Death on K2: inching towards answers
In ‘The Summit’, the film-maker Nick Ryan tries to work out what happened on the day when 11 mountaineers, the Irishman Ger McDonnell among them, died trying to scale the world’s most challenging mountain
Freeze frame: K2, the world’s second-highest mountain. Photograph: Kristen Elsby/Getty
Freeze frame: Ger McDonnell, the Irish mountaineer who died after reaching the top of K2. Photograph: Patfalvey.com/PAWire
Freeze frame: filming The Summit in the Himalayas
Freeze frame: Pemba Gyalje Sherpa. Photograph: Nick Ryan
In early August 2008 the sport of mountaineering suffered one of its worst disasters. Over two chaotic days 11 climbers died around a bottleneck near the summit of K2, in the Himalayas. That notorious peak is the second-highest in the world, but it has long had a more fearsome reputation than Everest. Like early test pilots, climbers attempting the peak work with death ever at their shoulders. This was, however, a particularly ghastly death toll.
Among the casualties was a Limerick man named Ger McDonnell. Nobody can be sure what happened. But it seems possible that the charismatic sportsman may have broken a severe dictate of high-altitude climbing – prioritise your own safety – and spent time attempting to release three colleagues caught up in snarled ropes.
One man who did escape was the humble, disciplined Pemba Gyalje Sherpa. Born 3,000m above sea level in a remote Nepalese village, Pemba also broke the harsh code and helped several climbers escape catastrophe. He knows more than most about what happened that day, but even he admits to a degree of confusion.
Nick Ryan’s fine documentary The Summit makes a valiant attempt to disentangle the colliding disasters. A great many truths are told. But the film is careful to make no claims of omniscient authority.
“There were a lot of media versions,” Pemba explains. “Already there were books. And every book had a different version. Every report had a different version. But they are all incomplete. I want to tell everything that happened on the mountains. The families want to know. I must tell them.”
That makes sense. But it must have been a tricky business for those families. One would easily understand if they refused to co-operate with Nick Ryan. As it happens, Ger McDonnell
’s wife and brother-in-law offer moving tributes to a climber who was already regarded as something of a phenomenon. Ryan, a chatty man who looks a little like a much thinner, considerably younger Francis Ford Coppola, remembers a difficult sequence of conversations.
“I talked to them in Christmas of 2008, and, understandably, I was kept at arms’ length first,” he says. “The family had so many questions that still remain unanswered. They didn’t know how Ger died. There was no proof.”
The full story is too complicated even to summarise here. Climbers from a clutter of nations – Korean, Dutch, Spanish – were queuing up to make their assault on this most dangerous of peaks. Certain ropes seem to have been incorrectly mounted, causing one climber to lose his holding and slide to his death. The efforts to get that body back down the mountain led to a sort of traffic jam that ultimately resulted in the 11 deaths. The altitude caused some climbers to make poor judgments. Ryan experienced some of this when he took a helicopter while planning the re-enactments that flesh out his impressive film. It is believed that the Sherpa people function better than others at that height. But no metabolism savours life in the clouds.