In K2 aftermath, lessons learned
Veteran climbers say the mountaineers were highly experienced, but point out several factors that contributed to the tragedy in which 11 died.
The search for survivors on the world's second-tallest peak ended Tuesday, when the severely frostbitten Italian climber Marco Confortola made it to safety after 11 lives were lost in one of the most tragic accidents of modern mountaineering.Skip to next paragraph
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European and Korean teams were struck by a series of disastrous events during a summit attempt on K2, which straddles the Pakistan-China border and is considered one of the most difficult peaks to summit.
But unlike many recent mountain fatalities, often attributed to inexperienced climbers paying top dollar to climb "trophies" like Mt. Everest, these were seasoned mountaineers. In the aftermath, veteran climbers say the focus is likely to be on a possible breakdown in teamwork and whether unconfirmed media reports of fatalities jeopardize rescue attempts.
After a Friday ice avalanche, some climbers at the K2 base camp got on the telephone, prompting media reports of 11 "confirmed" deaths, long before they were in fact confirmed.
"The main danger with all this is if people read, all over the world [and] on CNN ... that 11 people are confirmed dead, the motivation for actually risking your life and going up there to rescue people stops," says Tom Sjogren, a founder of Explorersweb.com, who has himself been on the summit of Everest once during four climbs there. "I've never seen missing people actually be declared dead on such a scale.... But I've seen people declared dead and coming back after 4 to 5 days, even on K2."
Veteran climbers have long considered K2 one of the most treacherous mountains, a 28,240-foot high behemoth conquered only 281 times by mountaineers before Friday – compared to nearly 3,000 for Mt. Everest. Though 66 climbers had died on K2 as of last year, no more than six had been lost in a single event, according to Explorersweb.com.
"I think there were some tactical errors made, but it wasn't the tactics that killed them," says US climbing veteran Chris Warner, who led a successful expedition to K2 last year – among the latest of 140 career expeditions. "You can point and say: 'They got to the summit at 8 o'clock [in the dark].' That was a mistake, but it wasn't what killed them. You can say 'those people on oxygen probably ran out of oxygen.... But that's not what killed them. What killed them was the ice fall."
Two climbers, a Serb and a Pakistani, died on the summit attempt on Friday. It ran into further trouble when a European team led by Dutch climber Wilco van Rooijen found that safety ropes fixed at the narrow Bottleneck had been placed wrongly.
"We were astonished," Mr. van Rooijen told the Associated Press after being rescued by a Pakistani helicopter. "We had to move it. That took, of course, many, many hours. Some turned back because they didn't trust it anymore."