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Film 90 hours in the 'death zone': One man’s brave actions on an uncompromising mountain

Pemba Gyalje rescued two climbers on K2, ultimately spending an astonishing 90 hours in the ‘death zone.’

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Straddling the China-Pakistan border, K2 is a monster of a mountain, the world's second-highest. It commands a terrified respect – and presents a chilling statistic: One of four who try to reach its summit will die in the attempt.

In 2008, the so-called Savage Mountain was the scene of one of the deadliest events in climbing history. Twenty-five mountaineers from various international expeditions set out to top the 8,611-metre peak on Aug. 1. Over the next two days, 11 would die.

While it remains unclear what exactly went so terribly wrong, it's safe to say that had Pemba Gyalje Sherpa not been among the climbers, the death toll would have been even higher.

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"I was astounded," Irish filmmaker Nick Ryan said of Gyalje's actions, recounted in his documentary, The Summit, which had its Canadian premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival this month. Gyalje, who served as a technical consultant for the film's intense re-enactments and who joined Ryan in Vancouver, is matter-of-fact about his quiet heroics.

"I don't know," Gyalje said during an interview in Vancouver, when asked why he went back up from the highest camp to rescue two other climbers, ultimately spending an astonishing 90 hours in altitudes above 8,000 metres, in what's known as the "death zone" due to the lack of oxygen. "I was lucky on K2, you know. I was lucky."

Born in the tiny village of Pangkhongma, Nepal, about 50 km south of Mount Everest and 3,000 metres above sea level, Gyalje, 40, started climbing when he was 16. As a Sherpa, he has reached the summit of Everest seven times. In 2003, he climbed Everest with Irish mountaineer Gerard McDonnell; McDonnell later invited him to climb K2 for the first time – as a member of the team.

The 2008 climb would be his first up the Savage Mountain. "I knew a lot of things about K2, you know, from history," said Gyalje when asked how he approached this most challenging of climbs. "I prepared myself mentally, physically and technically, and tried to do my best."

It was a rough summer on the mountain. A stormy July had left many holed up at base camp and fearing the looming avalanche season. But on Aug. 1, weather conditions improved; the summit push was on.

But there was trouble from the beginning, including a late start as the climbers tried to sort out equipment issues. Then, the climbers say, ropes were fixed too close to camp. That meant not only that climbers would run out of rope when they really needed it, higher up, but it also caused a traffic jam in the mountain's infamous Bottleneck – a gulley over which a ridge of ice, or serac, hung precariously. "A little monster," is how one of the climbers, Cecilie Skog, describes it in the film.

The first death – of a Serbian climber – occurred on the ascent. Then, a Pakistani high-altitude porter died in the recovery operation. Others kept climbing. Eighteen reached the top that day. It was glorious, but some summitted dangerously late.

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During the descent, the serac did cleave, the falling ice killing Skog's husband, Rolf Bae, and cutting the fixed ropes. Several climbers were stranded above the Bottleneck. Some tried to go on in the darkness; others decided to hang on through the night, outside on the frigid mountain, and wait for daylight.

Gyalje reached camp that night, but he was sick with the knowledge that numerous climbers were dead, missing or stranded. "I was hopeless on the morning of the second of August," he says. "Because they'd spent a whole night on the mountain, in that altitude, that means they are going to die, you know. I'm almost hopeless. It's impossible to survive it."

In fact, it wasn't.

As the film explains, Gyalje went back up and found Marco Confortola, The Italian climber was in terrible shape, but Gyalje revived him with oxygen and got him back down to the camp. Later, a radio call came in: A moving dot had been spotted, high up the mountain. Gyalje, with Dutch climber Cas van de Gevel, set off. After many hours, they found Dutchman Wilco van Rooijen alive. Confortola had spent 36 hours in the death zone; van Rooijen, 60.

Among the dead were climbers from South Korea, Nepal, Pakistan, Serbia, Norway, France and Ireland – including Gyalje's friend, McDonnell (another hero in this story, the film reveals, who also went back up the mountain to help trapped climbers).

The tragedy up in the sky was making headlines around the world, even as it was still playing out thousands of metres above sea level. Confortola and Van Rooijen were helicoptered off the mountain. And Confortola's story – though confused and contradictory – became the story of record. (Both men lost all their toes to frostbite.)

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By the time Gyalje – who hiked off the mountain – reached Islamabad, international media interest had waned. A few months later, though, National Geographic named him Adventurer of the Year.

What really happened on the mountain that summer is still unclear – memories are hazy; accounts include inconsistencies. According to The Summit, a key figure – the leader of the South Korean delegation – refused to be interviewed for the film.

In addition to archival footage from the catastrophic expedition and interviews with survivors, The Summit includes terrifying realistic reconstructions. Gjalje says filming the re-enactments on Swiss mountains was harrowing. Reliving the interviews, even five years later, from the safety of a luxury hotel conference room half a world away in Vancouver, has been difficult. "Still a lot of things remind me… the reconstructions, all these things for documentaries, even now (as) we are talking about this."

Gyalje, father of a 10-year-old daughter and three-year-old son, is still working as a professional mountain guide, but he has not climbed above 8,000 metres since the K2 catastrophe. "(My wife) is happy with my mountain-guide profession, but she's not happy when I'm heading to some extreme mountains, " he says.

Filmmaker Ryan has spent countless hours with Gyalje, first making the film and now promoting it, always trying to understand what motivated the man to risk his own life; and what motivates anyone to climb what is regarded as the world's most difficult peak. "It really has to do with the strongest of human emotions: love, obsession," says Ryan. "That's what K2 is. It's a siren, it calls you back."

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