The media frenzy surrounding the recent tragedies on K2 climaxed on Wednesday with a front page article in the New York Times. Though disjointed, the article did sketch out the rough facts that by now have been widely reported in the mainstream news. Roughly thirty people left the high camp in the predawn hours on Friday, August 1st, bound for the summit. The climbers were counting on the use of fixed ropes, set by an advance team of climbers. Delays quickly ensued when they realized that the fixed ropes weren't strategically placed in the most difficult sections of the climb; more ropes needed to be leapfrogged from below. A Serb climber fell to his death and an aborted body recovery cost more time and took the life of a Pakistani porter. While some decided to return to high camp, as many as 17 climbers summited. The catastrophic serac avalanche caught the first climbers descending from the summit, sweeping several more climbers (the exact number has been variously reported as 3 or 4) to their deaths. Five to six more climbers perished who were stranded above the Bottleneck couloir at the time of the avalanche.
This has become the accepted narrative, as it were, though contradictory statements and problematic truths swirl just below the surface. Above all, as so often happens when the mainstream media reports on mountaineering topics, accounts have universally failed to put the K2 disaster in its proper historical context.
The nationalities of some of the deceased is one clue to unravelling the mystery of what went wrong. Virtually all reports agree that two Nepali and two Pakistani climbers were killed. This is a subtle red flag, because it is safe to say that the Pakistani and Nepali victims were on K2 for business, not for pleasure -- they've been described in the media as "high altitude porters" or "guides". While a large labor force of local Sherpa guides are regularly employed on Mt. Everest and the popular high peaks of Nepal, traditionally they've played a much smaller role in mountaineering in the Karakorum. There are several reasons for this. The mountains of Pakistan are steeper and require more technical skills, which means that they have never attracted the sheer number of climbers as other peaks in the Himalaya. While local Himalayan porters and guides are universally acclaimed for the physical strength and toughness, they are also notoriously unskilled in the technical aspects of climbing, such as building anchors and fixing ropes. Thus the delays caused because of improperly fixed lines should not be surprising; a similar problem happened during the Everest disaster of 1996, when Sherpa guides failed to fix ropes beyond the South Summit. Exactly whom the Pakistani and Nepali guides were working for, and how much their employers were relying on them for further support on summit day, has not been adequately explained.
It's also become an established part of the K2 narrative that climbers were "stranded" or "trapped" above the Bottleneck after the avalanche stripped their ropes from the mountain. This has been reported by many mainstream sources, including the New York Times piece, as well as by veteran climbing writers, including the mountaineering pundit David Roberts who is quoted on the National Geographic Adventure blog as saying: "If this disaster was triggered by climbers being stranded above the Bottleneck after a collapsing serac took out the fixed ropes, then I can't think of a comparable death trap in mountaineering history." Yet reports also indicate that four climbers successfully negotiated the Bottleneck after the avalanche: Dutchmen Cas Van de Gevel and Wilco Van Rooijen, Italian Marco Confortola, and Nepali Pemba Sherpa. Historical context supports the assumption that it is feasible for an experienced climber to negotiate the Bottleneck unroped. As climbing journalist Allison Osius has pointed out, as late as 1992, when ascents of the Abruzzi Ridge were relatively common, there were no pre-placed fixed ropes on the final summit climb. Rather, climbers moved up and down the mountain unroped, or traveled in self-sufficient teams, carrying a small amount of cord between them.
Lastly, it's worth considering the weather conditions as the events unfolded. By all accounts Friday, August 1st was a bright blue day in the Karakorum, windless and clear. A perfect day often lures climbers into pushing beyond the normal rules of safe mountaineering judgement and may help to explain why so many were on the summit so late. After darkness fell, temperatures plummeted, and the new moon provided little light to guide the climbers down. Assessing conditions the next morning, on Saturday August 2nd, is more problematic. In an interview published on the National Geographic Adventure blog, Wilco van Rooijen described his descent from below the Bottleneck:
"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."
Simultaneously -- virtually in the same sentence -- Wilco suggests that he was lost in a whiteout, yet those in baseamp, 7,000 vertical feet lower, were able to see him clearly moving down the wrong side of the ridge. These statements are not necessarily contradictory; "patchy conditions" that alternate between short snow squalls and periods of clear weather holes often form on mountains such as K2. But clearly there was no major storm, like those that precipitated the massive losses of life on Everest in 1996 and on K2 in 1986 and 1995. Wilco's account does speak to the immense physical and mental stress that the survivors were under as they made their way down the mountain. Those of us who have been watching and reporting on the events on K2 from afar would be well advised to question the reliability of firsthand reports from those who lived through such a harrowing experience.
Many more questions remain unanswered -- but the presence of numerous hired local guides, as well as the extensive reliance on fixed ropes, suggests that modern climbers approach K2 with a fundamentally different mindset then they did 20 years ago. It will still take some time for a comprehensive account of what happened to surface; right now the shell-shocked survivors are still making their way out of Pakistan to return to their home countries. In the meantime, with the Olympics in Beijing, Russia and Georgia at war, and news of John Edward's extra-marital affair, K2's media cycle has come full circle. While the unique circumstances of the disaster make it all that much more urgent for the climbing community to get a carefully balanced account of what went wrong, I have a sinking feeling that the mainstream media may never get it right.