A Tribute to Gerard McDonnell
hero, climber, friend
It is said that there
are few old climbers. Sadly this seems to be true and the best ones are
taken young. I don't know if it is universally true to say they "died
doing what they loved" but
with Gerard McDonnell, this was the absolute truth. He had built his life
around the mountains. Born in Ireland and living in Alaska, he was the
consummate climber and in the end it was the climb of his life that took
The first time I saw Ger, he had that wild-man look. You know, wide eyes, bushy hair, a bit of a beard. However his strong handshake and easy smile told me right away that he was not your ordinary ‘wild man’.
We met in Skardu on our way to Broad Peak and K2 in 2006. Ger was a natural leader of the Irish contingency of our 30 person climber/trekker team for this adventure in the Northern Areas of Pakistan.
For Ger this was the climb of a lifetime. He had spent 10 years living in Alaska making one impressive climb after another. K2 was a dream that he had prepared for in agonizing detail including a summit of Everest.
At Broad Peak Base Camp he was in constant motion and moved even faster high up on the mountain. His story telling was entertaining but it was his singing that kept us all entertained. One night after dinner he led a tradition Irish song that I broadcast over the sat phone. A memory I will have forever.
He was one of the few to summit Broad Peak from our team - a warm up if you will - and then he went over to K2. After a spell of horrible weather the strongest climbers made their move towards the summit but they were stopped by logistical problems and rock fall.
Ger took a particularly bad hit when a boulder ignored his climbing helmet and smashed into his skull. Thanks to his Irish mates, Mick and Banjo, an efficient helicopter evacuation plus some time in hospitals in Pakistan and Alaska, he made a good recovery.
And he made new plans. In August 2006 he sent me an email saying "If anything the experience has shown me that it's very doable and I look forward to heading back again." He signed off with his usual "all the best for now".
2008 saw Ger return to K2 and to his dream climb along with a few selected teammates he knew were strong and committed to the summit. The story is still unfolding but an avalanche took Ger's life along with ten other climbers high up on K2. He was the first Irishman to summit the 'Savage Mountain'. However in the midst of all the confusion, one detail is clear – just before his death, Ger made a heroic effort to rescue three fellow climbers tangled in a snare of ropes at 8200 meters.
As with most of my climbing teammates on big expeditions, I did not know them before the expedition. But climbing accelerates relationships and removes any veneer of pretense.
Gerard McDonnell was exactly what you saw. Competitive, ambitious, committed - you knew what he thought – good and bad. He never hesitated to help out. He never hesitated to contribute to the climb. He was a climber's climber.
If you had the misfortune of being stuck in a tent for days waiting out a storm, your fortune would be to spend it with Ger.
You are missed my friend.
Update May 2008: