Death or glory: The truth about K2

August 28, 2008

Swept away by avalanches, left dangling at the ends of their ropes and crushed by falling ice – these were the fates of 11 mountaineers who perished on K2 earlier this month. In Pakistan, Andrew Buncombe talks to the survivors, and pieces together a horrifying chain of events that led to one of the worst climbing accidents in history. From The Independent:

Gerard McDonnell died in an avalanche on the Himalayan peak while attempting, fellow climbers believe, to free a trapped member of the expedition. PA / The Independent

Gerard McDonnell died in an avalanche on the Himalayan peak while attempting, fellow climbers believe, to free a trapped member of the expedition. PA / The Independent

Somewhere above 8,000m things are going very badly wrong for Wilco van Rooijen. All but blinded by altitude sickness, his brain and body slowed by lack of oxygen, he staggers and stumbles helplessly down the precipitous slope of the mountain. The searing elation that the 40-year-old had experienced just hours before on reaching the peak of K2, perhaps the world’s most dangerous mountain, is long extinguished. He has already seen two other climbers fall to their deaths and he knows that all around him others are battling for their lives, struggling to get off the slope.

Stranded in the so-called Dead Zone, he forces himself to block out all other thoughts from his numbed mind – his wife and nine-month child at home in the Netherlands, the safety of base camp – and focus simply on surviving. Somehow he has to get off the mountain. “All you are thinking is that you have to survive,” he recalls later, sitting with bandaged, frostbitten feet in a hotel in Pakistan. “You have to get out.”

Van Rooijen was lucky: 11 other climbers were not.


‘I saw K2 avalanche sweep them away’

August 10, 2008

Marco Confortola, a survivor of last week’s disaster in which 11 climbers died, talks about how the catastrophe unfolded. From Sunday Times:

In -40C six climbers gathered at the summit to celebrate conquering K2, the most dangerous of the world’s highest mountains.

Among them were Wilco van Rooijen, a Dutchman, and Gerard McDonnell, a seasoned Irish climber based in Alaska. For both it was a triumph after a previous attempt had ended in injury and failure. Now, here they were, two years on, finally on top of the 28,251ft peak.

As the group tucked away their flags, McDonnell was joined by Marco Confortola, an Italian Alpine guide with whom he had struck up a friendship.

“The two of us hugged as the others started to leave,” Confortola told The Sunday Times last week. “He was like an Alpine flower; I called him Jesus because of his beard.”


Previously in AW:

What makes K2 the most perilous challenge a mountaineer can face?

The Big Question: What makes K2 the most perilous challenge a mountaineer can face?

August 5, 2008

Jerome Taylor in The Independent:

The Independent graphic of K2

The Independent graphic of K2

Why are we asking this now?

Because at least 11 people are currently missing presumed dead on the notoriously dangerous mountain. Located in Pakistan’s majestic Karakoram range, the world’s second highest mountain has long been regarded as a dangerous peak to climb, but the weekend’s disaster constitutes the largest loss of life in a single day on K2’s slopes.

The Pakistani army yesterday managed to rescue two Dutch climbers who were caught up in the mayhem after a gruelling 48 hours stranded on the 8,611m mountain. The men were two of 22 climbers from eight expeditions who attempted to tackle the summit on Friday following a brief lull in the weather. An Italian climber, Marco Confortola, is still trying to make his way down to the 6,000m because the rescue helicopters cannot get any higher in the thin air.

What exactly went wrong?

Initial reports were sketchy but as the survivors came down a clearer picture emerged which pointed towards both a freak disaster and human error. At least nine people were thought to have been swept away by an avalanche after an enormous serac – a large overhanging pillar of ice – broke off the mountain and crashed into climbers on a treacherous part of the final ascent known as “The Bottleneck”.


It’s quite an expedition to the top of Mera Peak

June 18, 2008

Nepal’s complex fee structure calls climbing this mountain a ‘trek’. Don’t be fooled by the terminology, says Stephen Goodwin in The Independent:

Frostbitten toes, swollen and purple, are a sobering sight when you’re bound for the same cold, high place where the damage was done. The young man was sitting in a hut doorway in the hamlet of Tangnag in Nepal’s lovely Hinku valley, massaging his deep frozen digits. He’d reached the summit of Mera Peak a few days earlier, but at a cost. Now his group was heading down valley while our group was hiking up, a little chastened.

As it turned out, the lad was fortunate and got away with just “frost nip”. Feeling would return, though probably with a painful phase, and there would be no amputations. Others in the Hinku during October were less fortunate. Almost every morning during our 10-day trek up the valley we saw helicopters heading for the base of Mera to chopper out frostbitten and/or exhausted trekkers. It certainly made us think. “Are my boots warm enough? Am I really up to this?”


Into the death zone: An amazing mountain rescue operation

June 3, 2008

The attempt by some of the world’s best climbers to reach a dying mountaineer on Annapurna has redeemed a sport once known for its selfishness. Jonathan Brown in The Independent, UK:

Mingma Sherpa ran through the narrow winding streets of Kathmandu engaged in a desperate search. The Nepalese logistics expert employed by a Spanish mountain rescue team had been looking for help all night. It was not until 5am, shortly before dawn in the Himalayan capital, that he found the man he was looking for and began banging on his door.

Inside his hotel room, the Kazakh climber Denis Urubko was sleeping off the effects of a gruelling expedition to climb Makalu without oxygen. For the mountaineer, his conquest of the 8,463m (27,765ft) peak just a few days earlier was the 15th time he had ventured higher than the 8,000m mark – the point which signifies the start of the Death Zone above which human life is unsustainable. Yet, despite his state of near exhaustion, he was unable to refuse the Sherpa’s urgent pleas. He got up, packed and immediately left for the airport prepared, without hesitation, to go straight back into that most lethal of places.

[Photo: The summit of Annapurna, which stands 8,091m above sea level, has claimed the lives of four in every 10 climbers who have reached its peak.]


China shuts down Mount Everest

March 14, 2008

Jane Macartney reports from Beijing in The Times, UK:


China has closed Mount Everest to climbers amid fears that activists could disrupt the Olympic torch ascent of the world’s highest peak. The announcement that Chinese authorities had halted access to its side of the mountain that straddles the border between Tibet and Nepal came amid reports of a third day of protests by Tibetan monks around Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.

In a letter to expedition companies, the China Tibet Mountaineering Association said: “Concern over climbing activities, crowded climbing routes and increasing environmental pressures will cause potential safety problems in Qomalangma \ areas.” It added: “We are not able to accept your expedition, so please postpone your climbing.”

Carrying the Olympic torch to the 29,035ft (8,840m) summit has been hailed by the Games host city, Beijing, as one of the grandest feats of the event. Running the relay through one of China’s most restive regions, where many Tibetans chafe under Beijing’s rule, also risks politicising the Games.


Closing Everest – what China fears most

From the Website,

China’s worst nightmare for the Olympic torch event is not crowding or safety – the mountain will after all re-open after the torch. China’s worst nightmare is a picture of the flame on Everest summit, alongside a climber holding up a “Free Tibet” sign.

This explains why the officials have tried to convince Nepal to close the peak also from the south side during the Chinese Everest climb. But why would such a sign be dangerous? Why fear the two words “free Tibet” so much?


Nepal, too, puts Everest off limits

From The New York Times:

Come early May, the darkness and the hurricane-force winds will fade and in the lambent daylight a calm will fall on the highest place in the world. Mountain climbers await this interlude, the Everest weather window, when nature leaves its great summit open for a two-week spell before the monsoons come.

Those who aspire to the 29,028-foot peak of Mount Everest, who have their flights arranged and their guides paid, sought to salvage their plans Friday as international politics began to intrude on the yearly ritual.

The government of Nepal, gatekeeper of the mountain’s popular southern face, has disclosed plans to block climbers’ ascents for the first 10 days of May, at the request of China.


RIP, Sir Edmund Hillary: 1919-2008

January 11, 2008

Sir Edmund Hillary 1919-2008


Sir Edmund Hillary, who has died at the age of 88, made it to the summit of Everest in 1953, and became the first man on the planet to reach its highest point.

As a boy in New Zealand, Edmund Hillary’s fragile appearance belied his ground-breaking potential.

At school, he was in a gym group for those lacking co-ordination and admitted to feeling a “deep sense of inferiority”.

But the 40-mile journey to school in Auckland each day gave young Edmund many hours to pore over adventure stories and travel ever further in his mind.

Read the rest of this entry »


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