Dutch survivor of K2 avalanche describes ordeal

At least 11 people were presumed dead after an avalanche on K2, the world's second-highest mountain.

Van Rooijen 224.88 ap (photo credit: AP)
Van Rooijen 224.88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
Blinded by the glare off the snow and ice, attempting a perilous descent down K2 to save his life, the Dutch mountaineer came upon three Korean climbers. One sat dazed in the snow. Another held a rope. The third was suspended at the other end, hanging upside down. "They were trying to survive," the Dutch mountaineer, Wilco van Rooijen, recalled Monday, "but I had also to survive because I was getting snow blind." He said he offered help but they declined, believing help was already on the way. Speaking by phone with The Associated Press from a military hospital where he was being treated for frostbitten toes, van Rooijen provided a gripping account of his ordeal on K2 before he and another Dutch climber were plucked to safety Monday. At least 11 people were presumed dead after an avalanche on K2, the world's second-highest mountain. An Italian who was also stranded made his way down the slope with a rescue team after telling a colleague, "I am surely not going to give up now." The Ministry of Tourism said the 11 believed dead in one of mountaineering's worst disasters included three South Koreans, two Nepalis, two Pakistanis and mountaineers from France, Ireland, Serbia and Norway. It was not clear whether the three Koreans were the same described by van Rooijen. K2, which straddles Pakistan and China in the Karakoram range, is regarded by mountaineers as far more challenging than Mount Everest, the world's highest peak. K2's knife-edged ridges and icy slopes are steeper and prone to both avalanches and sudden and severe storms. Van Rooijen said several expeditions had waited through July for good weather to scale the 28,250-foot peak and decided to go for the summit when winds dropped on Friday. As many as 30 climbers set off. The first setback was when the climbers had to reposition fixed ropes that an advance party had mislaid across a treacherous gully 1,150 feet below the summit, he said. "We were astonished," van Rooijen told the AP. "We had to move it. That took of course, many, many hours. Some turned back because they didn't trust it any more." Still, many pressed on, he said. They reached the summit only shortly before dark. In the rush to get down, groups including his own drifted apart. As many as 10 of the fastest climbers were back in the steep gully, known as the Bottleneck, when a huge chunk of ice crashed down from above, sending a Norwegian and two Nepali sherpas to their deaths. The ice swept away some of the ropes, making it even more dangerous for those caught above, he said. The famed Bottleneck and a tricky section of ice known as the Traverse have been the scene of many accidents and deaths before, but not all climbers agree fixed ropes are needed to negotiate those sections. If an avalanche hits, there's little anyone can do. Van Rooijen, among the stragglers, said he spent the night huddled in the snow with Gerard McDonnell, an Irishman, and Marco Confortola, the Italian who was making his way down the slope on Monday. By the morning, clouds had descended, making it almost impossible for the climbers to locate each other or see their way. Van Rooijen left the other two and managed to pick his way through the gully. He said others suffered fatal falls in a similar attempt. The Pakistan government did not give details of how the 11 climbers had perished. McDonnell, who had taken shelter with van Rooijen at the Bottleneck, was among those believed dead. The 37-year-old was the first Irish person to reach the summit of K2. Confortola was in satellite phone contact and climbing down on foot, despite frostbite, helped by a team from a base camp. Shahzad Qaiser, a top ministry official, said another helicopter rescue of Confortola would be attempted Tuesday morning, weather permitting. The Italian had reached a camp at 19,000 feet by Monday evening and was eating and getting oxygen, a guide at base camp told Italy's SKY TG 24 TV. ANSA news agency reported that he had spoken to his brother Luigi on the phone. "Up there it was hell," the Italian mountaineer was quoted as telling his brother. "My hands are fine, while my feet are black from frostbite. Anyway I can walk and I want to descend to the base camp." Agostino Da Polenza of Everest-K2-CNR, an Italy-based high-altitude scientific research group, also spoke to Confortola on Monday and quoted him as saying: "I never gave up in my life, I am surely not going to give up now." Van Rooijen, 40, placed some fault with organizers and fellow climbers. On the fogbound glacier below the Bottleneck, he said, he spent hours searching for Camp Four, where a Nepali team member was waiting for him. He said other expeditions had failed to keep a promise to mark the way with flags. His team had hauled up 400 yards of the rope for the gully, he said. "The plan was OK," he said, "but finally some climbers did not take their responsibility and then accidents like this happen very easy," he said. Van Rooijen said a Serbian expedition was part of this plan, but Nazir Sabir, whose Alpine Club of Pakistan helped organize the Serbian expedition, said he was unaware of any such arrangement. Sabir, who became a national hero after climbing K2 in 1981, said 22 people had scaled K2 on Saturday, and as they made their way down an avalanche carried away roped fixed about 1,150 feet below the peak, sweeping some climbers to their deaths and stranding others where they would likely succumb to exposure. By the time he stumbled into the next camp on Sunday, where rescuers were waiting with tents, food and water, van Rooijen said he was delirious. He was flown to safety on Monday morning in a Pakistan army-operated helicopter with fellow Dutchman Cas Van de Gevel. The reported toll from the avalanche was the highest from a single incident on K2 since at least 1995, when seven climbers perished after being caught in a fierce storm. About 280 people have climbed K2 since 1954, when the summit was first reached. Dozens have died trying. Van Rooijen, who suffered a broken arm and head injuries from a rockfall during an attempt on K2 in 1995, said his latest ordeal left him with severe frostbite that could cost him several toes. He said he would continue climbing. The French climber presumed dead, Hugues d'Aubarede, relayed an account of the climb that was posted on a blog. His last message, from the foot of the Bottleneck, was: "I would love it if everyone could contemplate this ocean of mountains and glaciers. They put me through the wringer, but it's so beautiful. The night will be long but beautiful."