Wednesday, August 13, 2008
Photo by Aitor Las Hayas
By Guy McCarthy
In a rare moment captured forever in time, a group of climbers stood on top of K2 breathing heavily in thin air, muttering in wonder.
Karl Unterkircher's team video taken in July 2004 is a surreal glimpse of a region where only a few hundred mortals have been.
On that day, Unterkircher, an accomplished high-altitude alpinist from Italy, helped commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first recorded ascent of K2 - by his countrymen Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni. Unterkircher also reportedly became the first ever to climb K2 and Mount Everest, the world's highest two mountains, without oxygen in the same season. He'd climbed Everest just 63 days before.
But less than a month ago, Unterkircher was killed when he fell into a crevasse high on Nanga Parbat, another of the world's deadliest mountains. More than 30 people reportedly died trying to climb 26,810-foot Nanga Parbat before Hermann Buhl made the first ascent in 1953.
The world's ninth-highest summit, Nanga Parbat is known among some climbers as the "Killer Mountain."
Unterkircher was 37. His death on July 15 barely made a ripple in world news compared to the most recent high-altitude disasters on K2.
But his team's video from July 26 2004 sheds light on what some of the 11 killed starting Aug. 1 on K2 may have experienced before they met their deaths.
Meanwhile, Hermosa Beach-based climber Nicholas Rice is still making his way from K2 and the Karakoram Range in northern Pakistan to Islamabad, according to a close friend of Rice in Sherman Oaks.
Rice, 23, who survived one of the deadliest episodes in mountaineering history less than two weeks ago, was struggling Monday during the trek with a team of porters to Skardu due to a possibly torn foot muscle, said Simon Weaver, who spoke to Rice that day. Rice may have to take a bus to Islamabad, leaving limited time for an expedition debriefing with the Pakistani military, Weaver said.
Rice's inquisitors in Islamabad are sure to ask many of the same basic questions people in high-altitude climbing circles are asking around the world. What happened? And why?
The K2 accidents of August 2008 are off most news consumers' radar by now.
But in the homelands of 11 dead climbers - Serbia, South Korea, Norway, France, Ireland, Nepal and Pakistan - and in Holland, home of one of the ill-fated expeditions' primary sponsors - some people can't get enough news about K2's recent tragedies.
Norit, a water purification corporation based in Zenderen, the Netherlands, last issued a public statement about the Norit K2 Expedition 2008 on Aug. 5, confirming the death of team member Gerard McDonnell, 37, the first Irishman to summit K2.
Norit's statement also mentioned the rescue of Norit climbers Wilco van Rooijen and Cas van de Gevel, who were flown by helicopter to Skardu with severe frostbite.
Rolf Bae, 33, of Norway, was among the reported fatalities. This week a Norwegian on-line news site, Dagbladet.no, published a photo Rice provided to Watershed News that shows a tiny line of climbers ascending the Bottleneck couloir below K2's summit on Aug. 1.
Another site, Team Geared Up, which tries to reach outdoor enthusiasts in Ireland, Wales, Scotland, England, Italy, France, Switzerland and the United States, published the same photo on Saturday Aug. 9.
Rice told me in an e-mail last week the photo was taken just after Serbian climber Dren Mandic fell. A Pakistani climber and high-altitude porter named Jehan Baig was reportedly ordered to help recover Mandic's body, but Baig also fell to his death.
Whatever the Bottleneck photo ends up meaning, for now it shows some of the climbers who reportedly made it to K2's summit, only to die later on their descent. Part of a massive serac - known to some as the "balcony" and clearly visible in many K2 photos over the years - broke off, swept a number of climbers to their deaths, and cut fixed ropes that left others stranded in the so-called death zone above 8,000 meters.
Van Rooijen and Van de Gevel managed to make it down the post-avalanche Bottleneck, as did at least two others. But McDonnell and Rice's expedition leader, Hugues d'Aubarede of France, were reportedly among those unable to descend.
Unterkircher's team video starts just below the Bottleneck and ends on the summit. With limited evidence in the public realm so far of the recent tragedies, this video at least shows what many of the 11 killed this month had a fleeting glimpse of before they perished.
Climber, film-maker and Karakoram historian Jim Curran, who documented a 1986 expedition on K2's northwest ridge, said this week in a phone interview he remains concerned about the latest tragedies. The 1986 season on K2 was the deadliest to date, with 13 climbers killed in a series of incidents.
Curran, author of "K2: Triumph and Tragedy" and "K2: Story of the Savage Mountain," said Monday he has been swamped with calls and interview requests since news of the recent deaths began making world headlines.
"It sounds like there were commercial expeditions on the mountain," said Curran, now 65, speaking from Sheffield, England. "If that's the case, I think they're putting a lot of people out on a limb. . . . Any time you have inexperienced people on the mountain, you're asking for trouble."