Tuesday 24 April 2018

Review: Now Way Down by Graham Bowey

The last moments of an Irish climbing legend
Edel Coffey on a book that sheds new light on the 2008 K2 mountaineering tragedy

The climber on an expedition in Alaska
The climber on an expedition in Alaska

In 1909, Italian explorer Fillippo de Fillippi wrote in his expedition diary: "K2 is not to be climbed". A century on, K2 is still the most treacherous mountain in the world. Two years ago this weekend it claimed the lives of 11 climbers in a calamitous 48 hours -- among them 37-year-old Limerick man, Ger McDonnell.

In a new book, No Way Down, Graham Bowley paints a haunting picture of the chaos, the fear, and the extraordinary bravery of some of the climbers as they faced death on one of the planet's bleakest, most dangerous places.

Perched on the border of Pakistan and China in the Himalayas, K2 is the second-highest mountain in the world, but it is considered the deadliest by climbers. At 28,250ft, it is colder, steeper and more northerly than Everest and the fatality rate is three times higher.

On the morning of August 1, 2008, 10 international expedition teams, comprising Americans, Dutch, Koreans, Italians, Irish, French and Norwegians, hoped to reach the summit. It was one of the largest numbers ever to attempt to summit on the same day and the sheer number of climbers caused problems.

Early on, an ugly traffic jam built up at the part of the mountain called the Bottleneck. It led to the day's first fatality when Norwegian Cecilie Skog collided with a young Serbian, Dren Mandic, and plunged to his death.

That was just the beginning. Above the Bottleneck hung the serac, described in the book as a "frozen wave" -- 600ft tall and about half a mile long. "The glacier moved forward slowly year by year. When it reached a critical point, parts of the ice face collapsed, hurling chunks down the Bottleneck."

Due to the traffic jam, the climbers were late reaching the summit and so by the time they began their descent, the most dangerous part of the climb, darkness was falling.

As it grew later, Ger McDonnell and his co-climbers, Italian Marco Confortola and Dutchman Wilco van Rooijen, were clinging to their fixed lines (the ropes climbers use to guides them along the frozen side of the mountain) when the glacier they were on suddenly gave way, separating the groups, severing their fixed lines and cutting off the way down

In the darkness, with no fixed lines to guide them, they were forced to spend the night at 26,000 feet, the altitude at which the air is so thin it has a degenerative effect on the body and the mind. For this reason it is known by climbers as The Death Zone.

McDonnell and his team had no tents, sleeping bags or oxygen but they survived the night and at first light, they started looking for a way back to Base Camp.

Dutchman Van Rooijen knew they would die if they couldn't get down, and so took the decision to abseil over the edge of the mountain. On his way down, he came across a grisly find.

The book describes the terrible scene: "Three climbers were hanging from ropes against the smooth ice wall leading down from the glacier. They were tangled in two ropes, one of which was still attached to their harnesses. It was keeping them from falling to their deaths. They were beaten up and bloody and unrecognisable."

Further down was another man hanging upside down, then further down again a man who was upright. They were alive, but were slowly freezing to death.

Confortola and McDonnell followed after van Rooijend, and helped the injured climbers to a more comfortable position, even though it was risking their own lives.

The details of what happened next are a mystery. The accepted account is that McDonnell freed the injured climbers and was helping them descend when they were killed by an avalanche. There are photographs that suggest this, but

the figures are impossible to identify.

What is known is that McDonnell died a hero, helping to save fellow climbers at the cost of his own life.

It was not the first time he risked his life to help others. In 1999, he won an award for helping five exhausted climbers down Denali and in 2003 he helped an Everest climber back to camp.

What comes through in Bowley's book is just how popular McDonnell was. Bowley writes: "On your rest day, you got up later, drank coffee, had a laugh with Gerard McDonnell ... "

During bad weather at Base Camp, it was McDonnell who roused spirits. "Stepping forward into the silence, McDonnell sang a Gaelic ballad that moved some of the 50 climbers packed in the warm tent to tears."

The 37-year-old Limerick man moved to Baltimore in 1994, having won a visa, but three years on he hadn't settled and travelled to Alaska. He decided to stay.

He found work as an electronic engineer and met his partner, Annie Starkey. He was proud of his roots (the photograph of him on the summit of K2 shows him holding an Irish flag) and played the bodhran in an Irish band called Last Night's Fun.

On Everest, he shot a sliothar off the summit. His dream was to one day return to Ireland and start a mussel farm in Kerry.

Bowley describes McDonnell's funeral in Kilcornan, a candle in place of a coffin, and the sheer incomprehension on many faces in the crowd who had come to mourn him. They could not understand why anyone would put their life at such risk.

McDonnell's father died when Ger was 20. "On the summit of Everest in 2003, he ran his father's rosary beads through his fingers and later he said, 'I felt close to my dad up there'."

McDonnell was a loving son, calling his mother on Sundays. On his blog he posted: "One hears the glacier ache beneath and settle with the sound of distant gun shots at times."

His last blog entry reads, "Let luck and good fortune prevail!". He ended this post in his mother tongue: "Sin e anois a chairde. Ta an ta-am ag teacht."

No Way Down by Graham Bowley, Viking, €25.05

Irish Independent

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