Family mourns loss of K2 climber
THE family of a mountaineer killed on the world's most-dangerous mountain -- just hours after becoming the first Irishman to scale its heights -- were last night trying to come to terms with his death.
Gerard McDonnell (37) is believed to have been in the first group of three climbers that was swept off K2 mountain by a serac, or avalanche of ice, as a 17-strong party descended the mountain on Saturday, in an area known as "the bottleneck".
Catastrophe struck in the early hours of Saturday, when a chunk of ice broke from the serac and tore away fixed lines from a steep gully known as the Bottleneck, above 8,200m. Several expeditions were on the mountain at the time, including a Korean team that was making its descent after reaching the peak on Pakistan's border with China. The Korean group lost five members, including the two Nepalese.
When the fixed ropes were swept away, the survivors were left stranded over 8,000m high on the mountain, a level described by mountaineers as the "death zone", because the amount of oxygen cannot sustain human life.
They later made a desperate attempt to descend the mountain, but nine of the group, including Mr McDonnell, are feared dead, while several more climbers are missing.
It is unlikely that their bodies will ever be recovered from the mountain.
"We are extremely proud of the many heroic and brave achievements of our son and brother, Gerard," his brother-in-law, Damien O'Brien, said yesterday, reading out a statement on behalf of the family, near their home in Kilcornan, Limerick.
"He brought honour, not only to us, his family, but the whole country, when he became the first Irishman to summit K2 on Friday.
"The last few days have been a rollercoaster of emotions as we celebrated with joy his historic achievement, and now must try to come to terms with the untimely loss of a great son, brother and friend."
Mr McDonnell, an engineer who lived in Alaska with his partner Annie, was a hugely experienced climber, and veteran mountaineer Pat Falvey said that conditions to climb K2 on Friday were perfect.
"Mr McDonnell had climbed Everest in 2003 but was unsuccessful during an attempt on K2 in 2006."
"I was on numerous expeditions with Ger and he was one of the best climbers in the world," Mr Falvey said. "He was safe, fast and strong, but that isn't anything in the face of nature."
Mr Falvey said it was an "act of God" and it "couldn't be predicted" that the serac would break loose, just hours after the group had reached the peak of the second-highest mountain in the world.
Three climbers were seen to be swept off the mountain by the serac, with another five reported missing, and the remainder of the group were stranded above the bottleneck.
With no possible way of descent in the dark, they remained on the mountain overnight before two managed to free-climb down past the treacherous terrain.
However, they were unable to mount a rescue for the rest of the group because of extreme tiredness, which led to a number of desperate descent attempts later on Saturday.
Although details remain unconfirmed, it is understood that seven of the initial 17-strong party were safe last night and attempting to descend the mountain from various camps.
They included Dutch team leader Wilco Van Rooijen -- who survived three night's exposure on the mountain, a feat of incredible human endurance -- Italian Marco Confortola, and Spaniard Alberto Zerain.
"Gerard's love of mountain climbing was surpassed only by his love for his family and friends," Mr O'Brien said.
"Our thoughts are with his long-time girlfriend Annie in his adopted home of Alaska, where he lived for the last 11 years."
President Mary McAleese, who met Mr McDonnell after he travelled to the South Pole, said her thoughts were with his family.
Pat Falvey pays tribute to heroic adventurer: page 21