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.

Disaster then hardened around the remaining climbers like a quick freeze. Cooperation largely ceased and climbers abandoned each other, van Rooijen said.

"They were thinking of my gas, my rope, whatever," he said. "Actually, everybody was fighting for himself and I still do not understand why everybody was leaving each other."

Some wandered off on their own in near suicidal acts of desperation.

"People were running down but didn't know where to go, so a lot of people were lost on the mountain on the wrong side, wrong route," van Rooijen said.

He said at one point he spent hours searching for a camp in The Bottleneck, lost because other climbers who had promised to plant flags to mark the way failed to do so.

"Some climbers did not take their responsibility and then accidents like this happen very easy," van Rooijen said.

He went without food and water for several days and had to sleep without a sleeping bag. Swedish survivor Fredrik Strang told CNN that in the morning, he would find fellow climbers frozen to death.

Van Rooijen said the descent was made even more perilous by either thick clouds that made it difficult to see where he was going or the glare of the sun off the snow and ice that was so intense it threatened to blind him.

At one point, the Dutchman stumbled across a trio of Korean climbers who appeared to be in an almost hopeless situation.

One was dangling upside down by a rope. A second Korean held desperately to one end of the rope to keep his colleague from plummeting into an abyss. The third Korean sat dazed in the snow.

"They were trying to survive," van Rooijen said Monday. "But I had also to survive because I was getting snow blind."

He said the Koreans declined an offer of help, believing rescue was on its way. Three Koreans are listed among the dead and missing, although it's not clear if they were the ones that van Rooijen saw.

Van Rooijen worked his way far enough down the mountain to be plucked to safety by a helicopter Monday, along with a fellow Dutchman, after suffering frostbite that may cost him several toes.

Among the dead were three Koreans; two Nepalis; two Pakistani high-altitude porters; French, Serbian, and Norwegian climbers; and an Irishman.

The French climber presumed dead, Hugues d'Aubarede, relayed an account of the climb that was posted on a blog. His last message, from the foot of the Bottleneck, was: "I would love it if everyone could contemplate this ocean of mountains and glaciers. They put me through the wringer, but it's so beautiful. The night will be long but beautiful."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report