Not Quite So Thin Air

Eleven climbers die in avalanche high on K2, but details are scarcer than opinions
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Eleven climbers die in avalanche high on K2, but details are scarcer than opinions

A probable total of 11 mountaineers were killed early Saturday when falling serac ice hit a large group of climbers descending a steep gully beneath the summit of K2 (28,251 feet), the second highest – and perhaps most difficult – peak on earth.

While Everest garners headlines, K2 is considered the biggest prize by mountaineers due to its steep, beautiful pyramid structure, technical difficulty, severe weather and high objective danger from storms, avalanches and rockfall. Even the standard Southeast Ridge routes(both Abruzzi and Cesen routes share the upper slopes) routinely turn back ultra-experienced Himalayan mountaineers.

Saturday’s accident happened on summit-day sections of the Southeast Ridge as at least 22 climbers, who had begun their climb around 1a.m. on Friday, August 1st, were descending from the peak.

News reports -more accurately called ‘pre-news’ reports - are rocketing around the globe, propelled by brief satphone interviews of one strong climber who was high on the mountain at the time of the accident, but has now returned to basecamp. Early dispatches said 9 were dead, and three missing. Now it seems as if 11 are dead, and the one missing person, Wilco Van Rooijen, leader of a large Dutch/International expedition, has turned up frostbitten after spending several open nights above 26,000 feet. No climbers remain unaccounted for. Two injured and frostbitten climbers, including Rooijen, have already been evacuated from base camp by helicopter. One injured Italian must still be helped down the Black Pyramid, a thousand-foot step of steep rock on the lower route.

The avalanche apparently struck a 17-person cluster of alpinists as they were descending through the Bottleneck while returning to high camp. The Bottleneck is an hourglass gully with a 300-foot near-vertical section in the center. It is considered the crux of the route due to its steepness, altitude (27,000 feet), and the way it forms a dangerous gauntlet for descending summiteers. It is threatened by periodic avalanches from a huge ice cliff overhead. Climbers must ascend the gully, then traverse underneath the serac. Most of the group were international members of Van Rooijen's expedition.

Statistically speaking, Annapurna is the most dangerous and least-summited Himalayan 8,000-meter peak due to its stormy location and moderate terrain that’s perfectly pitched to release massive avalanches. However, K2 always had the highest rate of fatality for descending summit climbers, in no small part thanks to the Bottleneck. Prior to Friday at least 10 climbers had previously fallen off or been swept from the couloir. Overall, between 1954 and 2007, K2 saw roughly 284 ascents and 66 fatalities, many of them extremely expert alpinists. That ratio may now be closer to 300 vs. 80.

Climbers waiting in CampIV after a long spell of bad weather left for the summit at 1 a.m. on Friday, August 1st. Several hours into the climb a Serbian duo apparently fell to their deaths in the Bottleneck. The incident and aftermath put many climbers well behind schedule. The Dutch group didn’t summit until 8p.m.on Saturday. On the descent an injury to one climber further delayed the party. Then the ice serac collapsed onto the traverse near the top of the Bottleneck, tearing all ropes out of the couloir and sending three climbers to their deaths.

After the avalanche, most of the slope was now hard ice and unstable debris. Two climbers down-climbed the steep section below and continued to CampIV to organize other climbers and porters for a rescue effort of stranded climbers. The other climbers waited near the 27,000-foot level for assistance. As of press time it is not known how long they waited, but spending excess time above 26,000 feet without oxygen is not a viable option. The remaining fatalities happened as increasingly hypothermic and altitude-sick climbers fell while trying to descend the Bottleneck’s steep ice. Apparently a Sherpa and the Korean climber he had gone back up to rescue both fell into a crevasse and died.

Frederick Strang, a Swedish climber who in 2005 set the record for fastest overall time to climb the Seven Summits, was apparently climbing to retrieve the body of a deceased friend when he encountered the main group of 17. While he was descending, Strang also witnessed the fatal fall of a Pakistani high altitude porter. All early first-hand accounts come primarily from interviews with Strang.

Both K2 and its summit day push can be characterized as steep, dangerous and long – considerably tougher than Everest. High camp to summit times on K2 routinely run from 16 to 24 hours, not counting descent. Strang mentioned that several of climbers were exhausted and frostbitten when he encountered them.

According to the Swedish news Agency TT, Strang is quoted as saying “The accident could have been prevented. These mountains lure out way too inexperienced and naive people.” He blamed the incident on “bad knowledge about the mountain, people that did not turn around in time and relied on others rather than their own skills.” Reinhold Messner has also weighed in with brief comments about crowding and unqualified climbers.

However, it seems as if the victims were mostly climbers who had grouped loosely together for the descent. Virtually all those missing and presumed dead are experienced Himalayan mountaineers. Many were returning to K2 for their second or third attempts. Unlike Everest, technical difficulties on K2 prevent wealthy but otherwise unqualified clients from getting very far up its slopes. In fact, climbing from CampII to CampIII requires ascending 1,200 feet of near-vertical rock.

Pronouncements such as Strang’s, which may have been taken out of context, often prove overly harsh in later review, like the quotes from New Zealand Everest summiter Mark Inglis, who inadvertently disparaged Everest compatriots in 2006 by claiming that 40 people walked past dying climber David Sharp enroute to their summit.

The media immediately pounced on that sentence fragment and bounced it off of Sir Edmund Hillary who, like many retired adventurers, took the opportunity to denigrate modern-day descendants. “…people just want to get to the top,” Hillary told the local Otago Times in New Zealand. “They don’t give a damn for anybody else who may be in distress.”

This conveniently appalling portrayal was later softened by eyewitnesses and even documentary footage, but the presumed callousness and incompetence of Himalayan mountaineers remains a dearly held dogma among the media and public. Messner, the first person to climb all 14 8,000 meter peaks, and himself the target of many unjust accusations, has ironically gained a reputation for slamming the exploits of adventurers who were born A.R. - After Reinhold.

The ‘truth’ is that eight-thousand-meter peaks are dangerous enough to kill without any human bumbling, and K2 is one of the most challenging, and sketchiest, projects in mountaineering. The big K2 catastrophes, however, generally involve weather. In 1986, a storm killed 12 on the mountain. In 1995, another storm killed five. Numerous climbers have died in ones and twos from rockfall or high altitude. Virtually all of them have been formidably experienced.

Details are still emerging, but if early reports are correct, this will be a larger catastrophe – although very different in nature – than the May 1996 Into Thin Air debacle which remains a mainstay of adventure TV and magazine analysis even after a dozen years. I’m sure screenplays and movie deals are already being drafted. Opinions are flying fast and thick. Facts, however, may take a bit longer. – steve howe

For the most informed updates go to www.explorersweb.com, and www.k2climb.net.