Pemba Gyalje Sherpa – To the Death Zone and Back


“It was the perfect day for a summit bid, there was no wind, the sun was out and it was warm…” – (The Summit, 2012) – August 1st, 2008 … It was a little over 8000 metres and the sun was setting along the curvature of the earth… the euphoria that the 18 climbers from different international expeditions felt about an hour back summiting the second highest peak of the world K2 was fast vanishing. The vast abyss of the ‘Death Zone’ (altitude at which no human body can acclimatize), was yet to be covered and night was claiming the expanse of the sky… chaos reigned.

The fixed line, their hope and lifeline that would take them safely through the treacherous bottleneck and serac icefall was cleaved off, taking the Norwegian Explorer Rolf Bae with it…  The next 48 hours unfolded possibly one of the most chilling tales of tragedy, triumph and heroism in mountaineering history.

Right at the base camp of the Savage Mountain is – The Gilkey Memorial, an unnerving reminder of the stories of this mountain and its infamous history of deaths on descent… However, in 2008 11 names were added to this crude mountain memorial. This possibly was the worst tragedy seen on that mountain. What transpired during, before and after the accident has been privy to controversy and debate.

It has been 6 years and yet the K2 2008 tragedy brings in different strong reactions from the climbing and mountaineering fraternities. However, what exactly happened on that mountain on that ‘perfect day, with perfect conditions’ still remains source of speculation and controversy. While many perished on that mountain and many came back with miraculous stories of survival, a hero emerged – Pemba Gyalje Sherpa.

Born in a village at an elevation of 3000 metres in a village called Pangkhoma located 50 km south of Mount Everest in Eastern Nepal, Pemba has always been close to the mountains. “I began climbing when I was 16 years old, I would trek and climb around the mountains and forests near Kathmandu,” he says. Apart from working in the profession of trekking and climbing, Pemba would help his family in the farm. “I have had a simple farming and mountain life,” adds Pemba.

Talking about his earlier days, Pemba reminisces, “My father was into this profession, so after school, I would go trekking and climbing with him, soon, apart from being just a profession, trekking and climbing became important and something I liked doing. So I would keep climbing.”

With time Pemba realised he wanted to become a qualified climber and mountain guide, so with time he began training by climbing different alpine peaks in Nepal and along the mountains of Chamonix France, where he learned more about modern climbing techniques and ethics. To his climbing accolades, Pemba has climbed the Everest 7 times, other summits include the K2 without supplementary oxygen, Cho-Oyo, Ama Dablam and several ‘6000m peaks, which I haven’t accounted,’ as Pemba puts it.

Today famous among the climbing fraternity and media as, Tiger of the Death Zone; over the past 20 years, Pemba has served as a high-altitude porter, climbing instructor, expedition leader and a mountain guide. In 2008, when Pemba became a part of the K2 expedition, he went as a mountaineer of the Norit Expedition Team. Things started changing after they reached the summit. While descending down, Pemba, Gerard McDonnell, Wilco Van Rooijen and Marco Confortola found that the fixed line had been severed leaving behind a tattered rope in its place. They were stuck at the bottleneck and in the death zone.

While the others decided to bivouac (improvised campsite usually in natural settings, in this case, in snow) till first light, Pemba didn’t want to risk the night at an elevation of 27,000 feet bang in the middle of death zone. He decided to solo the bottleneck alone along the single tattered line, without oxygen, reaching the safety of Camp IV at 1 am.

The next day opened possibly one of the darkest days in mountaineering history. Climbers were either hit by the serac fall or had stopped on the mountain out of exhaustion or were lost. Most were suffering from altitude sickness, were frost bitten or exhausted, the death zone was taking its toll on many… “With so many people up there I knew I had to go back. I knew they were alive, they were just not in a physical condition to come down that mountain,” says Pemba.

With chaos reigning, Pemba knew he had to act fast, he had heard over radio that the Italian climber Confortola had been spotted midway along the Bottleneck. Pemba immediately began soloing in worsening conditions up towards the already unstable bottleneck, “I knew Confortala was alive there was no turning back, I knew I could help,” says Pemba.

“Cas and me left high camp to help Confortola,” adds Pemba, however, the weather conditions had begun taking its toll on Cas. “He wanted to stop because he was getting tired, however, I kept climbing to help Confortola and bring him back to the safety of the high camp,” says Pemba.

He soon reached the Italian climber and found him in bad shape and Confortola was even suffering from severe altitude sickness. Pemba helped revive Confortola with oxygen and helped guide him to the base of the bottleneck. All the while, maintaining radio contact with two Sherpas who were up the bottleneck helping the stranded South-Korean climbers and their Sherpa cousin.

Suddenly, a roar from above brought down another slide of ice and debris… the serac had fallen again… Confortola has been recorded saying, “Pemba saved my life, I was falling and the avalanche would have taken me, but Pemba guarded me against the fall.” Unfortunately, Pemba couldn’t help the other climbers, as they were taken away by yet another serac fall…Pemba had to turn back.

Once back in Camp 4, Pemba set out again to search for Wilco around the region, Rooijen was presumed dead as he had no water, he was alone in the open in the death zone, but he had survived the night and was traced through a sat phone he had placed to his wife. Rough coordinates in hand, Pemba along with another team member Cas Van De Gevel went in search of Rooijen.

“I had not given up hope, and I knew Wilco was alive. I got further reassurance when a radio call from base camp confirmed that they saw a yellow dot moving on the mountain slope far below high camp. So Cas and I left again, we began our climb down, but Cas was tired and it was dark, he told me he couldn’t move fast. Asking him to maintain a slow and steady pace, I went down as fast as possible and began looking for Wilco,” says Pemba.

Braving the avalance prone terrain in the night, Pemba searched for hours into the night between camps 4 and 3 for Wilco but was unable to trace him. “At a distance of about 200 metres I head the satellite phone ringing, but I couldn’t locate him,” says Pemba. At about 2 am Pemba came back to Camp 3 and sheer exhaustion took over.

“Sometime very early in the morning I was woken up by the sound of a falling rock near my tent, I realised the rock accidently fell as Cas was climbing down towards Camp 3. When Cas got back to the tent we hydrated ourselves with water and recuperated ourselves. At the same time I got a radio call from base camp, they told me that the yellow dot was about 200 metres from our tent,” says Pemba.

Wasting no time Pemba and Cas set out on the journey again and kept looking for Rooijen. “We finally found him,” adds Pemba. Pemba and Cas brought down the frost bitten and completely exhausted Rooijen to camp 3.

Though completely exhausted, Pemba staggered back to Camp III along with Rooijen…effectively saving the lives of 2 climbers, “We gave him oxygen, revived him, rehydrated him and then we helped him down to base camp,” says Pemba.. It has been years after the tragedy, Pemba has returned to trekking and climbing… “I was lucky on K2. I happened to be physically and mentally fit and thus I could help people,” says a modest Pemba.

“I realised that people were just unable to move because they were physically and mentally exhausted. They weren’t in a position to come down, they were struggling for every breath, but they were alive, I was truly lucky that day. The bottleneck and serac was very unstable and kept falling, it was difficult for people to try to traverse that route, luckily I was able to do it and when there were people stuck and alive, I just had to help out,” says Pemba.

For weeks and months after the 2008 K2 disaster, there was different debates, why didn’t the climbers turn back? Why did they choose the summit? Has the Everest madness reached K2…Everyone had different opinions and different points of view and opinions, but what transpired is a mystery best known to the mountain…

“Climbing a mountain like K2 needs preparation, there is no room for mistakes on an unforgiving peak like this one. There are several aspects that matter, equipment, planning, coordination, technique… the list is simply endless… I knew a lot of things about K2, from legends and history and other tales. I prepared myself physically and mentally for that climb and just tried to do my best,” says Pemba.

When asked why he didn’t back down, Pemba says, “I don’t know, I knew that the mountain was treacherous at that time, but I simply couldn’t turn back and I don’t know why…”  While the 2008 K2 had affected the lives of all the 25 climbers, it did not stop or keep Pemba away from the mountains.

He was in fact, back to climbing the next season. “For me the mountains have always been an integral part of my life, I would hike uphill 300 metres to reach school… and it is not just the fact that I was born in the Himalayan region and I am close to the mountains. I have always had a special love for peaks, I love nature in its purest and rawest form. Mountains to us are holy. Before every climb I pray to the mountains, it brings good fortune and safe journey on the mountains,” says Pemba.

Pemba is not just a climbing instructor and mountaineer, for him the mountains mean so much more. “I have been climbing for over 20 years now, but the mountains teach me something different every time. I am still a student of the mountains. Each climb teaches me something new and something different. I face the most unique situations, experiences and conditions on the mountains every time… it is very complex and different. Even if I climb the same route multiple times, there are new challenges, new lessons and new beauty,” reminisces Pemba.

Further talking about his love for the mountains Pemba states, “Trust the mountains and nature, she knows best. Understand nature, your own physical and mental condition. You need to love and respect the mountains. Understand your mind, there is no tool stronger than the human mind, prepare and train well, people nowadays, just want to get on the top, and they are not focussed on the things that they need to focus on – like good training of the body and mind.”

Talking about the changing scenario Pemba says, “Today, high altitude climbs have become very commercial, while this is good for my people and good for local business, many important factors are missed. The most important being safety, if you want to go on a high altitude climb, you need to be completely prepared for it.  People with zero experience want to climb mountains, it is very dangerous.”

Officially recognised as an International Mountain Guide by the UIAGM in 2009, Pemba has been working towards the promotion and development of a healthy climbing and mountaineering activities in the Himalayas. Having climbed several different peaks, Pemba has seen a change in scenario in the world of the Himalayas.

One advice Pemba would like to give all mountain climbers is, “With good preparation, training and with an understanding of your body and mind, climbing is possibly one of the best things you can do.”


PembaSherpa124 Note: This interview was taken for the Wildcraft India Pvt Ltd blog. 


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