Climbers Left Each Other on Icy Mountain

Marco Confortola was the toughest man on the mountain.

The Italian mountaineer survived an avalanche, murderous weather, bad planning and panic that killed 11 other climbers and left him stranded on the second-highest mountain in the world.

The mountain known as K2 is a daunting climb into a world of ice and jagged peaks. The mountain backed up its treacherous reputation this week by sweeping three climbers off its face with an avalanche of ice.

Others succumbed in the "Death Zone," an area so high, so cold and so forlorn that it turns hands, feet and faces black before turning breath into ice.

Left in that icy hell, Confortola, 37, slowly struggled down for four days on feet swollen and blackened by frostbite, refusing to die.

At his worst, Confortola was left alone high on the 28,250-foot peak, weak and struggling to walk.

He spoke by satellite telephone to a fellow climber back in Italy Monday and dismissed any thought of succumbing to K2, which straddles Pakistan and China.

"Of course, of course, I'll keep going. Imagine if I gave up now," he told Agostino Da Polenza, head of the Ev-K2-CNR mountaineering group.

He emerged today from the thin air and thick fog that have prevented helicopters from rescuing him, limping on his ruined feet with the help of three other climbers.

"Now I really realize that everyone here has died," Confortola told the Everest-K2-CNR, an Italy-based high-altitude scientific research group, during a phone call from base camp. "I am happy to be alive."

On how he survived, Confortola was simple.

"We don't give up, we look ahead," he said. "Now I just want to take off my shoes, my feet are pretty darn painful."

Confortola's remarkable survival ends a saga that rivals the disastrous exploits of "Into Thin Air," the Jon Krakauer book that documented the 1996 deaths of eight climbers on Mt. Everest, the world's tallest peak.

Others who survived the K2 catastrophe told of things going wrong from the beginning, bad decisions, "summit fever," people abandoning each other in panic.

The race to the peak began on Friday when winds died down, offering a chance of good weather. Thirty climbers in several groups of at least nine nationalities began the charge up the mountain.

While most mountaineering deaths occur on the descent, when climbers are exhausted, a Serbian and his Pakistani porter fell to their deaths during the ascent, which some took as a bad omen.

More ominous was the scene when climbers arrived at "The Bottleneck," a particularly treacherous gully 1,150 below the summit. They found the first signs that the different groups were not going to be very cooperative. Ropes given to the fastest climbers to prepare the way for the others were laid at times in the wrong locations, according to Dutch climber Wilco van Rooijen.

It took hours of exhausting work to reset the ropes.

Some climbers wisely backed out of a final assault on the summit, not trusting the ropes or the situation. Others, however, rushed to reach the top just before nightfall, a reckless decision known as "summit fever."

In the scramble to get down in the fading light, climbers got separated, a situation that usually means death in an atmosphere so harsh climbers need bottled oxygen to keep going.

The fastest climbers on the ascent, a Norwegian with two Nepali Sherpas, reached The Bottleneck just as an avalanche of ice crashed down, ripping away the ropes and sending the trio plummeting to their deaths.

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