Deadly Success: ‘The Summit’ On the 2008 K2 Disaster

Anatomies of disasters always provoke the most detailed of analyses for understandable reasons: as the hoary proverb has it, success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan. Disclaimers of paternity are thus to be expected when ugly offspring makes their appearance. In Nick Ryan‘s The Summit, the story of the deadliest day–1 August 2008–on the Savage Mountain, K2, the world’s second-highest peak, some blame is assigned for the deaths of eleven mountaineers, but it is understood to be an incomplete and ultimately impossible task.  Many details remain buried–like the bodies of some of those who died that fateful night–on K2’s icy slopes.

The bare particulars of the 2008 disaster remain staggering: eighteen climbers reached K2’s summit on 1 August 2008, but only eleven made it safely back down to lower camps. A closer look at their “success” shows what went wrong. Because they had started late from Camp Four–thanks to poor organization–and climbed slowly because of the crowding on the fixed ropes on the final climb up the Bottleneck and the traverse above it,  most climbers reached the top late in the day, too late to make a safe descent. Shockingly, the last climber to make it to the summit reached it at eight pm. Every “successful” climber that day seemed to have committed to increasing the danger of his or her descent–already perilous because of their exhaustion–by doing it in darkness. Some would choose to bivouac, opting to brave the extreme cold (minus forty degrees Fahrenheit) instead of taking the chance of walking off one of the many knife-edges of the mountain.

Murphy’s Law is operative everywhere, even on mountains well above sea-level. This is because nature refuses to co-operate with human plans. On the descent, an ice-fall killed one mountaineer–ironically, someone who had already chosen to give up his plans for the ascent–and destroyed the fixed-rope the descending  climbers intended to use. Their climb down, now using ice-axes, became perilous and indeed, deadly. Later, avalanches struck, sweeping some, and those sent to rescue them, to death. One disaster followed another in unrelenting fashion. The shift from the euphoria of the multiple summit attainments to the gloom of the mounting death toll is a stark one and The Summit captures it well.

As in war and its battles, a fog of confusion hangs over all events: Who did what and when? Who gets a medal? Who is to be condemned? The Summit indicates several possible answers: the inexperience of some of the climbers who lacked the skills to get down a slope of only moderate difficulty without using fixed ropes; the outsourcing of critical tasks to others; and so on. But more than anything else, it is ambition that is deadly: the terrible, unrelenting voice in a climber’s head that urges him to keep on heading up, away from safety, toward the dimly visible top, even as the light dims and the sun begins its downward journey. Turning back is never easy for a mountaineer; The Summit shows that developing the seventh sense required to crucially adjudicate between cases of premature abandonment and judicious ones might be the most critical skill for one.

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