The 2008 K2 Disaster was a highly publicized climbing disaster that resulted in the deaths of 11 climbers on August 01 of that year. The tragedy also heightened scrutiny of safety precautions and climber responsibility during expeditions.
Overall, the 2008 K2 Disaster was brought on by a series of events, some preventable, some not. But what it had in common with many mountaineering disasters, including the 1996 Everest Disaster, was the continuation of a summit push past the safe turnaround time.
Climbers of the 2008 K2 Disaster
The story behind the 2008 K2 Disaster is convoluted, controversial and still not completely known. Knowing the names of key climbers and their respective teams helps to understand the events better. The climbers you’ll need to know are:
Norwegian Team: Lars Nessa, Rolf Bae and Cecilie Skog, the last two were married
Norit Team: Wilco van Rooijen, Cas van de Gevel, Ger McDonnell and Pemba Gyalje Sherpa
Korean Team: Kyeong-Hyo Park, Hyo-Gyeong Kim, Dong-Jin Hwang; two Sherpas, Jumik Bhote and Pasang Bhote (cousins) and team leader Mr. Kim
American Team: Eric Meyer, Fredrik Sträng
Serbian Team: Dren Mandic, Predrag Zagorac and Iso Planić
French Team: Hugues D’Aubarede and a high-altitude porter (HAP), Jehan Baig
The 2008 K2 Disaster
To understand the 2008 K2 Disaster we first have to understand the dynamics of the weather and the teams present on the mountain at that time. There were several multi-national teams on the mountain in 2008, with climbers from Pakistan, Serbia, Norway, Sweden, South Korea, Ireland, an international Dutch team sponsored by Norit and others.
Toward the commencement of the summit push, all the teams agreed that they should work together to set fixed ropes to give everyone a chance to summit K2 in a safe and speedy manner. But just as we saw during the 1996 Everest Disaster, this plan did not work as well as it should have.
It was reported that the high-altitude porters would be responsible for fixing the ropes to Camp 4, with their leader in charge. When their leader fell ill, no one was administering the porters. The Korean team was responsible for double-checking the fixed ropes to ensure they were set properly. According to Wilco van Rooijen, they did not.
The trail-breaking team was supposed to set out first at 12:00 AM, however, they did not and remained in their tent. This prompted Pemba Gyalje Sherpa, to take on the responsibility. He was accompanied by Alberto Zerain, who was a solo climber, and a few other climbers. By this time, they were75-minutes behind schedule.
The fixed ropes were set in locations that did not necessarily require fixed ropes. One climber, Cecilie Skog, stated that some of the ropes were fixed “very early on” in the climb. This led to there being insufficient rope for the latter portions of the climb. The teams then had to face the decision of returning to the starting positions to retrieve rope, led by Rooijen, and continue placing fixed ropes for the latter part of the climb closer to the summit. This resulted in a lot of lost time, coupled with the fact that the starting teams did not begin their summit push on-time at 12:00 AM.
By the time the majority of the climbers reached the Bottleneck on the Abruzzi Spur route and the Serac on K2, it was very late, around 4 p.m. There was definitely not enough time to Summit K2 and descend within daylight.
Some teams decided not to make the attempt given the circumstances, one of the climbers who chose not to continue the ascent was Fredrik Sträng, for whom we published Dispatches for during his 2017 K2 expedition after nearly 10-years of absence from the mountain.
The First Death Dren Mandic – 2008 K2 Disaster
It was at the bottleneck that the first death occurred. A Serbian climber, Dren Mandic, unclipped his rope to get past a fellow climber, Cecilie Skog, a member of the Norwegian Team, which included her husband Rolf Bae and Lars Flatø Nessa. Mandic accidentally fell, sliding down the Bottleneck.
According to the accounts of what happened next, Dren stood up, which lead the climbers to believe that he was fine. But then he fell again; this time, it was clear that something was physically wrong with him.
The climbers at the bottleneck stated that they spoke amongst themselves about whether or not some of them should go down to try and help him. Wilco van Rooijen, a climber on the Norit Team, which included Jelle Staleman, stated that there were enough teams stationed below them in an interview for the K2 documentary The Summit about the tragedy. Below them was the Serbian team, which decided to descend. He felt that any of them could help this climber and that they should continue on with their summit push.
Rolf Bae also turned back because he did not feel able to summit. But he encouraged his wife and Nessa to continue.
According to Pemba Gyalje Sherpa, the conversation between climbers only lasted about 3 to 4-minutes before everyone continued on their ascent, leaving Dren behind.
It was Fredrik Sträng who decided to climb higher to reach Dren and provide him with some assistance. But when he arrived, two other Serbian climbers, Predrag Zagorac and Iso Planić were already there. Dren was already dead.
Sträng did state in an interview that had he known Dren was already dead, he would not have risked his life to try and bring him down. It is an unwritten rule in mountaineering; when a climber is immobile, any attempts to try to save that person by moving them can result in your own death. However, since they were already there, they agreed that they should at least bring Dren back down to Camp 4. There, they could give him a “proper burial.”
It was during this descent that the second death occurred.
The Second Death Jehan Baig – 2008 K2 Disaster
Jehan Baig, a Pakistani HAP, set out to help the Serbians and Sträng retrieve Dren’s body. During the rescue, he lost his footing.
It had been agreed when the team first started bringing the body down that if any one climber should fall, they should release the rope that tied everyone together. In the documentary The Summit, Fredrik Sträng’s voice can be heard frantically screaming, “Release the rope! Release the Rope!” Baig did. Afterward, he slid and fell into the abyss.
Jehan Baig’s death is a prime example of what can happen when trying to move a dead or incapacitated body on a mountain such as K2 from that altitude.
The Summit, 01 August – 2008 K2 Disaster
The majority of the destruction occurred during the descent of the teams that were able to make it to the Summit of K2.
Spanish climber Alberto Zerain was climbing solo during that expedition. He was the first one to reach the summit and descend. On his way down, he passed the Norwegian team, which was on their way up. He later recounted telling Lars Nessa that it was only about one hour to the summit from the position they were in.
NOTE: Alberto Zerain died in the summer of 2017 on Nanga Parbat in an avalanche while he was attempting his 2x14x8000 project, which aimed to see 14 of the world’s 8,000 m. peaks climbed twice. Tragedy struck again in the winter of 2018 on Nanga Parbat when Tomasz Mackiewicz and Elisabeth Revol were trapped by a storm. Revol was rescued, Mackiewicz died.
The majority of the climbers reached the summit between 5-7 PM. Team Norit made it to the summit at 7:20 pm. Italian semi-soloist Marco Confortola summited at 7:30 PM.
After Pemba Dorje and Ger McDonnell summited, McDonnell gave Pemba his equipment, which included his camera, SAT phone and other items. Pemba having this equipment on him later proved to be vital in the future retelling of the story.
Death on the Descent – 2008 K2 Disaster
On the Norwegian Team’s descent, they caught up with Rolf Bae who had stayed behind. All three proceeded to descend together toward the fixed ropes, and 15-minutes after reaching the fixed ropes, darkness descended on K2.
The Third Death Rolf Bae – 2008 K2 Disaster
Crossing the fixed ropes together, Lars Nessa asked Rolf Bae if he wanted to go first – to which Bae replied, “Lars, I go first, you look after my wife (Cecilie).” It was the last thing Rolf Bae would say. Within seconds, an icefall swept Bae off the line in front of his wife. He was killed instantly and fell down the mountain.
The icefall that killed Bae also cut the fixed ropes, which were acting as a lifeline for the climbers above. They were the only way to get down.
As the darkness deepened, the 15 climbers who were on their way down progressed slowly. Each was tired, unfocused and descending at their own pace. Eventually, they reached the Korean team at which point it was decided that everyone would descend in a more organized manner, attached to one rope.
“It was impossible to bring them down with the same rope because they sit (sat) down.” -Pemba Dorje
However, near the location of where the fixed ropes once stood, according to Pemba, the Korean team stopped. Pemba later stated, “It was impossible to bring them down with the same rope because they sit (sat) down.” So the climbers detached themselves from the rope. Each wandered toward the site of the fixed ropes, leaving the Koreans attached to the long rope that once held everyone together.
Further up, Marco Confortola stated that he told Ger McDonnell that it was a bad idea to continue past the traverse in the dark. Marco, Ger and Rooijen bivouacked above the traverse.
The Fourth Death Karim Meherban – 2008 K2 Disaster
Somewhere around this time, a climber by the name of Karim Meherban from Pakistan was killed. It is unclear when, where or how they died.
The Fifth Death Hugues D’Aubarede – 2008 K2 Disaster
Cas van de Gevel of the Norit Team and Hugues D’Aubarede of the French Team continued through the traverse in the dark, Gevel in the lead. After Gevel made it through bottleneck crossing, Gevel said he saw a climber fall to his death.
Confortola said he heard loud rumbling from his Bivy and saw a headlamp falling. It is believed that the climber both men witnessed was D’Aubarede, who was tired and had run out of oxygen hours before.
As the night progressed, Pemba Dorje, Cecilie Skog, Lars Nessa and Cas van de Gevel were amongst the seven climbers that reached Camp 4 in the dark. By this time, 13 others remained “missing” on the mountain.
August 02, 2008, The Morning After – 2008 K2 Disaster
By Morning on 02 August, it was clear to the bivying climbers (Ger, Rooijen and Confortola) that the fixed ropes had been swept away by an icefall. Rooijen was struck by snow blindness and told the other two climbers he had to descend now while he still had vision. He left them at their bivy site.
On his way down, he came upon the Korean team, which was made up of three climbers and one Sherpa. He explained,
“I was just climbing down, and suddenly, those Koreans were just hanging over there. I was just thinking, what the hell are they doing here? I didn’t understand anything about it.” – Wilco van Rooijen
Of the three Koreans hanging on a snow ledge, one reached out to Rooijen. The other two were not moving. All three were tangled in the rope that had been left with them after they stopped above the traverse and the other climbers clipped off. Rooijen gave the moving climber his set of spare gloves and continued down to Camp 4, telling him he could not help him. Rooijen’s life depended on keeping on the move.
At this time, Pemba was taking photos of the hanging climbers from Camp 4. The Korean leader suggested a rescue mission. However, the American team said they didn’t have enough manpower. They said it was not a guided tour and they couldn’t go around “plucking people off the mountain.” Sträng, who had attempted to save Mandic earlier, also declined, citing that the three climbers looked dead already.
The Korean leader, Mr. Kim, sent two Sherpas to rescue the three Korean climbers. Rooijen, who was descending due to snow blindness, stated later that on his way down, he looked up and saw Confortola and Ger with the Koreans.
Confortola said in an interview that “everything was smashed up,” motioning around his head, and said, “there was blood everywhere.” He grabbed a radio from underneath the hanging Sherpa and requested help, stating he had to go down because he was tired. He also said that he saw Ger go back up, unsure if he was attempting to cut down the highest hanging Korean. Confortola decided to leave and descend, leaving Ger and the three Koreans at the site.
Around 12:00 PM, the two Sherpas sent to rescue the Korean climbers found a western climber at the base of the Bottleneck – he was still alive.
The Sixth Death Ger McDonnell – 2008 K2 Disaster
Pemba radioed to them with instructions to bring the climber down. They refused and said that Mr. Kim told them to continue up to retrieve the Koreans. No one agreed to climb up with Pemba, so he went alone. The climber he found was Marco Confortola.
Around 2:00 PM, the Korean Sherpas had reached the top of the Bottleneck and were with the three Korean climbers. They radioed to Pemba that one other climber was also there, but he had been hit by ice and fell down the mountain. Pemba asked for the color of the down suit the climber was wearing. It was red and black, Pemba now realized that this was his climbing partner, Ger McDonnell.
Deaths 7-11 – 2008 K2 Disaster
At the time that Pemba was tending to Marco Confortola, another icefall occurred that swept the bodies of the three hanging Koreans, their Sherpa and the Sherpa who had been sent to rescue them down the mountain. All five of the men were killed. There is some uncertainty as to whether or not one of the Koreans who had been hanging was already dead before the rescue and had actually died the night before.
The two Sherpas on the Korean Team were cousins, Pasang Bhote and Jumik Bhote, one was sent to rescue the other. The rescuing Sherpa was hesitant to retrieve the Korean climbers. However, other Sherpas employed by that team had stated that the Korean leader paid them, thus, he felt as though he owned their lives. They felt like they had to do what they were told.
The Survivors of the 2008 K2 Disaster
Marco Confortola was rescued after 36-hours in the Death Zone, which is an area above 8,000 meters on a mountain. Approximately 18-hours later, Wilco van Rooijen was found by Cas van de Gevel and Pemba. Wilco had spent 60-hours in the Death Zone.
Marco Confortola and his Controversial Story
Confortola went on to become a controversial member of this tragedy, which was already immersed in uncertainties and discrepancies. When speaking to the press, he told stories of him trying to save other climbers and stated the expeditions were plagued by “inexperience and poor equipment.”
Many climbers had different stories about what occurred, but somehow, Marco’s story became the official story, that is until these claims were disputed.
After the tragedy, Ger’s family flew to Islamabad to meet with Wilco Van Rooijen. They explained to him that Marco stated that he and Ger saw climbers being swept away beside them and that they decided to bivy until daylight above the fixed rope location. He said Rooijen joined them later. Rooijen disputed this claim, telling the family they had all started together and bivyed together at the same time.
With patience and compassion, Wilco answered questions from Ger’s family, even drawing a diagram of the events. But there was only so much he could say. Much of what happened occurred while Wilco was descending.
The family felt they could get better answers from Pemba, who by now was hiking out of the Karakoram range with the rest of the Norit Team.
Pemba’s Version of Events and The Camera That Proved it
According to Pemba, when he found Marco below the Bottleneck, he was borderline mad. Marco was cursing at him, upset that Pemba was trying to give him oxygen and crying. These were signs that he was suffering from hypoxia, a common high-altitude sickness.
By the time Marco had left Islamabad, Pemba was just arriving. All news crews had left. No one asked Pemba for his account of the events.
Marco held a news conference at Milan Airport when he arrived in Italy. He told cameras he had tried for 3-4 hours to help the Korean climbers. He said, “It was something that just came from my heart. It was after that that I paid the consequences.”
He later changed his story several times on his role in the rescue and how he last saw Ger McDonnell walking away from the Koreans. In another account, he said Ger was confused and hypoxic.
Ger’s girlfriend, Annie Starkey, would later state that Marco’s story kept changing because there was no one there to dispute his claims. Everyone had died; he could say what he wanted. Days later, Pemba joined Cas and Ger’s family to give his accounts of the events. The camera Ger had given him after their summit provided him with proof of his claims.
He told them that Ger had stayed behind to help the Koreans. Right before the icefall swept the Koreans and the two Sherpas away, they had told him that an icefall had swept away a climber in a red and black down suit, Ger. Pemba took pictures as the day progressed, and had proof that it was Ger who had stayed behind to help the Koreans, not Marco.
According to the photographs, in order for the two Sherpa’s bodies to have landed where they did after the icefall, they would have had to have been freed from the ropes and already in the process of descending when they were killed.
It is unclear whether or not the three Koreans were released from their ropes. What is clear is that it was Ger McDonnell who freed the two Sherpas from their bindings before he was killed.
Marco later gave donations to the family of the Sherpa he claimed to have tried to help.
After the 2008 K2 Disaster
In 2010, Cecilie Skog became the first woman to cross Antarctica unassisted and unsupported. Her accomplishment would later be followed by the Ice Maidens Expedition from Britain, which saw the first ever female team to cross Antarctica unsupported and unassisted.
Similarly, the expedition of Second Lieutenant Scott Sears also made it into the history books. He successfully became the youngest man to traverse Antartica alone, unsupported and unassisted. He was sponsored by Shackleton.
Wilco van Rooijen
Wilco van Rooijen became the only mountaineer to have ever spent two nights without shelter on the King of Mountains, K2, and survive. Both he and Marco lost all of their toes to frostbite.
Pemba Gyalje Sherpa
Pemba spent 90-hours in the Death Zone, 70 of those hours were spent coordinating the rescue of lost climbers. Six months later, National Geographic gave him the honor of Adventure of the year.
Fredrik Sträng went on to attempt K2 again almost ten years later in 2017, and again in 2018. We covered his 2017 expedition in our Dispatches. He will be attempting the summit again in the summer of 2019. He has not succeeded yet. From what we know of him, we always have faith in him.
Alberto Zerain died on Nanga Parbat in the summer of 2017. We delivered part of the news to Fredrik Sträng while he was on his K22017 expedition.
The 2008 K2 Disaster went on to become one of the worst in mountaineering history; it is the most controversial mountain disaster, with many versions of the same event. The circumstances of Karim Meherban’s death are also unknown, as no one has the same version of events on when and where this climber was last seen. It was also never confirmed what originally happened to the Korean team and why they were found hanging on an ice ledge.
The bodies of the fallen climbers would never be recovered, but their memory lives on. Ger lives on as the “Guardian of the Mountain,” as we so affectionately call him. He became the first Irishman to summit K2.
Pemba was recorded as having said, “If everyone turned back after the Serbian climber fell down, I think there would have only been one death on the mountain instead of 11.”
Of the 18 climbers who ascended, only 11 survived.
List of Fatalities – 2008 K2 Disaster
Dren Mandic was a Serbian climber who died below the Bottleneck after a fall during the Ascent.
Jehan Baig was a Pakistani climber. He also died below the Bottleneck after a fall while he was trying to recover Dren Mandic’s body.
Rolf Bae was a Norwegian climber and the third fatality of the 2008 K2 Disaster. He died at the Bottleneck on the site of the fixed ropes after an Icefall.
Hugues D’Aubarede was a French climber who died during the night descent above the Bottleneck after a fall.
Karim Meherban was a Pakistani climber who died above the Bottleneck during the night descent. It is unclear how or where this climber died, but it is believed it was during either the second or third icefall.
Ger McDonnell was an Irish climber who died above the Bottleneck while he was helping the hanging Korean team. He was swept away by the third icefall.
Kyeong-Hyo Park, Hyo-Gyeong Kim & Dong-Jin Hwang
Kyeong-Hyo Park, Hyo-Gyeong Kim and Dong-Jin Hwang were Korean climbers who had been stranded by an icefall in the night and were left hanging on a snow ledge. All three were swept away by the fourth icefall.
Jumik Bhote & Pasang Bhote
Jumik Bhote and Pasang Bhote were Nepalese Sherpas who died above the Bottleneck. One was stranded and hanging with the Korean team, the other was sent up to help him. Ger McDonnell freed the stranded climber from the ropes before he died. Both Nepalese climbers were cousins and were swept away during the fourth icefall.
Some Known K2 2008 Ascent Times
Passang Lama 5 PM
Lars Nessa 5:30 PM
Kim Jae-Soo 6:00 PM
Cecilie Skog 6:00 PM
Go Mi-Sum 6:10 PM
Dong Jin-Hwang 6:10 PM
Kyeong-Hyo Park 6:15 PM
Chhiring Dorje 6:15 PM
Hugues D’Aubarede 6:40 PM
Karim Meherban 6:40 PM
Team Norit 7:20 PM
Marco Comfortola 7:30 PM
It is our opinion that had it not been for Pemba’s images, large portions of the story would still be unknown. Pemba Gyalje Sherpa displayed an almost superhuman determination to assist climbers who had fallen ill or were missing. Sherpas are the driving force behind Himalayan mountaineering. But it needs to be noted that on this expedition, Pemba was climbing as a fellow partner climber, not as a Sherpa. His climbing prowess is noted as being an excellent Sherpa and mountaineer.
Ger McDonnell died saving people. His girlfriend later states that de died the way he lived, helping people.
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