No Way Down

No Way Down

When you think about a life worth living, what comes to mind? Helping others in need? Giving your children your love and attention and rearing them to become generous and loving human beings as adults? Being productive at your job and striving to do the very best you can? Living every day in harmony with the earth, yourself, and your fellow travelers? Finding value in the present, whatever the present might mean to you? A life worth living revolves around one’s internal make-up, as much as around external forces: the physical place where you find yourself, your family upbringing, your education, your culture, your beliefs. But would a life worth living also include, in your view, climbing K2, the “Savage Mountain?”

At midnight on August 1, 2008, more than twenty climbers from seven countries—Norway, the Netherlands, Italy, Serbia, France, the United States, South Korea—and a Basque Independent began the ascent up K2, which at 28,251 feet, is the second highest mountain on Earth. Two men would lose their lives on the ascent and nine on the descent. Called one of the worst disasters in Himalayan mountaineering history, the story about the deaths on the mountain caused by a falling glacier flashed around the world. Graham Bowley, a business writer for the New York Times, read the story on his computer screen on August 5th, 2008. His reaction? “Why should we care?” But his editor suggested that he write an article about the tragedy for the newspaper, and it appeared the next day on the front page. The newspaper’s website went into overdrive with comments from fascinated readers. Some were harshly judgmental of the climbers for risking their lives on such a dangerous mountain, but others recognized them as heroes for trying to reach the summit—a death-defying act.

A week and a half after the article appeared, Bowley went to Ireland to attend the memorial service of one of the climbers. As a journalist removed from the heroics of modern mountaineering, he was surprised by his reaction when he met with the survivors. He writes: “I interviewed some of the still-haggard survivors of the accident, saw their injuries, and, I must admit, was inspired by the charisma of the adventurers who had stepped into a world I could not understand and had faced down death.” Once he entered the world of these men and women mountaineers, there was no going back.

In his adrenaline-rich book No Way Down: Life and Death on K2, published in June 2010, Bowley gives a blow-by-blow account of the events on the mountain from August 1st, when at midnight the first climbers began their ascent, to August 4th, when the Pakistani military rescued three injured men who had spent two nights on K2 without protection. Because of the conflicting stories about what had happened during those four days, Bowley explains: “My approach has been to set out as accurately as possible each climber’s account, even where the accounts conflict.”

K2 is variously called the “Savage Mountain,” “the killing peak,” “the mountaineers mountain,” “the mountain that invites death,” “the mountain of mountains,” “the world’s most difficult climb,” “the holy grail” of mountains. One of the fourteen highest mountains in the world, K2 lies in the northwestern Karakoram Range in the northwestern extension of the Himalayas and straddles the border between China to the northeast and Pakistan to the southwest. Rearing “above its glacier like some gleaming cathedral, with tier upon tier of buttresses and snowfields culminating in the perfect apex of its summit,” it is a remote and challenging mountain, invisible from the nearest villages on both the north and south borders. (Quote from Kerry Banks, Death Zone, Vancouver Magazine, July/August 1994)

In June 2009, Bowley visited K2 and wrote about his visit in an article for The New York Times (January 17, 2009). His purpose: To do research on a forthcoming book (which ended up to be No Way Down) about the accident in 2008, and to see up close this “killing peak” that hard-core mountaineers consider their ultimate challenge. To get to K2, he explains, you fly to Islamabad, Pakistan, via Dubai, a nineteen hour-plus trip; then you drive (or are driven) via the Karakoram Highway for twenty-seven hours to Skardu, “the chief northern staging point”; and then to Askole, a village of “mud-brick shacks” and the last inhabitable place—all this before you even begin the trek by foot into the Karakoram Range. In Askole, you (or your tour company) hire local high altitude porters (HAPs) to carry food, tents, kitchen chairs, stoves, and live chickens. (Sometimes goats and yaks are also brought along.) And you can expect to spend thousands of dollars just for the airfare and the travel, as well as thousands more for your gear and other travel-related expenses. Bowley describes this particular trip in No Way Down: “One June day, I followed the trail of the climbers to K2 and stood for a few hours in the cold sunshine on the Godwin-Austen glacier. I stared up more than two miles at the South Face, then climbed two hundred feet to the Gilkey Memorial, K2’s monument to the dead. Seeing up close the peak, the Great Serac, and the Bottleneck, contemplating their beauty and their challenge, I could start to understand why this brave group of men and women would risk their lives to climb it.” At the Gilkey Memorial, he saw the metal brass plates, inscribed with the names of those who had died on K2, blowing in the breeze, including several who had lost their lives in 2008.

In No Way Down, Bowley does a commendable job of sorting through the climbers’ accounts of what happened on K2 between August 1st and August 4th, and he reports, as accurately as possible, what could have caused the eleven deaths. In the end, perhaps there was no single cause but rather a perfect storm of human error and bad luck. Nevertheless, he showcases two precipitating factors that lead to the deaths of the climbers. First, in an area called the Bottleneck, a dangerous level of congestion occurred that slowed the ascent, so that most of the climbers would be descending in the dark on the second day, August 2nd. Second, an avalanche in an area called the Traverse sliced the fixed ropes that had been laid for the descent and buried them or swept them away in the Bottleneck. To help the reader understand how these precipitating factors affected the climbers on both the ascent and descent, Bowley gives the reader a roadmap.

The climbers took what is known as the Abruzzi Route on the Southeast Face of K2, one of the two more established and safer routes. On this route, Camps have been established at higher and higher elevations to help the climbers acclimate to the thinner air ( Starting at Base Camp on the Godwin-Austen Glacier at 16,400 feet, the climber moves along the Godwin-Austen to get to Advance Base Camp, at the beginning of the Abruzzi Route. Then he advances to Camp One at 19,800 feet; Camp Two at 22,000 feet; Camp Three at 24,100 feet; and finally arrives at Camp Four at 25,800 feet where the Abruzzi Route joins the Cesen Route, the other established route, at the Shoulder. Camp Four is the highest camp climbers reach before they begin the precarious climb to the summit. However, the climb to Camp Four is not a walk in the park. For example, below Camp Two is an area called “House’s Chimney, a 150-feet-high crack in a huge red-rock cliff” where the climbers have to pull themselves “up the ropes and rickety aluminum wire ladders”; and between Camp Two and Camp Three they have to scale “the notorious Black Pyramid, a large promontory of broken rock and shingles.” From there it is more than 1,700 feet to Camp Four, where the climbers enter what is known as the “Death Zone.”

The “Death Zone” refers to “the region at or above 24,000 or 25,000 feet where the air pressure is much less than at sea level and a lack of oxygen rapidly depletes human muscle strength and mental functioning.” This lack of oxygen can cause “a condition called hypoxia, which has a range of debilitating symptoms. These include headaches and insomnia, vomiting and stumbling, loss of motor skills and cognitive ability, poor judgment, even hallucinations”—signs of neurological damage, in other words. Most of the climbers in 2008 wore oxygen masks with oxygen cylinders in their backpacks, but some of the climbers thought this was cheating and climbed without any supplementary oxygen. In addition to the dangers of high altitude, the climbers also had to worry about K2’s unpredictable weather patterns: death-trapping avalanches, severe snowstorms, and “savage winds.” The climbers on August 1st experienced all of these variables, including high altitude sickness that caused a few to literally lose their minds.

In August 2008, after reaching Camp Four, the climbers crossed the Shoulder, “a steadily rising ridge of thick snow about a mile long”; and hurried through the Bottleneck, a “gully of snow, ice, and rock,” as fast as they could because the Great Serac, which hangs above the Bottleneck, could threaten them at any time. An unpredictable ice cliff, it was like “a shimmering, tottering wave frozen as it crashed over the mountainside, a suspended ice mountain six hundred feet tall, as high as a Manhattan apartment building and about half a mile long.” The threat of avalanches was high in this region of the climb because of the serac, and as it turned out, an avalanche in the Traverse on the evening of August 1st cut the fixed ropes like a knife and buried the ropes in the Bottleneck.

Once the climbers maneuvered through the Bottleneck without injury, they had to cross the Traverse, “a band of steep ice and snow at a slope of between 50 and 70 degrees. It cut directly and horizontally to the left for 200 feet and then, after it, the route rose diagonally for a further 400 feet on a less steep slope of between 35 and 50 degrees covered with deeper snow…. The serac hung above, while down to their left were humps of brown rocks, past which was nothing but thin air….” After getting across the Traverse safely, it was up the thick snow of the snowfields to reach the summit, “a 150-foot sloping snow ridge.”

Because of K2’s weather patterns, the summer months are the most favorable for climbers. Two weeks before the planned ascent on August 1st, leaders of the various expeditions met in their tents to coordinate the climb and “made an agreement detailing the sequence of who would climb when.” The plan: “The crack lead group of about half a dozen of the best Sherpas, HAPs, and climbers from each team would fix ropes up through the Bottleneck and the rest of the expeditions would follow rapidly through the gully without delay. The arrangement was meant to avoid overcrowding in the Bottleneck. They knew it was critical to get out from under the serac as fast as possible.” The coordinators believed their plan would facilitate an orderly procession through the Bottleneck and across the Traverse, and it would relieve congestion due to the high number of climbers, if followed properly.

But things didn’t happen the way the teams had planned. Bowley stresses the fact that congestion in the Bottleneck was a disaster for the climbers. Because of the congestion, the climbers had to slow down in an area where they should have moved as quickly as possible, and some climbers took risks that caused fatal falls.

When Erik Meyer and Fredrik Strang, two members from the 2008 American K2 International Expedition who had acclimated at Camp Four—at 28,500—began their ascent up the Shoulder at 5 a.m. on August 1st, they were startled to see that the ropes had been placed too low on the route. Nevertheless, they continued their climb, finally getting their first look at the Bottleneck as the sun rose. Then, they saw a scene that frightened them: “As the outline of the mountain emerged from the dawn, Meyer could also make out clearly for the first time the snaking line of climbers up ahead. He had expected to find an orderly procession of bodies moving up the gully and already crossing the Traverse. Instead he was met with a sight that stopped him short: an ugly traffic jam of people still in the lower sections of the Bottleneck.” He and Strang wondered why so many people were packed so dangerously together. The answer was clear as they climbed closer: “The advanced group had not yet managed to fix rope to the top of the gully, and the climbers following behind had already caught up to them.” Meyer and Strang knew that the high number of climbers crowded into one region of the ascent could cause trouble. On the one hand, individual climbers might dismiss their own fears about the dangerous crowding and take comfort in numbers, and on the other, more experienced climbers, frustrated, would take matters into their own hands and try to climb around the slower climbers. Meyer and Strang also calculated that they themselves would not reach the summit until, at best, late afternoon, and they wouldn’t be descending through the Bottleneck until after dark.

They had to make a decision. Having invested thousands of dollars and at least a year of their time into this trip, they didn’t want to turn back. But turn back they did. With the dangerous descent in darkness; the unpredictability of the weather; and the probability of an avalanche or two, Meyer and Strang abandoned the climb and returned to Camp Four. From there, about a mile away, “the climbers were distant dots, filing upward. They were higher on the gully now, about two-thirds of the way up. They were still crowded together dangerously. From this distance, they seemed to be not moving at all. Surely they would turn around soon. Did they have a death wish?” (Even Alberto Zerain, the Basque Independent climber who reached the summit in daylight, met the ascending climbers on his descent and feared for them. “He wanted to shout, ‘It’s okay if you turn around!’ He hoped none of them would become the latest name on the Gilkey Memorial….”)

About twenty minutes after Meyer and Strang returned to their tents, “they heard a faint cry outside.” The first death had occurred: “Half a mile away, at the base of the Bottleneck, about six hundred feet below the main chain of climbers, a body was tumbling down the ice. A climber had fallen.”

The climber who had fallen did indeed become one of the latest names on the Gilkey Memorial. He was Dren Mandic, an inexperienced Serbian who had unclipped himself from the fixed ropes and fallen into Cecilie Skog, leader of the Norwegian team and “the first woman to stand at both poles and on the tallest peaks of every continent, including Everest.” Bound together, they began to slide on a steep slope “and within a few seconds they would be going too fast to stop themselves.” Since Skog was still clipped to the ropes with her harness, she slid only about three feet, but Mandic, unclipped, slid down the Bottleneck, cart wheeling at one point, and stopping at around four hundred feet. Then he stood up and in the next minute folded over, sliding over rocks about three hundred feet. When his team found him, he was bloodied and dead.

Congestion on the mountain was one of the two precipitating factors in the disaster on K2 that Bowley examines. The second, according to Bowley, was an avalanche in the Traverse that killed Skog’s husband, Rolf Bae, an experienced climber, while he, Skog, and Lars Flato Nessa (the third Norweigian with their team) were descending through the Traverse. Bowley describes the Norwegians’ descent in a heart-thumping scene as if they were characters in a novel or movie: “At 8 p.m., they came to the start of the fixed ropes that led down into the Traverse. They had made Bae’s deadline of arriving at the ropes before dark, but only by a few minutes…. The three climbers had to clip on and rappel diagonally down about one 120-foot rope length to the first belay stance before they could duck along the Traverse under the serac. Soon, they thought, they would be back in Base Camp….” They stopped to rest on a ledge, turned on their headlamps, and Bae “shuffled quickly down into the darkening well of the Traverse, disappearing from sight.” Skog was behind him, continuing her climb down, “staring forward into the darkness with the cone of her lamp.” She was about eighty feet behind Bae, and they continued like that for about an hour. Although she could not see him, Skog figured that Bae was in the middle of the Traverse and “until that moment, there had been no movement or sound above them. But at that point, the mountain began to shake. There was a precise crack and roar. Cecilie lurched off balance against the ice wall. She felt the rope pull taut, then it snapped back again. In the convulsion, her headlamp went out and she blindly gripped the ice in terror until the shaking stopped.” Cecilie yelled for Bae but there was no answer. Nessa rappelled down to her and climbed out into the darkness and followed the rope for about ninety feet where “the rope ended abruptly, as if cut off by a knife.” Nessa could see that there had been an avalanche, a big ice fall on this part of the Traverse. He knew Bae couldn’t have escaped its violence and that he was dead. He convinced Skog that they would be risking their lives if they tried to find his body and they should instead get down as fast as they could.

In addition to cutting the rope in the Traverse, it also either buried or swept away the ropes fixed in the Bottleneck. For the people to descend through the Bottleneck without the ropes was nearly suicidal. Chirring Dorje, one of the established Sherpas who had made it to the summit and was worried about descending in the dark, had reached the Traverse around 10 p.m. and radioed Meyer and Strang at Camp Four to tell them the bad news: “No rope left on the Bottleneck. Big problem. Many danger.” Meyer told him he had to keep descending, but Dorje told Meyer “that everyone else was still behind him and so they were also before the break in the ropes. Their umbilical cord down had been cut. Were they good enough to get down without it in the dark—or had they left their descent too late? Meyer and Strang began to realize they could have a full-blown catastrophe on their hands.” As it turned out, the break in the ropes did create perilous conditions for the remaining climbers, and it was the cause of some of their deaths.

But the loss of the ropes wasn’t the only reason for the potential catastrophe. According to Bowley, the climbers had made too many other mistakes: not enough ropes or too-thin ropes or forgetting them altogether; losing or forgetting or leaving precious gear behind—batteries, ice screws, belays, oxygen bottles, backpacks; unclipping from the lines in dangerous regions; groupthink in the crowded regions on the ascent; attempting to descend in the dark. Wilco van Rooijen, the leader of the Norit K2 Dutch International Expedition 2008, descended K2 without his backpack, which he had “dropped on his way up in the heat and crowds of the morning.” Descending from the summit, he fell behind the other climbers. Exhausted from the climbing, he rested in the snow, and fell asleep. When he awakened, he couldn’t find his way back to the trail and bivouacked two nights on K2 without oxygen or food or water, ending up with frostbitten toes—the toes on his left and most of the toes on his right were later amputated.

Although one of Bowley’s goals in No Way Down is to sort out the differing accounts of what happened on K2 in August 2008, he also regards the triumphs and accomplishments of the climbers with respect, drawing special attention to the Sherpas and HAPs and other climbers who risked their lives to rescue those who were lost and stranded on the mountain. Go Mi-sun, who, along with Cecilie Skog, was one of the most experienced climbers, lost her way in the night. Trapped in the rocks a distance from the main route, she saw no way down. Two Sherpas, Chirring Bhote and Big Pasang Bhote, who were searching for their brother and cousin, found her, and “one of the Sherpas lifted her shoulders while the other held her legs, and together they carried her out. They tied her safety harness to theirs with a rope and led her down.” They arrived at Camp Four after 4:30 a.m. on Saturday, August 2. Go Mi-sun was lucky the Sherpas found her. A star woman climber, she was on a “quest to reach the top of all fourteen 26,000-foot mountains.” A year later, she would die on Nanga Parat in northern Pakistan.

The men and women who have reached the summit of K2 can see the curvature of the earth and the surrounding countries in all directions. They are among the elite of the elite. As of June 2010, only 302 people have made it to the top of K2. Some have cried, not only because they have succeeded where so many have failed, but also because they feel the beauty and wonder and majesty of this place on Earth: A throne along the Karakoram Range. Some have called this a feeling of inner transcendence and inner peace. Despite the ordeal, they say, they would do it all over again.

Alberto Zerain, the Independent Basque climber, was the first climber to reach the summit of K2 in 2008. Alone on the summit, Zerain’s impressions speak for the privileged few who have reached the top of this difficult mountain: “The surrounding mountains receded into the distance, lesser giants of the Karakoram compared to K2. On one side, they marched northeast into China, on the other into Pakistan. India, China, Pakistan—they all seemed close from up here. And Zerain could see the back of Broad Peak, the Gasherbrums, Nanga Parbat, and many more mountains, all of them wondrous sights. So too were the swirling patterns of the glaciers, like patterns on butterfly wings, 11,800 feet below on the valley floor.”

Many of the climbers on the August 2008 expedition were professional mountaineers and were sponsored by corporations, small businesses, and other interested groups. The relationship benefited both: The climbers were paid and went on speaking tours and became heroes, and the sponsors received advertising clout. Money and notoriety are part of the picture for some people who climb K2; for others it is the love of the outdoors; and for those men and women who need to test the outer limits of what is humanly possible and succeed, they reach a summit that is literally as high as a plane’s cruising altitude.

Clearly, the men who lost their way down K2 in August 2008 and bivouacked without food or water or oxygen or protective clothing and experienced the debilitating effects of freezing temperatures and oxygen depletion, not to mention the mental anguish of being lost in a wilderness of snowstorms and crevasses and avalanches, clung to life not knowing if they were going to make it back alive. What drove them to take up the challenge in the first place, and why would they say they would do it all over again?
As I was reading No Way Down, I thought, “This book is about death. Why am I reading it? Why can’t I put it down?” Yes, it is about death. But it is also about life, and the challenges we humans are willing to seek in order to find out just what we’re made of. No Way Down is a detailed account of the events on K2 in August 2008, but it is also about the men and women who discover something about themselves that they may not have realized before. Perhaps, after conquering the most dangerous mountain on Earth, they return with an inner confidence that was lacking before and feel a sense of fulfillment in their daily lives that had been missing. They have found for themselves a life worth living.

Although there are those who oppose climbing K2 because it risks lives and endangers rescuers, mountaineers see the challenge differently. In an article Bowley wrote for the York Times a few days after the August 1st tragedy, climbers argued that “there was value in taking risks against nearly impossible odds, testing the strengths of human nature in extremes, and continuing to explore the world’s frontiers.” Some people have returned to their lives, they claim, deeply humbled and chastened in successfully climbing the most dangerous mountain in the world. Theirs, they believe, is a transformative experience—metaphysical and spiritual—of having reached the pinnacle of nature. K2, the “Savage Mountain,” will always inspire those who find meaning on the edge between life and death.

Note: For most of us, it would be insanity to even think of climbing K2. The statistics say it all: For every four who have made it to the summit, one has died trying. There are some, however, who have tried and failed, but whose experience has led them on a path they would never have known except for K2. Take Greg Mortenson of Three Cups of Teafame. An accomplished mountaineer, he decided to climb K2 in honor of his sister who had died. He was with a group of mountaineers who planned to climb a difficult route on the West face, and they acclimated on the mountain for a couple of months. Mortenson tried to reach the summit after struggling with high altitude sickness, but he failed in the ascent and lost the trail on the way down. After finding his Balti porter, he lost his way again and wandered into the impoverished village of Korphe in Northern Pakistan, near Askole, emaciated and exhausted. The villagers nursed him back to health, and he vowed he would return to help them build a school for their children. Since that failed trip in 1993, Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute he founded have established, as of 2009, eighty-one schools in Pakistan and fifteen new schools in Afghanistan. Mortenson transformed his failed climb into a lifelong humanitarian passion.

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