At least 14 climbers are dead or missing on Pakistan's K2 after an avalanche of ice came racing down the slope, making this the worst year ever on the mountain.
Ten people were confirmed killed and four were missing on the so-called Savage Mountain, which is second-highest to Everest and three times as likely to kill those who attempt to climb it.
Those confirmed dead include three South Koreans and two Nepalese, along with Serbian, Norwegian, Dutch, French and Pakistani climbers. The Norwegian's wife was also on the climb but survived and was making her way down yesterday. The missing are thought to include climbers from France, Pakistan and Austria, as well as Ireland's Gerard McDonnell, 37, an Alaska-based oil worker.
The disaster struck at an altitude of more than 8,000 metres, at a steep gully known as the Bottleneck. There is an ice cliff above the Bottleneck, from which a huge slab broke off and came hurtling down, breaking the climbers' ropes.
Accounts from those on the mountain suggest a harrowing scene as those not killed struggled to save those who were injured without becoming victims themselves.
"I have carried down both living and dead people from the mountain," Swedish climber Fredrik Straeng told Swedish news agency TT 11. "I panicked when a Pakistani fell straight onto my back with his entire weight. I was terrified that he would pull us all off the cliff and screamed to him to use his ice axe, but he lost his grip and plummeted off a 300-metre cliff."
Helicopters were called to search for the missing climbers, but they are presumed dead.
"At present it is believed that anyone who is classified as position unknown will not be coming back," Pat Falvey, a friend of Mr. McDonnell, the Irish climber, told Agence France-Presse. "[Mr. McDonnell]was one of the strongest climbers in the world and it is with great sadness that we now have to mourn his passing. ..."
K2 is in the Karakoram mountain range in northern Pakistan, on the border with China. The range has had bad weather this year, but a sudden clearing a few days ago meant that several expeditions had rushed to take advantage.
"Expeditions had been waiting at base camp for up to two months for good weather," said Rashid Ahmad, who runs Hushe, a tour company that had climbers on K2 who survived the disaster. "They had all started together, in one line."
Twenty-two climbers, mostly foreigners, from eight different expeditions reached K2's summit over the weekend. The avalanche happened when most were on their way down. Reports differed as to whether it happened on Friday or Saturday.
The climbers were on the easier Abruzzi Spur route, where the last major obstacle is the Bottleneck.
The ice fall left about a dozen climbers stranded at the Bottleneck, at an altitude known as the death zone because bodies begin degenerating because of lack of oxygen. Some were able to make their way down and others were still descending yesterday. Several rescue parties have been dispatched up the mountain and helicopter teams are standing by.
"These are big mountains and are dangerous at any time. They take their toll every year. Mountaineering is a calculated risk," said Nazir Sabir, Pakistan's most celebrated climber and president of the country's Alpine Club.
K2 is just over 8,600 metres high, about 240 metres lower than Mount Everest.
Italian mountaineering legend Reinhold Messner blamed the high death toll on commercialization of the sport, which he said has led to inexperienced climbers attempting dangerous peaks.
"Many people buy these packages to K2 and especially to Everest," Mr. Messner told Reuters News Agency.
"They are certainly strong people but they do not have enough experience to react. ... They don't know how to behave in the case of emergencies - in the case of missing ropes, in the case of bad weather."
The deadly peak
Over the weekend climbers were swept to their deaths, and others were stranded at a height at which they would likely succumb to exposure, when a chunk of ice broke off from a cliff and tore away the climbers' ropes from a perilously steep gully.
DEATHS BY ROUTE BEFORE AUGUST, 2008
|SE Ridge - Abruzzi Spur||45|
|SSE Ridge - Abruzzi Spur||6|
|South Face (Central Rib)||1|
TONIA COWAN, NINIAN CARTER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL; SOURCES: WWW.PHOTOGRAPHIC.CO.NZ; WWW.EXPLORERSWEB.COM
Past mountain-climbing tragedies
Some of the world's worst mountaineering disasters
of recent decades:
Nov. 9, 1972
Fourteen climbers, mostly Koreans, were killed by avalanches on Nepal's Mount Manaslu.
July 17, 1990
An avalanche swept 40 climbers from five countries to their deaths. The victims were camped about 6,000 metres up in the Pamir mountains in Central Asia.
Nov. 13, 1994
Eleven German, Swiss and Nepali climbers were killed in a mountaineering accident on Nepal's Mount Pisang.
May 13, 1996
Eight climbers from three expeditions died descending in ferocious weather from the summit of Mount Everest.
Aug. 5, 1997
Seven climbers died in two separate accidents on the 3,850-metre Gran Zebru in the Italian Alps.
Aug. 7, 2002
Five students from China's Peking University died after being swept away by an avalanche in Tibet while attempting to scale Mount Shishapangma, which is close to 8,000 metres high.
July 22, 2003
Eight climbers from Europe, Israel and Argentina died at about 5,800 metres on Alpamayo in the Peruvian Andes after an ice wall apparently collapsed.
Reuters News Agency