Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Summit Push and Rescue

August 1, 2008
All I can do is share with you my perspective of the events that happened, and my role within them. My intention is not criticize or be critical of anyone, in fact I hold all the people who were involved in the deepest respect.
The last that most of you know we were on a summit attempt.
Our target summit date was July 31st, but we were delayed in Camp 2 by high winds. On July 30th on the way to camp 3 I was hit in the helmet by a chunk of ice that stunned me for a moment and perhaps knocked me out. I am not sure. The winds were really bad at camp 3 as well, and I do not think that many people had a good nights sleep. Our summit team which consisted of Fredrik Strang, Eric Meyer, Chirring Dorje, and myself left Camp 3 on the morning of July 31st to head up to camp 4.  After about an hour of hiking on the way to camp 4 I started to have a headache and felt it was best I turn around and see if the headache would go away. I went back down to camp 3 passing the Norwegian team on my descent and crawled into our tent at Camp 3. There I drank a liter of water and slept for two hours. Upon waking up I felt great and headed up to camp 4 and made it there in three hours.
 It was about 2pm in the afternoon and we started to get our water and food ready for our summit bid. The plan was that the lead team would leave at 10 pm and would start fixing the line in the bottleneck. Most of the members of the lead team were planning on being on oxygen except for a few people. Meanwhile, our team would and leave approximately 3 hours behind the fixing team to begin our summit bid. We would not be using oxygen although we had a bottle with us in case of emergency. So our original plan was to leave at 1am and start our summit bid. We figured it would take us approximately 5 hours to reach the bottleneck traverse section, putting us there at 6 am as the sun was hitting it. Then it would take two hours to traverse the bottleneck, and an additional 5 hours to reach the summit. Putting our upward push to the summit at 12 hours. The descent we figured would take approximately 6 hours. Putting our total summit day at 18 hours, and getting us back into camp 4 safely before dark. The lead team did not depart C4 until almost 12:30 am and there appeared to be confusion surrounding the equipment used to fix the route. At this time we decided a 1 am start was not a good idea for us and we pushed it back to 3 am.  We heard the lead team leave, and Chirring Dorje decided that his help would be needed in securing the route and he decided to leave with the lead team. At approximately 1:30 am we heard several other teams leaving, we assumed it was the Dutch and Korean teams leaving. We also heard another team leave around 2am and we assumed it was the Norwegians. We decided to push back our departure time again because we did not want to get stuck in a line behind all the teams. We finally departed camp 4 at 3:30am. It was a risk because even if everything went perfect we would not be returning to camp 4 until after dark at 10 pm. But I was figuring that we still would be able to start and finish the bottleneck before dark. Which to us was the most critical aspect of the climb.
Even though I was not on O2, I was feeling strong and making good progress up to the bottleneck. I reached the other teams in approximately 3 hours at the start of the Bottleneck Colouir. At this point I turned around and saw that Fred and Eric had turned around and headed back to camp 4. I still felt good about my summit chances and I was not in radio contact with Eric and Fred. I was within speaking of distance of Chirring. Chirring and I were both carrying radios for the team. Eric and Fred carried Sat Phones. Since Eric and Chirring had been climbing together and Fred and I had been climbing together we figured this insured our ability to communicate with the others. Since they had departed together and gave no signs that they were in any distress I continued on my way.
 When I had reached the other group, I realized that there were some logistical issues with rope and I started sending up rope from the lower and gentler slopes up to where it was needed. I tried to count the line up of climbers ahead of me and realized that it was over 20 climbers. The line was at standstill and I waited for almost 2 hours. At this point the sun had come out and it was beautiful and hot day at 8100m. I unzipped my down suit and took off the top and wrapped it around my waist. I continued to climb for about another 45 minutes. It was at this point that I realized a few things. One that the line of climbers was not moving in an expedient manner towards the summit, and that the there was no way I was going to make my 5 hour cutoff to be in the bottleneck. I looked at my watch and realized that it was almost 10 am. Much to late to be able to cross the bottleneck, reach the summit and return to the bottleneck before dark. I also started to have a slight headache, which I attributed to the sun beating down on us.  At this point, I made the decision to turn around.
 I believe I was around 8150m. My upward progress was not happening because the line of climbers in front of me was waiting for the line to be fixed. I turned around and started heading back to camp 4. On the descent my headache grew worse and started to become a pounder.  I continued to descend as quickly and safely as I could. I reached C4 about 11:30 am and talked with Eric our team doctor and made the decision it would be best for me to continue to descend.  At about this time we heard from Roberto that there was an accident and that he saw someone fall. It was about another 20minutes when we learned that a Serbian climber had fallen. Eric and Fred took off after we received a report on the radio that the Serbian was moving to see if they could be of assistance.
I continued to hydrate in the tent and started to prepare for descent in case I had AMS. Roberto with the Italian team also was having some issues and we decided to descend together for safety. Fred and Eric meanwhile were continuing the ascent to the fallen Serbian climber. Who was 2-3 hours above camp 4. Roberto was packing, so I watched the slow progress of the climbers up the mountain. At this point it was about 1 pm and there were one or two climbers who had completed the traverse. Two Serbian climbers had descended to help the fallen climber and one Pakistani high altitude porter (HAP) had also descended to help. The remaining climbers continued on their ascent to the summit. The line through the bottleneck seemed huge and choked with climbers with dangerous seracs overhanging the route.
About 1:30pm Roberto and I took off to start our descent. We descended to camp 3. At the midway point I looked up and saw that the line of climbers was still in the bottleneck and commented to Roberto that it was taking them a really long time and that there was no way they would be back to that point before dark. I continued down to camp 2 and met with Mike Farris as I was descending. He offered me some water and informed me that the Serbian was dead and that the Hap had fallen to his death as they were trying to lower the body. I was shocked at the sudden loss of life, but it was merely foreshadowing for what was to come about in the next 24 hours.
I continued my descent with the plan of reaching ABC before dark where Deedar our cook was going to meet me with tea and food and help me return to base camp after the long descent over very technical terrain. I reached ABC at about 7:30pm, where I changed boots, drank tea, and packed up some gear to return to BC. We reached BC at about 9:30-10:00pm.
 Where I met with Chris Warner and learned that Chirring had not yet returned from the summit. I am not sure if Chris told me about Rolf (Norwegian) falling to his death or not. But I know I learned that shortly after arriving in BC. It was not until later that I learned that it was an avalanche that had taken Rolf and also severed the fixed line within the Bottleneck. I decided it would be best to wait up and see when Chirring returned to C4. At about 11:30pm we received a radio call from Chirrring stating that the fixed lines had been severed in the bottleneck. He stated that he was going to continue down the mountain to C4.
I radioed Eric and Fred and asked them to stick their heads outside the tent and see how many lights they could see. They said that there were at least 9 above the bottleneck that they could see. I asked them to start searching c4 for rope and oxygen and to see if it would be possible to mount a rescue with rope and supplies to the bottleneck. There did not appear to be any rope in c4 at that time. In fact no additional rope was to be had at C4.
I and Roeland (Dutch started having a discussion about what would be the best course of action to get more supplies up the mountain. )I tried to raise the Singaporeans at C3 but there radio was off. At this point we were in the tent with the Koreans and also monitoring their broadcasts. We were asking them if they had any additional rope at C4 and they did not, and if they had oxygen which they did. At about 12:30 am Chirring  radioed and said that he was in the couloir descending to C4. I radioed Eric and Fred at camp 4 and told them to start brewing.  We received a radio call at 1:30 pm saying that Chirring and Pemba were approaching C4. We did not know that Little Pasang and Korean Chirring were also with them at this point.  Roland was anxious about his other teammates. At about 2:00 pm we received word that Cas was approaching C4 and we told him to knock on the American tent for hot water. He went to his own tent and started brewing to await the arrival of the others. At about 3:30am Roland received a message from Holland saying that Wilco, Marco, and Gerard were Bivying above the bottleneck together for the night. At this point I could no longer keep my eyes open and went to bed for a few hours. I awoke the next morning at 5 am and woke Roland up and started to try and figure out where everyone was on the mountain.
August 2, 2008
Roeland and I went to the Korean Tent to see if they had any news from anyone on the mountain. At that point there was no new information. At about 7 am we received word from Holland that Wilco and Marco were on the move and descending through the Bottleneck together.(This later turned out to false) This was received via a satellite phone call. I decided that we needed to set up a Base of operations for what apparently was going to be an extended Rescue operation on the mountain and we picked the Dutch Base Camp because it was Central in the camp. We set up several radios to monitor all the different frequencies that groups were operating their radios. We radioed to Pemba and our team and told them that Wilco and Marco were descending. They were looking for them to come down, but clouds had started to descend and visibility was not as high as the day before. Earlier we had received an update there was still 8 people above the bottleneck.
Around 10 am we received we word that Marco and Wilco were through the bottleneck and were continuing down the mountain. Somehow the two of them got separated and the next message we received said that he was below camp 4 in a colouir and moving south at about 7800m. My times times still need to be confirmed so that I can insure accuracy on the sequence of events, but they are roughly accurate. The next significant movement came as two Korean sherpa's were going up to try and help those stuck in the coulior. They found Marco lying in the snow. Pemba and Cas went up to help Marcos down. He found Marco lying in the snow at about 2:30pm. He got Marco up and moving and as he did so a chunk of ice came flying down and hit Marco in the back of the head. Pemba was able to keep Marco moving, but he also observed that in the avalanche debris was Big Pasang, Jumiq, and a Korean Climber. Pemba informed us that there was a large serac avalanche that had happened and that three people were dead.  He tried to raise Wilco on the Sat Phone and reached him. Wilco said he was okay but that he was at 7800m according to his watch and still moving south. At base camp we are radioing and trying to figure out where the remaining members are at this point. At this point we had 5 dead confirmed by eyewitness. 3 that we have no word of where they are on the mountain, and 3 we know where they are in theory but not updates on their condition, 1 that is being transported to C4, and 1 lost on the mountain but in contact.
 Roeland and I start gathering people together to figure out who is in a condition to go back up the mountain. At about 5:45 pm the clouds lift and I am able to spot Wilco on the mountain on the south face underneath a snow coulior. I call everyone over and we confirm that it looks like Wilco but because we do not have direct contact with him we cannot verify that it is him. We radio Pemba and Cas at C4 and they start preparing to descend the Spanish route to try and intercept and signal him over to the correct route. Meanwhile our team is arriving in C2 and descending as a group.  We continue to watch Wilco through the telescope until it is dark and start getting updates on Marco's condition. It appeared that Marco might have frostbite and a laceration on the back of the head. We start trying to figure out how many people are still in C4. We have 6 Koreans and 2 Korean Sherpas. Pemba and Cas are leaving for C3 on the Spanish Route, and they’re two Italian HAP's with Marco.
The Koreans state that they will leave in the morning with the remaining members and Marco and his HAP. It is from the Koreans that we learn that two other members of their team are dead. This is about 7 pm. We also get confirmation on the two Sherpa's and 1 Korean that Pemba reported earlier in the day. We still have no word on the Frenchman, Gerard, and Karim. At this point we start watching the descending headlamps of Cas and Pemba coming down from Camp 4 and we are trying to communicate the last known position of Wilco on the south face. We also start trying to formulate a plan for finding the other members who are not accounted for at this point .I dispatch our cook Deedar to head up to ABC with Bashir our waiter to help our team descend. Chris Warner also goes up to ABC to await their arrival. The American team from Broadpeak also shows up to help at some point, which consists of Andy, Chuck, and Dave. Our team arrives into Base camp at about 2:30am in the morning. Shortly before they arrive Pemba radio's me and tells me that Cas has not come into Camp 3. This was the first that I knew Pemba and Cas were not descending together. Pemba meanwhile tells me that he can hear Wilco's sat phone ringing but it is out on an avalanche prone slope and he does not feel safe crossing in the dark. I concur with his assessment and encourage him to get some sleep. At which point the lights in C3 go off for the night. I stay up with our team until 4 am and then await the arrival of dawn to see if I can see Wilco on the snow slope again and possibly Cas.
Aug 3rd, 2008
At about 5:15am there is enough light and I spot Wilco about 300 meters to the west of C3 and 100 m above. Jose from the Serbian Team spots Cas descending the fix lines above C3. We try and awake Pemba but his radio is off at this point so we simply wait for Cas to reach C3 and wake Pemba. When Cas reaches the tent we start radioing them again. We ask them to start yelling Wilco's name and when they do we see Wilco respond by standing up. We start directing them to his location because they still are not in line of sight of each other. Wilco is proceeding across the snow slope above the Serac by punching his fists into the snow, and front pointing across the slope. He is moving in the direction of Cas who has started out across the snow slope. Pemba is getting dressed to go out and help him. They come together about 150 m from C3 and we get a radio call that Wilco is okay but may have frostbite on his feet. Cas at this point also has frost bite on his hands. Wilco gets into the tent and we await more updates on his and Cas 's condition. Meanwhile we get word the Koreans have left C4 and started and started to descend to the mountain. Marco and his 2 HAPS also left but are moving much slower. It is not until the early afternoon that we realize Marco will need more help to get down the mountain. I ask the group who is able to go up and George Dimerescu says he can go and he might be able to get his two sherpas to go with him. He decides he will leave that evening with two bottles of oxygen and his sherpas. Wilco, Cas, and Pemba meanwhile have started to descend the mountain under their own power and feel that they can make it down without additional assistance. But we will need to fix about 400m of line below camp 1 to help them in their descent. A team of Roeland, Chris Warner, Yelled(Dutch), Jose (Serbian), and one other leave BC with rope to fix the lines. Meanwhile I start setting up the Dutch Tent as a triage center to treat their frostbite, Eric Meyer prepares a new drug to help treat their frostbite, and we await their arrival. George decides to leave early the next morning because of the Koreans descending and the risk of rock fall is so high on the Abruzzi route.
The great news is that Marco, Cas, and Wilco got down to base camp and were treated for their frostbite. We had set up a Triage Tent for the Dutch, and were able to help them get comfortable to await their helicopter transport. Almost our entire team went up to help Marco down from ABC to BC. We also treated him for his frostbite and then he was coppered out the next morning.
The unfortunate news is that at the end of 3 days, we had 11 people who had died on K2. The cause of death for some is still unknown and may never be known. For others they experienced Mother Nature at her worst and paid the highest price.  The lesson I have learned from this experience is that even when things are perfect, i.e. the weather, there are still many other things that can go wrong. Serac falls, avalanche, and other things that extend beyond your control. You must always be aware of your surroundings. I am incredibly proud to be part of our team, and to know that we extended all ourselves and our resources to others on the mountain to help in a time of need.