The Fatal Moves: K2 Summit 2008

Written By: Maj Azeemullah Baig

The Spanish climber Alberto Zerain, after the summit, descended safely once the rope was intact at the traverse of the Bottleneck. After reaching back at Camp-IV he preferred to go down to Camp-III. The other climbers had reached the summit as per their speed and timings. Alberto had reached at summit around 0300 p.m. on August 1, 2008 and the last summiteer reached by 0730 p.m. that evening. The climbers took their victory pictures at the top, completely unaware of the destroyed rope section in the traverse.

An eyewitness account of the shocking events of 2008 K2 Summit in which 11 climbers tragically lost their lives.


It was the first week of May 2008, when the team of famous mountaineers and climbers from across the globe started pouring in at K2 Base Camp at 5650 meters (18650 ft), after crossing the Baltoro/Concordia Glacier. The Dutch (Norit Team) were the first to arrive, then a French ski team, followed by the South Koreans, who had the largest member of climbers and Sherpas from Nepal. There was also a Serbian team, a Norwegian team, a French team, an American team, an Italian pair, members of Pakistani High Altitude Porters, a climber from Singapore along with sherpas and High Altitude Porters who joined late at the base camp and a solo Spaniard who joined for summit from Broad Peak Camp on the final push day to K2.


thefatalmoves.jpgExpedition teams at base camp devised their own plans and moved accordingly to establish further camps above the Advance Base Camp. After acclimatization, the next task was to store and dump equipment at higher camps for summit. Due to bad weather, the teams barely managed to fix ropes till Camp-III at 7200 meters (23,760 ft). The climbers waited almost two months for a clear weather window for the summit. There were multiple sources for weather forecast at base camp. The French climber, Hugues D’ Aubarede, predicted clear weather window by the end of July and also confirmed his stay at the base camp. Prior to this many team leaders at base camp were thinking of packing up and rolling back.

Now several joint team meetings were being held for collective efforts for the summit. Finally, the teams agreed and sat fingers-crossed to make a joint venture in terms of technical gadgets and equipment. In all these meetings the Serbian Liaison Officer, Major Sabir and I were actively involved. In the final joint team meeting, an experienced team for rope fixing and trial breaking was nominated. I, being the liaison officer with the Korean expedition had to participate actively at times, due to their language barrier. The Koreans were well equipped in terms of climbing gadgetry and had experienced Nepali Sherpas as well. At the end, all teams from Korea, Serbia, Norway, Norit, France, Italy and American International agreed for a joint venture.

Finally, the experienced and strong climbers, Nepali Sherpas and Pakistani High Altitude Porters were earmarked for the leading team under the leadership of high altitude porter Shaheen Baig. I was given the responsibility of radio communication and monitoring of dots in the scope from base camp. All the teams were excited for the summit. On July 27, 2008, the teams started from base camp. Abruzzi route was scaled by the Korean, Serbian, Norwegian and Spanish terms. On July 28, the Cesan route was adopted to ascend by the Norit Team, French Hugues and Mehrban, Italian, Irish and American International team.


thefatalmoves1.jpgBoth teams following different routes (Abruzzi/Cesan) had to converge on the shoulder at Camp IV (7800 m) by July 31. On July 27, Abruzzi team reached Camp-I (6000 m). The teams stayed at Camp-II (6800 m) from July 28-29 due to bad weather. On the same day, Shaheen Baig had to go down due to blood vomiting caused by suspected ulcer. The message about Shaheen Baig’s descend was radioed to base camp. At base camp, Major Sabir tasked me to evacuate the sick Pakistani porter. In response, the next morning I along with Mr. Nadir Khan (staff with Serbians) went up towards Advance Base Camp to evacuate Shaheen Baig. He was safely brought to base camp and then immediately evacuated to Skardu for medical checkup. Now, the teams at camp-III were deprived of an experienced climber i.e., Shaheen Baig, who knew exactly where to fix the rope ahead of Camp-IV in the Bottleneck. On July 30, all climbers reached camp-III (7500 m) except Mr. Lee (Korean) who had to descend due to bad health. On July 31, the remaining climbers pushed towards Camp-IV (7800 m) except Mr. Chris from USA and Miss Song Gui Hwa from Korea. They aborted their mission and I received Miss Song during night hours between Advance Base Camp and K2 Base Camp. She was stranded, exhausted and lost. Then came July 31, 2008; the green signal for the final push towards the summit in a state of high morale was passed on radio to base camp at night. In response, I exchanged best wishes for the upcoming task and boosted their morale for a safe summit.

August 1, 2008 – Final Push Towards Summit
The leading team was Sherpas: Pemba, Jumik and Pasang; Koreans: Hwang, Park and Kim; Pakistani High Altitude Porters: Karim, Hussain and Ali and later joined by Spanish solo Alberto Zerain. Once they reached Camp-IV, they started ignoring terms set at the base camp. It was decided in the joint meeting that 600 meters rope will be fixed in Bottleneck; 400 meters was promised by Norit team and 200 meters by the Italians. Once the equipment and rope was counted, 100 meters rope was found short against Italians as promised at base camp. In the joint meeting, Korean leader Kim Soo demanded 700 meters rope for Bottleneck. On Abruzzi route till Camp-IV most of the rope fixing was done by the Korean Team. Shaheen Baig, based on his experience said that 600 meters was enough for Bottleneck and everyone agreed on that. But the climbers needed Shaheen Baig (evacuated from Camp-III) who exactly knew where to fix the line above Camp-IV. The prime mistake committed was planting a line just above Camp-IV. As a result, undue delay was caused while repositioning the rope from the lower portion. In the meanwhile, remaining climbers started to marshall under the dangerous Bottleneck, putting their lives in danger. I was monitoring this cramped situation with a scope from base camp and when inquired for the delay the reply on radio was that situation was crowded under the couloir, upward pace was slow and fixing of the line in the Bottleneck remained a conundrum. The two members of American team, Eric Meyer and Frederik Strang decided to abort mission after calculating the slow pace of climbers and unnecessary exposure under ice-fall from the Bottleneck. Two more climbers from Norit team, Chris Klinke and Jellestaleman abandoned their forward move and returned to Camp-IV. The team nominated to lead started 3 hours late. All this activity of fixing rope and unnecessary delay took almost 12 hours which normally might have taken 5 to 6 hours. The overhanging 300 ft ice wall was a nightmare for climbers, who had to scale 50 degree straight up to couloir and then traverse towards summit.

First Fatality: Dren Mandic (Serbia) and Jehan Baig (Pakistan)
The slow pace and undue exposure in Bottleneck seemed to be a continuous source of frustration among climbers. A staff member named Sakhawat came to the Control Base tent and warned me of deadly consequences after observing poor progress. He further added that he has not ever seen such a jammed line and crowd under the death trap of Bottleneck. All of a sudden there was chaos in Bottleneck and at 0945 a.m. on August 1, 2008, the first tragedy was reported, when Serbian climber Dren, unclipped himself to cross Cecilie Skog, a Norwegian climber in front of him. Once he was unclipped he lost his balance and fell over 150 meters down the Bottleneck. His body was seen moving from Camp-IV. When Serbian climber Predrag Zagorac and Isoplanic along with porter Hussain turned back, they pronounced him dead after checking his pulse.

The next blunder was made when the Serbians contacted their manager at K2 Base Camp for further orders. He instructed them to bring the body down and told them to abort their attempt towards the summit. This sort of adventure should not be made at such an elevation, as it is a risk that endangers others’ lives.

There is a difference of opinion over Jehan Baig’s death. I personally believe that the loss of another life to bring a dead body above 8000 meters is not advised. He seemed to be nervous as he was already exhausted. There were six individuals including Fredrik Strang (specialist in high altitude disease) and two Serb climbers along with their porters Hussain and Mohammad Ali who went to rescue and bring the body down. Jehan Baig was with French Climber Hugues for his support to summit. Once they started to slide the body downwards wrapped in a sleeping bag, it gained speed and momentum. Jehan Baig was holding the rope tied with Dren’s body, as others were also sharing the downwards drag. The warning to be careful and safe made him more confused and after a few sudden jerks from the weight of the dead body, Jehan Baig was imbalanced over a steep gradient towards Eastern face (China face side). At 1230 p.m., the news of the second casuality was radioed. The shaken Serbians now aborted their rescue mission, wrapped the body in their country’s flag, fastened it to the mountain above camp-IV, and the rescue team started their move back to Camp-IV.

Push Towards Summit Under Death Shadows
The climbers were now scaling the Bottleneck under tremendous pressure and the unnecessary delays exhausted them. The sudden fatalities above Camp-IV also had a demoralizing effect on climbers at the outset of their attempt, but they continued their climb towards the summit. The principle rule which the climbers started to compromise on was the turn-around time. They were already late and exposed under couloir and had lost almost six hours in the Bottleneck. When the exhaustion and frustration level crossed the limits, the Spanish climber Alberto led the traverse and the rest followed him. Alberto Zerain’s pace was fast and he was the first climber to reach the K2 summit. After him was Little Pasang (Nepal) then Lars (Norwegian) followed by Kim Jae Soo, Cecilie (Norway), Miss Go Mi Sung, Park, Hwang and Jumick (Korean); the Koreans stayed at the summit till 0710 in the morning because Kim Hyo Gyeang came up late. The other climbers who followed were Chhrring, Hugues, Mehrban and Norit Team; Marco was the last one to reach the summit.

The Spanish climber Alberto Zerain, after the summit, descended safely once the rope was intact at the traverse of the Bottleneck. After reaching back at Camp-IV he preferred to go down to Camp-III. The other climbers had reached the summit as per their speed and timings. Alberto had reached at summit around 0300 p.m. on August 1, 2008 and the last summiteer reached by 0730 p.m. that evening. The climbers took their victory pictures at the top, completely unaware of the destroyed rope section in the traverse.

The biggest challenge for the climbers at the top was to descend and negotiate traverse of Bottleneck without rope. That only meant a technical climb (famous as Alpinist Style). The climbers were already over-exhausted due to unforeseen delays and weak team work. All the activity was communicated to base camp, but my only concern was timely return of the climbers and the crossing of Bottleneck. I radioed Kim Jae Soo (Korean leader) for a safe and timely descend, but then what I had feared happened; disorientation and loss of direction at the top. Down at the base camp, I yelled on radio after observing the torch lights descending in the wrong direction. At night, head lamps were visible like stars in the sky and I would direct them through radio to the actual route. High up at the top, climbers risked their lives in two ways; staying and spending the night at the top in disorientation and descending in darkness without rope in the Bottleneck. But the determined climbers decided to embrace death with honour. Their struggle increased manifolds due to the absence of rope in the traverse. The destruction of technical gadgetry and rope by serac fall trapped the climbers in the Zone of Death (above Bottleneck). The two Korean members, Kim Jae Soo and Miss Go Mi Sun managed to navigate Bottleneck in dark and reached Camp-IV. The third casualty occurred when Norwegians were crossing Bottleneck back towards Camp-IV. Rolf Bae did not go up to the summit and waited in the Bottleneck for his wife Cecilie and Lars, who were returning from summit. The three Norwegians, while descending couloir, were caught in a serac fall which struck Rolf in front of his wife and he died on the spot while Ceiclie Skog and Lars were stranded, without food and oxygen but managed to reach Camp-IV around midnight. Sherpa Pemba Gyalje battled through the traverse towards Camp IV. Sherpa Chhiring Borje clipped little Pasang Lama with his harness and did ‘free solo’ through Bottleneck safely. Nine climbers were still stuck above Bottleneck. The climbers who managed to reach Camp-IV were weak and dehydrated. The climbers trapped above Bottleneck were battling for their lives in the darkness at 8300 meters. The lone survivors were struggling against the dark slippery gradient, –40°C temperature, scarcity of food, exhaustion and disorientation. Three climbers Wilco, Gerald and Marco decided to spend the night in the open above Bottleneck.

The 61 year old French climber Hugues tried to bypass Bottleneck in the darkness and fell to his death. He was seen falling down by Cas van de Gevel who was at bottom of Bottleneck. There are myths about porter Mehrban Karim’s death. Some say he moved in the opposite direction but climbers assumed he met the same fate of falling down while trying to descend and escaping death in Bottleneck. The remaining Korean members and Jumich were missing somewhere in the Bottleneck, untraceable. The three climbers, Wilco Van Rooijen (Dutch), Marco Confortola (Italy) and Gerald McDonnell (Irish) who spent the night above Bottleneck started to descend at 0500 a.m. on August 2, 2008. On their descend they spotted the three missing Korean climbers (Hwang, Park and Kim along with Sherpa Jumich) trapped in a very bad condition and entangled in ropes. They spent 3 hours to free the Koreans but failed. Marco started to descend and Gerald opted to stay with the trapped Koreans. I communicated at Camp-IV for the possibility of rescue and then Big Pasang and Tsering Bhote were tasked to bring back the members from Bottleneck. Big Pasang reached the trapped team. He motivated Jumich and clipped him with himself. He started to move back and informed me about Gerald’s presence with the remaining Koreans. They had descended 50 meters when a serac fell and hit all the trapped climbers along with Big Pasang and Jumich. This ominous tragedy occurred in front of Tsering Bhote (Sherpa) who returned back to Camp-IV. The last two climbers, namely Wilco (Dutch) and Marco (Italy) who were still missing above Camp-IV used their satellite phones which helped in tracing the satellite coordinates. Wilco continued his descent via Cesan route and Marco opted for the Abruzzi route. I contacted the Korean leader Kim Jae Soo to organize their descent to base camp because of bad weather conditions. The teams started moving back to Camp-III and then towards Camp-II. Meanwhile, Pemba found Marco unconscious around Camp-IV. He was oxygenated and evacuated to Camp-IV. Wilco was still battling for his life and spent the night in the open while trying to descend. During the night, some lights were seen between Camp-IV and Camp-III of Cesan route. The guys at base camp managed to trace Wilco as a dot in scope and conveyed to Camp-III. Finally, Wilco reached and saw signs of life at Camp-III. The Korean and other climbers started descending. I arranged a rescue team towards Camp-I to receive the trapped and frost bitten climbers. The Koreans started their move from Camp-III and my team reached at Advance Base Camp, waiting for them. On the morning of August 3, my team with the necessary medical and rescue equipment climbed up towards Camp-I, after some time climbers were spotted approaching. On meeting, their packs were removed and we descended down.

At Advance Base Camp, they were physically checked and some climbers were treated for second-degree frostbite on their fingers and toes. We started our move towards base camp. There the injured climbers were checked and treated by Eric Meyer. Wilco and Cas were also rescued and they were treated in Norit Team mess tent. Wilco was in bad shape, snow blinded, with torn lips, blisters in mouth and frostbitten fingers and toes. That night spent at base camp was terrible. Screams of pain and mourning the death of fellow climbers made everyone full of sorrow. In the morning, chopper engine was heard roaring over Baltoro Glacier. My team prepared the landing strip and I guided the chopper pilot to land on running rotors. It was a relief when the patients were evacuated. On same evening, Italian Climber Marco was also rescued. The climber was acting abnormally and in total disorientation. He had severe sun burn and frost bite on fingers and toes. Due to pain and trauma, he avoided talking.

That evening, I wrote and nailed the names of the dead climbers up on K2 on steel dishes and cooking pot lids. On August 04, 2008, my remaining expedition members who had survived (12 out of 17) planned to move towards Skardu. They were totally exhausted and some were injured as well. The Koreans hired a military MI-17 to reach Skardu from K2 Base Camp. Marco was also heli-lifted and admitted in Combined Military Hospital (CMH), Skardu. Some patients were given treatment at CMH, Rawalpindi. After two days, all the team members were called for debriefing at Alpine Club and Ministry of Tourism in Islamabad. The meeting was presided by Secretary Ministry of Tourism and conducted by President Alpine Club Pakistan. The poor coordination, failing to estimate return time, non-adherence to basic climbing rules, relying more on high altitude porters and sherpas was discussed at length. The debriefing concluded on giving tribute to all those climbers who gave their lives for a noble cause, in the pursuit of rescuing others. On August 10, 2008, the climbers started flying back to their countries, with inspiring tales that would keep the summit spirit alive forever.


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