Avalanche Triggers Survival Situation on K2

This morning, news reports began to filter from expedition websites into the mainstream media about a tragic situation high on K2, the world's second highest mountain. Because of the unreliable nature of these second and third hand reports, it must be stressed that the following account is unconfirmed, and the story will undoubtedly change as new details emerge. But let me try to explain what's happened as best I understand it.

On August 1st, a large group (probably between 20 - 30 people) of international climbers left their high camp, located at 8000 meters above sea level, bound for the 8611 meter summit of K2. They were climbing on the Abruzzi Ridge, which is the most popular route on the mountain. The climbers were an ad-hoc collection of Dutch, Korean, Italian, French, Norwegian, Pakistani and Nepali climbers from different expeditions and with differing levels of preparedness and ability. This sort of high traffic situation is common these days on the world's highest peaks. When the notoriously unpredictable mountain weather of the high Himalaya finally stabilizes, dozens of climbers rush to attempt the summit simultaneously.

The route to the summit of K2 follows steepening snow slopes towards a snow and ice couloir called "the Bottleneck". Above this hourglass shaped feature, the climbers make an airy traverse under a steep ice cliff, or serac, to reach easier ground that leads to the summit. The steepest sections of the summit climb are between 50 - 60 degrees, steeper than the steepest trails at a ski area, yet far from the kind of vertical terrain routinely climbed by the world's best alpinists.

So what went wrong?

In recent years, climbers on the world's highest peaks have increasingly relied on fixed ropes, sections of cord that are permanently left on the mountain to facilitate travel. With fixed ropes, climbers can attach jumars -- clamp like devices that work similar to a jam cleat on a sailboat or the mechanism inside your car seat belt -- to protect themselves incase of a slip. In the Himalaya, of course, there's no official organization responsible for maintaining these lines. Rather, it's up to each expedition to equip the route as they desire. Often, lines will sit for years or even decades without being replaced. Nobody guarantees that the fixed ropes are in safe condition, or that they are there at all. On August 1st, while as many as 17 people neared the summit of K2, a large piece of ice broke off from the ice cliff below them. The ensuing serac avalanche swept down the Bottleneck couloir, stripping it of the fixed ropes the climbers had used to ascend to the summit. They were effectively stranded, with no ropes to help them descend.

The group of summiters faced a life or death situation: either down climb the Bottleneck unroped, or wait in hope that other climbers from below would ascend with more rope to re-equip the climb. Reports indicate that at least two climbers -- a Sherpa and a Dutchman -- successfully down climbed the Bottleneck on their own. Some sources report that a third climber attempted to descend as well, but slipped and fell to his death. The others apparently hunkered down to wait for help.

The climbers who remained chose to gamble their lives on circumstances beyond their control, like the availability of more rope and ready manpower lower on the mountain, rather than trust their own skills to successfully negotiate the Bottleneck. They resigned their fate to a battle against time. Above 8000 meters, the human body will inevitably weaken and die. In the notorious 1996 Everest disaster, for comparison, climbers stranded above 8000 meters expired in less than 48 hours. In all likelihood, the climbers on K2 had left extra survival gear such as tents, sleeping bags, and extra bottled oxygen at their high camp. Rescues above 8000 meters are an extremely arduous endeavor at best, and in the worst case situation impossible. While an emergency effort was immediately initiated, by the time you read this it is probably over. Unconfirmed sources are now reporting that as many as 9 climbers have perished.

Whenever disaster strikes in the mountains, it is important for the climbing community to study what went wrong so that others can learn from the mistakes of those who died. This process often crosses the line into finger pointing, harsh criticisms and accusations of blame. So while the time will come for a rigorous analysis of what happened on K2 this weekend, it's not now.

All we can do is cross our fingers, and say a prayer for those climbers who -- as you read this -- are struggling for their lives on K2.