A couple of weeks ago this column focused on Into The Silence by Wade Davis, a superb account of the attempts to climb Mount Everest involving veterans of the First World War such as George Mallory.
We needn’t have gone back so far in time though, if we were looking for heroism at high altitude.
Many readers will be familiar with the story of Ger McDonnell, the Limerick man who lost his life in August 2008 climbing K2, the notoriously difficult peak in the Karakoram mountains at the meeting-point of Pakistan and China. Now his brother-in-law, Damien O’Brien, has written a book about the climber, The Time Has Come: Ger McDonnell His Life and Death on K2, published by Collins Press.
“We were in DCU,” says O’Brien, “Where Ger went to college, because they honoured his memory with a scholarship, and at the launch of that we met a lot of his friends from college.
“They were telling us stories about him and on the way home I said to his mother that it might be nice to have all those memories in a booklet — just for the family, really — and that’s how it started.”
The book became more than that, however. The McDonnell family were frustrated when stories appeared on the internet suggesting Ger had simply fallen off the mountain, and when O’Brien went to Islamabad to talk to people for the book the story of McDonnell’s final hours grew clearer.
“As a non-climber that always struck me,” says O’Brien. “You have so many people on the mountain and yet when things go wrong you get to hear so many different versions of what happened.”
An Italian climber suggested, for instance, that McDonnell had gone back up the mountain to take pictures, but O’Brien discovered that the Limerick man had left his camera with a Sherpa on his team, disproving that theory.
In Pakistan, O’Brien was able to piece together the details of what happened on that August day in 2008.
“Korean climbers got stuck on the way down the mountain and Sherpas went up from Camp Four to rescue them. Halfway up the mountain they found the Italian mountaineer unconscious and they made a phone call back to Camp Four for back-up to get the Italian.
“When other Sherpas came up from Camp Four for the Italian they got a phone call from the first group of Sherpas, maybe an hour and a half later, who had met the Koreans. They’d been freed, and they were able to tell the Sherpas that a westerner in a red and black down suit coming down after them had been hit by a serac [glacial ice] fall.
“Ger was the only one up that high at that time, in a red and black down suit — everyone else was accounted for. That gave the family a little closure, because the other versions of what had happened had gone out on the internet, and it can be hard to get the truth.”
O’Brien is careful to flesh out the picture of Ger McDonnell beyond the last image of him on K2.
“He endorsed everything Irish. He spoke Irish fluently, when he moved to Alaska he joined an Irish band and played the bodhran. Everyone who knew him said the same — that he lit up a room with his smile. One of the best descriptions I heard of him was from a woman who knew him in Alaska: she said most people go to the party at the weekend, but that Ger was the party.”
That might contradict your notion of such high-altitude climbers: that by definition they must be reckless loners, careless about both their own personal safety and the feelings of worried relatives.
Nothing could be further from the truth in Ger McDonnell’s case, says his brother-in-law.
“Ger was big into sport always, he played hurling and football for Kilcornan here in Limerick as a young lad, but when he went to DCU he discovered rock climbing. He gave up the hurling then because he reckoned it was dangerous compared to rock climbing...
“On a serious note, though, safety was always a big thing for Ger. He saved Pat Falvey’s life in 2003 and he won a bravery award for saving five people’s lives on Mount McKinley in 1999. If he had gotten down to Camp Four that day and had heard the Koreans were in trouble, chances are he would have gone back up to try to help them.
“He was just that kind of person.”
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