Text by Kirkpatrick Reardon – Photograph by Ed Viesturs
Clear skies and a new moon greeted Dutch mountaineer Wilco van Rooijen at the summit of K2 on Friday, August 1. That was before deteriorating visibility and an ice-avalanche turned that calm night into one of the deadliest in the history of the Himalaya, stranding van Rooijen with his climbing partners overnight at an altitude of 8,000 meters. Van Rooijen struggled slowly down the mountain face, and, incredibly, survived a second night at high altitude before reuniting with his team two days later. Van Rooijen recounted his struggle for survival with ADVENTURE on Wednesday morning.
Where were you when the accident happened?
I was on the way back from the summit. We were at the summit at 7 p.m. in the evening, which is much too late. It was completely dark. I decided to spend the night above the Bottleneck and the traverse. I never saw the accident.
Do you know what caused the avalanche?
It wasn’t a real avalanche. An avalanche is a lot of snow. It was a serac that fell down and that was the only explanation for killing three people. There was so much happening on the mountain. Some people died because they were lost and couldn’t find camp IV.
How did you survive on the mountain?
I spent two nights on the mountain. I got third degree frostbite on all my toes and both feet. My mountaineering experience let me be quiet and patient enough to wait for better weather where we were.
Did you sleep on the mountain? How’d you keep warm?
The sleep was not a problem. We were busy for 20 hours. If you sit, you fall asleep immediately. The only problem is avoiding frostbite. The only thing to do is to keep on drinking. If you don’t drink at high altitude, then you dry out very quickly. You have a high breathing frequency and you get dry very quickly without noticing it. I took two liters of water to the summit. For the first hour I had some hot tea. For the last hour I had some energy drink. I lost some of my water on the way to the summit. I thought it wasn’t a problem. I regretted that later.
What was the biggest problem you faced?
The biggest problem was that we couldn’t find camp IV in the darkness. We went down in the darkness because we went so late to the summit. And we were so late to the summit because there were so many people going to the summit.
Why was the peak so crowded?
The whole month of July was very bad so we had to wait for a weather window at the end of July or the beginning of August. All expedition teams were waiting for the same moment. We had to wait at camp 4 to get through the Bottleneck. At the end of the Bottleneck, there is a huge serac hanging. It was a few hundred meters wide and high, and every moment this serac can fall. Sometimes they weigh thousands of kilos. Three people were killed immediately. You know if you’re going to climb K2 that you are willing to face these risks.
Were the other climbers less experienced than you?
In the daylight [before the summit attempt] when we were fixing the rope, one man fell down. That was a really stupid accident. These accidents are not supposed to happen on K2. People are not used to climbing these technical parts. Everest you can climb without technical experience. Here you have camp IV then snow (glacier) and then the Bottleneck and then a very technical traverse at altitude of 8,200 meters. And then you have to go to the summit. If you are luck you will have a full moon. It was full moon on the 18th of July.
What happened while you were coming down?
After I spent the night, it was difficult to come down. I had radio contact with my climbing partners in camp IV, but it was so hard finding each other, and then we didn’t find camp four. I was on the wrong side of the mountain. People at base camp saw me go over the wrong side of the ridge and they radioed people in camp IV. I had to sit out a whiteout because I couldn’t see anything and I knew I couldn’t go down any further. So I waited for a few hours. And then I saw through the clouds that I could go down on an easier glacier. I was all alone.
What were you thinking when you were up there?
The next morning when I tried to go down I had to go down very difficult terrain. And there were whiteout conditions. I knew it was impossible for a helicopter to fly there. Either you go down or you sit and wait. You sit knowing that no one is coming. Or you go down taking the big technical risk and if you fall you are lost.
Then I saw through the clouds an easier slope. I had to climb at my limits without using a rope to get to this easier slope. It was a long time I was ping-ponging between hope and failure. Finally I had the luck that when the clouds disappeared and I could reach the easier slopes. I had gone a long time without eating or drinking. I got blisters on my tongue and lips. It was like hell. I was drinking snow. There was only one focus: going down. If I get more oxygen I will think more clearly.
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. 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.
Can you describe the rescue?
After two nights, I crawled into camp III. At that time I didn’t have a clue it was camp III on our route. I was thinking it was two strangers. But they were my friends. They started melting snow and gave me oxygen.
I was lucky I only froze my toes. If there was more wind my face ears and face would have froze.