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Lessons from K2?

The accident on K2 puts me in mind of 1996 on Everest: almost in real-time, updates and half-developed accounts splashed across the front pages of publications and news channels that otherwise ignore the climbing world. As the chaos of the disaster begins to fade out, questions are starting to arise–Why did this happen? What series of events led to the deadliest accident that K2 has ever seen? Perhaps the most haunting question is, to what extent could the accident have been avoided?

K2 is a beautiful and terrible peak; one that deserves the gravest respect, as this past week has shown us. It seems that the respect to which it is entitled fell by the wayside in the lead-up to the avalanche on August first. I’ve read that the ropes weren’t set properly through the Bottleneck. As far as I can figure, there are two possible explanations for this inadequate safety measure: ignorance or laziness. If a team does not have enough experience to know how to safely and properly fix lines, they simply do not belong on K2. Moreover, setting lines in a half-hearted manner is in no way acknowledging the strength and unpredictability of nature, as we have seen.

Continuing towards the summit in the late evening demonstrates the same ignorance or blatant disregard for the mountain. Why were summits being made as late as 8 o’clock? Have climbers learned nothing from those that have perished atop Everest and other mountains? Unequivocally–summit fever kills. While there are clearly significant differences between the 1996 disaster on Everest and this past week’s tragedy on K2, some of the similarities are hauntingly similar. Late summits, poor communication, traffic jams in dangerous spots, and a loss of perspective on the absolute consequences of making mistakes at altitude–when Mother Nature tosses a surprise into that mix, it gets serious. Fast.

While I extend my sincerest condolences to the family and friends of those lost on K2, I think it is important for mountaineers to reflect on what went wrong and what lessons can possibly be gleaned from this tragedy. After all, you know what they say about those who fail to learn from history.