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The Spanish Version of the K2 Tragedy

The Spanish Version of the K2 Tragedy

by Xavier Eguskitza

Based on the statements provided and corroborated by JOSÉ GARCÉS

and LORENZO ORTAS, August 27, 1995

A seven-strong expedition from the Spanish region of Aragón was formed by leader José (Pepe) Garcés (38), Javier Olivar (38) and Manuel Ansón (32), members of the “Montañeros de Aragon” Club from Zaragoza; and Javier Escartín (46), Lorenzo Ortas (42), Lorenzo Ortiz (29) and Dr. Manuel Avellanas (42), from the Peña Guara Club of Huesca. All of them, with the exception of Ansón, had previous Himalayan experience and between them had reached the summits of Hidden Peak by a new route in 1983 (Escartín and Ortas), Everest in 1991 (Garcés) and Nanga Parbat in 1991 (Ortiz).

The team set out to climb K2 by the South-Southeast Spur, a route that had only been completed in 1994, by a Basque team. The South-Southeast Spur forms part of the south face, to the left of the Abruzzi Ridge, with which it connects at the southeast shoulder of the mountain. From this point the route is common with the Abruzzi Ridge.

Using traditional methods, they set up Camp 1 (5600 meters) on July 3, followed by Camp 2 (6600 meters) on July 15, and a provisional cache at the site of Camp 3 a couple of days later. After a long spell of bad weather, they launched the first attempt toward the end of July. On August 1, they pitched Camp 3 (7100 meters) and continued to around 7400 meters, but were forced back by bad weather on August 3.

After another prolonged period of bad weather, all six climbers (but not the doctor) started from Base Camp at 9 p.m. on August 9 for the final attempt. They split up in two groups during the ascent, eventually to be reunited at Camp 3 (7100 meters) on August 11. Not feeling strong enough for the final attempt, Ansón descended to Base Camp.

Saturday 12 August

Climbing through the night, the five Spanish climbers surmounted the shoulder and set up Camp 4 (7950 meters) at dawn on August 12. Then, at about 10 a.m., they received a visit from five climbers who had walked up via the Abruzzi Ridge. They had come up in order to afford a better view of the upper slopes. They were members of two expeditions: American leader Rob Slater and British climber Alison Hargreaves, who were the only remaining members from a seven-strong American expedition; and three members of the New Zealand-Australia expedition, including leader Peter Hillary and Kim Logan. The Spaniards guessed that Slater and Hargreaves (if not the others as well) must have spent the previous night at their Camp 4, since they had been climbing the Abruzzi Ridge ahead of the New Zealand team. The weather was fine, with the usual clouds touching the mountain here and there, but looking settled, just as in previous days.

In view of the favorable conditions, they all arranged for a joint attempt to start the following day at midnight. Then, at about 2 p.m., the visiting group descended to their lower camp and the Spaniards managed to get some sleep.

Sunday 13 August

At midnight, Ortiz, Olivar, Escatin and Garcés left camp for the summit, assuming that the English-speaking group would join them later. Not feeling well enough for the attempt, Ortas had decided to remain at Camp 4, waiting for the return of his companions.

About one hour later, Slater, Hargreaves and New Zealander Bruce Grant went past Ortas’s tent and kept on, eventually catching up with the Spaniards before the so-called “Bottleneck.”

Later in the morning, but before dawn, some members of the New Zealand team arrived at Ortas’s tent and Hillary asked him permission to use the Spaniards’ spare tent in order to warm up a little. At this stage, Ortas did not see how many more men there were in his group, but later it transpired that it must have only been Canadian Jeff Lakes, since Grant was marching in front, Logan had gone back to their Camp 4 soon after leaving it, and the last member of the team, Matt Comeskey, had remained at the same camp.

In the meantime, Garcés, suffering from cold feet, had turned back, long before the Bottleneck. Soon he met Slater, Hargreaves and Grant on their way up and, just at dawn, returned to Camp 4 where Ortas suggested he enter his tent, as the other one was occupied by Hillary and Lakes.

Being inside their tent, the two Spaniards did not see Lakes leaving, but saw Hillary setting out some time between 9 and 10 a.m. They got the impression that he had no intention of pushing toward the summit, but rather that he wanted to obtain a few snaps of the Bottleneck area. Although possible, they doubt very much that he could have reached the foot of the Bottleneck in time to have a shouted conversation with the six climbers in front.

Much later, probably in the afternoon, Hillary returned to their tent and asked permission to let him use their radio, which they did. He then sent a message in English, which the Spaniards did not understand. They also remember the return of Lakes, who looked rather tired. They gave him something to drink before he proceeded down toward the Abruzzi Ridge.

The weather at this stage was no different than the previous day, with the usual build-up of daily clouds temporarily enveloping various parts of the mountain, but clear on the far Chinese horizon and perfectly windless.

Of the three Spaniards who, together with Grant, Hargreaves and Slater, were heading for the summit, Ortiz was carrying a portable radio, and several messages were exchanged between him, Base Camp (Ansón-Avellanas) and Camp 4 (Garcés-Hortas). On overcoming the Bottleneck (8300 meters), he said that all six climbers had made use of a Catalan rope in the lower part, an older rope in the middle section and a red Dutch rope in the upper area (Catalans and Dutchmen had visited this area earlier in the season). On arrival at the site of the so-called “triangular rock” (8400 meters?), they sent another message and this time Ortas confirmed to them the right time, which was 11:45 a.m.

Much later, a call was received at about 6 p.m., when Ortiz said that he and Grant had been the first to reach the summit. Soon after 6:30 p.m., another call was received and now it was Olivar speaking, who said that he had arrived at the summit with Hargreaves and added that Escartín and Slater were very near the top, coming up slowly. He said it was extremely cold, but windless at the time, and that all four at the summit were, in view of the late hour, about to start the descent, rather than wait for the last two. The two, they felt, would surely reach the summit. No more calls were received after this.

Some time between 8 and 9 p.m., a hurricane-force wind hit Camp 4, occupied by the waiting Spaniards. In their opinion, it was a dry type of wind blowing from the north (China), with no precipitation at all, the sort of wind that repels the monsoon storms to the south and, eventually, clears the range of clouds, leaving crystal-clear skies.

Soon after the first gusts, Garcés’s tent started to skid, and was just about to be blown away. Ortas, from the outside, tried desperately to stop it with his bare hands until Garcés managed to jump out just in time. He then joined his companion in the remaining tent, the back canvas of which they cut open to let the air pass through, offering less resistance to the wind. But later, at about 11 p.m., they had to abandon this tent too, and were forced to try to find shelter from the wind by lying against the bases of the blown- away tents, waiting for dawn to come.

Monday 14 August

At first light the wind had dropped and, after warming up for a while in the sun, the two Spaniards, by now suffering from frostbite to their hands and feet, started the descent at about 8 a.m. down their route of the South- Southeast Spur.

At about 4 p.m., when they had descended to around 7400 meters, they spotted some clothing items well to the right of their line of descent. Ortas deviated to have a look and found first an empty boot which, due to the unique heating device that was attached to it, he instantly recognized as belonging to Alison Hargreaves (only two days before, at Camp 4, Alison had shown him this contrivance, which was connected to a small battery that she was carrying inside her clothes). Some three meters below the boot there was an anorak and, inside it, a black harness that had a “Diamond” ascender attached to it. The anorak was of a dark violet color with a motif of small flowers, which he also recognized as belonging to Alison. Both the anorak and especially the harness were heavily stained with blood. Looking up the gully, strewn with rocks at the point where these items were lying, he could distinguish three distinctive tracks running well-separated and parallel to each other and coming down from a long way above. Along the three tracks the snow was bloodstained and he concluded that three bodies must have fallen from above, bumping amongst the high rocks and sliding down the gully. Judging by the upper direction of the tracks, he estimated that the bodies must have fallen from the summit ridge at a height of around 8500 meters, a long way before the traverse that leads down to the Bottleneck.

Ortas, then, picked up the harness with the idea of sending it to Alison’s husband (he later experienced some difficulties during the descent and had to abandon it). He proceeded down the left edge of the gully and, after descending a certain stretch, discovered from a distance a body that was lying in a hollowed, rather flat large area, at the edge of a line of seracs that are a very prominent feature of the South Face.

The body was about level with Camp 3 (7100 meters), but some 300 yards distant and, due to intervening terrain, not visible from it. He guessed that the body had to be Alison’s, and this impression was confirmed by the fact that it had red clothing over the entire body, which he remembered she had been wearing under the anorak. He saw no traces of a recent avalanche and guessed that Alison and the other two bodies must have been blown off the upper ridge by the strong winds that had been blowing from the north the day before.

He looked hard, trying to discover more bodies in that area, as he had his compatriots in mind. But nothing at all could be seen, and he accepts the possibility that the two missing bodies might have bounced over the line of seracs down the south face and out of sight.

Once reunited with Garcés he told him of his findings, and they decided to continue their descent to Camp 3, from where they would try to reach Alison’s body and bury it. Camp 3 was not well-equipped since all the gear and provisions had been carried to Camp 4 by the climbers on their way up (and all this had been lost with the wind). On arriving at this camp the two Spaniards realized that they desperately needed to reach Camp 2 (6600 meters) which they knew was well-supplied. It was getting late and they abandoned the idea of burying the body and continued down. At about 10 p.m. they reached the safety of Camp 2, where they spent the night getting plenty of drink and a little food.

Tuesday 15 August

Being in radio contact with Base Camp, they resumed the descent at about 7 a.m. and soon Garcés, who was the fitter of the two, went ahead while Ansón was coming up from Base Camp to help Ortas down. Eventually, Garcés reached Base Camp at about 6 p.m. and the other two some three hours later. There they learned of the fate suffered by Canadian Jeff Lakes and the details of the New Zealanders’ retreat down the Abruzzi Ridge.

Wednesday 16 August

The New Zealanders had gone to the camp of the American Broad Peak expedition and, with the leader of that expedition, Scott Fischer, had scanned the face of K2 with the help of a telescope in the hope of finding signs of the missing climbers. Unfortunately, their search ended with negative result. The news was then released by Hillary to the outside world.

(Garcés and Ortas, along with their doctor, Dr. Avellanas, were flown out of Base Camp on Saturday, August 19. Back home in Spain they were examined in the hospital, and now face minor amputation to some fingers and toes.)