Joy at McDonnell’s achievement in reaching the summit of a peak steeper and considered much tougher to climb than Everest soon turned to grief as news of the tragedy unfolded.
McDonnell’s group and climbers from a different expedition joined forces when weather enabled an assault on the 28,250 foot summit late on Friday.
A huge chunk of ice fell after the group had conquered the peak, which is believed to have torn away fixed ropes set by the climbers to help their descent.
Some fell to their deaths while trying to get back to a camp below, while others stranded without ropes had no chance of survival or rescue in one of the most inhospitable places on earth, with reduced oxygen at high altitude and freezing temperatures.
The area where those were stranded was above a gully known as the “Bottleneck.” it is too high for helicopters, it being at an altitude where only jetliners fly.
Dutch expedition leader Wilco van Rooijen, who survived the mountain’s worst ever tragedy, said that pandemonium struck. He saw people hanging by ropes and others falling off the mountain.
“The biggest mistake we made was that we tried to make agreements [between different expeditions],” the forty-year old leader of McDonnell’s group told news agencies from his hospital bed in the Pakistani town of Skardu.
“Everybody had his own responsibilities and then some people did not do what they promised. With such stupid things, lives are endangered,” he said.
The mountaineer, on his third attempt to conquer K2, said that panic broke out and people began fending for themselves rather than working as a team.
“Everybody was fighting for himself and I still do not understand why everybody was leaving each other. I didn’t have time to start discussion, the only thing I had to do was to go down because if you go down you have more oxygen, you have more chance to survive,” he said.
Unconfirmed reports say one climber saw McDonnell fall from the mountain, but it is unclear if he was hit by the block of ice or fell while trying to descend without ropes which were broken or swept away in the icefall.
McDonnell was a computer engineer working as a programmer/analyst for Glacier Services Inc. in the oil industry and was based in Anchorage, Alaska for the past ten years. He had moved to Alaska to help develop his climbing skills, and was well known among the Irish community and in Irish cultural circles there.
While McDonnell was waiting for the weather to improve before his final assault on K2, his long-term partner, Annie Starkey, herself a world-class climber, ascended to the top of Alaska’s Mount McKinley/Denali, from where McDonnell had played the bodhr_n in 2006 after he had made it to the top.
He called her by satellite phone to break the news that he had become the first Irishman to reach the summit of K2, just before tragedy struck.
Annie and a brother of McDonnell are expected to make their way to Pakistan this week to speak to survivors of the expedition team. Friend and fellow-climber Pat Falvey said it would be hoped to get a debriefing to try to help piece together what happened.
“We have asked the Dutch team to gather statements so we can put together the puzzle of who fell where and how,” said Falvey.
There is little hope of recovering the body, as any rescue attempt would itself risk further death, and the area at the top of the mountain is inaccessible to helicopters.
McDonnell played in a band in Anchorage, “Last Night’s Fun,” named after a traditional reel. The day after he reached K2 but was reported missing, the band played in his honor at the annual Galway Days celebration in Anchorage, the Anchorage Daily News reported.
According to the newspaper, fellow band-member John Walsh said the McDonnell family in Ireland were planning a memorial on August 17th, but that no plans had yet been made for a similar event in Anchorage.
McDonnell was one of Ireland’s most experienced climbers and adventurers. He had conquered Mount Everest in 2003 and had traveled to the South Pole. He was injured in a rock fall during a previous attempt to climb K2 in 2006.
According to the Anchorage Daily News, McDonnell had reached the summits of McKinley, Foraker and a number of other Alaska mountains and in 1999 was nominated for the Denali Pin, an award given to mountaineers who perform acts of heroism on Mount McKinley. “He and fellow climber Mike Mays guided five fatigued climbers, including one with snow blindness, down from the summit ridge in rapidly deteriorating weather, according to the National Park Service,” the paper reported.
His parish in Kilcornan, where he is survived by his mother and siblings, has been in mourning since the news that followed the brief joy that had greeted news of his ascent to the summit of the world’s most treacherous mountain.
Tributes in Ireland were led by President Mary McAleese who had met the climber previously.
“My thoughts today are with the McDonnell family as they come to terms with their great loss. Following so closely on their righteous pride, and that of the country, at Gerard becoming the first Irish person to scale K2, it is truly heartbreaking that they must now contemplate the loss of a beloved son and brother,” McAleese said in a statement.