2008 K2 disaster

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Coordinates: 35°52′57″N 76°30′48″E / 35.8825°N 76.5133°E / 35.8825; 76.5133

K2 in summer

The 2008 K2 disaster occurred on 1 August 2008, when eleven mountaineers from international expeditions died on K2, the second-highest mountain on Earth.[1] Three others were seriously injured. The series of deaths, over the course of the Friday ascent and Saturday descent, was the worst single accident in the history of K2 mountaineering.[2][3] Some of the specific details remain uncertain, with different plausible scenarios for timing and actions by different climbers when reported later in eyewitness accounts from survivors or from radio communications of climbers who died later (sometimes minutes later) in the course of events on K2 that day.

Expedition goal: K2[edit]

Main article: K2

K2 is the second-highest mountain on Earth, after Mount Everest, with a peak elevation of 8,611 metres (28,251 ft). K2 is part of the Karakoram range, not far from the Himalayas, and is located on the border between the Pakistani Gilgit-Baltistan region, and the People's Republic of China's Taxkorgan Tajik Autonomous County of Xinjiang Autonomous Region.[4] It is regarded by mountaineers as far more challenging than Everest, and is generally looked upon as one of the most dangerous mountains in the world.[5]

The climbing season at K2 lasts from June to August, but in 2008 adverse weather prevented any groups from summiting during June and July. At the end of July, ten different groups were awaiting the possibility to reach the summit, some of them having waited for almost two months. The months preceding the summit push were used for acclimatization and preparing for the camps higher on the mountain, the highest of them, Camp IV, just a little short of 8000 m above sea level.

Events between Camp IV and the summit[edit]

With the end of July approaching, weather forecasts indicated improving weather, and several groups had arrived at Camp IV on Thursday 31 July in preparation to try the summit as soon as weather would permit. Members of a Serbian team, American team, South Korean team, Norwegian team, French team, an International team sponsored by Dutch company Norit, and the teams' associated Sherpas from Nepal (brought by the Korean team) and Pakistani high-altitude porters (HAPs) decided to work together on the Friday 1 August ascent.[6] A few solo climbers (a Spaniard, a duo of Italians) would also push for the summit in the morning.

Friday 1 August[edit]

The Sherpas and HAPs started to prepare fixed lines upwards before midnight. They were joined by Spanish solo climber Alberto Zerain who had come up from Camp III during the night and decided to continue his summit push early rather than stay at Camp IV. The most experienced HAP, Shaheen Baig (from the Serbian team), had to go back down with symptoms of high altitude sickness. His experience (the only person in the collected teams to have previously summited K2)[6] and unofficial leadership of the Sherpas and HAPs was missed and in the confusion, ropes may have been left behind or placed too far to the right side of the Bottleneck (a steep couloir, which is overhung by seracs from the ice field east of the summit).

When the climbing groups started upward at 3 a.m., they found that the Sherpas and HAPs had started planting lines right above Camp IV, where they were not needed, up into the Bottleneck, and then had run out of rope for the traverse just above the Bottleneck. This forced them to take rope from the lower portion of the route and use it to prepare the lines above the Bottleneck, causing a dangerous unplanned delay in the climb schedule. At this point the American group decided to abort the attempt and return to Camp IV.[7] It should be noted though, that traditionally, the Bottleneck and ensuing traverse were climbed without fixed ropes. It has been suggested—although the point remains unresolved—that the climbers of the 2008 K2 summer season were perhaps depending too much on the fixed ropes.

At 8 a.m. climbers were finally advancing through the Bottleneck. Dren Mandić, from the Serbian team, decided to attend to his oxygen system and so unclipped from the rope to let other climbers pass. Mandić lost his balance and fell, bumping into Cecilie Skog of the Norwegian team. She was still clipped to the rope and was only knocked over. Mandić fell over 100 m down the bottleneck. Some climbers claimed that he was still moving after the fall. People in Camp IV saw the fall and sent a group to help recover his injured or dead body. Swede Fredrik Sträng stated he took command of the recovery operation.[8]

When Sträng reached the body, Serbian climbers Predrag Zagorac and Iso Planic and their HAP Mohammed Hussein had already arrived. They had found no pulse and judging by the severity of his injuries, Mandić was pronounced dead. The Serbian climbers decided to lower the body down to Camp IV and Sträng assisted them. They were joined by Jehan Baig, a HAP from the French team. He had fulfilled his assisting duties and had been allowed to head down. Several people later indicated he may have been suffering from high altitude sickness, since he had displayed questionable behaviour in abseiling down the bottleneck. Sträng also noticed that he was incoherent, first offering to help in the rescue, later refusing to help, only to return moments later to assist them again. Jehan Baig lost his footing, bumping into Sträng who then urged him to let go of the rope attached to Mandić's harness, before all four climbers would be dragged down. Baig finally let go of the rope, but to Sträng's and the others' surprise, he did not try to stop his slide by using the self-arrest technique, which has about a 50% chance of arresting the fall. Jehan Baig fell to his death. It is unclear why he did not try to stop his slide. Sträng decided to descend without the body of Mandić.[9] The Serbian group wrapped the body of Mandić in a flag and fastened him to the mountain before aborting and starting to descend.[1]

These delays, together with the traffic jam in the Bottleneck, resulted in most people reaching the summit much later than planned, some as late as 8 p.m. (the typical time for summiting being between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m.). All together, 18 people summited that day, though eight (plus one who stopped near the summit) would not survive the lengthy descent. On the descent, the Spaniard Alberto Zerain, who had topped out first and alone at 3 p.m., managed to pass through the Bottleneck without trouble.

By 8:30 p.m. the darkness had enveloped K2. Members of the Norwegian group – including Lars Flatø Nessa and Skog, who had both summited two hours after Zerain – had almost negotiated the traverse leading to the Bottleneck when a serac (a large block of glacial ice) broke off from above. As it fell, it cut all the fixed lines and took with it Rolf Bae, who had abandoned the ascent only 100 m below the summit but had waited for his wife, Skog. Nessa and Skog continued descending without the fixed lines and managed to reach Camp IV during the night.

As a result of the serac fall, the descent through the Bottleneck became more technical. Chunks of ice lay scattered around the route, and the mountaineers above were stranded in darkness in the death zone above 8000 metres.[10] Since the climbers had planned for the fixed lines, they were not carrying additional ropes and fall protection devices, forcing the climbers to "free solo" the descent through the notorious Bottleneck. According to team Norit's Dutch mountaineer Wilco van Rooijen, panic broke out among the climbers waiting above the Bottleneck.[11] Some tried to descend in the darkness, while others decided to bivouac and wait until morning before descending.

Pemba Gyalje, a Sherpa mountaineer who years earlier had been a support climber on Everest but was now a full climbing member on the Norit team, descended in the darkness without fixed ropes and reached Camp IV before midnight. Sherpa Chhiring Dorje also free-soloed the Bottleneck with "little" Pasang Lama (who had been stranded without an ice axe) secured to his harness. "I can just about imagine how you might pull it off," writes Ed Viesturs in K2: Life and Death on the World's Most Dangerous Mountain. "You kick each foot in solid, plant the axe, then tell the other guy to kick with his own feet and punch holds with his hands. Don't move until he's secure. Still, if Pasang had come off [i.e. 'fallen'], he probably would have taken Chhiring with him. Talk about selfless!"[12]

Two members of the South Korean expedition, Kim Jae-soo and Go Mi-Young, also managed to navigate the bottleneck in the dark, although the latter had to be helped by two Sherpas from the Korean B team, Chhiring Bhote and "Big" Pasang Bhote, who were supposed to summit the next morning. The men had climbed up around midnight with food and oxygen and found Go Mi-Young stranded somewhere in the Bottleneck, unsure of which route she had to take. They guided her down safely.

Meanwhile, team Norit's Cas van de Gevel and the French team's Hugues D’Aubarede had each decided to manoeuvre the bottleneck in the dark. As he reached the bottom of the Bottleneck, van de Gevel witnessed a climber falling to his death, a story corroborated by the two Sherpas Chhiring Bhote and "big" Pasang Bhote, who also had witnessed one or two objects falling from the mountain. This climber was likely D'Aubarede, whom van de Gevel had passed just above the Bottleneck in the dark. D'Aubarede had run out of bottled oxygen hours before, and when van de Gevel had passed him, he had looked tired and insisted van de Gevel descend before him.

Italian semi-soloist Marco Confortola and Norit teammates van Rooijen and Irishman Gerard McDonnell bivouacked above the traverse, as they could not find the fixed ropes leading across the traverse. Confortola claimed that during the bivouac, he heard screams and saw headlights disappear below him after a roaring sound came from the serac field. At that point, 8 people were still above the Bottleneck.

Saturday 2 August[edit]

The rescue efforts started in the base camp as a group was sent upwards with ropes to help those still stuck in the Bottleneck. The group included Sherpas Tsering Bhote and "big" Pasang Bhote, who had previously helped Go Mi-Young down the Bottleneck and now went to search for their relative Jumik Bhote. Jumik was left stranded with the remaining climbers of the Korean expedition somewhere above the Bottleneck.

Early in the morning above the traverse, van Rooijen gave up the search for the fixed ropes and descended alone. His vision was deteriorating and he feared he was going snow blind. He needed to get off the mountain fast. Confortola and McDonnell did not follow him immediately. Later, van Rooijen reached the remaining Korean climbers (Confortola claims one of them was Kyeong-Hyo Park) and their guide Jumik Bhote. The men were tangled in several ropes and had clearly been hanging there, some upside down and bloodied, through the night. But they were all alive. It is unclear if the men were the victims of a second serac fall, an avalanche or perhaps a regular fall leaving them tangled in the ropes. Some sources mention only two Koreans and Jumik Bhote, whilst other reports indicate three remaining Koreans (one near death). It could be that this was the event Confortola had witnessed during the bivouac the previous night, while it could also be that this was the second object Tsering Bhote and "big" Pasang Bhote saw falling off the mountain—there is little direct evidence to clearly confirm either possibility. Van Rooijen handed Jumik Bhote his spare pair of gloves, but was unable to help them any more. He claims Jumik Bhote informed him a rescue mission was under way from Camp IV. Van Rooijen decided to continue descending.[13]

Confortola and McDonnell reached the Korean group later in the morning. They worked for several hours trying to free them. It is unclear what happened next. Confortola claims McDonnell, after working with Confortola for at least 1.5 hours, suddenly climbed back up the mountain, leaving him with the three stranded men. Confortola assumed McDonnell had succumbed to high-altitude sickness and was growing delusional, believing he had to climb back up. Left alone, Confortola did all he could for Jumik Bhote, giving him his own equipment. They had managed to get the Koreans back into at least a comfortable position, though they were still entangled. Confortola says he was able to radio with Tsering Bhote and "big" Pasang Bhote who were on their way up to rescue the men. Confortola, having spent at least three hours with the entangled men, was exhausted and chose to continue down.

Van Rooijen disputes Confortola's version of the events. Van Rooijen, who had seen Confortola and McDonnell helping the stranded Koreans and their guide from below, thinks McDonnell did not climb back up the mountain, but rather climbed up to the highest anchor supporting the three stranded men to try to transfer the load. He then could have returned to the three men and may have spent another several hours alone helping free the men from the ropes. In his book "Surviving K2", van Rooijen provides some photographs he believes supports these claims.

Confortola stated that some time after he left the three men, an avalanche struck just feet away from him. In the rubble of this avalanche, he spotted the remains of one climber. After investigating them, he suggests these were the remains of McDonnell.

Just after noon, Tsering Bhote and "big" Pasang Bhote had reached the bottom of the Bottleneck. There they found Confortola crawling on his hands and feet. The two Sherpas radioed Gyalje and van de Gevel to come up for Confortola so that they could continue the search for their relative Jumik Bhote and the Koreans. "Big" Pasang Bhote later radioed Gyalje that he had met Jumik Bhote and two members of the Korean expedition just above the bottleneck—apparently they were freed after all. He also radioed that a fourth climber, descending behind the two Koreans and the two Sherpas, had been swept away by a serac fall and was dead. The description of the climber matched McDonnell's red-and-black down suit, which would suggest Confortola was mistaken in identifying the remains in the avalanche as McDonnell's and adds to van Rooijen's theory that McDonnell freed the two Koreans and Jumik Bhote before perishing in a different serac fall. Tsering Bhote, from his position at the base of the Bottleneck, has also claimed to have seen a serac fall strike the rescue party as they were descending near the top of the bottleneck.[14]

Here, another mystery of the 2008 K2 disaster adds confusion to the sequence of events. There was one other climber still unaccounted for: D’Aubarede's HAP Meherban Karim. He was last seen returning from the summit with D’Aubarede in the later hours of 1 August. He and D’Aubarede must have gotten separated in the dark, as van de Gevel encountered only D’Aubarede above the Bottleneck. Van Rooijen, in his book "Surviving K2", supports the theory that Karim bivouacked even higher on the mountain than van Rooijen, Confortola and McDonnell. Again he provides photographic evidence: What looks like a climber can be seen above the serac field on the morning of 2 August. In a later photo, the figure looks to have disappeared with a trail leading down the seracs. Van Rooijen and others, such as McDonnell's partner Annie Starkey, believe this figure to be Karim. Disoriented from spending the night at such high altitudes without an oxygen mask, he must have gotten lost and stumbled onto the serac field, where he fell or got swept away by an avalanche or part of the serac breaking. He might have actually caused one of the serac falls. Hence, it may have been Karim's remains Confortola had found earlier in the avalanche rubble.

Graham Bowley, in his book No Way Down, is unable to refute the evidence presented by van Rooijen, but still finds the photos to be inconclusive at best. He is joined in his analysis by writer Michael Kodas. Both men edge towards the testimony of the only living eyewitness: Marco Confortola. In the photos taken by Gyalje, individual climbers cannot be made out. In fact, some of the figures assumed to be climbers could very well be rock. Marks that look like trails are everywhere on the mountain.

Another possible explanation to the mystery is an error in "big" Pasang Bhote's observations about the colour of the down suit, meaning the last climber could have been Karim, who was wearing a pure red down suit. If so, Confortola had indeed identified McDonnell's remains in the avalanche earlier. The different plausible scenarios underscores the uncertainty, even among eyewitnesses, pertaining to the course of events on K2 that day.

Minutes after "big" Pasang Bhote had radioed in the news that he had found his relative Jumik Bhote and two Koreans, another avalanche or serac fall struck. It swept away the four men. Tsering Bhote, who had climbed more slowly than fellow rescuer "big" Pasang Bhote, had not yet reached the top of the Bottleneck. He survived the avalanche, as did Gyalje and Confortola at the bottom of the Bottleneck. The death toll had now risen to eleven.

Meanwhile, van Rooijen was making his way down the mountain alone. He had climbed down a new route to the left of the Cesan route, bypassing Camp IV. Van de Gevel and Gyalje descended from Camp IV to Camp III after they had heard van Rooijen was still somewhere on the mountain. Van Rooijen had managed several satellite phone calls that may have helped pinpoint his location. He would have to spend a second bivouac out on the mountain.

Sunday 3 August[edit]

Van de Gevel and Gyalje made contact with van Rooijen on the Cesan route early in the morning; the three managed to get down to the base camp at 10 p.m.[15]

Monday 4 August[edit]

Van de Gevel and van Rooijen were evacuated from base camp by helicopter to Skardu. Confortola reached Camp II, the advance base camp.[16] Pakistani authorities released a list of names of those killed and injured.[17]

Wednesday 6 August[edit]

Confortola, along with another climber, was evacuated from K2 base camp to Skardu by helicopter.[18]

Rescue operation[edit]

The Pakistani military started a rescue operation early on 4 August 2008, using two helicopters. They rescued two injured and frostbitten Dutch climbers from the base camp, located approximately 5,000 metres (16,400 ft) above sea level.[19] Four climbers, including an Italian, were making their own way down the mountain.[20] The four were flown to Skardu for treatment. Van Rooijen was found using GPS coordinates sent out by his Thuraya satellite phone when he used it to call his brother.[21]

After K2[edit]

Gerard McDonnell's family established a charity to sponsor the children of four HAPs who died on K2.

Wilco van Rooijen authored a book in Dutch and English entitled Surviving K2. [22]

Marco Confortola authored a book in Italian entitled Days of Ice. [1]

Chhiring Dorje Sherpa and "Little" Pasang Lama's intersecting lives were profiled in Buried in the Sky. [2]. The book won the National Outdoor Book Award (history/biography), the 2012 NCTE George Orwell award, the Banff Mountain Book Festival's Mountaineering History Award. Chhiring Dorje Sherpa was honoured for his heroism with the Tenzing Norgay Award at the Explorers Club Annual Banquet in March 2013.

List of fatalities[edit]

Name[23] Nationality[23] Location of death Cause of death
Dren Mandić Serbia Below the Bottleneck Fell during the ascent
Jehan Baig Pakistan Fell while trying to recover Dren Mandić's corpse
Rolf Bae Norway Bottleneck The first serac fall
Hugues D'Aubarede France Above the Bottleneck Fell in descent during the night
Karim Meherban Pakistan Either the second serac fall or the third serac fall.
Gerard McDonnell Ireland After helping the injured Koreans, he was hit by either the second or third serac fall.
Kyeong-Hyo Park South Korea Above the Bottleneck The fourth serac fall
Hyo-Gyeong Kim South Korea
Dong-Jin Hwang South Korea
Jumik Bhote Nepal
Pasang Bhote Nepal
McDonnell was the first Irish person to reach the summit.

One of the three Korean casualties either perished during the incident that caused their original fall and tangling in the ropes, or the morning after before the others were freed. Some sources claim there were three Koreans tangled in the ropes whilst McDonnell and Confortola were trying to rescue them. Others have the number at two Koreans and Jumik Bhote. What is certain, is that only two Koreans were alive to encounter Pasang Bhote before the last serac fall.[citation needed]

Climbing on K2 since the disaster[edit]

There were no summits in 2009 and 2010, during which season renowned skier Fredrik Ericsson fell to his death in the bottleneck. The summit of K2 was not reached again until 23 August 2011, when Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner (Austria), Maxut Zhumayev and Vassiliy Pivtsov (Kazakhstan), and Darek Zaluski (Poland) topped out K2 via the North Pillar.[24]

According to AdventureStats, the last 17 fatalities on K2 have all occurred in, around or above the Bottleneck, once again proving the deadly nature of K2's upper slopes.[23]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "K2 2008: List of climbers who passed away released". everestnews.com. Archived from the original on 6 August 2008. Retrieved 2008-08-04. 
  2. ^ "Eleven climbers feared dead on K2". BBC News. 2008-08-03. Archived from the original on 4 August 2008. Retrieved 2008-08-06. 
  3. ^ The most deadly climbing season on K2 was in 1986, when thirteen climbers died in seven separate accidents. See Curran pp. 183–207
  4. ^ Text of border agreement between China and Pakistan  PDF (253 KiB)
  5. ^ Taylor, Jerome (5 August 2008). "The Big Question: What makes K2 the most perilous challenge a mountaineer can face?". London: The Independent. Archived from the original on 18 August 2008. Retrieved 2008-08-07. 
  6. ^ a b Power, Matthew (November 2008). "K2: The Killing Peak". Men's Journal LLC. Retrieved May 16, 2014. 
  7. ^ "Day Sixty-three: SUMMIT PUSH- Summit Day; Tragedy Begins". www.nickrice.us. Archived from the original on 28 August 2008. Retrieved 7 August 2008. 
  8. ^ "K2 report: Missing summit pics and no world records - turning the tables on Fredrik Strang". K2Climb. August 6, 2008. Retrieved 2008-08-07. 
  9. ^ "K2: Fredrik Sträng's tale of Pakistani guide's fatal fall". k2climb.net. Archived from the original on 6 August 2008. Retrieved 7 August 2008. 
  10. ^ "K2 climber missing after ice fall". bbc.co.uk. 2008-08-02. Archived from the original on 3 August 2008. Retrieved 2008-08-06. 
  11. ^ "INTERVIEW-K2 survivor recounts fatal mistakes, numbed panic". Reuters. August 4, 2008. Archived from the original on 28 August 2008. Retrieved 7 August 2008. 
  12. ^ Viesturs & Roberts
  13. ^ Bowley, p. 143
  14. ^ Wilkinson, Freddie. One Mountain Thousand Summits: The Untold Story of Tragedy and True Heroism on K2. New Amer Library, 2010. 320,332. Print.
  15. ^ Nizza, Mike (August 5, 2008). "Tales of Chaos and Survival on K2". New York Times. Retrieved April 22, 2010. 
  16. ^ "Day Sixty-six: SUMMIT PUSH– The Final Cost". www.nickrice.us. Archived from the original on 28 August 2008. Retrieved 5 August 2008. 
  17. ^ "K2 2008: List of climbers who died released". www.everestnews.com. Archived from the original on 6 August 2008. Retrieved 4 August 2008. 
  18. ^ "Day Sixty-eight: Wait for Porters Continues; Italians Evacuated". www.nickrice.us. Archived from the original on 28 August 2008. Retrieved 7 August 2008. 
  19. ^ Perlez, Jane (August 5, 2008). "More Are Feared Dead Near K2’s Harsh Summit". The New York Times. Retrieved April 22, 2010. 
  20. ^ "Death toll in climbing accident on K2 rises to 11". International Herald Tribune. 4 August 2008. Archived from the original on 2008-08-08. 
  21. ^ "XSAT USA plays role in recent K2 mountain rescue". XSAT USA. 14 August 2008. Retrieved 2014-01-15. 
  22. ^ Rhinofly. "Expeditienet". Archived from the original on 2009-05-28. Retrieved 2009-05-25. 
  23. ^ a b c "K2 Fatalities". advensturestats.com. Retrieved 2014-01-15. 
  24. ^ "K2 north pillar SUMMITS! Gerlinde bags the first female No-O2 14x8000ers ascent - Max, Vassiliy and Darek on top too". ExplorersWeb. 23 August 2011. Retrieved 2014-01-15. (subscription required (help)). 
Further reading

External links[edit]