In 2008, an assortment of international teams attempted to conquer the summit of K2, the second highest on our planet. Despite not being quite as high as Everest, it is considered far more difficult and dangerous to ascend. One in five who attempt to reach the top, perish attempting it. If that’s not bad enough, the way down is considered even harder. Just think about that for a wee second; You’ve just climbed the second-highest mountain on the planet, and the most dangerous. Now the hard work starts. Jesus.
Straddling the border between Pakistan and China, K2 is a part of the Karakoram mountain range, which spans into India also. The name comes from the first survey of the area, where Thomas George Montgomerie noted the two high peaks as K1 and K2. K1 has since gained a name, but K2 stands untitled and will do so. Many climbers have said this is the way it should be, with Fosco Maraini famously stating that ‘…it makes no attempt to sound human, it is atoms and stars. It has the nakedness of the world before the first man, or the cindered planet after the last’. Very poetic Fosco. K2 was first successfully clambered up in 1954, but no one has managed to do it in winter as of yet.
August 1st 2008 saw one of the most disastrous days in the history of mountaineering, when 11 died either attempting the summit or on the descent. ‘K2 – The Killer Summit’ is a documentary on this expedition, made up mostly of reconstruction, interviews and home-video footage shot by the climbers themselves. This isn’t a happy-go-lucky film though. Two men die within the first 16 minutes. The problems began with dodgy weather, meaning that the usual climbing season (June-August) was constantly postponed. By the time things cleared, as many as ten teams were back-logged attempting to summit. Poor rope-planning by the Sherpas caused a further delay once teams moved out to summit on August 1st, creating something of a traffic jam near the top of the second-highest point on the planet. The first to perish was Serbian Dren Mandic, who lost his balance attempting to sort out his oxygen supply. As you are standing on the side of one of the most dangerous points on earth, a daring safety catch is unthinkable, so the climbers had no choice but to watch as Mandic slides to his death. As a team begin to bring Mandic’s corpse down the mountain to the last camp, another member of the team loses his mental balance and also slides to his death. He doesn’t even attempt to save himself. Grim, grim, grim.
It just gets worse though. There is a brief moment of joy however, as 18 climbers make it to the summit. There is a run of photographs and the elation comes through the screen. They are quite literally on top of the world, and the view is overwhelming. Much like the views out of an aeroplane window, there aren’t many things more beautiful than looking down on the world. It almost makes you want to climb a mountain yourself. Almost. The way down is another kettle of fish, whatever that saying actually means. The delay made things even more difficult, and once a serac (big ol’ block of ice) fell off and took Rolf Bae with it, it became nigh on impossible. Rolf’s death is another genuine tragedy, as he is climbing down with his wife. Unfathomably to us armchair folk, she had no choice but to watch as her husband was swept away. Awful, awful, awful. Oh, and night had fallen by this point.
Some of the climbers decided to wait out the night near the summit. So that’s just sitting, in temperatures that are somewhere approaching minus everything. You try sitting for a few hours in your bedroom, with nothing but your mind to entertain you. Now, even just imagine doing that at an insane altitude, totally exhausted, in minus everything temperatures. In some ways, it’s shocking more didn’t die overnight. As it were, eight people were stuck in the death zone as morning came. Wilco van Rooijen descended alone, as he was going snow blind. Marco Confortola and Ger McDonnell, the first Irishman to reach the K2 summit, attempted to help the Korean team that were stranded and helpless. Confortola would make his way back to Camp IV eventually, but McDonnell wasn’t so lucky. In his attempts to save the lives of the Koreans, he would die himself. He lost his life in an attempt to save the lives of others. I’m not going to attempt to word the amount of respect that deserves.
Overall, 11 people died in this tragedy. They died from a combination of bad luck and bad judgement. This documentary is very well done, fantastically paced, but it’s all fairly irrelevant next to the tragedy that unfolded. As a man who sits typing inanity most of the week, the idea of CLIMBING A MOUNTAIN is entirely foreign to me. Heck, having such passion in something as physically destructive as this is something I just can’t fathom. It is a real life true test of humanity, something that is embodied perfectly in the program by Pemba Gyalje. A sherpa, he spent a total of 90 hours in the death zone, 70 of which were on rescue missions. Again, I have no words.
It’s tough to watch. It is tragic, it is incredibly sad, but somehow it is utterly inspiring. Still, I won’t be climbing any mountains any time soon.