ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – The last survivor of the deadliest mountaineering disaster to hit K2 limped into base camp with frostbitten feet Tuesday, but thick clouds threatened to keep him on the mountain for at least another night.
"Now I really realize that everyone here has died," said Italian climber Marco Confortola, 37, who was stranded on the world's second highest peak after an avalanche of falling ice blocked climbers descending from the summit nearly four days ago.
As many as 30 mountaineers began their ascent of K2 on Friday. Eleven died in the avalanche that swept some climbers away and left others stranded in frigid conditions just below the 28,250-foot summit: three South Koreans, two Nepalis, two Pakistanis and mountaineers from France, Ireland, Serbia and Norway.
"I am happy to be alive," Confortola told Everest-K2-CNR, an Italy-based high-altitude scientific research group, during a phone call from K2's advanced base camp on the Pakistani side of the mountain at about 17,000 feet.
The group's spokeswoman, Francesca Steffanoni, said the mountaineer was examined by an American doctor and reported to be in good condition, despite his blackened, frostbitten toes.
"Now I just want to take off my shoes, my feet are pretty darn painful," Confortola was quoted saying. He also reported suffering pain in his lower limbs.
Confortola told Italy's SKY TG 24 TV that he would return to Italy "as soon as possible" to see a doctor he trusted to treat his feet and lower limbs.
"I hope to go back home soon — within a couple of days," he said.
His plight has been front-page news for days in Italy with constant updates on his progress broadcast on TV. He was escorted part of the way down by three others, including an American climber.
As Confortola waited for thick clouds to clear so a Pakistani army helicopter could fly him off the mountain — on Wednesday, weather permitting — government officials in Islamabad promised to investigate the tragedy.
Fatal accidents are common on the treacherous peaks that attract top mountaineers to Pakistan each summer, but this is the deadliest single incident in memory, surpassing the seven climbers killed on K2 during a fierce storm in 1995.
K2, which straddles Pakistan and China in the Karakoram range, is regarded by mountaineers as far more challenging than Mount Everest, the world's highest peak. The mesmerizing giant pyramid of K2's knife-edged ridges and icy slopes are steeper and prone to both avalanches and sudden and severe storms.
K2 also requires technical climbing, using hands and feet, with crampons and ice tools, to remain on the slopes nearly the entire time. On Everest, all but several hundred yards can be scaled using fixed lines. Highly trained Sherpas also usually accompany Everest climbers on the big commercially guided expeditions.
"We cannot sit as a spectator to this," said Shahzad Qaiser, a top official at the Ministry of Tourism, which oversees tour companies that provide services to mountaineering expeditions. "This accident is a very sad and disastrous event in our mountaineering history."
Qaiser said the Alpine Club of Pakistan and ministry officials would talk with survivors, investigate how so many climbers died and probe any complaints. He said any Pakistani tour operators found negligent could face legal action and lose their licenses.
One Dutch survivor, Wilco Van Rooijen, who was rescued Monday, blamed mistakes in preparation — not just the avalanche — for the loss of life.
Van Rooijen told The Associated Press on Monday that advance climbers laid ropes in some of the wrong places, including in a treacherous gully known as "The Bottleneck," about 1,150 feet below the summit, where the ice fall later took place.
That caused hours of delays, so climbers reached the summit just before nightfall, while others turned back. Ice overhanging the route fell as the fastest mountaineers were descending some of the iciest and most difficult sections just below the summit.
Qaiser said he had yet to receive a formal complaint against any tour operator, and added that the responsibility for placing ropes on a mountain lay with the mountaineers themselves. Not all climbers who have been up K2 believe those sections require fixed ropes.
About 280 people have reached K2's summit since 1954, when it was first done by Italians Achille Compagnoni and Lino Lacedell. Dozens of deaths have been recorded since 1939, most of them occurring during the descent.