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Airlift for K2 survivors; at least 11 dead PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 06 August 2008

REUTERS, ISLAMABAD- A Pakistan army helicopter began airlifting frost-bitten survivors from the slopes of K2 on Monday, leaving behind at least 11 dead climbers after an ice fall near the top of the world's second highest mountain.

"Thanks to Almighty Allah, the rescue operation has started," Captain Azeemullah Baig told Reuters from K2 base camp.

The helicopter picked up two Dutch climbers and was due to return for some Italians elsewhere on the remote 8,611 meter (28,240 foot) peak deep in the Karakoram range, bordering China.

"It's been confirmed now that 11 people were killed in the accident. It's the worst one on any of our peaks," Shahzad Qaiser, Pakistan's Tourism Ministry secretary, told Reuters.

He said an Italian climber was still at a height above 7,000 meters, and needed to descend further to be airlifted.

Rescuers were unsure whether anyone else was missing.

The dead included three Koreans; two Nepalis; two Pakistani high altitude porters; French, Serbian, and Norwegian climbers; and an Irishman earlier listed as missing.

Several died when an ice wall collapsed and tore away the fixed lines they were relying on to return after summiting K2 on Friday. Others succumbed in the freezing, oxygen-starved air, stranded at an altitude known as the "Death Zone".

"On K2, when they're missing they're dead," said Sher Khan, a retired colonel and vice president of the Alpine Club of Pakistan, and one of Pakistan's most experienced climbers.

Several teams had massed on the mountain for an assault on the summit. At least two climbers died during the ascent, then disaster struck during the descent at a steep gully known as the Bottleneck, above 8,200 meters.

The ice fall killed three Korean and two Nepali climbers, and left around a dozen more stranded above the Bottleneck, exhausted in the oxygen-starved air.

"Anybody hit by an avalanche above the Bottleneck will be swept way down the South Face, and there's no way they'll ever find them," said Khan.

Anxious fellow climbers kept vigil at K2 base camp scanning the steep flanks of the towering pyramid of rock and ice.

One Swedish survivor, Fredrik Strang, described to U.S. broadcaster CNN how people "froze to death" during the night.

He also spoke of a sense of foreboding after a Serbian climber and a Pakistani plunged to their deaths on the ascent.

Questions will inevitably arise over whether the climbers' judgment was fatally clouded by desire to reach the summit, a condition known in mountaineering circles as "summit fever".

Some teams reached the top in darkness after 8.00 p.m. on Friday, according to Nazir Sabir, president of the Alpine Club of Pakistan.

Critics spoke of summit fever in the wake of the previous deadliest day in K2's history, August 13, 1995, when six people fell or disappeared during a storm, including British female climber Alison Hargreaves.

MORE CLIMBERS, MORE DANGER

Risks multiplied when small teams made simultaneous summit bids, according to Sher Khan.

"People are not learning from history," Khan said.

"Whenever small groups combine, thinking it will be easier for them to go to the summit ... in the end this is what happens.

Those comments echoed Khan's former climbing partner, the legendary Italian alpinist Reinhold Messner, who says commercial mountaineering had led to more fatalities.

"They are strong people, but they do not now how 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," he said in a telephone interview with Reuters in Rome.

K2 is considered technically more difficult to climb than Mount Everest, and while more fatalities have occurred on the latter, statistics show the risks of dying are far greater during the descent after summiting K2 than for other mountains.

More than 70 climbers have died on K2. In mountaineering records the ones who lost their lives after conquering the mountain have an asterisk by their name.

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