The 2008 K2 Disaster

While more climbers have died on Mount Everest (305 at the time of writing) than any of 13 other ‘eight thousanders’, this is primarily due to its popularity compared to its slightly smaller neighbours. Currently around 1,000 climbers attempt to reach the world’s highest point every year, around half of them proving successful. By comparison, just 367 people have reached the summit of the world’s second tallest mountain, K2 in the Karakoram range on the China-Pakistan border. 86 have lost their lives there, making it the most deadly of the world’s five tallest mountains. It is not, however, the most deadly of the eight thousanders, a grim title held by Annapurna I where over one third of attempted climbs prove fatal.

Amongst mountaineers, K2 is often referred to as the ‘savage mountain’ due to its combination of a wickedly difficult technical climb and weather worse than even that found in the Himalayas. While Everest has been conquered from every approach and at all times of year, K2 has never been successfully climbed during the winter, and its East Face remains unscaled. Three quarters of attempts approach the summit via the Abruzzi Spur, a challenging route comprising ice fields and difficult rock-climbing. Those that attempt it particularly fear a section known as the ‘Bottleneck’, a narrow gully beneath a wall of seracs, house-sized blocks of glacial ice with the potential to tumble down on climbers beneath at any time. The majority of the climbers that lost their lives during the deadly 2008 K2 disaster did so in serac falls in the Bottleneck.

Seracs above the Bottleneck. Image: Rolf Zemp

On 1st August 2008, 11 climbers died on the Abruzzi Spur, representing the worst single incident on the savage mountain. The climbing season for K2 generally runs from June to August, however in 2008 severe weather throughout June and July had prevented any summit attempts. As a result, ten teams remained at K2 base camp, waiting for a break in the weather. With forecasts of improved weather for 1st August, six teams (American, French, Norwegian, Serbian, Korean and Dutch) and a number of independent climbers all intended to make the push from camp IV to the summit. 

Most teams were supported by Pakistani high-altitude porters (HAPs), professional porters that facilitated much of the climbing work. The decision was made that the various HAPs would work together to set fixed lines ahead of the teams’ ascent. It was during this that Shaheen Baig, the unofficial leader of the HAPs, was taken ill with altitude sickness and forced to retire down the mountain. The collective teams had lost the experience of the only man amongst them to have previously summited K2. 

While never conclusively proven one way or another, as a result of losing Baig’s skillset some ropes may have been missed or incorrectly placed in the Bottleneck. On beginning their ascents at around 3am, the teams were alarmed to find that ropes had been laid from just above camp IV up into the Bottleneck, resulting in running out of rope before fixed lines could be set for the difficult traverse immediately above. Rearranging the ropes caused a dangerous unplanned delay.

K2 photographed in summer 2004. The Abruzzi Spur can be seen on the right of the picture. Image: Adam Muller

The first fatality came early that morning as teams began to climb up through the Bottleneck. Struggling with his oxygen system, a member of the Serbian team named Dren Mandić unclipped from the rope to attempt to resolve the problem and to let a Norwegian climber pass him. Losing his balance, he fell over 100m. Reports that he was still moving resulted in a rescue attempt being launched, however they found the Serbian dead on reaching him. During the attempt to bring his body back down to camp IV a HAP from the French team fell to his death. Other climbers involved in the rescue attempt theorised that the porter, a man named Jehan Baig, had been confused due to the effects of oxygen deprivation. Baig had displayed strange behaviour earlier in the day, and failed to even attempt to arrest his fall with his ice axe as he slid down the Bottleneck.

Serbian climber Dren Mandic. Image: Pedrag Zagorac

Despite the delays, 18 climbers successfully reached the summit. While solo Spanish climber Alberto Zerain made the summit within the generally accepted safe window of between 3pm and 5pm and descended safely back down the Bottleneck, the others had all summited dangerously late in the day. 

The first team to reach the summit, a Norwegian team including renowned adventurer Cecilie Skog, reached the top of the Bottleneck on their descent at around 8:30pm. Her husband, Rolf Bae, had abandoned his own summit attempt shortly before and was already descending when a serac broke away from the glacier above. Skog watched helplessly as her husband was swept off the mountain, while the fixed lines that the climbers had been reliant on to descend were severed. With great difficulty, the remaining members of the Norwegian team descended without ropes, reaching camp IV. 

Adventurer Cecilie Skog, a member of the Norwegian team during the 2008 disaster. Image: Flickr Commons

Panic broke out amongst the climbers trapped above the Bottleneck, facing the prospect of either a dangerous climb down in the dark or a night stranded in the death zone. Three sherpas, two members of the Korean team and a Dutch climber successfully climbed down in the dark, however French team member Hugues D’Aubarede fell to his death during his attempt. The eight remaining climbers bivouacked for the night above the Bottleneck.

Italian mountaineer Marco Confortola

As light broke the following morning, Dutch climber Wilco van Rooijen set out to make his own descent. Part way down the Bottleneck he encountered the three remaining members of the Korean team and their sherpa guide. All four men were tangled in their ropes and had been hanging overnight, some upside down and all with injuries. Two further climbers who had bivouacked above the Bottleneck also encountered the stricken Koreans and their guide during their own descents. Italian solo climber Marco Confortola and Irish member of the Dutch team Ger McDonnell spent well over an hour trying to free the men.

Irish climber Ger McDonnell on the summit of K2

What happened next is unclear. Confortola believed that McDonnell was suffering the effects of altitude sickness and in his delusion began to climb back up the mountain. Left alone, he handed what spare gear he had to the Korean team and continued his climb down.

McDonnell’s teammates, watching below, tell a different story. They claim that McDonnell climbed up in an attempt to find and release the anchor points holding the Korean team trapped in their ropes. With Confortola now gone, McDonnell remained and continued his attempts to free them.

In any case, as Confortola reached the base of the Bottleneck, another serac fall caused an avalanche close behind him. The Italian reported a body nearby, swept down by the avalanche, which he believed to be McDonnell’s.

Exhausted and starting to suffer the effects of snow blindness, Confortola was reduced to crawling on hands and knees, but was fortunately found by a rescue team of two HAPs that had climbed up from camp IV. Both men were relatives of the stranded guide from the Korean team and were intent on rescuing him. The two porters, Tshering Bhote and Pasang Bhote, summoned members of the Dutch team to retrieve Confortola before continuing upwards. The following events are unclear, however Pasang Bhote radioed down to say that they had found two members of the Korean team and their guide climbing down, having been freed by McDonnell. They also claimed to have witnessed a man they believed to be the Irishman swept away by yet another serac fall, contradicting Confortola’s account.

Shortly after the radio call from Pasang Bhote he was swept away in yet another serac fall, along with the Korean climbers and the HAP that he had been attempting to save. Tsering Bhote, climbing more slowly, survived. 

With the death toll now at 10, one climber remained unaccounted for, and his ultimate fate remains unclear. A HAP for the French team, Meherban Karim, bivouacked about the Bottleneck, higher on the mountain that the three Europeans. Many of the climbers on the mountain that day believe that suffering from altitude sickness, Karim had stumbled out onto the top of the serac field and was killed during one of the serac falls. He may even have been responsible for triggering one of them. Others argued that the man seen swept away by Pasang Bhote was Karim, meaning Confortola was likely right in identifying McDonnell’s body at the base of the Bottleneck.

A rescue operation by the Pakistani military was launched on August 4th, using helicopters to retrieve two Dutch climbers from base camp and Confortola from camp II. Van Rooijen was the last to be retrieved, found using the GPS coordinates of his satellite phone. K2 was not summited again until 2011.

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