No Way Down: Life & Death on K2
IT IS known as the ‘Death Zone’ – the part of a mountain above 26,000 feet where the air is terrifyingly thin and a lack of oxygen quickly saps muscle strength and mental capacity. Passing into it, climbers are literally entering the stratosphere.
“Bodies shut down,” Graham Bowley writes in No Way Down: Life & Death on K2. “You could no longer trust your own mind.”
Bowley’s book is an account of the first weekend of August 2008 on K2, the infamous peak on the border of Pakistan and China, during which the ‘Savage Mountain’ claimed 11 lives. One of those killed was Irish climber Gerard McDonnell, among those stranded after an unstable glacier gave way, cutting off fixed ropes and leaving several climbers in the Death Zone. What followed was a story of heroism and foolishness, but most of all, an abject lesson in nature’s cold-heartedness.
McDonnell, 37, hailed from a dairy farm in Kilcornan, Co Limerick. He had moved to the US in 1994 and, at the time of his summit attempt, was working as an electronic engineer in Alaska, where he lived with his partner, Annie. He never let go of his Irishness, however. He played the bodhrán in a local band and famously pucked a sliothar off Everest in 2003, when he reached the summit with another Irish mountaineer, Pat Falvey.
After Everest, McDonnell returned home a hero, met President McAleese, and gave a speech at the local community centre. His father had died when he was 20, and McDonnell said this was one of the reasons he climbed mountains. “I felt close to my dad up there,” he said of Everest.
As the Everest summit also attests, McDonnell was a serious climber. He had planned meticulously for the K2 ascent, assembling equipment from his home in Anchorage, picking the perfect weather window and liaising with his expedition leader, Wilco Van Rooijen, a Dutchman with whom he made his first attempt on the peak in 2006 (abandoned after McDonnell cracked his head in a rockfall).
And like all serious climbers, McDonnell knew just how treacherous K2 is. Standing at 28,250-feet in the Himalayas, this is the second-tallest mountain on earth. But it is considered a far more difficult climb than Everest. It is steeper, further north, its weather is colder and its storms are more unpredictable.
By the time McDonnell and his expedition reached base camp in 2008, just 278 climbers had ever made it to the summit. Thirty-six had died trying, or on the descent. “K2 is not to be climbed,” wrote Filippo de Filippi, recording a 1909 Italian expedition. And that, of course, is precisely why so many mountaineers try to do it.
Eight international expeditions set off for the summit that morning. A throng of climbers headed up the Abruzzi Spur Route and lost little time in getting lodged in “an ugly traffic jam”.
Time is at a premium in the Death Zone. So why did they not turn back? Because of the money and time their expeditions had invested, perhaps. Maybe it was because the weather was perfect, or because “a kind of groupthink” had set in. But most of all, Bowley suggests, it was because site of the peak was too tantalising. “It made everything right ... they were on K2.”
Eventually, most of the climbers would reach the summit. “I’m feeling great,” McDonnell told his girlfriend in Alaska, breaking the news by satellite phone. He unfurled a tricolour and held it over his head, the first Irishman ever to conquer K2.
It was 8pm by the time McDonnell left, Bowley reports. Night was falling; “some of the distant craggy peaks stuck up through mist like sharks’ fins”.
On their descent, in darkness, the climbers relied on fixed ropes. But a portion of the glacier they had passed just hours previously gave way violently in the blackness, slicing through the lifelines. Already, some were dead. Others, like McDonnell, were forced to bivouac (spend the night) in the Death Zone.
A full-blown catastrophe was playing out. Together with Van Rooijen and an Italian climber, Marco Confortola, McDonnell spent the night at -20C, with no tent, sleeping bags, food, drink or oxygen. They survived, but the following morning McDonnell and Confortola came across a gruesome scene.
On their descent, they encountered two South Korean climbers and a Sherpa suspended from ropes against an ice wall on the glacier. They were beaten-up, bloodied, missing gloves and boots, hanging upside down and freezing to death.
Decisions had to be made. McDonnell and Confortola knew that pausing to help the men would reduce their chances of survival. But McDonnell had a history of aiding mountaineers in distress (in 2003, he helped an older climber descend from Everest after his oxygen failed). They stayed, endeavouring at least to turn the men the right way up.
Meanwhile, news of the disaster was being drip-fed to the world. In Ireland, people had heard about McDonnell’s successful summit, but now his family was keeping vigil in Kilcornan, hoping against hope.
What happened next is the subject of some dispute. In his account of the tragedy, Confortola says that, after an hour or so trying to help the stranded climbers, McDonnell lost his faculties and wandered off. The Italian tells Bowley that he alone remained, putting the men in sitting positions before using their radio to call for help, and leaving.
However, Confortola may have exaggerated, says Van Rooijen. McDonnell’s family also took issue with his account, unable to believe he could have abandoned climbers in distress, no matter what his state of mind or body. They suggest he freed the mountaineers and was descending behind them when another avalanche occurred.
If their account is true, as Bowley writes, McDonnell’s “could be one of the most selfless rescue attempts in the history of high-altitude mountaineering”. But could three rescued men really have begun descending K2 after hanging upside down for 24 hours?
And why would Confortola, the only surviving eye-witness, lie?
“I had expected a clear narrative,” Bowley writes of the differing accounts. “But I found myself in some postmodern fractured tale.”
That tale is a riveting read, if occasionally suffering from Bowley’s painstakingly judicious handling of the accounts of dozens of climbers and complicated circumstances. Don’t expect a personal story here – like, say, Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air – but a record. And a punctilious record at that, as befits, perhaps, a New York Times reporter.
At any rate, whether McDonnell stuck with the climbers or not, he never came home. Confortola scrambled to safety, losing his toes to frostbite. Van Rooijen made it too. But the truth ultimately lies with K2. Photos from the day show black dots that McDonnell’s partner claims to show him helping the three climbers. But they are just that – black dots.
Later, a Sherpa would report seeing a figure in a black and red climbing suit – similar to McDonnell’s – falling from a section of K2 known as the Traverse. The three climbers he tried to assist were killed in a different avalanche. Perhaps that avalanche took him, too?
“Let luck and good fortune prevail!” McDonnell had written on his last blog post, which still lingers online. But K2 doesn’t do luck, as a plaque in his memory there now testifies.
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