Pakistani army helicopters evacuated two frostbitten mountaineers from K-2 and tried to save another today after a catastrophic ice fall on the world's second highest peak killed 11 climbers. Three South Koreans, two Nepalis, two Pakistanis, a Serbian, an Irishman, a Norwegian and a Frenchman died in Friday's disastrous avalanche on the slopes of the remote 8,611-metre Himalayan mountain.
The accident was the worst in more than 20 years on the giant pyramidal peak, which is widely acknowledged as far harder to scale than Mount Everest, with a fatality rate almost five times as high. "Two Dutch climbers were brought by our people and their colleagues down to base camp from an altitude of 7,300 metres overnight," the army officer Captain Azimullah Beg said by satellite telephone from K-2 base camp.
"They were then picked up by army helicopter from base camp this morning and have now been shifted to hospital for treatment for severe frostbite," said Mr Beg from the camp, which sits at 5,200 metres. The Dutch climbers were identified as Wilco Van Rooijen, leader of one of the expeditions caught up in the tragedy, and Cas van de Gevel, according to Mr Beg and the army-linked company operating the helicopters, Askari Aviation.
A second chopper went up to help a stranded Italian identified as Marco Confortola but could not touch down and returned after a brief contact with the climber, a Pakistani mountain guide, Sultan Alam, said. "Our four high-altitude porters left a while ago and it is expected that they will bring the Italian climber down this evening," he said from base camp, as the roar of a helicopter could be heard in the background.
The Italian was unable to walk because of frostbite in his leg, officials said. All three climbers were "badly affected and it appears that at least one of them would have his hand and leg chopped off. This is what our high altitude doctors believe", Alam said. The disaster happened when a pillar of ice broke away in a steep gully known as the Bottleneck near the summit and swept away fixed lines used by the mountaineers as they made their descent on Friday.
The number of dead climbers had risen from the overnight total of nine, Mr Alam said, adding that the exact number of climbers affected remains unclear but he was aware of 17 who were involved. "At least 11 climbers have died. This is one of the worst incidents in the history of K-2 climbing," Mr Alam said. The incident was the deadliest to hit the peak on the Pakistan-China border since 1986 when 12 climbers died, said Nazir Sabir, a celebrated Pakistani mountaineer who scaled K-2 in 1981.
In Seoul, a mountaineering club yesterday confirmed that three South Koreans and two Sherpas were among those killed, adding that another two Korean climbers got to base camp before the avalanche struck. The survivors had suspended attempts to recover the bodies of their colleagues due to the "hopeless" weather conditions, said Cho Hyung-Gyu, president of the country's southeastern Kyongnam mountaineering club.
A Swedish climber who survived said he feared for his life when a Pakistani climber fell on top of him. "I have carried down both living and dead people from the mountain," the climber, Fredrik Straeng, told the Swedish news agency TT, also putting the death toll at 11. "I was terrified that (the Pakistani) would pull us all off the cliff and screamed to him to use his ice axe, but he lost his grip and plummeted off a 300-metre cliff," Mr Straeng said.
He said a large number of climbers decided to leave their camp at just over 7,000 metres before disaster struck to try to reach the summit after the skies cleared following a long period of poor weather. "We had a feeling this would not turn out well and decided to turn around. The accident could have been prevented. These mountains lure out way too inexperienced and naive people," he said. Missing Irishman, Gerard McDonnell, 37, an Alaska-based oil worker who has climbed Everest, was given up for dead by his experienced mountaineering friend, Pat Falvey.
Norwegian media reported that Rolf Bae, 33, died in the disaster, while his wife was reportedly trying to make her way down with two other Norwegians. Italian climbers Achille Compagnoni and Lino Lacedelli first scaled K-2 on July 31, 1954. Between that first ascent and 2007, there were 284 successful ascents and 66 fatalities. In the same period, Everest was summited 3,681 times, with 210 deaths.