- On August 1, 2008, a group of 25 mountain climbers attempted to summit K2.
- Located on the border between Pakistan and China, K2 is widely believed to be one of the most dangerous mountains in the world.
- From the start, the group encountered several problems, including a late start and a lack of climbing supplies.
- Over a 24 hour period, 11 climbers from 7 countries died.
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They’re called the 8000ers – an elite group of climbers who have managed to ascend the tallest and most dangerous peaks in the world – peaks with an altitude of over 8,000 meters, or 26,246 feet.
This past week, several would-be 8000ers have died attempting to climb the highest of these vaunted peaks – Mount Everest. In all, 11 people have died on the mountain since May 21 while climbing in Everest’s notorious Death Zone – the part of the climb that takes place at 26,000 feet and above. Lack of oxygen at that altitude, according to one climber, can feel like “running on a treadmill and breathing through a straw.”
Overcrowding has led to long wait times for climbers to summit and climbers have suffered deadly altitude sickness while waiting to ascend.
But Everest is far from the deadliest mountain. Though around 800 feet shorter than Everest, K2, on the border between China and Pakistan, has the highest ratio of deaths to climbs.
In 2008, 11 climbers perished on K2 in one devastating day.
Read on to learn more about K2’s deadly history.
In 2008, nearly 200 climbers from around the world arrived at K2’s base camp to attempt the climb.
Located at the border between China and Pakistan, K2 is around 800 feet shorter than Everest, but professional climbers consider the ascent much more difficult. Nearly 80 people have died while climbing K2 and it’s considered one of the most gruelling climbs in the world. And while nearly 4,000 people have attempted Everest, only 300 have tried to climb K2.
K2’s climbing season is typically between June and August. Extreme weather makes it impossible to climb in all but the warmest temperatures.
In 2008, nearly 200 climbers from around the world arrived at K2’s base camp to attempt the climb. Each group intended to go up separately, spacing out their ascents in order to prevent traffic jams on the route.
But bad weather kept climbers from reaching the summit during June and July. In August, a group of climbers from the US, France, Pakistan, Italy, Serbia, The Netherlands, and South Korea — along with their Sherpas and high-altitude porters — began the ascent.
A series of snowstorms made it impossible to climb K2. Climbers spent the summer months acclimatizing and preparing to head up when the weather cleared.
On August 1, a group of 25 climbers from the US, France, Pakistan, Italy, Serbia, The Netherlands, and South Korea – along with their Sherpas and high-altitude porters – began the ascent from Camp 4. They’d spent the previous days climbing up the camp, located at around 7,800 meters (25,000 feet), and set off to complete the final leg of the climb.
Though each group spoke their own language and had made separate preparations for the summit, they came together to tackle the final leg.
Or at least that was the plan.
From the start, there were problems. Bad planning, a lack of communication, and poor conditions endangered them all.
The climbers were being led by a nine-person “trailbreaking group” made up of members from various climbing teams who were responsible for the fixing ropes along the course that would make it possible to safely summit.
But they got a late start on the trail. They also failed to bring enough rope to properly prepare the Bottleneck, a narrow rocky pathway with steep gullies, widely considered to be the most harrowing part of the climb. A serac – a block of glacial ice – hangs over the Bottleneck, threatening to fall on climbers at any moment. As Norwegian climber Lars Nessa explained in “The Summit,” “the main tactic is to minimise your time under the serac.”
As the trailbreaking group headed toward the Bottleneck, it became apparent that they’d begun fixing rope way too early on the course, which meant that not enough rope was left for the most difficult parts of the climb.
The group of 25 was brought to a standstill as climbers had to move back down the course to collect rope in order to move forward
In the afternoon, a climber from Serbia lost his footing and fell. Later, while attempting to move the body, a porter from Pakistan hired by the French team suffered from oxygen deprivation and fell to his death.
At around 4 p.m., the group was making its way across the Bottleneck when Dren Mandic, a climber from Serbia, lost his footing and fell.
Climbers watched as he tumbled down the side of the mountain and skidded to a stop. Mandic briefly stood up, and then collapsed again. Some of his Serbian teammates descended to attempt to help him, but it was too late. Mandic was dead.
While attempting to move Mandic’s body, the second death occurred. Jehan Baig, a high altitude porter from Pakistan who’d been hired by the French team, appeared to suffer from oxygen deprivation and began acting erratically. He slipped and plunged to his death.
After a brief discussion, the rest of the climbers decided to continue on toward the summit. They were descending in the dark when a ridge of ice fell on them and a Norwegian climber fell to his death.
The first set of climbers reached the summit at around 4:30 p.m. Hours passed as one by one they celebrated reaching K2’s peak. The last climbers to head off the mountain were Marco Confortola (from Italy) and Ger McDonnell (from Ireland) at around 7:30 p.m. Because of the late start, they would be descending back down to Camp 4 in the dark.
Around 8:30 p.m., a group of Norwegian climbers were passing through the Bottleneck on their way back down when a chunk of the serac fell on them, dislodging and cutting off the fixed lines that had been in place to help them descend, effectively stopping the group in their tracks.
As the heavy, sharp ice fell upon the group, Norwegian climber Rolf Bae lost his footing. His wife Cecilie Skog and their teammate Lars Flatø Nessa watched helplessly as Bae fell to his death.
Cecilie Skog had just watched her husband die. And now she had to save her own life by making her way down the mountain.
Skog and Nessa began moving down the mountain without fixed lines, relying on their pickaxes and crampons to make it back to Camp 4.
“Within high altitude mountaineering, there is an unwritten code that if someone is dying and you know you’re going to put your own life at risk, you should leave them,” explained Pat Falvey, a 2003 Everest summit leader, in the 2013 documentary about the K2 disaster, “The Summit.”
A group of several Korean climbers became entangled in the dislodged ropes and were forced to wait for rescue.
While some experienced climbers were able to free solo down in the dark, less experienced climbers who had made it up the mountain with the help of guides were stranded without the ropes.
A group of several Korean climbers became entangled in the dislodged ropes and were forced to wait for someone to come rescue them in the Death Zone.
Meanwhile, two more experienced climbers, Cas van de Gevel and Hugues D’Aubarede, attempted to traverse the Bottleneck in the dark, without ropes.
While climbing up K2 is obviously dangerous, it’s actually descending from the summit that takes the most lives. One in four climbers who successfully summit K2 will not survive the descent.
That’s because extended time in the “Death Zone” can leave climbers in a state of extreme hypoxia. Deprived of oxygen, cells begin to die, and sufferers can experience extreme disorientation and confusion as the body shuts down.
As van de Gevel and D’Aubarede set out from the summit, D’Aubarede appeared sluggish and out of sorts. D’Aubarede signalled for van de Gevel to go ahead of him. And then suddenly van de Gevel looked back and D’Aubarede was gone. He, too, had slipped off the side of the mountain.
As the sun rose on August 2, the climbers who had made it back down to Camp 4 took stock of those still left on the descent. Two Sherpas were sent back up to help the Koreans while those still on the mountain also tried to help.
Several Korean climbers and their Sherpas were still stranded above the Bottleneck in the Death Zone, waiting for rescue. The head of the Korean team ordered two additional Sherpas – cousins Tsering and Pasang Bhote – to bring them all down.
Ger McDonnell and Marco Confortola attempted to help the entangled Korean climbers, working for hours to free them, unaware that several Sherpas were heading back up the Bottleneck path with the same goal.
After several hours, Confortola, concerned about his own oxygen deprivation, began heading back down the mountain. McDonnell stayed with the Koreans, and at one point, began climbing higher. Many of those who knew McDonnell believe he was attempting to strategize a way to free the Korean climbing group.
Suddenly, an avalanche thundered down the side of the mountain and took a climber with it.
Confortola, now seriously struggling, spotted the body in the avalanche’s wake. He believed it to be that of Ger McDonnell.
“All of a sudden I saw an avalanche coming down. It was only 20 meters to my right,” Confortola said. “I saw the body of Gerard sweep past me.”
Other climbers disputed Confortola’s claim and believed that it was Hugues D’Aubarede’s high altitude porter Karim Meherban, whose body was never recovered.
The Sherpas made it to the stranded Korean climbers, but another huge chunk of the ice ridge fell. More men died.
In the early afternoon, Tsering and Pasang reached the Korean contingent of climbers, who had weathered a cold night in the Death Zone with their cousin Jumic Bhote.
One of the Koreans was too severely injured to attempt the trek, and Tsering stayed behind with him. The two other Koreans, guided by Pasang and Jumic, made their way toward the Bottleneck.
But as they slowly descended, another huge chunk of the serac fell, raining ice and snow down upon the four-person group.
Tsering later recounted the horror of watching his brother and cousin fall to their deaths in the chaos.
Following their descents, several of the climbers had to be helicoptered to nearby hospitals for treatment.
Italian climber Marco Confortola and Dutch climber Wilco van Rooijen, were both treated for severe frostbite and lost toes.
Rooijen spent two full nights on the mountain by himself, experiencing hallucinations and snow-blindness.
“There were so many moments when I thought I saw a climber and thought I heard voices, but I knew there couldn’t be people there,” Rooijen said of the ordeal. “It was a scary moment when I knew I was reaching my limits. I was thinking no one knows where I am and they will not be coming back.”
Wilco Van Rooijen believes the K2 disaster was caused by a lack of communication and broken promises.
“The biggest mistake we made was that we tried to make agreements,” Rooijen told Reuters, speaking of the large numbers of climbers from different countries and teams attempting to share responsibility.
“Some people did not do what they promised,” he continued, singling out the Korean team for failing to bring the proper supplies to Camp 4.
In total, 11 people died over the course of a day on K2.
In total 11 men – Kim Hyo, Park Kyeong, and Hwang Dong from Korea; Jimc Bhote and Pasang Bhote from Nepal; Jehan Baig and Karim Meherban from Pakistan; Hugues d’Aubarède from France; Ger McDonnell from Ireland; Dren Mandic from Serbia; and Rolf Bae from Norway – died over a 24-hour period on K2.
Many questioned how they could leave so many of their fellow mountaineers on K2’s gruelling slopes. But Lars Nessa believes most people simply don’t understand how difficult the climb really is.
Critics, Nessa says in “The Summit,” are “upset when people don’t go up and rescue people in this dreadful environment where you likely will be killed by doing so. There will be things we will never know, but the question you should ask yourself is what would you do?”
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