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.
“I had to make a will before we went out. But once we were going I never for a second thought that I wasn’t coming back,” Ryan says. “When you step into the death zone, all bets are off. It is a crapshoot even if you have been there before. I flew to 7,500m, and I stupidly didn’t take any oxygen. The apathy is what you really notice. At one point the helicopter was having trouble lifting and I thought, I don’t care – I’ll just die here.”
The film manages to press home not only the dangers of climbing but also the hard work and enormous amount of often tedious preparation the pastime entails.
“They were there for 60 days,” Ryan says. “Certain people are built for that. The notion of sleeping on a glacier? And then there’s the altitude. You can’t eat. It’s like becoming a vampire in Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire: your body rejects everything. You are putrefying in your own body. I think it’s lunacy myself.”
Pemba seems to have behaved with considerable bravery and rescued several climbers facing certain death. So what of the apparent motto that urges high-altitude climbers to never stop for stranded colleagues?
“Many people say that self-care is the main climbing philosophy,” Pemba says. “But in reality it can be very difficult to say that. People need to help each other. We have to help each other if we are in a critical state. That is still a part of mountaineering. It is very difficult to say that in a real situation.”
Ryan suspects that his friend is being overly modest. “I think you’re downplaying your role, to be brutally honest. There were plenty of people on the shoulder that day,” he says, referring to a broad hump, a few hundred metres below the summit of K2, where climbers usually camp before heading for the top. “You consistently told them to not climb. Most people left, Pemba, and you did not. I don’t blame them for that. You stayed.”
The relationship between the Sherpa people and western mountaineers remains a complex one. Unlike many of his compatriots, Pemba was a fully fledged member of this climbing team, not a paid porter or guide. In recent years more than a few Sherpas, particularly those working around Everest, have complained that too many inexperienced climbers have made life difficult and dangerous for the Himalayans hired to keep them safe.
“Some high mountains, especially those above 8,000m, have become commercialised,” he says cautiously. “When that happens there are some unhealthy practices. You need special skills. That makes some hassles. Almost 30 per cent of climbers there are like that. Mountaineering is not really a business; it’s adventure. Without the proper experience it is suicide.”
Nobody could level any such accusations against Ger McDonnell. Born in 1971, he was the first Irishman to reach the summit of K2. On that appalling day McDonnell was, in fact, making his way down after his successful ascent. The climber’s body was never found, but, poignantly, Pemba was handed his friend’s camera and satellite phone at the top of K2.
The Summit delivers no definitive answers to the questions still swirling around the heads of McDonnell’s friends and family. But it is clear that Ryan and his team believe that McDonnell stopped to rescue a climber tangled up in his own ropes.
“It is very difficult to show this on film,” Ryan says. “The essential truth is that Pemba took a photograph of a Sherpa who had earlier been trapped up on ropes. The only way he could have taken that photo was if that guy, who had been stuck there all night, has suddenly decided to disentangle himself and walk 200m down a 60-degree slope. We know he had been freed. How did he get there?”
Ryan believes that McDonnell was the only person who could have released the Sherpa from the knotted web. If that is the case and the diversion was the ultimate cause of his death, then we begin to understand why, to return to a stubborn theme, the save-yourself dictum retains its force in the world of mountaineering.
“It’s easier to put it this way,” Ryan says. “Every climber who climbs an 8,000m peak has to accept a contract that if something goes wrong they can only rely on themselves for help.”
K2 is regarded as the world’s toughest mountain to climb. “The climbing route is steeper than Everest,” Pemba says. “The objective hazard is too high: you get rockfalls, avalanches. And then, just below the summit, the final obstacles are huge hanging glaciers. Above the high camp, you have to spend a lot of time at high altitude, and that is hard on the body. And then also there is just too much snow. The snow condition is too extreme.”
Here’s a statistic to chill the blood: for every four people who have reached the summit, one has died trying. The death toll compares with that for bomber crews in the second World War. Yet Pemba and his colleagues are doing this voluntarily.
“From a professional point of view, guiding and climbing feels 100 per cent safe,” Pemba says. “All mountains are not dangerous. We can predict certain things. We can plan certain things. But K2 asks big questions even for me. I may say I am a good high-altitude climber. But I am not 100 per cent confident with this mountain. But it is a very beautiful mountain. So the majority of climbers want to climb K2 once in their life.”
But not twice?
“Maybe not twice.”
The Summit is on limited release