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K2: Survivors Recount Tragedy

The Bottleneck on K2 (8611m)–site of a disastrous ice avalanche on August 1, 2008, that likely claimed the lives of eleven climbers. [Photo] Renato Sottsass

The last known survivor of the disastrous ice avalanche on the upper flanks of K2 has descended to base camp (read the August 1 and August 4, 2008 NewsWires regarding the tragedy).

With the assistance of an American mountaineer and two Sherpas, Italian climber Marco Confortola was able to reach base camp and is currently awaiting helicopter rescue. As soon as weather permits, Confortola will be picked up from base camp and flown to Skardu, Pakistan, where he will receive advanced medical care. He is said to be suffering from extreme frostbite on his feet, like the other survivors of the avalanche.

“Up there it was hell. During the descent, beyond 8000 meters, due to the altitude and the exhaustion I even fell asleep in the snow, and when I woke up I could not figure out where I was,” Confortola told his brother Luigi in Italy via satellite phone.

Last weekend Dutch climbers Wilco van Rooijen and Cas van de Gevel were flown to a military hospital in Skardu; they are receiving treatment for their own frostbite.

“Everything was going well to Camp 4 and on summit attempt everything went wrong,” van Rooijen reflected. He said that while earlier expeditions had fixed lines through the Bottleneck, they had placed them at incorrect places, making them unsafe. “We were astonished. We had to move [the fixed lines]. That took of course, many, many hours. Some turned back because they did not trust [the lines] anymore,” he explained. Those who continued reached the summit just before dark. Van Rooijen recalled that as the first climbers began their descent across the Bottleneck, just over 1,000 feet below the summit, a massive serac tumbled free. He witnessed a Norwegian climber and two Nepalese Sherpas get swept from the face of the mountain, and his own team was divided in the chaos. “People were running down but didn’t know where to go, so a lot of people were lost on the mountain on the wrong side, wrong route, and then you have a big problem,” he explained.

On his descent, van Rooijen encountered three Korean climbers, all of whom declined his offers to assist them. “There was a Korean guy hanging upside down. There was a second Korean guy who held him with a rope but he was also in shock and then a third guy was there also, and they were trying to survive but I had also to survive,” he said. He and his companion, Cas van de Gevel, along with Nepali Pemba Sherpa, were the first survivors to make it back to base camp.

The first fatalities of August 1 occurred before the icefall struck. Fredrik Strang and his team reportedly decided against a summit attempt because of deteriorating weather conditions. They received word that a Serbian climber had died a few hundred meters up. Some of the team departed for the Bottleneck to assist in lowering the body down. During the process, a Pakistani guide lost his footing and slid off the face of the mountain. “I yelled at him to do as he was told, but he wouldn’t listen,” Strang explained. The Pakistani guide slid 200 feet before tumbling off into the void. The efforts to remove the body may have contributed to the large number of people in the Bottleneck when the avalanche occurred.

Among the others presumed dead on the mountain are three South Koreans, two Pakistanis, an Irishman and a Frenchman. Gerard McDonnell was the first Irishman to summit K2; he is believed to have died on the descent, probably stranded above the Bottleneck by the avalanche.

Frenchman Hugues d’Aubarede, another casualty of the avalanche, commented on the expedition via his blog before his summit push. His final message, sent from the bottom of the Bottleneck, read: “I would love it if everyone could contemplate this ocean of mountains and glaciers. They put me through the wringer, but it’s so beautiful. The night will be long but beautiful.”