Saturday, 27 August 2011

The killer mountain - K2 1995

The 1995 New Zealand K2 Expedition

It was the hottest day recorded in Peshawar, Pakistan for years when my plane from Kabul touched down in Peshawar on 11 June 1995.. It was 50 oC. I drove for a scorching two and a half hours to Ralwapindi and  walked into 'Flashman's Hotel' and met the leader Kim Logan, a warm and handsome man of Maori origin.Then I met the others on the New Zealand K2 expedition. It hit 46 o C. The five member of the New Zealand K2 expedition were Peter Hillary, Kim Logan, Bruce Grant, Matt Comesky and Jeff Lakes, Only three of the five survived the climb of K2.

Peter Hillary, Gary Ball and Rob Hall back in Auckland after their ascent of Mount Everest in 1990. Photo: Bob McKerrow 

I enjoyed the week I spent in Islamabad and Ralwapindi assisting the NZ K2 expedition. Each was an outstanding athlete and all were kind and fun-loving people. Bruce Grant was an impressive young man who at the age of 22 was an Olympic skier, first-class mountaineering, extreme sportsman and extraordinary individual, Bruce Grant was a Queenstown adventurer whose special attitude to life touched a community and provide inspiration to local young people.

During the day the expedition members worked hard packing and buying last minutes items in temperatures of 45 oC plus.  On the afternoon of 15 June  I invited Kim Logan came round for beer as I could feel he needed a break from the others.  He spoke of his early climbing days in the Darrans with Bill Denz, his love of hunting, skiing and life in general. I asked him how many times he had climbed Aoraki/Mt. Cook and he replied, " I've climbed it 23 times by most major routes." Kim's Father was a famous New Zealand military man and respected Maori leader.  

The next day, four members of the expedition left for Skardu with all their supplies in a bus, thence the long trek to K2 Base Camp. Peter Hillary stayed with me.

Kim Logan (right) his daughter Katie and Bob McKerrow (left), a year after the K2 expedition. A few months after the deaths on K2, Kim returned with Katie to pay homage to those who died. Katie was 10 years old at the time.

Peter Hillary needed to stay behind to clear up some last minute paper work which took some days so we shared a guest house together, and got to know each other better. The 1995 Rugby World Cup was on at the time and we watched a few games together.
While watching the rugby, we were drinking Hanky Bannister whiskey, a brand of Scotch that was first manufactured in London in 1799. It was named after Mr. Hankey and Mr. Bannister who first produced it. It was reported to be a favorite Scotch of Winston Churchill.
We watched the England New Zealand rugby match and at the start of the match I went out for two minutes for a pee and when I came back Peter told me how Jonah Lomu scored that famous try where he just ran over English fullback Mike Catt.

The day after watchuing that match, another great NZ climber passed through Islamabad, Rob Hall, I had lunch with Robb and he told me he was joining a Tibetan Expedition to Gasherbrum 1 and 2.

I enjoyed Peter Hillary's company over a period of a week in Islamabad, but my leave was over and I needed to head back to Afghanistan, and Peter off to K2. Peter, the son of Sir Edmund Hillary, I found a highly intelligent man, a great conversationist, well read and fun to be with. In both Kim Logan and Peter Hillary, I found a kindred spirit. I could tell the story of what happed on the New Zealand K2 expedition but I think it best left to an outstanding writer and friend of Peter Hillary, John Elder.
                        K2 is considered the deadliest mountain on the earth by the world's  renowned mountaineers including Italian Reinhold Messner.

The seventh man, Canadian Jeff Lakes, turns back too late and is buried by an avalanche in his tent. He digs himself out, but can’t find his ice axes, crampons, harness or anything to eat. He makes it down to Camp Two hand over hand, with little pieces of tape stuck over his eyes in place of sunglasses, urged on by walkie-talkie by his companions below.

But he is doomed anyway; what is left of him goes quietly as his friends sleep at his side. One of the men who talked him down and cuddled him for comfort is Lake’s climbing partner – Peter Hillary, the eighth man, the only one to make it down and out and home.

Hillary is thinking about this now, sitting on a loungeroom floor in Carlton, two blocks from his own thin red house. He is 40, a divorced father of two, a mountain climber with a regular life back on earth that is as complicated as any.

It is nearly three in the morning. He has been talking about this recent calamity and about other moments, hideous and glorious, that he has not thought about for years. “It is bizarre,” he says, “to be one of eight people up on that shoulder pyramid and the only one alive today. Dad told me the most important thing I know: how to be bravely independent when making a decision.

Peter Hillary today: Photo: Peter Jordan

“It’s becoming more clear to me as I get older, especially after what happened on K2, that people have this really horrifying propensity to let other people make decisions for them. You can teach your children how to push themselves and how to know when to pull back. That allows you to say: “Not for you today, old boy.” I felt a lot of pressure not to listen to that voice up on K2.

So I don’t feel any guilt for being here. I actually feel that I left my decision too late because it was getting bloody tough getting down. Up there I kept feeling ‘Oh God …’ It’s a very common attitude among people that there is safety in numbers, which is absolute rubbish. “Everyone’s looking at everyone else thinking, “They’re feeling all right so it must be all right.” It’s hard to go against that. That storm was coming in and it was incredibly obvious that going on was not the right thing to do.”

The newspapers pulled their facts together from a long distance and made the finish of British climber Alison Hargreaves a cause of most concern, leaving the dead men just footnotes in passing. The six up top may well have died six different ways.

There’s falling, of course; blown off the wall or tripping away after tangling your own spiked feet. Freezing at the tips while the cold and wind sucks the life out of you. Dehydration. Exhaustion and madness. Brains and lungs turned liquid from the lack of air. Sheer fright at being lost. One day a glacier may bring some of them down to the rocky floor where they will give a future generation of climbers something to think about.

Peter Hillary got lost up there after turning back towards Camp Four, at 8000 metres, to get warm. He lost his way above the shoulder in the dark clouds and thick white cold. Close to blindly diving, he kicked snow in front of himself to find a safe place to step. If it disappeared, he didn’t follow.

He kept wandering around this way looking for footprints and not finding any. Heading down a slope, he stepped into a crevasse, sending his body out into the nothing and then forward. He stretched out and got most of himself over the crack, landing on his chest and skidding down and over another crevasse and another.

After making it to the tents through the murk he found Jeff Lakes and told him he was going down because the weather looked bad. Jeff said he’d push on. And so they parted. As he made his descent, it would momentarily clear above his head and he could see the tiny figures heading up. One of them was his friend Bruce Grant. (Photo left: taken on the expedition in Pakistan)

Did Peter think they must come down? “You know, you find yourself locked into staying alive, not having diverse or interesting thoughts. Of course, I thought ‘My God, what would it be like up there?’ Some people can’t pull back and they were a very driven group.”

His voice softens, for he is now talking to himself and seeing things that are not in this room. “When it hit, I don’t think they would have had very long to think about it. A very short time. That’s the only possible good thing about it.”

He is now a man floating in rough seas catching sight of people drowning in the distance. “You can’t call out to anybody, you can’t just pop up and have a word. If you were on Mount Kosciusko, it might take you five minutes to go up one of the steeper flanks of 600 feet. At 8000 metres, it could take you five hours. You take two moves and you slump against your axes and hang there breathing for a long time.

“You take risks and get down quickly or otherwise it’s not going to work out. You’re staggering and feeling pretty feeble and you’re scared shitless. You can’t find the route, you’re getting blown around.

“You can’t think about anything too much. Chances are your mind will start wandering into all the horrifying things that might come your way.

In between talk of other things, we go back to K2, Pakistan, August just past. Eight climbers are headed to the summit, to 8580 metres. Six reach the top and are wiped out by the kind of storm we don’t see down on earth. Civilisations have been devastated by less.

On 24 August 1995 I flew from Afghanistan to Pakistan to link up with the returning New Zealand K2  Expedition members.  I had got the news of the death of Bruce Grant and Jeff Lakes some days earlier. On arrival at Islamabad airport I met Peter Hillary, who was waiting for Kim Logan and Matt Comesky to arrive from Skardu. Their flight did'nt turn up. Peter told me he had flown out from Skardu yesterday. He looked haggard and washed out and on the way back to town, he related events of those tragic days when Bruce and Jeff died, along with five other climbers on other expeditions. The story, is similar to the one told above.

Peter told me how after he and Kim buried Jeff Lakes at Camp II on K2, Kim with tears rolling down his checks said, " You and I are survivors, aren't we?"

I remember farewelling five expedition member in June, and two months later there were only three.

As hour after Peter finisjed telling me events of the climb, Kim and Matt unexpectedly turned up. We hugged and sat down and I broke open a few drinks, and Bruce and Jeff were with us in spirit through the evening as we mourned and recounted events.

Last week I had an exchange of emails with Peter Hillary and he recalled our time in Pakistan together:  "Yes that 1995 Rugby World Cup and our time in Islamabad was all very memorable even if Hanky Banister was not – though the reasons are more t0 do with its debilitating effects than anything else. K2 was an incredible trip with a tragic finale and it was great having some good friends to help us through that aftermath. "

Bruce Grant is remembered by a trust and if you would like to go to Peter Hillary's website here it is.


Ruahines said...

Kia ora Bob,
A sad but moving tale, and one I cannot help but sit back and ponder, what did it all mean?
Something deep and stirring moves around inside me from my time in the mountains I love here that does understand it. And I have always been enamored of the history of mountaineering, particularly before the modern era when teamwork was placed ahead of individual desire, or at least in a framework of getting people to the top. I am no mountaineer, yet I love the mountains, so the why lurks hazily in front of me. Yet part of me still asks "what does it all mean?". My thoughts go out to the men who are still on that mountain, and I am sorry for your loss Bob. Kia kaha.

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

They 'why' will always lurk hazily Robb, for the lure of the mountains is unexplainable, and as I wrote at the death of Keith McIvor:

The mountain's song is enshanding,
Fit only for Gods and Kings,
First it high, then its low
Alive with a death that sings

We get seduced time and time again, drawn back for one last look, or " I'll push on another 5 minutes." Bruce Grant at 22 years of age, one of the greatest NZ mountaineers and skiers couldn't resist another 5 minutes. It was 5 minutes the mountain storm would not allow.....

Anonymous said...

G'day Bob,
A couple of weeks ago I was at K2 basecamp. It was the end of the season and all of the climbers had departed, none of them having summited.
I climbed up to the K2 memorial and found Bruce Grant's plaque, still wired on to the large cairn. It was just a couple of days after the anniversary of his death. I sat there in the gloom watching the prayer flags flutter and said a quiet word for Bruce and his family.
Returning to (relative) civilization I was compelled to find out more about Bruce and found your blog.
Regarding the 'why', there was a nice plaque there from a Korean mountaineer who had died there. It read:
that I was so much haunted
that I crazily devoted
Mountains I never gave up loving


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do you have a high quality photo of bruce you could email me? either the one on your page here or the one ousted for the Youth Trust Charity Breakfast? Or who I could contact to get one? please email kaiea _nc@

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Snow White said...

Bruce Grant was at least 32 not 22 as you say Bob.

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