August 5, 2008

Peak Achievement, Deadly Turn — 11 Climbers Reported Dead After Avalanche Hits Treacherous K2

By Stephen Graham

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Blinded by the glare off the snow and ice, attempting a perilous descent down K2 to save his life, the Dutch mountaineer came upon three Korean climbers.

One sat dazed. Another held a rope. The third was suspended at the other end, hanging upside down.

"They were trying to survive," the Dutch mountaineer, Wilco van Rooijen, recalled Monday, "but I had also to survive because I was getting snow blind." He said he offered help but they declined, believing help was already on the way.

Speaking from a military hospital where he was being treated for frostbitten toes, van Rooijen provided a gripping account of his ordeal on K2 before he and another Dutch climber, Cas Van de Gevel, were plucked to safety Monday. At least 11 people were presumed dead after an avalanche on K2, the world's second-highest mountain.

The Ministry of Tourism said the 11 believed dead in one of mountaineering's worst disasters included three South Koreans, two Nepalis, two Pakistanis and mountaineers from France, Ireland, Serbia and Norway. It was not clear whether the three Koreans were the same described by van Rooijen.

K2, which straddles Pakistan and China in the Karakoram range, is regarded by mountaineers as far more challenging than Mount Everest, the world's highest peak. K2's knife-edged ridges and icy slopes are steeper and prone to avalanches and sudden and severe storms.

Van Rooijen said several expeditions had waited through July for good weather to scale the 28,250-foot peak and decided to go for the summit when winds eased Friday. As many as 30 climbers set off.

The first setback was when the climbers had to reposition fixed ropes that an advance party had mislaid across a treacherous gully 1,150 feet below the summit, he said.

"Some turned back because they didn't trust it any more," van Rooijen said. But many pressed on. They reached the summit only shortly before dark. In the rush to get down, groups including his own drifted apart.

As many as 10 of the fastest climbers were back in the steep gully, known as the Bottleneck, when a huge chunk of ice crashed down from above, sending a Norwegian and two Nepali sherpas to their deaths. The ice swept away some of the ropes, making it even more dangerous for those caught above, he said.

The famed Bottleneck and a tricky section of ice known as the Traverse have been the scene of many accidents and deaths before, but not all climbers agree fixed ropes are needed to negotiate those sections. If an avalanche hits, there's little anyone can do.

Van Rooijen, among the stragglers, said he spent the night huddled in the snow with Gerard McDonnell, an Irishman, and Marco Confortola, the Italian who was making his way down the slope.

By the morning, clouds had descended, making it almost impossible for the climbers to locate each other or see their way. Van Rooijen left the other two and managed to pick his way through the gully.

He said others suffered fatal falls in a similar attempt. The Pakistan government did not give details of how the 11 climbers had perished.

McDonnell, who had taken shelter with van Rooijen at the Bottleneck, was among those believed dead. The 37-year-old was the first Irish person to reach the summit.

The reported toll from the avalanche was the highest from a single incident on K2 since at least 1995, when seven climbers perished after being caught in a fierce storm. About 280 people have climbed K2 since 1954, when the summit was first reached. Dozens have died trying.

Originally published by Stephen Graham Associated Press .

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