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Final K2 survivor still trapped on mountain PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, 07 August 2008

Times Online

The final frostbitten survivor still trapped on K2 after a catastrophic ice avalanche faces another night of misery on the mountain with the weather too severe for helicopters to begin a rescue mission.

Marco Confortola, 37, an Italian climber, has spent the past four days and nights hobbling down the mountainside on frozen, blackened feet. He finally reached base camp today but dense cloud cover mean that he cannot yet be airlifted to hospital.

Eleven of his fellow climbers died in their attempt to scale the world’s second highest mountain. Gerard McDonnell, one of Ireland’s most experienced mountaineers, was among those who died on an expedition blighted by an ice fall and near-impossible climbing conditions.

Two Dutch survivors were rescued from the mountain yesterday, as details began to emerge of the true horror of one of the worst climbing accidents. Wilco Van Rooijen, 40, described desperate climbers suffering from lack of oxygen and others freezing to death while hanging upside down on ropes.

Three South Koreans, two Nepalis, two Pakistanis, a Serb, an Irishman, a Norwegian and a Frenchman were killed during Friday’s attempt on the summit. It is unclear how they died, but some were swept away by the avalanche, some had fallen before the ice slide and others were trapped in the high-altitude, oxygen-starved air known as the death zone.

Mr Confortola reached Base Camp at 17,400ft (5,300 meters) today, helped by two Nepalese sherpas and an American climber, where he was given food, fluids and oxygen.

Agostino Da Polenza, of the Everest-K2-CNR, group said that the Italian climber was now at a height at which helicopters could stage a rescue. “His voice was clear, even though Marco starts feeling pain at his lower limbs,” Mr Da Polenza said.

The mountaineer told his brother by satellite phone yesterday that his hands were fine but his feet were black from frostbite.“Anyway, I can walk and I want to descend to the base camp,” Mr Confortola was quoted as saying.

Pilots were waiting for thick clouds to clear, but they feared that the helicopters, specially designed to fly at high altitude, would not be able to take off today.

“The danger is over,” said Ashraf Aman, head of the mountaineering company Adventure Tours Pakistan, which has played a key role in rescue operations.

“Marco has reached the main base camp, he is recovering. The base camp has facilities to provide him with immediate medical help like oxygen and drugs, so he will improve gradually.”

The Dutch survivors are being cared for in a military hospital in Skardu, Pakistan. Mr van Rooijen, 40, who is with his colleague Cas van de Gevel, explained that several expeditions had waited throughout last month for good weather to scale K2, considered far more treacherous than Everest. When the weather cleared on Friday, about 24 people set off up the mountain, on the border between Pakistan and China.

“Everything was going well to Camp 4 and then on the summit attempt everything went wrong,” he said. Advance climbers had laid ropes in some of the wrong places on the 28,250ft-peak, including a gully known as the Bottleneck, one of the most treacherous sections.

“We were astonished,” Mr van Rooijen said. “We had to move them. That took, of course, many, many hours. Some turned back because they did not trust it anymore.”

Those who went on reached the summit shortly before nightfall. As the fastest climbers began their descent back across the Bottleneck, the fixed lines were torn away by the fall of a huge serac – a column of ice formed by intersecting crevasses on a glacier. Others succumbed in the oxygen-starved air, stranded at the death zone.

Mr van Rooijen said that a Norwegian climber and two Nepalese sherpas were swept away. His own team was split up in the darkness. Despite suffering snow blindness, Mr van Rooijen continued to make his way along the treacherous route and encountered stranded climbers.

“There was a Korean guy hanging upside down. There was a second Korean guy who held him with a rope but he was also in shock and then a third guy was there also, and they were trying to survive. But I also had to survive,” he said.

He said that he was screaming instructions to people to work together, but they appeared consumed by self-preservation. “They were thinking of my gas, my rope, whatever,” he said. “ Everybody was fighting for himself and I still do not understand why everybody was leaving each other.

“People were running down but didn’t know where to go, so a lot of people were lost on the mountain on the wrong side, wrong route, and then you have a big problem.”

It was not clear whether these were the same three Koreans who died. Two other Koreans made it back to the base camp, which lies at about 16,400ft, an expedition organiser said.

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