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‘K2’: Anatomy of a deadly climbing expedition

Ed Viesturs, the first American to climb the world's three highest mountains, dissects the tragedies and triumphs of K2, the second-highest mountain. In this excerpt, he analyzes the 2008 K2 disaster, in which 11 mountaineers died while on an expedition.
/ Source: TODAY books

In their new book, “K2: Life and Death on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain,” best-selling authors Ed Viesturs and David Roberts compile the astonishing and compelling stories of this magnificent mountain and grant readers remarkable insight into the minds of the talented climbers who have tried to conquer it. They focus on the “six most dramatic seasons in the mountain’s history” — 1938, 1939, 1953, 1954, 1986 and 2008. Viesturs, the first American to climb the world's three highest mountains, analyzes each memorable expedition with the measured eye of a master alpinist. An excerpt.

From chapter one
A sharp pyramid of black rock, sheer snow gullies and ridges, and ominous hanging glaciers, K2 has a symmetry and grace that make it the most striking of the fourteen 8000ers. Rising from the Baltoro Glacier in the heart of the Karakoram, K2 is flanked by five other of the world's seventeen highest peaks. That range, in fact, holds the densest constellation of sky-scraping mountains anywhere in the world — even denser than the Himalaya around Everest. Yet K2 soars in proud isolation over Broad Peak, Gasherbrum I, Gasherbrum II, and its other formidable neighbors.

When you approach Mount Everest from the south, as all teams do that attempt the classic first-ascent route through the Khumbu Icefall and up to the South Col, the great mountain only gradually comes into view. Most of the way to base camp, Everest is effectively hidden behind the bulk of its satellite peak, 25,790-foot Nuptse. As a result, for climbers the first glimpse of Everest seldom comes as a stunning, unforgettable moment.

It's just the opposite with K2. As they march up the Baltoro Glacier, most climbers get their first view of the mountain from Concordia, where several glacial streams converge. All at once, after a week's trek from the last village, Askole, K2 springs into sight. Even though it's still a dozen miles away, the sheer, towering presence of the mountain overwhelms you.

Sir Francis Younghusband, the great Victorian explorer, was one of the first Westerners to see K2 from a distance, in 1887. The prospect moved him to an uncharacteristic effusion in his book about the expedition, as he recalled "saying emphatically to myself and to the universe at large: Oh yes! Oh yes! this really is splendid! How splendid! How splendid!"

Reinhold Messner, who climbed K2 in 1979, unabashedly called it "the most beautiful of all the high peaks." He added: "An artist has made this mountain."

In 1992, Scott and I got our first view of K2 not from Concordia, but earlier, when we hiked up a wooded hill out of our Paiju camp. All of a sudden, there the mountain was, sticking up into the sky, a perfect white pyramid. "Holy shit, that's big!" said Scott, and I answered, "Wow, we're almost there!" That evening, I wrote in my diary, "After breakfast, Scott and I scrambled up the ridges above camp and got some great views of K2. That is one huge mo-fo!"

By the beginning of summer 2008, some sixty climbers had assembled at base camp on the south side of K2. Several had tried the mountain before, but for most of the men and women on the Baltoro, it was their first go at K2. After their own first sightings of the magnificent mountain, some of their Internet dispatches had gushed with the same sense of wonder and astonishment that Scott and I had felt in 1992, or that Younghusband had expressed way back in 1887. Nearly all of the climbers were planning to try the Abruzzi Ridge or its variant spur, the Cesen route.

Too many days spent sitting out storms at base camp, however, had taken their toll on the various teams' morale. By the end of July, more than a few of the climbers had chucked it in and left for home. Others hovered on a teeter-totter of indecision. A 61-year-old Frenchman, Hugues d'Aubarède, decided on July 20 to give up his attempt. No sooner had he started packing his gear than several forecasts arrived predicting a coming spell of excellent weather. According to journalist Matthew Power, the Dutch leader of another team told d'Aubarède, "Just skip your work for another two or three weeks and then you can summit K2." Changing his mind, d'Aubarède called his wife in France to tell her he was going to give the mountain one more shot. It would be a fatal decision.

The window of clear, windless weather arrived at the very end of July. In the group of thirty who set out early on August 1 to go for the top, there were no superstars. Many of those climbers, however, had previous experience on the world's highest mountains. A Norwegian couple, for instance, had climbed Everest together in 2005; they had also reached both the North and South Poles the same year. The Dutch leader, who had made it to the top of Everest without bottled oxygen, was on his third expedition to K2. Besides Norway, Holland, and France, the mountaineers came from an assortment of countries, including Korea, Serbia, Singapore, Italy, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. There were also several Pakistanis and a number of Sherpa from Nepal.

Nearly all those climbers set out on August 1 from Camp IV, situated on a broad snow ridge known as the Shoulder, at about 26,000 feet. The Shoulder is the last place on the Abruzzi Ridge where you can reasonably pitch a tent. In 1992, Scott, Charley, and I placed our own Camp IV as far along the Shoulder as we could, just below where the snow slope steepens toward the start of the Bottleneck couloir. Last summer's climbers, however, pitched their tents on the lower, southern end of the Shoulder. The difference may not seem like such a big deal, but we had good reasons for camping where we did. At altitude, in soft snow, it can easily take a full hour to trudge from one end of the Shoulder to the other. That's an hour we saved over last summer's climbers. That's an extra hour added to their grueling summit day on the way up, and at least twenty minutes on the way down.

If there was one guy last summer who really had his act together, it was the Basque mountaineer Alberto Zerain, who started his own summit push from well below the Shoulder, leaving Camp III at 23,600 feet. Operating as a soloist without teammates, Zerain got moving by 10:00 PM on July 31, and he climbed the 2,400 feet up to the Shoulder in the astonishing time of only two hours. When he reached the other climbers' Camp IV, he found them still struggling to get ready. According to Freddie Wilkinson, who covered the tragedy for the magazine Rock and Ice, "Zerain called out to the others still in their tents, trying to cajole them into hurrying up to leave with him. He received few responses .... After an hour of waiting, Zerain finally continued alone."

I must admit that when I first saw photos from last summer, I was shocked. There those guys were, still crossing the Shoulder, and it's already broad daylight! As I said, I'm generally not comfortable criticizing other climbers' decisions. But that late start on summit day struck me as asking for it.

It's easy to succumb to high-altitude lassitude. You lose your motivation. It takes longer not only to do something, but even to think about doing something.

It's no fun getting off in the middle of the night from a high camp on an 8000er. You're in this closet-sized tent with your buddy. It's dark, it's cold, there's ice everywhere. You have to brew up a drink — something warm, like a cup of tea. If somebody has to take a crap, you have to move aside and let him go out and do that. Then you have to put on your boots, your overboots, the rest of your clothes, and your harness. I always sleep with my boots, not on my feet, but in my bag. Lots of climbers don't. So in the morning they have to put on cold boots. That contributes to a bad start.

On my expeditions, I've always been the clock-watcher. I always have a plan. I want to be in control of the time. In a way, that's just part of my nature — I tend to be punctual. The night before, I'll remind my partners, "We need to be out the door by 1:00 or 1:30 AM." Other climbers seem to have the attitude of, "Oh, I'll leave when I'm ready." Next thing you know, they've lost two or three hours.

So I have to think that a crucial mistake made by nearly all the climbers last August 1 was getting off late from Camp IV. That delay was compounded by what happened when the first climbers reached the bottom of the Bottleneck.

As you head up that steep couloir, you're excruciatingly aware of the huge ice cliff hanging over you. It's a monstrous-looking thing, some 400 feet high, and the whole time you're under it, you can't help wondering, What's holding that damned serac in place?

In 1992, I nicknamed the ice cliff the Motivator. It certainly motivated Scott, Charley, and me. It's threatening you the whole time. You don't want to stop, you can't take a break, and as you kick steps up the couloir, you're literally holding your breath.

The first mountaineer who ever came to grips with the Motivator was the great Fritz Wiessner in 1939. He was so leery of it that he chose to climb a different route, on the rock bands well to the left of the Bottleneck, even though that forced him onto much more difficult terrain.

Before our '92 expedition, I'd studied every photo I could find of that serac. Oddly enough, the Motivator looked much the same year after year. It seemed to be pretty stable. It had a fairly smooth face — there weren't big broken chunks that looked ready to plunge with the first gust of wind.

Since we'd had the Bottleneck to ourselves in '92, we climbed it as fast as we could. That was a luxury last summer's climbers didn't have. As soon as the guys in the lead reached the bottom of the couloir, the whole procession stalled. They lined up, one after another, but no one could move faster than the slowest man — and there were some pretty slow guys up there. The climb quickly turned into a traffic jam. On top of that, matters were made much worse by the climbers' common assumption that they needed fixed ropes to get up and down the Bottleneck safely.

Afterward, some of the survivors lashed out at other climbers on the mountain, accusing them of making mistakes that led directly to the tragedy. No one was more critical than Wilco van Rooijen, the forty-year-old leader of the Dutch Norit K2 expedition. "Everything was going well to Camp IV," he told the press from his hospital bed, "and on the summit attempt everything went wrong." To a reporter from Reuters, van Rooijen elaborated: "The biggest mistake we made was that we tried to make agreements .... Everybody had his own responsibility and then some people did not do what they promised. With such stupid things lives are endangered."

Since there were so many different teams on the mountain, their leaders had crafted the "agreements" to which van Rooijen referred. The plan was for nine climbers to string almost 2,000 feet of rope up the Bottleneck and across the leftward traverse that leads to easier ground. On August 1, however, the available supply of rope was at least 300 feet short — causing the leaders to doubt whether there was enough to equip the whole dangerous passage. In addition, as van Rooijen complained to Men's Journal correspondent Matthew Power, several of the nine lead climbers "just didn't show up."

Then, to make matters worse, the rope fixers started stringing their lines too low, on relatively easy ground before the Bottleneck really commences. By the time they got to the most hazardous part of the climb, they were out of rope. "We were astonished," van Rooijen later told the Associated Press. "We had to move it [the fixed ropes]. That took, of course, many, many hours. Some turned back because they didn't trust it any more." Speaking to Power, the Dutchman was even more scathing: "We lost many, many hours because of this stupid thing, which we already talked about many, many times at Base Camp."

I'm sorry, but I just don't buy it. Van Rooijen claims he couldn't climb because the ropes had not been fixed in the right places. Well, whose fault was that? Does your success depend on what other people do? Van Rooijen blames the others for the delay. Why didn't he get out and do something?

Meanwhile, the solo Basque climber, Alberto Zerain, was hours ahead of all the others. He had cruised up the Bottleneck and across the traverse without even thinking about fixed ropes. Zerain reached the summit at 3:00 PM — the only climber that day, in my opinion, to top out at a reasonable hour.

Sixteen hundred feet lower on the mountain, the traffic jam had ground to a halt. According to Power, "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 [leading leftward from the top of the Bottleneck]. 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."

At around 11:00 AM, the first fatality occurred. Somewhere in the middle of the traffic jam, a Serbian climber, Dren Mandic, unclipped himself from the fixed rope. Afterward, all kinds of explanations of what Mandic was attempting to do appeared in print and on the Internet. Among other things, he was accused of trying to leapfrog past other climbers. The most accurate account was probably that offered in the public announcement by the Serbian team, mourning the loss of their comrade. In broken English, the team leader reported, "Wishing to replace himself with climber behind him DREN undo his assurance. Fix-rope relocated suddenly. DREN loosed his counterbalance and fell down to 8020 m [26,300 feet] where his body was stopped."

As he fell, Mandic slammed into the next climber on the fixed rope, Cecilie Skog. (Skog and her husband, Rolf Bae, were the experienced Norwegian couple trying to climb K2 together.) Skog was knocked off her feet, but managed to stay attached to the fixed rope. According to Wilco van Rooijen, as reported by Matthew Power,

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.

Uncertain whether their teammate was still alive, two Serbians and a Pakistani porter descended to his body. By the time they got there, Mandic was dead. According to Power, however, from base camp over the radio the Serbian team leader ordered that trio to try to haul the body back to Camp IV. As they began the effort, the porter, Jehan Baig — described by Power as "inexperienced" — suddenly slipped and fell. Eyewitnesses claimed that Baig never tried to self-arrest with his ice axe. Instead, he cartwheeled down the slope and plunged out of sight over a cornice.

If Power is correct in his assertion that the body recovery was ordered by the team leader, that directive strikes me as utterly irresponsible. It's hard enough to help a sick or wounded climber descend under his own power from 26,000 feet on an 8000er. It's virtually impossible — not to mention pointless — to haul a dead body from such a perilous perch back to camp. That order, if in fact it was given, cost Jehan Baig his life. It's curious that in his public announcement, the Serbian team leader made no mention of Baig's death. Instead, he wrote, "We muffled our friend's body in the Serbian flag, secured it with pickaxe and put it on 7900 m [25,900 feet] to the right from direction C4-Bottleneck. Our friend rest near the heaven. Let God bless him."

It's also unclear how many of the climbers stuck in the traffic jam were even aware that Mandic had fallen to his death. Almost certainly, none of them knew about the second fatal accident down below. In any event, now that the rope salvaged from the bottom of the Bottleneck had been fixed in place on the culminating traverse (the hardest part of the whole route), most of the climbers in the traffic jam kept plodding, ever so slowly, upward.

One of the few in the crowd who had decided to turn around and give up his attempt on the summit, the American Chris Klinke, took an amazing photo of the upper mountain from Camp IV just after noon on August 1. (The photo, which captures the fiasco that was unfolding on K2 that day in a single image, was run big in Men's Journal.) The picture is so sharp that you can clearly see 22 tiny, insect-like human figures on the route. At the bottom of the photo, well below the Bottleneck, two of them are engaged in the effort to recover Mandic's body, only minutes before Baig would fall to his death. Most of the climbers have finally escaped the Bottleneck and the traverse, but the traffic jam is alive and well: nineteen of the climbers are so tightly bunched that it looks as though each one is on the verge of stepping on the heels of the climber in front of him. Far, far above even the leader of the traffic jam, a solitary climber — Alberto Zerain — rests in the lee of a small serac before starting on to the summit.

In my view, many of those climbers still heading upward ought to have thought a little more seriously about turning back. Turn-around times aren't an iron-clad rule on K2, but I believe in them for myself. On our own summit day, Scott and I got moving from Camp IV at 1:00 A.M. Charley, who started a little later, caught up with us as he followed the tracks we'd kicked in the deep snow. I had resolved that if we didn't summit by 2:00 P. M., I'd turn around. As it was, we topped out at noon.

Last summer, I suspect, summit fever took over in the traffic jam. All those climbers were piled together. They were slow together, and they were late together, and that probably rationalized continuing toward the summit together so late that the sun would be setting as they topped out. Only a few of them thought better of it and turned around. On a mountain like K2, nobody gives you credit for making the smart decision to give up the summit and go down.

In 1990, my friend Greg Child, an outstanding Aussie mountaineer transplanted to the United States, climbed K2 by its north ridge, a considerably harder route than the Abruzzi. Recently I reread Greg's account of the climb, published as "A Margin of Luck" in his collection of essays, Mixed Emotions. Greg has a sardonic, even self-mocking style, so some of the things he writes in that piece may be tongue in cheek. Even so, it's clear that he had a desperate time on the summit day.

At 27,500 feet, only 750 feet below the top, Greg recounts the conversation he had with his partners Greg Mortimer and Steve Swenson. It's already past 4:00 P. M.

Swenson looks down: "Should we go for it?" A long pause follows. Nothing could be more uncertain.

"Yes!" Mortimer finally shouts, prodding us into action and out of this inertia of doubt.

"This is crazy," I think to myself. "A storm is moving in and we're going for the summit, without oxygen, without bivouac gear." But, I rationalize, this is our last shot at the mountain. If we go down now, we'll never climb K2. A little more luck is all we need.

That exchange is incredibly similar to the one I had in 1992 with Scott and Charley as heavy snow began to fall. We, too, were above 27,000 feet. I remember asking, "Hey what do you guys think?" "Whaddya mean?" Scott answered, and Charlie chimed in, "We're going up!"

In 1990, Greg Child reached the summit only at 8:05 P. M. He didn't start down until 9:00. That descent in the dark — "staggering, falling in the snow" — turned into an all-out epic. Greg started to have hallucinations. Finding an empty oxygen cylinder in a circle of rocks, he fantasized:

I'm seeing an image in my mind of me hunkered among the rocks, warming my hands over a campfire. "That's right," I think, "I'll build a fire down there. When Mortimer arrives we'll get nice and warm." I've got it all worked out.

Only 300 feet short of the tent, Greg became "completely apathetic" and collapsed. He literally crawled the last stretch to safety.

Man, I thought, as I reread Greg's essay, that was scary, to go that long and that late. I wouldn't have done that. Greg's a really strong climber A weaker mountaineer wouldn't have survived.

Messner himself is famous for having wild hallucinations on the 8000ers, especially when he was climbing alone. But I've always felt that if I started to hallucinate, I was doing something wrong.

The fourth member of Greg's team in 1990, Phil Ershler, did turn back. And Ershler, as a senior RMI guide, had been one of my most important mentors. On our own summit day in 1992, as I carried that knot in my gut and couldn't make up my mind whether to go up or down, I kept thinking, Well, Ershler turned around.

Excerpted from "K2: Life and Death on the World's Most Dangerous Mountain," by Ed Viesturs with David Roberts. Copyright (c) 2009, reprinted with permission from Broadway Books.