Risking Rescue on K2
It looks like another epic mountaineering tragedy is coming to a close, this time on the fearsome peak of K2 (read the coverage by SALMAN MASOOD and TOM RACHMAN in today's NYTimes). While somewhat shorter than Mt. Everest, the Pakastani peak is considered by professional climbers to require far greater technical skill and to be far more dangerous.
This tragedy, comparable in scale to the 1996 storm on Everest made famous by John Krakauer's book, Into Thin Air was the product of capricious nature and predictable human nature. The human part was the drive of the many teams perched high on the mountain to take advantage of a break in the weather to summit the mountain. The large numbers of climbers produced a jam on the narrow and super steep pathway to the summit (actually known as the "bottleneck"), delaying the ascents so that many climbers were descending in near dark conditions (never a good idea at 26,000 feet).
Nature stepped in with the collapse of part of the ominous serac (an overhanging ice ledge) that hangs over the bottleneck. The ice swept several climbers directly to their deaths, and cut the "fixed lines", ropes put in place by climbing porters during the ascent which are vital to allow exhausted climbers to descend after reach the summit. Trapped on the top of the mountain, with no chance of descending, an unknown number of climbers huddled in weather of minus 40 degrees (F). Some clearly died during the night, a few survivors were helped down the next day by rescue climbers, but others, too injured had to wait for helicopter rescues that are very difficult to pull off. Nature again intervened as a snow storm wrapped the peak creating white-out conditions.
While the idea of risking your life to achieve a summit may seem to be the height of individualistic narcissism, I have long been inspired by the counter-balancing imperative to risk your life in the rescue of others that also characterizes high altitude mountaineering. (See my essay the moral hazards and opportunities of mountaineering, Jonathan Simon, Risking Rescue: High Altitude Rescue as Moral Risk and Moral Opportunity, in RISK AND MORALITY 375 (Richard Ericson & Aaron Doyle eds. University of Toronto Press, 2003)