No Way Down: Life and Death on K2

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Release Date: 
May 23, 2011
Harper Perennial
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It is known as the “Death Zone”—the part of a mountain that punches above 26,000 feet. Just 14 mountains on Earth reach these heights, forcing the climbers who summit them into the stratosphere, where terrifyingly thin air quickly saps strength and mental capacity.

“Bodies shut down,” as Graham Bowley writes in No Way Down: Life & Death on K2, a gripping account of a single weekend during which 11 climbers lost their lives on K2 after an unstable glacier gave way, cutting off their fixed lines, in August 2008. “You could no longer trust your own mind.”

At 28,250 feet, K2 is the world’s second-tallest mountain. It is considered a far more difficult climb than Everest, however: it is steeper and further north in the Himalayan Karakorum range, its weather is colder, and its storms are more unpredictable.

By the time eight international expeditions entered the Death Zone that weekend in 2008, just 278 climbers had ever made it to the summit. Thirty-six had died trying or on the descent.

“K2 is not to be climbed,” as Filippo de Filippi said following a 1909 Italian expedition.

And that, of course, is why so many mountaineers desire to climb it.

It also led Bowley to an interesting reaction when first assigned to this story by The New York Times in 2008. Why should we care? Why should we care about the cavalier behavior of 11 climbers who left their families to indulge in ultra-dangerous passions that led to their deaths?

As he engrossed himself in the events of that weekend, however, we learn that Bowley soon found himself under K2’s spell too. The “Savage Mountain,” as it is known, draws to it only the most driven, egocentric, and talented climbers. When the two meet, sparks fly.

Essentially, this is an epic (and gruesome) account of what went wrong after a throng of Norwegian, Dutch, Irish, Italian, Serbian, American, South Korean, Basque, and French climbers (as well as their various Sherpas) got stuck in “an ugly traffic jam” at a section of K2 known as the Bottleneck.

Bowley attempts to flesh out the climbers’ personalities, sketching their backgrounds and the decisions that led them to converge on K2 that August. And he intersperses these with historical flashbacks, evoking several attempts made on the mountain, including its eventual summiting in 1954.

The result reads very much like a record—as opposed to, say, the very personal narratives of Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void or Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. And at times, the judicious juggling of testimonies is as painstaking to read as it must have been to assemble.

For the most part, however, No Way Down is a suspenseful account, and certain passages—like the lead up to Norwegian climber Rolf Bae’s death in an avalanche—are riveting.

The first problem that weekend, we learn, is that too many climbers were tackling K2. When line-ups started to develop, stock should have been taken. But for some reason—the time and money invested, the weather window, the “kind of groupthink” that had set in—they went on.

Eventually, most of the climbers would reach the summit. “I’m feeling great,” as Irishman Gerard McDonnell told his girlfriend in Alaska, breaking the news by satellite phone. But it was already 8:00 P.M. by the time McDonnell and his Dutch-led expedition began their descent. Night was falling, temperatures dropping, and they weren’t even the last to leave.

Shortly afterward, a portion of the glacier (or “serac”) they had passed just hours beforehand gave way, slicing through the lifelines and spilling all over the Bottleneck. Some climbers toppled to their doom right there. Others, like McDonnell, were forced to bivouac (spend the night) in the Death Zone—at minus 20-degrees, with no tent, sleeping bags, food, drink, or oxygen.

A full-blown catastrophe began playing out, and Bowley readily admits that the exact details of what happens will always remain with K2. It is only in his epilogue, however, after some 210 pages of narrative, that we fully learn how contentious conflicting accounts have gotten.

The worst of these centers around McDonnell. Did he lose his life helping three stranded climbers, or did he wander off in the middle of a rescue attempt, apparently having lost his faculties, as a surviving climber, Marco Confortola, claims? Confortola tells Bowley that McDonnell succumbed to the conditions and walked away, while he alone remained to help the stricken men.

But Confortola “may have . . . exaggerated,” as Wilco Van Rooijen, leader of the expedition of which McDonnell was a member, tells Bowley. McDonnell’s family also contradicted Confortola’s account, unable to believe that he could have abandoned climbers in distress. They believe McDonnell freed the mountaineers and was descending behind them when another avalanche occurred.

If their account is true, as Bowley writes, McDonnell’s “could be one of the most selfless rescue attempts in the history of high-altitude mountaineering.” But could three rescued men really have begun descending K2 after hanging upside down for 24 hours?

And why would Confortola, the only surviving eyewitness, lie?

“I had expected a clear narrative,” Bowley writes, as the book draws to a close. “But I found myself in some postmodern fractured tale.”

Earlier in No Way Down, we hear of three rules that Rolf Bae enforced on his expeditions. One: Get home. Two: Stay friends. Three: Reach your goal.

On K2, as Bae and 10 others found out that day, there simply are no rules.