Monday. August 4th. 2008 Gap of Dunloe, Killarney, County Kerry. Ireland
Today the news that Ger McDonnell has almost certainly perished along with several other climbers on the Abruzzi Ridge of K2 is sinking in hard across elements of the small and disparate Irish climbing community, amongst Ger’s climbing partners and of course among his family and friends. I learned of his sucess on reaching the summit while away camping with my son Naoise and three other young boys, some of whom are climbers and members of the Sléibhteóirí Óga (Ciarraí); a youth mountaineering group set up to nurture a new generation of hill walkers, rock climbers and alpinists.
I scarely knew Ger. We had spoken a number of times on the telephone and by e.mail, I had met him once up at Falvey’s before he and his beautiful partner Annie were gracious hosts to John Healy, Ronán O Siochrú, John Hussey and I in Alaska two years ago. He impressed me with his openess and warmth and I remember thinking how good it would be to share a rope with him.
Today, I feel immense pride in Ger’s last climb and a deep saddness at his loss. Only on Friday last, he completed the most audacious climb ever undertaken by an Irish alpinist in reaching the top Mount Godwin-Austen or K2. It was a climb made in fine style, in an era when much hype surrounds the guided frolics of “celebrities” and others on Everest, the Seven Summits and the likes. In the most serious climbing grounds on Earth, Ger climbed amidst a strong international team of mountaineers in an effort made possible only through splendid athleticism and the honed skills of a fine climber.
At 8611 metres over sea level, K2 is the second highest point on our planet. It stands at the head of the third longest glacier in the world; the mighty Baltoro, located deep in the heart of the Karakoram amidst some of the most spectacular peaks in the world. The peak straddles the borders of Pakistan and China. It is enormous from every side, it’s topography incredibly complex and in appearance, it’s outrageously beautiful. To the peoples of the region it is known as Chogori – the King of Mountains. To most mountaineers, it’s simply the greatest peak of all.
The western pursuit of climbing reached the Karokoram just over a century ago and K2’s climbing history is a flash point of human endeavour on the heights, full of epic tales of triumph and tragedy that include magnificent climbs made on some of the most aesthetic mountain lines in the world and involving many of the finest alpinists of the past 100 years.
In recent years, technology has allowed up-to-the-minute reporting direct from climbs taking place on the remotest mountains. Over the past few days news of recent events have emanated from websites closely associated with expeditions climbing on K2 this summer and their supports at home. The number of climbers lost together this weekend rivals only the disaster of 1986 on K2 when 13 climbers lost their lives after becoming trapped high in a storm and of course the high profile mess that occured on Everest in 1996.
The manner in which news emerged of this weekend’s events on K2 has led to the now familiar chaos we get when a mix of satellite phones on the mountain feed all kinds of half-baked stories and presumptions to individuals at home and beyond into the World Wide Web. Such sources are now regular portals for information coming in from the wilds; reports of progress, updates for families, friends and sponsors and often providing sensational headlines, most effective if proclaiming Bad News.
Regarding the happenings on K2 this week, it was all good news up to early on Friday; a near perfect weather spell allowing a record number of climbers to reach the top and finally sucess, Then, as things went horribly wrong above 8000 metres on Chogori the innate voyeurism of our species came to the fore with such numbers logging on to the main expedition’s site (www.noritk2.nl) that it collapsed. People across the globe flocked to feed on the blood and gore of the Bad News, to witness up close an epic of survival and death - not of some un-known misfortune dying under the gaze of his family in a famine-stricken desert of Ethiopia, but death taking place on some of the highest rocks on the planet – and giving us all a chance to watch.
My earliest reaction was to remember Everest 1996 all over again and I felt ill at the oncoming feeding frenzy of dramatic headlines and the half-true stories gushing ink to paper with all kinds of effect. On hearing from Pat Falvey that a major serac had plummeted down the Bottleneck and that Ger and others were probably in it’s vicinity and missing, my thoughts immediately went to Ger’s loved ones, in particularly his mother Gertie, his partner Annie, his siblings, relatives and closest friends. My first reaction was how such dreadful news could just be put out there – for any length of time, without confirmation! I felt angry at the outlandish impact of it all on loved ones. I felt guilt too of course borne out of the anguish I have caused to my own on occasions. And I hoped that no one close to Ger McDonnell had a weak heart.
As events unfolded to all kinds of interpretation, I once again wondered why the power of modern information technology could not be managed better in these circumstances to avoid such cruelty to those at home ? Could not a simple news management strategy be put in place that would allow for events to unfold without having to report to the world media on an hour-by-hour basis, that was now causing unspeakable anxiety to loved ones ? What would it take for a bunch of climbers heading to K2 in this instance, to agree on some kind of moratorium on all news-outward until a certain date when good, bad or indifferent stories could be related as known facts ?
A short time ago, expeditions to such places relied on “mail runners”; usually local porters running off down the valley to the nearest telegraph station with definitive news of happenings. Today’s sources however are less structured and can be fed and received at our finger-tips in homes and from tents anywhere in the world. This weekend we saw again, the consequences of this modus operandi with a result that is frankly sickening and frustrating as men, women and children are exposed to days of sieving through all kinds of stuff reporting loved ones dead without confirmations and making speculative assumptions - ”blowing out candles for scoop and fame”.
The frustration has led this evening to the editor of the reputable www.explorersweb.com and www.k2climb.net blasting these sources of mis-information saying that it has never seen the likes of this latest debacle before and announcing that “11 confirmed dead” is now 11 “feared” dead. It’s all immaterial of course today as we mourn Ger but the following copy from their website represents the feelings of a close observer of such events, moved to exasperation:
02: 14 pm CDT Aug 03, 2008 (K2Climb.net)
The year was 1996 and the world was awash with news from the greatest tragedy in Everest history. We were in Camp 2 and sent a message with one of the descending climbers to a fellow climber in BC, asking him to call our parents and say that we were OK. Instead, the next morning a media report said that we were dead. Our families fell apart. Source; the climber, in repeated calls to mainstream media claiming to be leading rescues on Mount Everest while in fact hanging out in BC. Three days later, we came down the icefall. Only then did the climber actually haul out the small piece of paper with a phone number to our parents and called to say that we were alive. Later, in his tent, he charged us 10 bucks for the call.
August 1st this year, a number of climbers set out on a K2 summit push. A whole bunch got stuck on the higher slope after a chunk of ice buried the fixed ropes. Several have been coming down since, one was found alive only 12 hours ago. Yet this morning from K2 BC, Swedish Fredrik Strang has declared 11 people dead on the peak to the world media such as latest CNN. His expedition leader, Mike Farris, did the same, all published on EverestNews. International media is filled with storied about Strang carrying climbers, dead and alive, down the slopes on his back At the time of this writing, the Norit team which has been leading not only the climb but also the information flow from the peak, has only one confirmed dead and a number of “unlocated” climbers. Speculations about deaths; no word on rescues Through this inferno, relatives and embassies are calling and mailing to ExplorersWeb. Do we know anything – are there any rescue attempts going on, they ask? “We don’t have much information about what’s going on the Abruzzi route,” the Norit expedition webmaster told ExplorersWeb about ten hours ago, stating that his team focused on getting the survivors down – Marco from C4 and Wilco from C3.
On our question to Mike Farris about this, he replied – “tell the family that we presume Gerard is dead, but won’t know until the next 24 hours.” Not a word about any rescue attempts. While his statement on EverestNews clearly says; “up to 11 climbers lost their lives,” fact is, that Farris has no idea. A dance for scoops and fame on peoples’ graves To declare someone dead in normal life, you need a coroners’ report or a judge. In the mountains, lacking proper authorities, you need an eyewitness or for sufficient time to have passed. Mountaineering history is filled with examples of “ghosts” walking into Base Camps. Only on K2 this weekend, one of the 11 “dead” climbers was found alive less than half a day ago. Several climbers are still reportedly coming down the Abruzzi ridge, their identities unknown.
The summit push was early morning Friday August 1, today is Sunday August 3. There is a real possibility that the unlocated climbers have perished. But there’s also a chance that some are still alive waiting for assistance that will not arrive, due to fellow climbers declaring them goners while busy in BC creating heroic stories about themselves, and EverestNews – in a frantic hunt for scoops – seconding this shameful game, with its latest headline reading “K2 2008: The list of dead on K2.” In all our years of sleepless nights and phonecalls with desperate relatives at ExplorersWeb, and through all our own climbs in the Himalayan mountains, we have never seen anything like it. So let’s check what is really going on: One climber has been confirmed dead. The only “new” news since yesterday is that Wilco, Cas and Pemba have arrived in K2BC, assisted down from C3 by a support group including Roeland and Jelle. Norit reports they were given medical assistance by an American doctor – possibly the same Mike Farris who only this morning declared “11 dead.” Italian Marco Confortola reported he was about to start descending from C4 by dawn. A fly-by is planned on the upper flanks.
At this time of speculations about names and numbers of dead, these are the only details about rescues going on high up. This editorial was written by ExWeb editor Tina Sjogren. The name of the climber on Everest in 1996 is withheld due to his death in a climbing accident some years later. Recap On August 1 at 1 am local time, Norwegian, Dutch, French, Italian, Serbian, Korean, Pakistan and Nepali climbers started their summit push from camp 4. Going well ahead of schedule, a few hours into the ascent a Serbian accident held the Dutch up somewhat. The Norwegians and French Hugues d’Aubarade reportedly summited before the Dutch and Irish Gerard (it’s unclear yet who used supplementary oxygen) and were coming down at the time of the Dutch summit at around 8 pm. Around 17 people were reported in the summit party.
On descent, a big piece of ice fell below the summit, taking a large part of the fixed lines with it. About 12 people, including Wilco, Gerard, Marco and Korean climbers got stuck either above the traverse or above the Bottleneck. Rescue efforts Cas and Pemba Sherpa downclimbed to C4 without fixed ropes, where Mark Sheen was holding for a summit bid. K2 BC could see 5 people climbing down the Bottleneck and 2 above. Wilco and Marco were located in a bivouac above the serac at 8300 meters above the Bottleneck, which they left at around 11 am local time. The group of people descending the Bottleneck came to a halt, reportedly due to an injury suffered by one of the climbers. Two HAP’s (High Altitude Porters) were sent up to assist from camp 4. Dutch Norit Base Camp manager Roeland hurried to the Korean expedition tent to organize a joint rescue effort. A group of at least six climbers were supposed to climb from there towards the Bottleneck with rope. Cas – who descended without fixed ropes with Pemba earlier – intended to move back up from C4 with Mark Sheen and two Americans, but the climbers were forced to descend. Survivors On August 2nd, Marco Confortola was located in camp 4. A satphone call made on August 1st from the peak by Wilco was tracked via a GPS position acquired from Thuraya. The position put Wilco’s call to between camp 4 and camp 3 on the mountain. Later, a climber in an orange suit was also spotted moving slowly between C4 and C3 on the Cesen route. Early morning Agust 3d (local time), Wilco Van Rooijen was caught up by the descending Cas and Pemba Sherpa and brought to camp 3.
Missing Unlocated at this point are Irish Gerard, French Hugues, Norwegian Rolf Bae, several un-named Koreans along with a number of high altitude porters and Sherpas. A group of unknown climbers were reported still stuck in the bottleneck as last as yesterday. The number of currently unaccounted for climbers from the August 1 summit push ranges between 8-10. Surviving climbers seem to be descending at this point, with the bulk of other mountaineers located in BC, where helicopter sweeps are being coordinated. The missing mountaineers are very seasoned, many are Everest summiteers and some were on their second, even third attempt on the mountaineers’ mountain
Over the past few days every newspaper in these parts have published reports on this world event, allied to dramatic headlines, images of Ger, the mountain and then a whole pile of other bullshit, dedicated to adding even more drama to the story. The syle is as we have become accustomed to for the most part of course. Nevertheless, at times like this when death is a central theme it always saddens me that the sport of climbing and indeed related stories around rescues and the likes are persistantly treated in the mainstream media with scant regard for the truth and instead, given some glossy treatment by gob-shites set on making things even more dramatic in order to sell papers or capture sensational sound-bites.
Today in Ireland and around the world, pages of news print cover this accident, much of it compiled by “writers” who couldn’t be arsed to delve into the truth of these amazing stories and allow them stand unadulterated, who persist in covering these powerful stories arising out of man’s interaction with one of the most spectacular pieces of ground on Earth as though it all needs a Stallone-treatment to make it more dramatic than it actually is! No doubt, mountaineers must take some of the responsibility in all of this to a point but one is left wondering if this is what happenes in the reporting of every story ?
Accepting that the tabloid media are wedded to trash no matter what, it is particularly disturbing to witness the broad-sheet newspapers that we somehow expect higher ethics from, persist in this behaviour with notable exceptions of course. Yesterday’s Irish edition of the Sunday Times (UK) however carried a full page report on K2, written by the reputable staff journalist, mountaineer and general outdoor enthusiast Richard Oakley that covered the serac fall and events as understood at the time. It was a fine report clearly written with a sensitivity for the subject.
But then there was more…..one could imagine a complimentary piece covering perhaps the incredible climbing history of K2, the mountain’s location maybe, the role played in the first expedition to the peak by the infamous Alester Crowley perhaps or maybe more about the incredible people climbing on the mountain this year……alas, no.
Instead we had some sub-editor or other deciding the story wasn’t just quiet juicy enough, that it needed further dressing so that the “mórán” reading their Sunday newspaper could stay connected through something a little more sensational! And so, we are directed to linkages to other stories from the mountaineering genere under the banner; Peaks of Death (!) to remind us just how perverted this climbing game really is; specific linkages to the magnificent Touching the Void, Into Thin Air, the fate of poor Tony Kurz on the Eigerwand and more; a selection of links to events and tales not randomly selected as a reference to high altitude mountaineering, but selected to portray a world of climbers cutting each other off ropes with pen-knives, of climbing over dead bodies to summits, of men being left to die while calling their families on phones from ahigh, of dangling to die on ropes in mid-air for days, of frost bitten fingers and toes and the rest.
What the fuck this has got to do with K2 last weekend - you might well ask ?
Ger McDonnell chose to take his outstanding mountaineering skills to one of the most dangerous peaks on Earth after he’d gained experience on some of the biggest hills in the world, among them Denali and Foraker in Alaska and Broad Peak and Everest in the Himalayas. He had been on K2 last year until a rock fall caused him a nasty head injury. Ger’s choice to go back this summer was no doubt made clear in the knowledge of the risks involved, although probably like all adventurers, under that strange “shield” of personal invincibility.
Today I listened to a climber be questioned on radio as to why Ger or others would make such a choice – the age old why-question! It was an awkward question of course for anyone to grapple with but I must admit to feeling sweaty as the discussion developed; the line of questioning and the answers given. It was all about “the challenge“, “raising the bar“, “moving on to test oneself on ever more technical peaks“, etc, etc, etc….
There are many personal answers of course to the Why and while I appreciated the honesty in today’s reply, frankly, I found it incredible boring and somehow lacking in something! Such interviews no doubt feed the on-going sense among the general public that mountain climbers are a reckless sub-section of the race; demented masochists driven by twisted needs to challenge and be challenged, to conquer something or other, usually a peak, in an arena where it appears losing digits and limps is taken for granted and where when faced with losing each other, we talk some shite about passion and loving what we do!
Personally, I am not sure this is all together true, or maybe at least that this is just part of the story because deep at the core of the enormous commitment made in this case by Ger McDonnell to climb K2, was I feel a desire to climb not just on any technically difficult mountain, to push himself on any challenging peak or even on the second highest mountain on Earth – but actually on the most beautiful of the world’s high peaks; a shapely and beautiful thing of nature, a piercing crystal of rock and ice; the kind of thing that calls deep into the soul of all climbers with a love of high places.
The first Irish ascent of K2 – without it seems the use of supplementary oxygen, is the single greatest milestone in Irish high altitude mountaineering history.
Notwithstanding Ireland’s limited involvement in this arena, Ger McDonnell’s standing on the illusive crest of ice overlooking China to the north and Pakistan to the south last Friday afternoon (August 1st) made him one of a less than 300 people ever, and just one of 100 or so climbers who did so without gas, to have reached this peak. It marked the culmination of an noble journey made from deep within, an expression of an age-old pilgrimage that’s drawn man to high, powerful places for thousands of years.
In Ireland’s gaelic language, the word turas denotes such a private journey and this particular turas called profoundly on Ger’s ability for extreme endurance, his deep commitment of spirit and courageous vision. And after nearly two months of tough, private and very unglamorous climbing, carrying and acclimatising on the South East Ridge of K2 this summer readying himself for the greatest alpine climbing prize of all, perfect weather and the summit that allowed no one near it over three whole years recently beckoned last week with perfect summit conditions!
My own private reaction to hearing of his summit was wondering what the views was like, what Ger felt in his heart up there, how he felt in his body, what the weather was like. Then I thought how good the sight and smells of honeysuckles on a west Limerick ditch would soon feel to him, how he would relish that cup of tea at home in Kilcornan with his mom on his return and how good it would feel to his senses to meet his beloved Annie again!
It seems cruel to us mortals that such a fine man descending from his finest climb, would be swept away by a collapsing serac that overhung the crux of the Abruzzi Ridge; the steep couloir known to climbers as the Bottleneck located at 8330 metres. Seracs are part and parcel of the high mountain landscapes, ice-cliffs that build up snow and ice until every once in a while they calf off the mountain walls. On Friday evening last, it appears that Ger was one of three climbers or so abseiling down the steep Bottleneck when a section of serac came away above. There are many times in a climber’s life when one’s life flashes past, when for an instant you think;this is it!
Such moments are deeply personal and rarely it seems, allow capture for anyone else’s benefit. Climbers seem to develop sub-conscious methods by which these experiences can be played down or side-lined out of decision’s way, at least for a while. Such experiences however often seem to have a way in which they speak to you long after their passing, to lie dormant before reminding you of something in your soul. I have my own stock; gained on plunging twenty five metres into the blue bowels of a crevasse on Denali, while tumbling and dragging my closest friend off the summit rocks of Aoraki/Mount Cook while my son was an infant and as I swung in space off Ama Dablam after the ledge I trusted gave way and led to spinal injuries I struggle with this very day. I am grateful and humbled by the experiences and in no doubt of my mortality.
In the recesses of many climbers’ minds this week, images of the last moments of Ger and his companions on that rope below the hundreds of tons of falling ice make for fitful sleeps and the nagging, if Ger was aware that this really was it! Thinking of this raises a disturbance deep in my guts and a simple prayer is all that comes out.
I hope you enjoyed your climb Ger. It will endure among many of us for years to come and as long as men are drawn to high places.
I hope with all my heart that your exit from this realm was in a flash, with that smile on your face thinking of home, of some story or other or maybe remembering the beat your bodhrán to a Sliabh Luachra polka.
I pray that those who loved you can find healing in the sanctity of your journey. To them, I offer my deepest sympathy.
Skeillig Michael off the Kerry coast is one of the most majestic places on Earth. In the 5th century monks who would have understood Ger McDonnell’s climb on K2 came here to this sceilig (sliver) of slate that pierces the ocean and sky. They were climbers who built and lived on the rock at the Edge of the World to be close to the Power.
The following is an extract from the poetry of my friend Dr. Micheál Fanning inspired by Sceilig Mhichíl:
The silver chain will snap and
the golden lamp will fall and break.
Obey our immortal spirit’s commands,
for this is what we were all created.
(excerpt taken from the poem; 670 Steps for Fulfilment inspired by Skellig Michael by Micheál Fanning (Homage. Salmon Publishing)