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Wed 6 Aug 2008 04:00 AM

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Final K2 survivor 'happy to be alive'

Frostbitten Italian climber limps into K2 base camp after surviving an ice avalanche.

A frostbitten Italian climber said he was glad to be alive Tuesday as he limped into K2 base camp after surviving an ice avalanche which killed 11 people on the world's second highest peak.

Marco Confortola was receiving medical treatment for his blackened, frozen toes at the 5,200-metre (17,060-foot) camp but must endure another night on the mountain after dense cloud grounded rescue helicopters.

"I am happy to be alive. I realise that they are all dead and that only three of us survived," Confortola told a member of his expedition team based in Italy, according to the Italian ANSA news agency.

"My hands are in a quite good state while my feet are black because they are frozen. But I have been able to walk," he was quoted as saying by telephone to Agostino Da Polenza, who coordinated the rescue with Pakistani authorities.

Confortola, 37, was the final survivor to come back from Friday's catastrophic ice fall. Two Dutch climbers were airlifted off K2 on Monday and are in a Pakistani military hospital.

Slowed by his frostbitten feet, the 37-year-old Confortola had spent four nights trying to reach base camp and was helped down early Tuesday by Pakistani high-altitude porters who managed to get to him a day before.

"The danger is over," said Ashraf Aman, head of mountaineering company Adventure Tours Pakistan, which has played a key role in rescue operations.

"Marco has reached the main base camp, he is recovering. The base camp has facilities to provide him with immediate medical help like oxygen and drugs, so he will improve gradually," Aman told AFP.

But a military-linked firm which operates rescue helicopters in the area, Askari Aviation, said that due to "extremely poor weather" efforts to airlift Confortola from the mountain had been suspended until Wednesday.

Confortola "will have to wait for the night, but he is comfortable up there," said retired Brigadier Mohammad Akram, vice president of Adventure Tours Pakistan.

The Italian said he was pleased to have at least managed to reach the top of K2, which has a fatality rate five times that of Mount Everest and is considered by climbers as the ultimate challenge in mountaineering.

"I am happy to have gone to the summit of K2 , it is something that I've always dreamed of," ANSA quoted him as saying.

Three South Koreans, two Nepalis, two Pakistanis, a Serbian, an Irishman, a Norwegian and a Frenchman died in Friday's avalanche, the worst disaster ever to happen on the mountain.

A pillar of ice broke away in a steep gully known as the Bottleneck near the summit and swept away fixed lines used by the mountaineers as they made their descent.

One Spanish mountaineer who saw the doomed climbers as he was heading down the peak said they may have begun their ascent too late in the day.

"They were far from me, hours away, but they were not turning around," Alberto Zerain told the online edition of Spanish newspaper El Mundo.

"But then I thought, they know what they are doing," Zerain said.

Italian climbers Achille Compagnoni and Lino Lacedelli were the first to scale K2 on July 31, 1954. Between then and 2007, there were 284 successful ascents and 66 fatalities.

In the same period, Everest was summited 3,681 times, with 210 deaths.

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