ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Lying in a hospital cot, a saline drip strapped to his arm, the leader of a Dutch team that lost three of 11 climbers who died on K2, angrily recounted how tragedy unfolded on the world’s second highest peak.
“The biggest mistake we made was that we tried to make agreements,” Wilco van Rooijen told Reuters, his face reddened by sun and snow burn after days on the unforgiving 8,611 metre mountain.
“Everybody had his own responsibility and then some people did not do what they promised,” the 40-year-old Dutchman said, singling out another team for only bringing half the length of rope they were supposed to have.
“With such stupid things lives are endangered,” Van Rooijen added, by telephone from his hospital bed in the northern Pakistani town of Skardu.
One Serbian climber and a Pakistani high altitude porter fell to their deaths on the ascent. Some teams summitted in darkness after 8.00 p.m., according to Nazir Sabir, president of the Alpine Club of Pakistan.
But calamity hit, as it so often does on K2, on the descent after summiting.
An ice wall above a steep gully known as the Bottleneck sheered off, tearing away the fixed lines the exhausted climbers were relying on to get down.
Three Korean climbers and two Nepalis in the same team were lost, and the avalanche left around a dozen other climbers stranded above the hour glass feature at some 8,200 metres, right in the so-called “Death Zone”.
“We wasted precious time by cutting rope from the bottom and bringing it up,” van Rooijen recalled bitterly, as his co-climber Cas van de Geval lay in a nearby bed, his frostbitten feet swathed in bandages.
Van Rooijen, who had scaled Mount Everest without oxygen and attempted K2 twice before, said he slept there “without sleeping bag, food and water” knowing they had to get down before the cold and lack of oxygen took its toll.
A towering pyramid of rock and ice, the steepness of K2’s slopes are daunting for the most experienced climbers.
More than 70 people have died climbing the peak, a good many of them at the Bottleneck, where a wrong step can send a man hurtling off the South Face, where his body is unlikely to be ever recovered.
“If you can’t go down you have to climb up,” van Rooijen said. “So in such a difficult situation, you are taking more risks; you’re climbing more technical slopes and finally you make a little mistake and you’re gone.”
As team leader, he appeared haunted by the panic that gripped some of his fellow climbers.
“People were running down but didn’t know where to go, so a lot of people were lost on the mountain on the wrong side, wrong route and then you have a big problem.”
He said he was screaming for people to work together, but many failed to react, apparently locked in their own personal struggle for self-preservation.
“They were thinking of using my gas, my rope,” he said. “So actually everybody was fighting for himself and I still do not understand why everybody were leaving each other.”
At that altitude, van Rooijen said there is little opportunity to argue or reason with people.
“I didn’t have time to start discussion, the only thing I had to do was to go down because if you go down you have more oxygen, you have more chance to survive.”
His descent along with van de Gevel and Pemba Sherpa was being vaunted on mountaineering websites as an epic triumph of survival.
Three of their team, Norwegian Rolf Bae, Frenchman Jean Louis Marie d’Aubarede, and Irishman Gerard McDonnell got to the summit, but never came down.
Sher Khan, the vice president of the Alpine Club of Pakistan, and former climbing partner of the legendary Italian alpinist Reinhold Messner, gravely summed up.
“On K2, when they’re missing they’re dead.”