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Best of ExplorersWeb 2008 Award Winner: K2, Gerard McDonnell

Posted: Jan 01, 2009 02:03 am EST

This year, K2 hit with one of its biggest tragedies yet. After being there night and day: monitoring climbers, speaking with relatives, interviewing survivors, compiling the stats - and putting out false rumors - on August 5 ExWeb ended its closing story with the following paragraph:

The August 1, 2008 solar eclipse marking the final summit push would surely have made Aleister Crowley cry Omen 106 years ago. Bonatti probably only hopes that the truth of what actually happened will surface with time, and hopefully not too late.


"Confusion? What confusion?! With death, there's no confusion!" The undercover drug officer laughed hard at the editor of ExplorersWeb. Over dinner, we had discussed the discrepancies in testimonies from K2. With 20 years in homicide, the veteran cop was nobody's fool.

Those were not streets of Miami though, what about the high altitude? "In all my times up there I never had any trouble remembering the important stuff," another editor pointed out, "and how come we got basically the same story from all Inaki's rescuers?"

Finding truth in tragedies like this is no easy task. Climbers are eager to put their best foot forward; while journalists with personal experience from the deathzone are rare, down to non-existent.

Stories and debriefs are seldom entirely untruthful; instead they are littered with omissions, assumptions, and unquestioned statements. Biased offenses are found between the lines.

The fumbling flower

"I carried down both living and dead people from the mountain!" Early morning August 3, Fredrik Strang was having a media field day. He was personally leading the rescue attempts, Strang claimed from base camp, adding that his fellow climbers had died on K2 by their own incompetence. Relatives and friends were desperate.

Gerard McDonnells family was about to spend the next four months in a hard search for the truth about his final hours. In media, Gerard was cutely described as a "flower" and a "Christ." In the same breath they wrote he was weak and confused, a fumbler.

It didn't sound right. Gerard and a friend got the 1999 Denali Pro Pin for assisting five spent climbers down from the summit ridge in rapidly deteriorating weather. On Everest in 2003 Pemba and Gerard helped exhausted Everest summiteer Pat Falvey back to high camp. "If Ger and Pemba hadn't been so caring, I may not be here to compliment them," Pat wrote to ExplorersWeb.

"On the mountain, Ger was exceptionally strong, fast, competent and safe, wrote Everest summiteer Clare O Leary in her tribute to the fellow Irishman. "In all the climbing Ive done with him, Ive never seen him under pressure."

The busy climbers

"It is readily clear that the media owes the family [...] of Gerard McDonnell an apology for so misrepresenting his memory," wrote Freddie Wilkinson courageously on Huffingtonpost website December 24.

But it wasn't only media's fault. Gerard's family sent countless emails, made phone calls, and even trips around the world including to Islamabad. Climbers were not very helpful, they said, some were busy putting together lectures and signing book deals.

Gerard would probably not care much about the lack of cred by his peers and in media. But he would be furious over the agony his family was put through.

This story was made possible thanks to the efforts of Gerard's family and friends, a few good journalists, and Pemba Gyalje's professionalism.

Pemba's strong wish for a just record from the events played a crucial role. The Sherpa had no problems offering clear facts, and without his statements and pictures illustrating this award, the true story about K2's heroes might have looked different.

The blank spot

Considering they were made in the thick of it, ExplorersWeb's early accounts still stand surprisingly correct. This is the first compiled update, and here are early pics, interviews and a link to AdventureStats with the summit timeline.

As we already have written about most of the events that took place, this story will focus mainly on a crucial, blank spot. "Who is helping the stranded climbers," we asked on August 2nd. Now we know.

K2 this season offered no David Sharp situations. Some climbers were stronger than others, but no one walked pass a dying brother towards the summit. Instead, the season highlighted the old problem of false fame and lack of acknowledgement.

Only National Geographic Adventure surprised, in a good way, by awarding Pemba and putting him on the cover of their mag.

Back to K2

On August 1st, the summit push had started rather late. At 11.45 am, Serb Dren Mandic fell after briefly unclipping to attend to his oxygen. His mates hurried down after their Pakistan porter Jehan Baig, who upon his arrival at the body only could confirm that Mandic was dead.

Last out on the summit push; the International/American expedition had already turned around. Swedish Fredrik Strang made his way back across the shoulder to the Serbs who asked for help to transport the body down. "I took charge and yelled at the porter," Strang was quoted by media. In the commotion, Jehan Baig lost his footing and fell into the void, after which the climbers secured Mandic's remains to an ice axe and descended.

Fixed rope is buried

Above the Bottleneck, the ascent continued. The day was very warm; some climbers unzipped their down suits. Also last year American Chris Warner reported the section being hot.

Basque Alberto Zerain was first to top out at 3 pm. A steady stream of summiteers arrived within hours after, five Koreans, the Norwegians - with Dutch Wilco van Rooijen and Cas van de Gevel, Irish Gerard McDonnell, French Hughes d'Aubarede, Pakistan Meherban Karim, Pemba Sherpa and Italian Marco Confortola among the last around 8 pm.

They were late. A safe climb on any 8000er calls for descent during daylight hours. But the weather was fine, and rope was fixed on the tricky sections. The summiteers were not too worried.

Norwegians Cecilie Skog and Lars Naesse topped out at 5.20 pm and hurried down to Cecilias husband Rolf Bae, who had stopped 300 ft below the summit. At 8.30 pm, 150 ft above the start of the Bottleneck, a serac broke off. Cecile and Lars watched the light of Rolf's head torch disappear.Rolf and the fixed rope was gone.

Survivors reach C4

Night fell. Below in camp 4, Pasang and Tsering Bhote walked across the shoulder. Jumic Bothe, summiting with the Korean team, was Tsering's brother. Pasang was their cousin. 'The three Bothes' had climbed several 8000ers with the Koreans. Stopping at the shoulder with spare water and oxygen, Pasang and Tsering anxiously awaited their team's descent.

At 10 pm, Dutch Cas passed French Hughes who summited together with his Pakistan porter Karim at 7.30 pm. Karim reportedly didn't feel well before the summit push, and now Cas noticed that Hughes was alone. Shortly after midnight in the Bottleneck, Cas heard a scratching noise - he turned around and saw Hughes fall.

Cas and Pemba managed to reach camp 4. So did Korean leader Kim Jae Soo and female climber Go Mi Sun; who met the two Bothes at the Shoulder from where the two Sherpa dragged the exhausted Korean girl into camp 4. Two more Sherpa had arrived after an ordeal of their own. Also Norwegian Cecilie and Lars had made it down, with Cecilie in terrible distress.

August 2

Left in the Bottleneck were the remaining Korean summiteers and their Sherpa, Jumic Bothe. Suddenly, the light of their head torches disappeared.

Above them, at midnight Irish Gerard and Italian Marco decided to dig open bivouacs and await daylight. They were later joined by Dutch Wilco who had stopped to rest after summit. Wilco said they didn't speak. Marco said he and Gerard talked all night and...that Gerard sang. Even an Italian song he knew, especially for Marco.

(Ed note: Another Irishman, Shackleton, sang with his men on their lifeboat passage across the frigid Antarctic sea.)

The next day on August 2, dawn arrived the upper slope of K2 already at 5 am. Wilco, Gerard and Marco debated which route to descend. Wilco, who felt snow blindness creep up on one eye, left first. It was a bit out of character for Gerard to let Wilco climb alone in such a condition. Unless Marco was worse off. Sherpas said that Marco had been in pretty bad shape around summit.

Wilco found the Korean team below - hanging upside down, entangled in lines. From Norits debrief: "All three are barely alive. One is unconscious but still making sounds, the second one is in shock, and the third one is missing gloves and a shoe." Wilco said he gave a pair of gloves to the third Korean and continued his descent after he was told by one of them that rescue was underway.

It's unclear if the climbers were hit by an avalanche or slipped and fell. The team had summited five Koreans with one Sherpa. With Leader Kim and female Go already in camp 4; out of the other four climbers, only three people now remained.

Gerard and Marco

Gerard and Marco began to move down shortly before 6 am. According to the same debrief at Norit, Marco said that when he and Gerard reached the Korean team, at least one was upside down, while another was missing a boot and a glove. They were still alive, although barely conscious, Marco said.

Marco's reports became a bit confusing at this point. He stated that he retrieved the Koreans radio on the slope and called their team for help. He believed that two Sherpas answered the call. Pemba later stated that he didn't recall a radio conversation taking place between Marco and the Korean Sherpas.

Camp 4

Below, Cas and Pemba had searched the Shoulder for their mates in the morning. Back in camp, they found Tsering and Pasang Bhote in distress. Exhausted after spending most of the night at the Shoulder, the two Bhote had been ordered by the Korean expedition leader to climb up to the Bottleneck and help.

Pemba discouraged the two Sherpa and also warned the Korean leader that the unstable serac made the mission too dangerous. Following a heated discussion, the Bhotes went up.

The blank spot

Up on the traverse, Marco said that he and Gerard spent three hours to try and rescue the Korean team. Wilco doubted it; he reportedly told Men's Journal that it would have been suicide.

Following an interview with Marco, UK Independent wrote, "For three hours, McDonnell and Confortola tried to right them, but it was in vain. All three died." Outside Mag put down they gave up "when the glacier let loose nearby and reminded them of their perilous location." In his own later statement, Marco wrote that he secured the climbers and left after calling for help.

In any case, Marco climbed down while Gerard climbed up. "McDonnell, perhaps confused by the lack of oxygen, climbed back up the slope toward the summit," wrote Outside. In his own statement, Marco said he thought that Gerard might have gone up to take pictures.

Gerard had however left his camera with Pemba who said that Marco told him a different story. Pemba said that Marco told him Gerard probably went up to reach the nearest anchor in order to give a fix line more slack and make it easier to release a Korean from the rope. Pemba found this explanation plausible, "because we know about Gerard's good manners," Pemba said, "he always wanted to help."

On descent, Marco passed out at the bottom of the Bottleneck where he was found by the two ascending Bothes at around 11 am. They radioed the news to Pemba, who set out for the exhausted mountaineer, while Pasang and Tsering continued up. Pasang was stronger and about 300 ft ahead of Tsering.

Miracle rescue

At this point, Marco believed that Gerard was dead. Towards the bottom of the bottleneck, he had heard a loud bang and seen a waterfall of ice coming from the serac pinnacle 400 meters above. Marco said that he saw the three Koreans and "Gerards yellow shoes pass me."

A picture taken at the time however, at 10 am, showed the group of climbers still at the upper part of the traverse, far from the top of the Bottleneck. For them to have slid all that way they would first have had to travel the long traverse and then make a sharp turn down. In addition - about 5 hours later - Pasang met up with them.

Pasang called to Pemba at around 3 pm with the astonishing news. He said that the two Koreans and Jumic Sherpa were safe, they had some frostbites, but were OK!

"Did you see anyone else?" inquired Pemba. There was a man in a red suit with black patches following close behind the three, Pasang replied, "but only a few minutes ago, he was hit by a chunk of a serac and fell." Only one climber wore such a suit - Irish Gerard.

Pasang met the climbers at the start of the Bottleneck. His radio call showed that the team - avalanched, entangled and believed to be virtually dead - had been freed and made it through the traverse.

Rogue climber

So what about Marco's testimony? The same picture mentioned above, showing climbers far away from the Serac, also showed a single person sitting above it. In another picture, shot later that evening, the climber was gone. His dot was replaced by a faint trail going in a straight line over the top of the Serac.

If the Koreans lost their fourth team member in the fall; then the dot on the photo must be Pakistan Karim, who possibly descended and fell over the Serac, setting off the "waterfall of ice" Marco had noted.

Karim wore yellow climbing boots.

K2's final tantrum

Pemba received Pasang's call as he worked on the barely conscious Marco, administrating water and oxygen, at the bottom of the Bottleneck. 10-15 minutes later, the savage mountain threw its last tantrum. Another avalanche, this time cleaning the table.

Tsering, still a bit below his cousin managed to jump out the way. So did Pemba at the Shoulder, catching Marco by the neck. The slide carried with it 4 people; Tsering's brave brother Jumic and cousin Pasang, and the two young Koreans who came to a stop only steps away from Pemba and Marco.


Pemba, Marco and Tsering eventually made it back to C4. Later that day, base camp spotted a climber wearing an orange suit not far from camp 3.

Dutch Wilco had been making his way down on his own. He carried a sat phone but couldn't remember any numbers except to his wife, whom he called. Wilco's call was short but crucial as it provided a GPS signal. The wife called the team's webmaster, who contacted HumanEdgeTech.

HET had provided Wilco's sat phone and were able to pinpoint his position with Thuraya's help. (For political reasons this is not an entirely easy process; HET tried to do the same for Inaki but was declined at that time). HET plotted the coordinates on a K2 3D map which the Dutch webmaster forwarded to BC.

The position reading confirmed that Wilco was the climber spotted (some had figured it could have been Gerard). Leaving Marco in C4 with Tsering and the Koreans, Pemba picked up Cas and the two left for camp 3 that night.

Next morning on August 3, BC spotted the orange dot again and radioed to Cas and Pemba who climbed back up about 1000 feet. The two exhausted climbers found Wilco, and took him all the way down to Base Camp. Wilco had been without food and water for 50 hours, and his rescue became the last heroic effort on K2 this unfortunate year.

Base Camp

Cas and Wilco were airlifted; Pemba walked out from BC. Marco dowclimbed alone to C2 where he was met up by Gheorghe Dijmarescu, Rinjen Sherpa and Mingma Sherpa. The three helped him the last bit down. Meanwhile in BC, news of the dead had long been cabled out, complete with names and reports of amazing joint rescue efforts led by Swede Fredrik Strang.

"I have carried down both living and dead people from the mountain. I panicked when a Pakistani high-altitude carrier fell straight onto my back with his entire weight," quoted large TT news agency Strang on Sunday morning August 3. The news hit worldwide - there was plenty of blame and speculation - but not a word about Gerard, Pemba, Cas or the Bothes.

Bonatti would be pleased to know that these days, truth is a bit faster. Time has come for facts to unveil the real heroes of K2.

The real heroes

Pemba's effort is self evident. Cas probably would have saved parts of his frostbitten feet had chosen to run straight down to BC after his ascent.

The three Bhotes fought for their clients to the bitter end. One mag pointed out that Wilco had a family and a toddler waiting back home. The was no mention of Jumic Bhote, who called his pregnant wife over a satellite phone from the summit. After he died, Bhotes wife gave birth to a baby girl. Tsering's loss of a brother and a cousin is made all the harder with the fact that no insurance apparently was issued by the expedition on their lives; leaving the two Bothe widows penniless.

The most selfless effort was made by Irish Gerard MacDonnell, who after two nights on K2's upper slopes including one in an open bivouac, resolved to alone stay and help two Korean climbers and a Nepali Sherpa, climbers he didn't know. Gerard knew well that his effort seriously put his own life at risk. His action is almost unmatched on the 8000ers.

Gerard's incredible courage and compassion were rendered fruitless when the survivors were killed in a final avalanche. Tragically, their rescuer lost his life as well. This probably would not have been the case had Gerard simply followed his mates Marco and Wilco down, both alive today.

Without the final serac falls; Gerard's, the Bothes' and the Koreans' story would have had a different ending. Yet their deaths can't change the spirit displayed. Gerard was called "Jesus" by his peers.

"Hero" is a better word.

By their performance, the expeditions awarded have proved themselves outstanding in all or most of the following:

- Courage
- Determination
- Persistence
- Self reliance
- Ingenuity
- Pioneering
- Idealism
- Comradeship
- Compassion
- Respect towards competition
- Honesty

Previous in the countdown:
2. Spirit of mountaineering, Inaki Ochoa's rescue team
3. Against the wind, Tomek and Wacek
4. The longest row, Erden Eruc
5. Karakoram new route double, Babanov & Afanasiev
6. Red flares for freedom, Alberto Peruffo
7. The 14th knight, Ivan Vallejo
8. Wintering the Big White - Tara's 2007-2008 Arctic Voyage

Special mention:

North Pole winter, Matvey Shparo and Boris Smolin
B.A.S.E. jump, Valery Rozov
Everest seniors, Yuichiro Miura and Min Bahadur Sherchan
A personal sea voyage, James Burwick and the Anasazi girl

#Mountaineering #Mountaineering #Stats #classic

"Sin e anois a cháirde. Ta an t-am ag teacht." (That's it for now my friends. The time has come.) Message and image of Gerard McDonnell, courtesy of Norit K2 expedition (click to enlarge).
6-time Everest summiteer Pemba Gyalje was Gerard's climbing partner on previous expeditions and an independent climber with the Norit K2 team. His pictures and testimony made it possible to bring out the true story about K2's heroes.
Last photo of Gerard helping the Korean team. The close up from Pemba's 10 am image shows 3 climbers lying in the snow with one wearing a black and red suit leaning over one of them. Gerard spent 6-7 hours with the seriously injured men. (Click to enlarge).
Pemba Gyalje's 10 am photo (click to enlarge).
Pemba Gyalje's 7 pm photo (click to enlarge).
Marco Confortola (left) and Wilco van Rooijen (right).
Korean expedition leader Kim jae Soo (left) and Go min Sun (right) on poster of the expedition.
K2 graph by ExplorersWeb. (Click to enlarge).
Cas van de Gevel in Islamabad after the ordeal.
Image of Rolf Bae (left) and Gerard McDonnell (right) courtesy of the Beyond Endurance Expedition 2006.