Impossible Rescue Operation Saves Climber On “Killer Mountain”

Photo: Musaf Kazmi/AP

On Sunday, French mountain climber Elisabeth Revol was rescued by a team of Polish climbers on the slopes of a mountain in northern Pakistan and airlifted to a hospital in Islamabad. The rescue effort involved the Pakistani Army, an urgent crowdfunding campaign, diplomatic intervention, and the abandonment of an historic ascent. Though Revol was saved, her climbing partner, Tomek Mackiewicz, died on the mountain. The mountain’s name is Nanga Parbat, and it is commonly referred to as “Killer Mountain.”

Nanga Parbat is one of the most uniquely foreboding parts of the most dangerous places in the world. The Himalayan peak is the ninth-tallest mountain in the world, and its 26,660-foot summit ranks among the world’s most isolated. Back in the 1930s, Britain controlled access to Mt. Everest, which meant that non-British alpinists had to look elsewhere for historic ascents. Despite its extreme verticality, the base of Nanga Parbat is relatively accessible, so several German expeditions (funded by the Nazi government) attempted to summit the mountain, despite the fact that the Westerner credited with “discovering” Nanga Parbat (Alfred Mummery) died while trying to find a route to the summit.

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None of those Nazi expeditions succeeded. In 1934, nine people died while trapped in a storm after a failed summit attempt. Three years later, an avalanche killed 16 people. “What happened there changed forever how Sherpa climbers thought of themselves,” wrote Jonathan Neale in Tigers Of The Snow. All the deaths became “a turning point in Sherpa history,” and by the time the mountain was first summited in 1953, 31 people had died trying to scale it. That death toll has since reached 60 people, and 11 more died in a Taliban-led shooting at the base of the mountain in 2013.

Revol and Mackiewicz were attempting to become just the second team in history to climb Nanga Parbat in the winter. Not only are temperatures lower in the winter months, the terrain is considerably more inhospitable. Loose snowpack makes climbing harder and presents the risk of an avalanche. Nanga Parbat’s bare summit is also exposed to the jet stream, which makes storm patterns move in quickly and on unpredictable timelines. Revol and Mackiewicz actually arrived at Base Camp before Christmas and waited for weeks to find the right window to attack the summit.

Their moment came last week, and on January 20, they hit out for the peak. Things went fine for a few days, until all communication stopped, before Revol radioed for help on Friday, January 26. They had made it to the 8,126-meter summit and descended back down to around 7,900 meters, where Revol made the call. Mackiewicz had finally succeeded after six unsuccessful attempts to reach the top of Nanga Parbat. But their situation was dire. Mackiewicz was suffering from snow blindness, frostbite, acute mountain sickness (caused by rapid altitude changes), and was flickering in and out of consciousness. Revol was also frostbitten, and needed assistance to get off the mountain. They could only go another few hundred meters before Mackiewicz was unable to keep climbing.

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Rescue efforts aren’t free, and the climbing community sprang to action. As luck would have it, a team of Polish climbers close by on K2 attempting the first-ever winter summit of that deadly peak was willing to help, and since they were acclimatized to the anoxic conditions, they would make perfect rescuers. A crowdfunding page was launched, and eventually the Polish and French embassies got involved, hiring a helicopter from the Pakistani military and flying four of the 13 members of the Polish team over to Nanga Parbat.

Because of dense freezing fog near the summit, helicopters could not get above 5,000 meters. Rescuers knew that Mackiewicz was waiting around 7,400 meters, where Revol had put him up in a tent to try and survive long enough to be rescued, and that Revol had tried to downclimb as much as possible without food or medical assistance. Denis Urubko and Adam Bielecki went at a “superhuman pace” and reached Revol around midnight, after covering 1,250 meters in just over seven hours. Climbing that pace through a winter storm on technical terrain at night is unheard of, and they packed light in order to move as fast as possible, while Piotr Tomala and Jarek Botor trailed behind with the heavy gear. It was a daring effort, and they saved Revol’s life.

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Revol had managed to climb down to 6,000 meters, and with a storm moving in that night, the rescue team couldn’t continue on to save Mackiewicz. The first and most important rule for search and rescue workers is not to become a victim. Climbing on to find Mackiewicz would have been an impossibility, and by the time they reached Base Camp, conditions were still dreadful enough to prevent a helicopter rescue effort. Bielicki later wrote, “The impossible happened. Together with Elizabeth Revol and Denis Urubko below the Diamir face. I am tired but very happy. Thank you to all of you for kind words. I am sorry but we had no chance to help Tomek.”

Mackiewicz was pronounced dead yesterday, and the money raised for the rescue will now go to his family. Revol flew back to France today after receiving treatment for frostbite in Islamabad, and the Polish climbing team returned to K2 to make an attempt on the summit.

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h/t Bryan

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