Text by Kirkpatrick Reardon
Photograph courtesy Charley Mace, showing Ed Viesturs traversing K2's Bottleneck
NG Adventure Blog: K2 Survivor Wilco van Rooijen, In His Own Words
New York Times: Chaos on the ‘Mountain That Invites Death’
NPR: Climber Barely Missed K2 Avalanche
K2climb.net: ExWeb special: A magic mountain named K2
L.A. Times: Dutch K2 survivor describes chaos after avalanche
Bloomberg.com: Italian Climber Reaches K2 Base Camp, Will Be Flown to Hospital
Mounteverest.net: K2: Fredrik Strang's tale of Pakistani guide's fatal fall
More About K2 From National Geographic ADVENTURE:
David Roberts's "The Bitter Legacy"
Time Line: The First Ascent of K2
K2 Vs. Everest Fast Facts
Eleven are feared dead after a serac collapsed last Friday near the summit of 28,250-foot K2, located in the Karakoram of northern Pakistan and arguably the most deadly mountain on Earth.
"At this point, the various reports are so mutually contradictory that some of them have to be wrong," says Contributing Editor David Roberts, who regularly reports on mountaineering for the magazine (read his feature "The Bitter Legacy" about the first ascent of K2). "However, if indeed 11 people died in a single event, that would make this the second worst Himalayan tragedy in history. The worst occurred when 16 climbers were killed in an avalanche on Nanga Parbat in 1937—seven Germans and nine porters." In 1986, 13 climbers died on K2, but in a series of storms and accidents, not a single event.
Taking advantage of clear skies and low winds last Friday, 22 climbers pushed along the Southeast ridge to the summit of the mountain. But on their way back down, a large block of ice broke loose in a steep couloir at 8,200 feet.
"I can't be sure, but my guess is that the serac that collapsed was this big ice cliff hanging over the Bottleneck, which, while climbing K2 in 1992, I jokingly called the Motivator—the idea being that you want to get out from under it as soon as possible," says alpinist Ed Viesturs, the first U.S. citizen to climb the world's 14 highest peaks. The avalanche demolished the fixed ropes used for traversing the Bottleneck, the most dangerous section of the mountain. "We still don't know what really happened, but some of the climbers reached the summit as late as 8 p.m. I can imagine them coming down exhausted and counting on the fixed ropes. When the ropes where gone, it's possible some waited for daylight and a few, perhaps, tried to down climb the difficult terrain, but fell off," says Viesturs.
Nine, including the first Irishman to ever make the summit, were stranded overnight above the Bottleneck. Today, the Pakistani military scrambled two helicopters to assist with the rescue, helping to recover two Dutch mountaineers. K2climb.net just reported that two missing Austrian climbers arrived at base camp.
"If this disaster was triggered by climbers being stranded above the Bottleneck after a collapsing serac took out the fixed ropes," notes Roberts, "then I can't think of a comparable death trap in mountaineering history."