MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
Eleven climbers are feared dead on K2 - the world's second highest mountain - after an ice wall sheered off, ripping through fixed lines and stranding climbers as they descended from the summit. Some climbers did manage to get to base camp and were helicoptered out, but the list of those confirmed dead continues to grow. Professional mountaineer Ed Viesturs had been climbing for more than 30 years. He summited K2 in 1992. I asked him to describe this treacherous area near the summit. It's called the Bottleneck.
ED VIESTURS: Well, the bottleneck is a steep snow and ice gulley, and it's at about 27,000 feet. It's directly above the highest camp. And then, just above this bottleneck or this gulley is this huge serac, or this brow of ice you might call it, which kind of threatens you from above.
And I think what happened was that this chunk of ice, at some point during the day, broke loose and swept down the Bottleneck where fixed ropes were attached. And I think that's the main problem here, that the people that were then above that fixed rope area were descending from the summit and coming down and not finding those fixed ropes, then had problems in coming down.
BLOCK: What would conditions be like for the climbers who were above where the serac used to be stranded there?
VIESTURS: Well, you know, I think a lot of them were descending from the summit and it was very, very late in the day if not night already and dark. By then, they would have been very exhausted and almost reliant on hoping that the ropes were there and coming down and finding that these ropes weren't there. I think a lot of the climbers up there in the dark decided that they had to just sit there and wait for morning, at least. But - you have to imagine sitting at these altitudes well over 27,000 in subzero temperatures with no means of protection, and on top of that, being exhausted, it's very debilitating. And some people could suffer frostbite by doing that, and some people could simply die of exposure.
BLOCK: Mr. Viesturs, you've probably read, as I have, some recriminations that are coming out from some of the climbers who survived. There was a Dutch climber who said that the fixed ropes had been laid in the wrong places on the ascent that had to be moved, which took up valuable time. They summited and then were coming down in darkness at a time they shouldn't have been.
VIESTURS: Well, right. I mean, I think summiting at nightfall or in the dark is a huge mistake. Then compounded with the fact that the ropes that they were relying on weren't there throws everything into this huge mess. It's very common. And the big problem in these big mountains when people push on so far and so long that they don't reach the summit until nightfall and then coming down in the dark is extremely dangerous and extremely difficult.
BLOCK: Mr. Viesturs, you are familiar with K2. You climbed it in 1992 without supplemental oxygen, is that right?
BLOCK: What's your impression? I've read that it has, percentage-wise, a higher rate of fatalities than Everest does. Why is that?
VIESTURS: Well, K2, in general, is steeper and more technical to climb than Everest. And because of that, most of the climbers there have a higher level of ability when they go to attempt this mountain. But also because of the challenges of K2, I think the allure of getting to the summit is more intriguing as well, so people tend to push a lot harder to climb to the summit of K2. And because of that, they're willing to risk more to get to the summit. And then, coming down becomes a big problem.
BLOCK: Well, Ed Viesturs, thanks very much for talking with us.
VIESTURS: Oh, you're welcome.
BLOCK: Mountaineer Ed Viesturs speaking with us from Bainbridge Island, Washington.