Tragic Toll After Chaos on Mountain

(The New York Times): For two months, dozens of mountaineers had huddled at camps below the peak, acclimating to the thin air, practicing their ascent and waiting, waiting, for the moment.

The final push began in the dark hours after midnight on Aug. 1. Members of at least five expeditions — and perhaps as many as nine — began the last leg of their climb to conquer Mount Everest’s slightly shorter but far more dangerous sister, K2, its peak towering, glistening and pyramidlike above them, laden with snow from recent storms.

Gerard McDonnell, 37, an Irish engineer climbing with a Dutch team, wrote on his blog when the start date was set: “Let luck and good fortune prevail!!! Fingers crossed.”

But luck did not hold. On the way up the last 2,000 feet, a Serbian climber fell to his death, and a Pakistani porter died trying to recover his body. And on the way back, a chunk of glacier splintered and came crashing down, sweeping at least four climbers on ropes to their deaths and leaving a handful of others trapped in the death zone above 26,000 feet — desperately cold, starved for oxygen and without ropes.

Over the next few hours and days, some of those still left on K2 battled their way to safety, some fell to their deaths and others were simply lost forever in the cold wastes of the mountain.

Bulletins posted on the Dutch expedition’s Web site charted the unfolding tragedy: “Gerard McDonnell: status unknown. We have not heard or seen anything from Gerard.”

On Tuesday, the climber likely to be the last of the survivors, an Italian, Marco Confortola, staggered on frostbite-blackened feet to the base camp, for a time refusing help and oxygen, preferring to make his own way down.

“I understand that many died, and that only a few made it down,” he said by telephone, in a conversation reported by an Italian scientific official, as he waited for a Pakistani military rescue helicopter to pluck him from the unforgiving mountainside. “I am happy that I was one of them.” He was airlifted to a nearby town Wednesday morning for medical treatment, Reuters reported.

In all, 11 lives were lost in the worst episode on K2 since 13 climbers died over a two-week span in 1986, and one of the worst disasters in mountaineering history.

In the aftermath, criticism has swirled about poor preparations and delays caused by climbers laying ropes improperly in the Bottleneck, the precipitous climb just below the summit.

There were questions, too, about whether the attempt to reclaim a fallen climber was too costly and whether some climbers failed to turn back when it was clear that they would not make it back in daylight. The presence of hired high-altitude porters on some of the teams raised questions about whether some of the expeditions might have been commercial, guided efforts with incompletely prepared climbers — reminiscent of the disastrous 1996 Everest climb that claimed eight lives.

Yet to most, the deaths were simply the latest on a notoriously dangerous mountain — known as the mountaineer’s mountain — on which many climbers have lost their lives since it was first conquered in 1954.

K2 is known as the world’s hardest and most dangerous mountain for climbers, more challenging even than Everest. Farther north and 1,500 miles from Everest, it collects heavy snow and storms, and climbers have only a few days each year when they can try for the peak, usually in early August. “For a professional, seasoned mountaineer it’s more of the holy grail than Everest,” said the veteran American climber Ed Viesturs. “There is no easy way to climb K2.”

In a message sent back to friends, three South Koreans from the Flying Jump K2 Expedition expressed their awe about “the mountain of the mountains” and “the mountain that invites death.”

Last Friday morning, the “weather was perfect,” said Nicholas Rice, an American from Los Angeles, who would later turn back before the Bottleneck because of frostbite. He ended up recording, on blog posts, much of what is known about what went wrong, who died when, and why.

The various expeditions — with members from several countries, including South Korea, the Netherlands, Norway, Serbia, Italy, the United States and France — set off from Camp 4, the last camp before the summit, between midnight and 3 a.m., Mr. Rice said. No one is certain exactly how many climbers were there, because no one coordinates the expeditions. Many other details remain unclear.

To reach the summit, it is necessary to climb the Bottleneck, then traverse left under the glacier’s giant overhanging brow.

The first fatality came early, when Dren Mandic, a Serb, fell to his death in the Bottleneck, followed by the Pakistani porter, Jehan Baig.