Tuesday 20 November 2018

Family seek explanation for what went wrong

Colm Kelpie and  Jason O'Brien

THE partner and brother of mountaineer Gerard McDonnell will fly to Pakistan later this week to meet the leader of the ill-fated K2 expedition and try to piece together the Irishman's last moments on the mountain.

Mr McDonnell (37), from Kilcornan, Co Limerick, was one of 11 mountaineers who died following an ice avalanche in the early hours of Saturday morning as they descended from the summit.

He had become the first Irish person to scale the 8,611-metre K2 mountain.

Annie Starkey, Mr McDonnell's partner, is currently travelling from the couple's home in Alaska to Limerick to meet with his family. She is expected to travel on to Islamabad on Thursday or Friday with Mr McDonnell's brother, JJ.

Adventurer and family friend Pat Falvey said a meeting was being arranged in the Pakistani capital Islamabad for JJ and Ms Starky.

"Our thing at the moment is that some family members will be going to Pakistan hoping to meet up with the expedition leader of Ger's team, Wilco Van Rooijen," he said.

"Arrangements will be made to have a debriefing session, hopefully in Islamabad.

"We have asked the Dutch team to gather statements so we can put together the puzzle of who fell where and how, and which climbers were with each other."

Avalanche

It is understood that one mountaineer saw Mr McDonnell fall from K2, but it has not been confirmed if he was swept off when the serac -- a pillar or column of ice -- broke loose and created an avalanche or if he fell while trying to free-climb down because the serac had torn away the fixed climbing lines.

Mr Falvey said Mr McDonnell's belongings from base camp are being packed to be returned to his family in Ireland. Preparations for a memorial service for Mr McDonnell, whose body is not expected to be found, are under way.

"The family are holding up well and are very proud of Ger's achievement and are still in total shock in relation to the fact that he may not be coming back," Mr Falvey said.

"At high altitude, at over 8,000 metres, it is too dangerous to mount a rescue to have the bodies returned."

Missing

Pakistani authorities yesterday confirmed that 11 climbers were dead, but rescuers were unsure whether anyone else was missing. Among the dead were three Koreans, two Nepalis, two Pakistani high altitude porters, climbers from France, Serbia and Norway, and Mr McDonnell.

Tributes were paid to Mr McDonnell -- who had been working in Alaska as an oil company engineer for the past 10 years -- by President Mary McAleese and Arts Minister Martin Cullen yesterday.

Ms McAleese, who personally met Mr McDonnell earlier this year following a previous expedition to the South Pole, expressed her sympathies at the "truly heartbreaking" events.

Postings on Irish website forums paid tribute to Mr McDonnell yesterday, calling him one of the country's greatest ever climbers.

One, on munsterfans.com, hailed him as "one of Limerick's great unheralded sons".

It added: "Been following his progress on various mountains for about five years and this news is incredibly saddening."

Another said: "Just off to Mass. Will light a candle."

Mr McDonnell took a hurley with him when he climbed Everest in 2003, returning afterwards to a hero's welcome at Cork Airport.

Known to his friends as Ger, Mr McDonnell was forced to abandon an earlier attempt to climb K2 in 2006 when he was hit by a rock and was airlifted to hospital.

His family attended a special Mass on Sunday and will hold a memorial service for the engineer when his partner and brother have returned from Pakistan.

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