There were so many moments when I thought I saw a climber and thought I heard voices, but I knew there couldn’t be people there.” Van Rooijen missed Camp IV altogether but ultimately crawled into Camp III, where teammates revived him.
Some heartrending stories also emerged from the disaster. Cecilie Skog, the wife of Norwegian climber Rolf Bae, had climbed Everest and reached both Poles with her husband. On August 1, she watched as the serac carried Bae to his death, then she descended safely with a teammate. McDonnell, the first Irishman to climb K2, had left a farewell note on his online blog upon leaving base camp, a phrase in Gaelic that translates as “That’s all for now, friends. The time is coming.”
What or who, in the initial analysis, was to blame for this disaster? Some of the survivors criticized others on the mountain. Van Rooijen lashed out at unnamed climbers who had fixed the ropes in the Bottleneck in “the wrong positions.” As he told the London Times, “We were astonished. We had to move [them during the ascent]. That took, of course, many, many hours.”
The delay, van Rooijen claimed, caused the climbers to reach the summit far too late in the day. (Additional time was lost attempting to rescue Mandic and Baig.) Some climbers didn’t top out until around 8 p.m. Says Viesturs, “I can imagine them coming down exhausted and counting on the fixed ropes. When the ropes were gone, it’s possible some waited for daylight, and a few, perhaps, tried to downclimb the difficult terrain and fell off.”
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But Greg Child, who climbed K2 in 1990 by a harder route than the Abruzzi, says, “8 p.m. is about when I reached the top. An experienced climber ought to be able to get down in the dark. K2 is a much harder go than Everest, so there’s no agreed-upon turnaround time. Turnaround times, in fact, are an invention of commercial guiding operations, because their clients need boundaries.”
A number of K2 veterans pointed out that today’s overreliance on fixed ropes may have contributed to the death toll. Ten or fifteen years ago, climbers on K2 would have been roped together and carrying ice screws. With the fixed ropes stripped from the Bottleneck, the stranded climbers could simply have set up rappels—as Buhler did in 1994, after judging it an easier and safer alternative to clipping in to the then minimal fixed ropes. But this year’s climbers carried neither ice screws nor their own ropes.
Fixed ropes or no, K2 remains a harsh mountain. Between its first ascent in 1954 and 2007, only 284 climbers reached K2’s summit, while 66 died on the mountain. During the same period, Everest saw 3,681 aspirants reach the top, with a death toll of 210. In terms of the ratio of summit successes to fatalities, K2 is four times as dangerous as Everest.
In more than a century of climbing in the Karakoram and the Himalaya, only an avalanche on Nanga Parbat in 1937, which took the lives of seven German climbers and nine porters, stands as a deadlier single accident than this year’s K2 disaster. And in the history of mountaineering worldwide, it is hard to find a similar predicament, in which the natural breakdown of a ridge or face doomed the climbers who were stranded above it.
Child offers a final perspective. “I’m not going to put the boot into any of those folks. They were on K2 for the same reason I was when I went. To me, it was the ultimate test of mountaineering. “But something like this is bound to happen again. What the hell—climbing is dangerous.”
Additional reporting by P. Kirkpatrick Reardon; Map by Haisam Hussein, with photograph by Mike Farris