Courage on K2: Part 2

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An interview with the Norwegian team

*These interviews are a continuation of the article “Courage on K2” (No. 270, October 2008), which detailed the events of August 1-2, 2008, when 11 people were killed by icefall, avalanches, falls, and causes unknown on the upper reaches of K2, the world’s second highest mountain.

On August 1, around 5:20 p.m., Cecilie Skog and her teammate Lars Nessa reached the top of K2 (28,251 feet), becoming the first Norwegians to summit the legendary mountain. Skog’s husband, Rolf Bae, made it to within 100 meters of the top but, because of the late hour, chose to descend with Skog and Nessa. On the way down, catastrophe struck, and icefall from a serac swept away Bae, as well as the fixed lines. Nessa and Skog—who witnessed the accident—then had to find a safe way down a narrow couloir called the Bottleneck and back to Camp 4, at about 25,000 feet.

Skog, 34, is a very accomplished mountaineer and endurance athlete. Along with climbing such 8,000-meter peaks as Shisha Pangma and Cho Oyu, she is the only woman to have completed the Explorer’s Grand Slam (completing all Seven Summits and reaching the North and South poles). We spoke with Bjørn Sekkesæter, Skog’s manager for the last five years. He spoke on her behalf, as Skog was not ready yet to speak publicly about the tragedy.

The Norwegian team was one of the few groups not using high-altitude porters (HAPs) or Sherpas. Why did they choose not to hire porters?

Three of the four Norwegians on the team had been on K2 in 2005. Based on their experiences from the 2005 attempt, they decided not to use HAPs or Sherpas because they felt it would be possible to do the work themselves in cooperation with other expeditions in the same situation. So they ended up working together with the Americans and Koreans, helping each other build camps and fix lines.

What was the morning of August 1 like?

They left high camp [Camp 4] at 3 a.m. and, quite early on, understood something was wrong. They found ropes where they didn’t expect them. The ropes had been laid at the beginning of the shoulder. They didn’t want to blame anyone, though. When they reached the end of the fixed ropes, they went down and helped establish them higher up. That cost them about two to three hours.

Around 11 a.m., the Serbian Dren Mandic fell. Do you know what happened?

The Serbian was ahead of the Norwegians. He was trying to pass some people. He unclipped from the fixed lines, tripped, and fell, and in short time, he was falling without control. He came to a stop farther down the slope, and it looked like he had survived because he waved to the people above. After that, the Norwegians didn’t see what happened because they continued up together with the others, but we have heard that he tried to stand up and then fell farther down.

After Mandic’s death, did people debate whether they should continue upward?

There wasn’t a big debate about continuing to the summit, because there was nothing that could be done for him. The Serbian team was handling the recovery of the body. However, some people turned back because of the problems with the fixed lines, or because they ran out of oxygen quite early. When the Norwegians reached the top of the fixed lines, one of them, Øystein [Stangeland], decided to return to high camp. He didn’t feel this was his day. It takes a lot of courage to return down when the summit is in reach, instead of keeping going.

How did Skog feel during the ascent?

Very good. She hardly used any of her oxygen. In fact, on the way up to the summit, she left some oxygen on the route for her husband.

Tell me about the descent.

Lars and Cecilie summited around 5:30 p.m. When they left the top around 6 p.m., they were the second and third to start on the descent that day. Rolf was 50 to 100 vertical meters below the top, and Cecilie and Lars met him after some 20 minutes on their way down. He decided to head down with Cecilie and Lars because he felt the Norwegian mission had been accomplished. On the way down, they reached the top of the fixed ropes above the Bottleneck. Before Rolf started abseiling, he told Lars to look after his wife. At this time, it was still light, but it gradually became darker. They came to an icy traverse near the top of the Bottleneck.

Rolf was the first to abseil, and Cecilie came second. When she reached the traverse, she saw that Rolf was 50 to 100 meters ahead of her. After a few meters, she reached a stance with ice screws. Then something happened. Cecilie felt the rope pull and the ground vibrate. She looked over, and Rolf’s headlamp light was gone. When Lars came down after a while, they both understood what had happened to Rolf.

The icefall also swept away the fixed ropes. Cecilie had carried an extra 100-meter Kevlar rope. She and Lars used it to abseil down the rocky part on the left side of the Bottleneck. They didn’t continue on the traverse. They left the rope and hoped other climbers above would find it and use it. They reached high camp around 11 p.m.

After the loss of Bae, how did Cecilie manage to stay calm enough to descend without the fixed ropes?

She hasn’t said much about this to me, but one thing she did say was that Lars was acting like a rock—taking care of her like Rolf had asked him to do. Plus, both Cecilie and Lars understood what needed to be done. I can only imagine how she felt.

When did Skog and Bae marry?

They married on May 12, 2007.

With a total of 11 people dead, this accident has stirred up tremendous controversy. Many people are blaming inadequate equipment, inexperienced climbers, and late-in-the-day top-outs. What is the stance of the Norwegian team?

The Norwegians don’t blame anyone. They see it as a terrible accident and don’t feel any rage. It was just pure bad luck. Rolf had always dreamed of K2. He just was at the right place at the wrong time.

Would Cecilie ever go back to K2?

Speaking for myself only, I think Cecilie is finished with high mountains. She’s had enough. But you never know what will happen one to two years from now. It’s only been a few weeks since the accident.

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