Lessons from K2?

Posted on: August 6, 2008

The accident on K2 puts me in mind of 1996 on Everest: almost in real-time, updates and half-developed accounts splashed across the front pages of publications and news channels that otherwise ignore the climbing world. As the chaos of the disaster begins to fade out, questions are starting to arise—Why did this happen? What series of events led to the deadliest accident that K2 has ever seen? Perhaps the most haunting question is, to what extent could the accident have been avoided?

K2 is a beautiful and terrible peak; one that deserves the gravest respect, as this past week has shown us. It seems that the respect to which it is entitled fell by the wayside in the lead-up to the avalanche on August first. I've read that the ropes weren't set properly through the Bottleneck. As far as I can figure, there are two possible explanations for this inadequate safety measure: ignorance or laziness. If a team does not have enough experience to know how to safely and properly fix lines, they simply do not belong on K2. Moreover, setting lines in a half-hearted manner is in no way acknowledging the strength and unpredictability of nature, as we have seen.

Continuing towards the summit in the late evening demonstrates the same ignorance or blatant disregard for the mountain. Why were summits being made as late as 8 o'clock? Have climbers learned nothing from those that have perished atop Everest and other mountains? Unequivocally—summit fever kills. While there are clearly significant differences between the 1996 disaster on Everest and this past week's tragedy on K2, some of the similarities are hauntingly similar. Late summits, poor communication, traffic jams in dangerous spots, and a loss of perspective on the absolute consequences of making mistakes at altitude—when Mother Nature tosses a surprise into that mix, it gets serious. Fast.


While I extend my sincerest condolences to the family and friends of those lost on K2, I think it is important for mountaineers to reflect on what went wrong and what lessons can possibly be gleaned from this tragedy. After all, you know what they say about those who fail to learn from history.

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Let me preface my comment with the fact that I am not a world class alpinist and never will be. I will never go to K2 and will probably never climb an 8000 meter peak. However, what happened on K2 should draw attention to a simple point that anyone who enjoys climbing, from a day at the local crag to an alpine style ascent of an 8000 meter peak must understand: your safety is ultimately the responsibility of you as an individual (and any partners with whom you chose to share a rope)...period! Fixed lines seem to be at the center of the K2 controversy so I will use that as an example. Want to ensure they are fixed in the right place at the right time?...Fix them yourself. Want to rely on hired sherpas or another party to fix them, that is fine as well, I understand that is commonplace, it is 100% your decision. Just be prepared to accept the consequences of your decisions in any scenario and not assign blame to others.

2008-08-18 23:17:15

I respect the climbers who had the foresight to turn around when it was evident they were running late. No mountain is worth dying for.

2008-08-09 03:43:50

JUst try to be polite and respect the lost climbers

2008-08-08 18:52:03

One lesson is that too much reliance on fixed ropes can be disastrous. It sounds to me like most of the summit climbers didn't carry a rope (true?). When the avalanche took out the fixed lines, and they were unable or unwilling to downclimb the bottleneck, it was a death sentence (waiting for a rescue was not really a viable option at that altitude). I wonder if they had a rope whether they would have been able to make it down.

It is rather surprising to me that an avalanche taking out fixed lines hasn't caused problems before (at least this is the first instance I have heard of). I guess avalanches big enough to take out fixed lines aren't that common.

I heard in one report that the Dutch climber that survived went down the Cesen route. Why would he do that unless he had gone up that way?

2008-08-08 16:14:41

Great shot, Guy!

2008-08-08 15:47:50
Guy McCarthy

For other reports, including a Aug. 1 photo of the Bottleneck with climbers ascending, visit


2008-08-08 05:38:32
Guy McCarthy

2008-08-08 05:38:12

Nothing learned nothing gained, same old song and dance

2008-08-07 17:44:54

Relax everyone, hindsight's 20/20, and from the armchair I got this baby all figured out.

Is anyone interested in hearing my informed analysis?

2008-08-07 16:21:37

Exactly. Why don't you pipe down there bub.

2008-08-07 15:23:14
Rocky Mountain Punk

Hey Josh, Been to K2? Been to the Bottleneck? Know for a fact that it isn't customary to summit late in the evening due to customary location of camps on the mountain?

Basically, what the fuck do you know about it?

2008-08-07 12:56:42
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