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Ger McDonnell reaches the summit of K2 Damien O'Brien

Column I had to squash the rumours about Ger’s death on K2

Damien O’Brien is the brother-in-law of Irish climber Ger McDonnell, who died on the slopes of K2. Here he explains why he had to investigate the full story of Ger’s final climb.

Ger McDonnell was the first Irishman to conquer K2. But a few hours after his triumphant achievement in 2008, McDonnell died on the mountain. His death and the exact happenings that took place on the treacherous mountain have been shrouded in mystery.

Damien O’Brien, husband to McDonnell’s sister, has written a new book about his brother-in-law’s tragic death. Here he gives an insight into the man McDonnell was and what happened on that tragic expedition.

GER WAS A fantastic person. The glass was always half full with him – he was the kind of guy that when he walked into a room he lit it up with his fantastic smile. He was a brilliant character – he was kind and caring and that is something about him that will always stick out for me.

There are a couple of reasons I wanted to write his story. I wanted to get the truth out about what happened to Ger. There have been a lot of conflicting stories out there which have been upsetting for the family to read.  I always felt that it was very important to get the truth out and to clarify what Ger did on that expedition. I wanted to squash any rumours there were that he just walked away and left climbers behind.

Ger had a history of saving people on the mountains on different expeditions over the years – it would have been out of  character for him to do nothing.

Ger was an experienced climber. He had attempted to climb K2 before but had to be airlifted off the mountain due to a rock fall. It was always a goal for him to get to the summit of K2 – he always felt he was strong enough to do it. K2 is not the highest mountain in the world, but it is the most difficult.

‘In their minds they were still hoping that Ger might still be alive’

To investigate Ger’s story I travelled to Islamabad in Pakistan, where K2 is on the boarder between Pakistan and China. I travelled there shortly after Ger died. I spoke with nearly every one of the climbers that was on the mountain.

I think it was difficult for Ger’s older brother and my wife, who came with me on the trip. In their minds they were still hoping that Ger might still be alive. They had only got third-hand information at that stage – they didn’t know the facts. So they thought that maybe there could have been a chance that someone had gotten something wrong.

But when we sat down with the Sherpa that was on the mountain and when we heard about what he had seen and heard – we knew that it was confirmation enough that Ger was dead. We had to hear it first hand, because if we didn’t, it would always be in the back of our minds.

What was difficult for the family was walking through the airport when we were going home for the last time, knowing that this was probably the last airport that Ger would have walked through.

Ger had reached the K2 summit at seven o’clock in the evening on August 1. There had been serious problems on the expedition. There were six lines placed in the wrong place and a Serbian climber had unclipped himself from the rope and fallen to his death. All this had happened previously, but when they got to the summit… I have seen video footage from it from other climbers. It seems like the most amazing experience for them.

‘It would have been extremely cold in the death zone’

If you look at the picture of Ger, the weather is beautiful, the sun was shining, there’s a blue sky and Ger is holding the tricolour over his head. He looks like the happiest man in the world. But what they didn’t realise on the way down is that it was beginning to get dark, there had been a series of avalanches and serac falls, which are like glaciers of ice falling.

They had  cut away all the ropes that had been laid out for them meaning they had no clear ropes to get them back down. The climbers couldn’t find the fixed ropes.  Ger and an Italian climber, Marco Confortola, decided their best bet was to dig in some holes in the snow and stay there until first light.

It would have been extremely cold in the death zone where they were.  If you fall asleep in the death zone the chances are you will never get back up. You just have to stay awake – so they were singing songs to each other and trying to keep each other awake and come 4.40am, when it was first light, they got up and started to move.

As they got down to another section of the mountain they came across three Korean climbers that were tangled in their ropes. They were still attached to some of the lines that had not been taken away by the falls, so they were hanging upside down and they had been there for some time. The first climber on the rope was in a very bad way. Marco and Ger did as much as they could to help them.

What people have to understand it is not as easy as it seems, you can’t just cut them down and set them free, there was a 70 ft incline on this area of the mountain. If they had just cut the rope they would have just dropped to their deaths. Marco said after over three hours of trying to help them he felt he could do no more – he left  but Ger decided to ascend back up to try and make some further adjustments to the lines to try to help the Koreans.

‘Marco and Ger did as much as they could to help them’

Marco said he called up to Ger but heard no answer. What we believe Ger did after that was that he ascended and did a manoeuvre known as transferring the load – which is where you have to go up to the fixed point and you have to create a second anchor point and transfer some of ropes over to the other ones. It is the most daring rope technique but Ger had been trained for it when he lived in Alaska.

He would have have thought that this was the only way of getting these guys down off the mountain. What people have to remember about Ger was that he was never going to leave these guys.

Meanwhile in camp four, the leader of the Korean team was trying to look for some Sherpas, to conduct a rescue mission. Two Sherpas ascended up the mountain and  they came across a climber which turned out to be Marco, flat out in the snow. They administered oxygen to him and he regained consciousness again.

When they were in contact with people at camp four they said that on their way back down they had rendezvoused with the Korean climbers and that another climber in a red and black suit was coming down behind them. That meant that we knew they had been freed. But sadly they said that an avalanche had taken the lives of the men they saw – Ger’s life and that of the Koreans were lost. The only one that had a red and black suit was Ger.

This book is essentially about Ger’s life – 40 per cent of the book Ger tells his own story through his notes and books. That was the thing about Ger, he was a high altitude climber. He didn’t make money out of climbing. He did it for the love of it.

The Time Has Come – Ger McDonnell: His Life and His Death on K2 is written by Damien O’Brien and published by Collins Press.

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