The Summit: How Triumph Turned To Tragedy On K2’s Deadliest Days

Recommendation: Most mountaineering books seem to be written by Western climbers – finally we have one from the perspective of a Sherpa

Where to read: On a rainy weekend

Read with: A wee dram of Dalwhinnie Winter Frost

In brief: Offering a blow-by-blow account of the unfolding disaster from the perspective of one of the toughest and most consequential climbers on the mountain.

Pat Falvery wrote The Summit based primarily on interviews with one of the Sherpa on K2 during the events of 1-2 August 2008, Pemba Gyalje Sherpa. His account is supplemented by other interviews with climbers involved in the events of the day, particularly from the Norit team, but the main story is that of Pemba. He is a certified badass – he has climbed Everest an absurd number of times and was on K2 as part of the Dutch Norit team as a full member rather than a guide or support staff. In 2008, he was one of the first to summit, lingered at the top to make sure everyone else got up ok, and was then an instrumental part of the rescue efforts. He was subsequently awarded Adventurer of the Year by National Geographic and the David A. Sowles Memorial Award for heroism in saving the lives of other climbers by the American Alpine Club.

The book opens with the semi-mandatory summary of the history of K2 and evocative descriptions of its picturesque slopes. From there, it launches into an account of the 2008 season, from the beginning preparations for summit to the long period of horrid weather and then the harrowing events of 1-2 August. Different authors have given slightly different accounts of events however the broad tale is as follows:

  • On 1 August, exploiting a gap in the weather, most of the teams decided to launch a coordinated summit push. This involved fixing ropes through the Bottleneck, a steep slope underneath a giant serac Viesturs refers to in his book as “The Motivator”, and the traverse however this turned into something of a disaster. The team was late getting started and Pemba notes that many of the assigned pathbreaking team either were not there or were late getting started. The agreed placement of the ropes has been the subject of some dispute, and certainly Pemba thought they were being planted earlier than strictly needed, but he knew that not all the climbers were technically as strong and figured that is why they were being placed early.
The Bottleneck
  • The late start, the delay with fixed ropes and the sheer number of climbers going for the summit caused a bottleneck in the Bottleneck (rather aptly named, as it turns out).
  • One of the Serbian climbers unclipped from the fixed line, slipped and fell. The rest of the Serbian team went down to assist but he was dead when they found him. They decided to lower his body down to Camp IV but during that attempt, one of the Pakistani high-altitude porters also fell.
  • Most climbers continued with the summit push (largely unaware of the accidents) into the afternoon, well after what many observers have subsequently considered a sensible turnaround time (Viesturs, for example, topped out about 12pm and commented that only Alberto Zerain, who summited around 3pm, was operating within timings he would have been comfortable with). The last climber summited around 8:00 p.m. and the whole group were left to descend in darkness.
  • In the darkness, a part of the serac collapsed, triggering an avalanche which swept away both the fixed ropes and a Norwegian climber, Rolf Bae. His team, wife Cecilie Skog and friend Lars Nessa, who were nearby, had some spare rope and managed to continue down to Camp IV.
  • As the rest of the climbers descended to the Bottleneck, they gradually realised that the fixed lines were gone. Some tried to descend but others decided to bivouac overnight and wait for daylight (although none had bivouac sacks or other gear). Pemba Gyalje was one of those who descended without fixed lines, along with fellow Sherpas Chhiring Dorje and “Little” Pasang Lama. The latter did not have his ice axe so Chhiring Dorje short roped him and took him down at ludicrous personal risk (he was later awarded the Tenzing Norgay Award by the Explorers Club for exceptional mountaineering). Two of the Koreans also made it down, one with assistance from two other Sherpa, Tsering Bhote and “Big” Pasang Bhote, who came up from Camp IV to rescue other climbers.
  • During the night, one climber seems to have fallen off the mountain and another three (probably two Koreans and Jumik Bhote Sherpa) may have been caught up in an avalanche or may have fallen, leaving them on the slope tangled in ropes.
  • As the sun rose, Dutch climber Wilco van Rooijen, also on the Norit team, found he was going snow-blind and decided to descend without ropes in order to get off the mountain as quickly as possible. His teammate Ger McDonnell and Italian climber Marco Confortola descended later, stopping to try to help the Koreans. The details here are contested but it appears McDonnell may have climbed back up (either hypoxic or trying to cut the ropes from above) and Confortola headed down, having been unable to free the tangled climbers. He says that he was almost caught in another avalanche while he was descending and saw McDonnell’s body caught in the rubble.
  • Pemba rescued Confortola and got him down to Camp IV, while Tsering Bhote and “Big” Pasang Bhote headed up the mountain again to find Jumik Bhote. Pasang Bhote found him and two Koreans, who had probably been freed by Ger McDonnell after all, but all four were carried away in another avalanche in front of Tsering Bhote’s horrified gaze. Ger McDonnell may also have been caught in this avalanche (this is Pemba’s belief). Somewhere in the confusion, another Korean and Pakistani HAP Karim Meherban also died, although precisely how is unclear.
  • Meanwhile, van Rooijen was completely lost and on the wrong side of the mountain. Fortunately, he called his wife on his sat phone and they were able to use that to narrow down his possible locations. Pemba and teammate Cas Van de Gevel went out again and were eventually able to bring him down the mountain. Van de Gevel, van Rooijen and Confortola were later evacuated from Base Camp by helicopter.

All in all, 11 climbers were killed and several more severely injured. Unsurprisingly given the casualties, the details of what precisely happened have been the subject of significant controversy however this purports to be the authoritative account. While caution is still required, I suspect this is indeed the closest anyone will come – the mix of sources and the confident testimony of Pemba is certainly compelling, the explanations for discrepancies in the various stories make sense, and the possible alternatives are canvassed out of an abundance of caution.

Aside from the horrifying story itself, the most fascinating part of this account to my mind is the way it illuminates the different attitudes between Sherpa and western mountaineers. After the incident, some in the media seemed to have drawn the conclusion that Western climbers were guided clients in the style of the victims of the 1996 Everest disaster. That was not the case but despite being on the Norit team as a full member (Ger McDonnell had climbed with Pemba previously and had recommended him), Pemba clearly took on more responsibility than the average climber. They also had a high degree of mountaineering skill – Pemba does not seem to have been hugely worried about his ability to manage the descent without ropes in the dark. It is extremely impressive and makes the comparative lack of Western media attention to their accomplishments all the more perplexing.

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