‘The beckoning silence of great height’

Ger McDonnell.

Ger McDonnell.

Irish climber Ger McDonnell died in the Death Zone on K2 on August 2, 2008, most likely in an avalanche of ice from a falling serac.

I remember where I was that day – working the newsdesk of a paper in Dublin.

The afternoon was spent urgently checking web reports from climbing parties at K2’s basecamp and trying to contact McDonnell’s friends and family.

Verifiable information was scant that first day and would continue to be in the months after.

What occurred on ‘the Savage Mountain’ over the course of 48 hours that August weekend proved to be a story of information and lack of information, accurate and inaccurate reports, of blurred recollections.

When deadline arrived in Dublin that night McDonnell was missing, presumed dead. Witnesses later reported seeing him being struck by a devastating icefall that day.

In the hours, days, weeks and months afterwards the story of what exactly happened to the 37-year-old has been the subject of TV interviews, online and print media reports, more than one book and now a documentary feature film, The Summit, released in Ireland today.

Most of the ‘McDonnell on K2’ stories focus, understandably, on his desperate final hours and the aftermath of his death.

Dawn on Mont Blanc, August 2008.

The author, dawn on Mont Blanc, August 2008.

But what of the years, months and days that led him to this remote mountain and his summit push of August 1, 2008?

Why did this engineer leave a partner in Alaska and family back in Ireland to climb a peak which boasts a fearsome fatality rate, killing , some say, one in every four of those who attempt it?

Just two years earlier McDonnell was medivacked off K2 after being and injured by a falling rock. Surely once was enough?

What brought McDonnell back? The easy answer might ascribe his 2008 attempt to a competitive nature, a desire to knock the mountain off. Or, having already climbed Everest, a desire to stand on the second highest summit or Earth.

I’ve no idea. I didn’t know O’Donnell.

But I imagine the main factor at play was evident in a matter-of-fact comment by his brother-in-law Damien O’Brien – that McDonnell “did it for the love of it”.

This is a feeling common to any mountaineer, climber or hillwalker, whether on K2 or Croagh Patrick.

It ranges from the ‘earth beneath your feet’ feeling of a short weekend hike to the mind-clearing, elemental vistas of dawn breaking over the rim of world seen from a 5,000m summit.

Ger McDonnell memorial, Carrauntoohill, May 2009.

Ger McDonnell memorial, summit of Carrauntoohil, May 2009.

Joe Simpson dubbed this draw the ‘beckoning silence of great height’, a description of a  sensation that is both a physical experience and an all-encompassing psychological lure.

In my own (limited) mountaineering experience this feeling can be tempered with anything from a Zen-like bliss to icy fear – and it lasts long after you’ve departed the peak.

I’ve found it stronger in moments of quiet or solitude, at dawn or at the foot of the mountain, in memory or anticipation, than in the exhilaration of summiting itself.

Perhaps this is the feeling that led Ger McDonnell back to K2 in the summer of 2008.

I like to imagine it was and that something of it remains where he lies to this day, up there amid the great heights of the Karakoram.

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