Thursday, 20 March 2014

A few thoughts on the 2008 K2 disaster

I'd like to start with a disclaimer - all my thoughts are simply suppositions based on other people's recollections of the events of 1st/2nd August 2008. I do not claim to have any new information or to be correct in any way.

I recently watched a documentary called The Summit which is a 2012 film based on the August 2008 attempts by various teams to climb K2. Once I'd finished the film I read the wikipedia page and then I read No Way Down by Graham Bowley. I've scoured Google Images for as many pictures as I could find.

As a side note I have to say I thought The Summit was quite one-sided and concentrates too much on the Norit Expedition. And came across occasionally as "bashing" the Koreans. But as the film seems based on the book of the same name written by Pat Falvey (a longtime friend of Gerard McDonnell) and Pemba Gyalje (who was McDonnell's preferred climbing partner) this isn't much of a surprise.

This seems a popular theme however as those who have spoken about the events don't have many nice or positive things to say about the Korean "Flying Jump" team.

Having digested all this I had a few questions...

Why have the Koreans been so tight-lipped about the whole incident? Korean "lead" climber Park gave an interview to Bowley but deflected the blame for the mis-placed ropes and delays on the sherpas and Pakistani High Altitude Porters. Other than that the Koreans have stayed fairly schtum. Sadly Go Mi-Young was killed in a climbing accident in 2009 so Park remains the surviving Korean. And as far as I can tell he's not talking publicly about the events that transpired.

Whilst on the subject of the Koreans, it seems one person completely disappeared.  Kim Jae-soo and Go Mi-Young got down to camp IV sometime in the night, leaving their three colleagues above the traverse with one of their sherpas. Now this to me makes four people above the traverse for at lease some part of the night. The Italian Confortola reported hearing a "whooshing" type noise at some point in the night whilst he, McDonnell and the Norit leader Rooijen bivouacked above the traverse. In none the of the books/articles I've read or documentaries I've watched (including some unsettling footage from Fredrik Sträng's camera) does it state that the "fourth" climber was found with the other three. Rooijen and Pemba claim the climbers discovered upside-down and tangled in ropes were two Koreans and a sherpa. Confortola claims it was three Koreans. I'm inclined to side with Pemba on this. His mind was fresher than Confortola's & Rooijen's as he hadn't spent the night above 8000m freezing his plums off. Working on that assumption then are we to assume the fourth climber of that group was swept further down the mountain? I would have to say yes as no trace was ever reported.

This leads to a puzzle of sorts. At some point in the night (none of the climbers seems have worn a watch) three climbers are somehow pushed/washed onto some rocks by falling snow just above the traverse and are trapped there overnight.Confortola claims (along with McDonnell's help) to have attempted to cut the Koreans and their Sherpa free - for some three to four hours. At some point in the day on August 2nd he stops helping the stranded climbers (who we are told are still alive at this point, and this is confirmed later by Pemba as he has a radio conversation with another Sherpa who was sent to rescue the stranded Korean climbers) and heads down the mountain. I can't say I blame the guy as he's not eaten for hours and is on death's door himself by this point. Evidently McDonnell decided to go back up the mountain. Depending on who you believe this was either hypoxia making him believe he needed to climb back up to the summit (Confortola's view) or he went back to the stranded Koreans/Sherpa to help more. This is McDonnell's family's view and that of Pemba & Rooijen. When Confortola is found by Pemba, Pemba has a radio conversation with the Sherpa sent to find the Koreans and here the Sherpa sent to rescue the Koreans saw another climber wearing a red & black down suit but at some point (whilst the Sherpa could see him) the climber was hit by an ice fall and was swept down the mountain.

So assuming this is true, who was the climber seen by Confortana "in pieces"? Following the timeline, the Sherpas sent to rescue the Koreans saw McDonnell alive & moving before he was hit by falling ice. So if Confortola had already passed the remains of a climber and subsequently passed out, the remains couldn't have been those of McDonnell. It is most likely to have been Kyeong-Hyo Park (in my opinion at least) - he too was wearing a red & black down suit. There is an unlikely third possibility here - Karim Meherban was also unaccounted for at this time. He was wearing a red down suit. Personally though I find this unlikely, though not impossible. Meherban was employed by Frenchman Hugues D'Aubarede as a guide. Norit member Cas van de Gevel claims to have been on the traverse in the dark and "overtook" D'Aubarede - who was alone - on the rope. So this leaves Meherban also unaccounted for. Rooijen speculates that Merherban is the climber spotted (in a photograph taken from camp IV) over on top of the serac. I'm not sure what this assumption is based on mind you. But he's got a 50/50 chance of being correct. The could also have been one of the Koreans (Kyeong-Hyo Park most likely if this is the case). Whoever that climber was it isn't surprising that one of them - having spent a night freezing above 8,000m - became disorientated and wandered over the serac in the desperate search of a safe way down.

I do think some of the climbers are lucky to be alive - to arrive back at camp IV safely you're advised to leave the summit no later than 3pm. Confortola didn't summit until 7.30pm by which point the light had faded so much that the photo of him on the summit needed a flash. To be four and a half hours later leaving the summit of the second highest mountain in the world strikes me a wreckless. Rooijen claimed more than once that other climbers caused him team to be late to the top. In my mind he should have done what the International team did and postpone their push to the summit for 24 hours. There were too many people pushing for the summit that day.

All of this is pointless though. At the end of the day 11 experience climbers lost their lives on "the savage mountain" in the space of 24 hours, and knowing the timeline for each event isn't going to bring them back. Perhaps the mysteries that still remain add some sort of aura to the story.

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