“I so much longed to stand atop the 8125 m summit of Nanga Parbat. I so much dreamed about this magic mountain and hoped to make it my seventh eight-thousander climbed without the use of supplemental oxygen or hiring high altitude porters. So here I am, on this knife-sharp ridge, 6000m high almost, living the dream. Because the very fabric of life is action, not only plain dreaming.”
Tom Ballard, 30, was the son of famous British alpinist Alison Hargreaves (who died in 1995 while descending from a successful K2 Summit. Tom was only 6 at that time). He is the only person to have climbed the six great north faces of the Alps alone in one winter season, a feat his mother performed in the spring of 1988. He was also one of the best all-round British ice/mixed climbers and an inventor of dry climbing technique. Daniele Nardi, 42, was a seasoned Italian alpinist having gained fame in the summer of 2007 after climbing Broad Peak and Nanga Parbat back to back. Not to mention his solo winter attempt in 2013 reaching up to 6500 meters despite the terrorist attack at Diamer Face Base Camp in the summer of the same year; he was a true friend of Pakistan. He was famous for supporting schools in the narrow valley leading to the Base Camp of Diamer Face of Nanga Parbat.
Unfortunately, while ascending the dubbed Killer Mountain (8126 meters) the two men team lost all communication with Base Camp after February 24 and by the time helicopter search sortie was flown on the 27th, there was no trace of them. Yet two more extraordinary spirits have joined many of their fellows who shared the same glory while exploring and scaling the daunting/notorious Nanga Parbat; one of the recent examples is the Polish climber Tomasz Mackiewicz who made Nanga Parbat his eternal abode in January 2018. While two famous alpinists Alberto Zerain (an accomplished Spanish climber from the Basque Country) and his rope partner, Mariano Galvan of Argentina, fell off the Mazeno Ridge because of an avalanche in June 2017. The two men team was climbing the infamous 13 km long Mazeno Ridge, the lengthiest arête on any 8000 meters peak.
Though it is the ninth highest mountain on the planet, it ranks third on the scale of difficulty; Makalu (8485 meters) in Nepal and K2 (8611 meters) being the hardest. Nanga Parbat, a name derived from Sanskrit words meaning ‘Naked Mountain’, also known as Deo Mir in Tibetan meaning ‘Huge Mountain’, is majestically beautiful to look at like no other 8000 meters peak on the entire planet. In the mountaineering circles it has three faces, Rupal Face, a granite wall of 4.6 kms height, Rakhiot Face and Diamer Face with a number of well documented/established routes for climbing like Kinshofer, Messner, Mummery, Schell and Japanese. Nanga Parbat has tremendous vertical relief over local terrain in all directions gaining 7000 meters in 25 miles towards Diamer and Rakhiot Face, a singular 8000 meters mountain which is completely visible from a habitable altitude as well. With pines in the foreground and an 8000 meters mountain in the background, it offers a heavenly view of Fairy Meadows with no parallels. The very beauty afforded by this steepness and prominence inherently hides a merciless character when it turns into multiple avalanche spewing mouths down all its slopes. Unlike its bigger sister K2 and others in Karakoram, it forms part of Himalayan Range attracting more snow and is subjected to frequent weather bashings both in monsoon and Western disturbances in winters.
Nanga Parbat had already earned a reputation of a “man-eater,” or a Killer Mountain claiming no less than 31 men by the time it was first scaled in 1953 by the legendary Austrian mountaineer, Hermann Buhl. In 1970 Italian Reinhold Messner and his brother Günther Messner successfully scaled it up from the Rupal side but their descent towards Diamer side claimed Günther’s life in an avalanche, which Messner still laments. The legendary Reinhold Messner also became the first solo climber of Nanga Parbat in 1978. In 2005, Americans Vince Anderson and Steve House climbed the steep Rupal Face in five days and then took two days to descend. Their alpine-style ascent is considered one of the boldest Himalayan ascents to date. Going backwards it also holds the record of first-ever climbing fatality in Himalayas when in 1895 Albert F. Mummery (40-year-old Briton) lost his life along with two Gurkha companions in an avalanche, while reconnoitering the Diamer glacier after having partly attempted the ridge now called Mummery Spur/Rib (6100 meters) on Rakhiot Face. The mountain also remained under German focus claiming numerous German lives and leaving a permanent mark as Kinshofer route. It was named after German climber Toni Kinshofer in 1962 who led this steep/rocky part of the ridge. By 2018 there were 83 fatalities on this mountain.
Now coming on to the challenge part. Ever since the scaling of all of the 15 highest peaks in the world during summers and increasing commercialization of high altitude climbing, the race is on for winter summits among the dream chasers. And within them there is a competition/cooperation in undertaking it in Alpine style i.e., either solo or through pairs of daredevils. Winter season is officially taken as December 15 to March 15 and by now it’s only K2 which remains unscaled in winters.
Nanga Parbat was summited on February 26, 2016 by three men team of Simone Moro, Alex Txikon and Pakistani Ali Sadpara through Kinshofer route. Ironically, Daniele Nardi was part of the same team but he had to leave a few days before due to some disagreements. Tomasz Mackiewicz, Daniele Nardi along with Élisabeth Revol (French survivor of 2017/18) have remained consistent for winter summit of Nanga Parbat despite their repeated withdrawals spread over a decade. Ever since 1991 there have been close to 30 winter attempts.
Daniele Nardi and Tom Ballard, who had teamed up in 2017 to climb Link Sar in Pakistan, had chosen a rather difficult yet the most direct and most familiar route to Nanga Parbat top through Mummery Rib this year. It was Daniele Nardi’s fifth attempt to scale Nanga Parbat whereas Tom Ballard was doing a 8000 meters climb for the first time. Both were assisted by two experienced Pakistani high altitude porters Rehmatullah Baig and Karim Hayat. By December 31, the four men team was out for their first acclimatization/route assessment ascent. The month of January was completely consumed without a meaningful success despite repeated attempts and reaching up to 6000 meters, mainly due to severity of winter weather resulting in snow avalanches and high speed winds. A narrow escape from an avalanche on December 26 at Camp 2 resulted in two Pakistani companions abandoning the expedition leaving the pair alone in pursuit of their chosen dream. It was there yet another attempt started on February 19 which ended at 6300 meters at Camp 3, their last known location before they lost communication. Teaming up of Daniele and Tom not only exemplifies the bond between two mountaineers but also solidifies the fact that this very spirit is ever present in these two societies – many a times joining up for higher challenges.
It was Tom Ballard and Daniele Nardi’s inborn burning desire which compelled them to adopt climbing as a lifestyle with a hard to beat desire of pushing their physical limits. Let me quote Daniele Nardi from a radio interview in 2016, “No, I say that quite frankly. My thoughts concentrate much more on the Mummery spur, on this innovative path. It’s my big dream, not an obsession. Rather, it is the passion for an idea, and even more for a style, to understand the mountain and life.”
Yet the loss of such brave and highly skilled souls raises plausible questions of what if they could be saved. Yes, there are always possibilities and probabilities in conduct and decision making which could be analyzed to avoid the loss of life before it enters the realm of the inevitable. Following various blogs on climbing, both domestic and international, one is confronted with endless stream of questions about possibilities of rescue, some reflecting frustration. If not addressed by the professionals, some of the remarks can potentially lead to anguish, especially for the families. Therefore, one aim of writing this piece is to explain a few specific intricacies, human and machine limitations confronted with unpredictability of weather eventually leading to some inevitabilities of high altitude climbing especially once it is done in Alpine style and in winters. Nevertheless, the primary purpose of this article is to pay tribute to the boundary pushing innate spirit of human endurance and resolve to attain a seemingly impossible objective – appreciating Daniele Nardi with whom I developed liking and friendship ever since I wrote an article on the rescue of Élisabeth Revol in January 2018 (the partner of Daniele during climbing Nanga Parbat in the winter of 2013). I found in him a soul as gentle as a feather, a deep meditating heart and a resolute spirit which knew no bounds.
Winter high altitude climbing carries multiple interconnected push and pulls, both under one’s control and under divine governance which needs to be in perfect harmony. First and foremost are three interplaying time compressions. Winter season itself i.e., December 15 to March 15, apparently a large window of three months, often proves too narrow once the bad weather days are excluded. Second one is the climber’s physical compulsion to remain acclimatized for the final push to the top, which is perishable, hence time bound. It demands certain nights to be spent at 7000-7500 ft before a successful final push could be made. Third one is the climber’s physical limitation to carry a certain amount of load, especially eatables/cooking stuff and, above all, the vital technical climbing gear like ropes and a number of metal contraptions like pitons and carabiners, meaning thereby that fewer days can be planned. Mind you that in Alpine style there are no porters to carry your stuff and to establish a well provisioned higher camp affording longer wait outs and oxygen cylinders plus Gammao Bags to mitigate the altitude sickness beyond the Base Camp.
Time compressions are then intertwined with unpredictable weather forecasts. When all seems okay for the final push at Camp 3 or 4 i.e., above 6500 meters, unpredictable weather shutdown may force you down for a fresh start from Base Camp in the next weather window, though with a very less degree of guarantee. Longer stay at Base Camp due to weather or logistic compulsions stands to rob off vital acclimatization for intended upper climbs. No wonder one keeps on hearing of frequent trips up and down with varying stays at higher camp locations during winter climbs in contrast to the ones in summer.
During the coordination of this rescue effort it was quite difficult to make people understand that there are only 4-6 people in the entire world who could undertake the physical rescue and those were pre-acclimatized members of K2 winter expeditions of Russia and Spain, an undertaking which was successfully carried out while rescuing Élisabeth Revol in last winters. I would mention the similar heroic efforts of Romanian Alex Gavon when he volunteered to recover the bodies of Alberto and Mariano in end June 2017 at Mazeno Ridge of Nanga Parbat. He could do that in a very short time being in the vicinity, having being acclimatized and aided by our helicopters.
Then comes the technical limitation of the rescuing helicopter. The existing version held by Pakistan Army (Air Bus AS 350 B3e) is a class leading helicopter which has a record to land at Everest Top and in our case lands at 6000 meters in routine. Pragmatic analysis reveals that for a meaningful load capability it certainly needs a reasonably levelled and clear piece of ground to land and the altitude limit comes to 6000 meters. Hovering at 6000 meters is beyond the machine’s existing capability under defined procedures for safe operation i.e., using two pilots. This established practice has been challenged in Nepal only resulting in loss of helicopters of the same type and the loss of a legendary pilot.
Therefore, a general conclusion can be drawn that any rescue above 6000 meters i.e., 21000 ft is technically not feasible through helicopter as well. Hence, further narrowing down the probability of survival through rescue. Professional alpinists are fully aware of the fact that they may be aided through dropped supplies but any physical help is out of calculation in death zone i.e., above 7000 meters. No wonder almost all of the dead bodies in death zone are simply left there to rest forever.
Like few acclimatized mountaineers there are only a handful of pilots who remain current on high altitude flying. It’s simply out of question that a very highly skilled pilot is flown in from abroad and he is able to undertake such a rescue without affording reasonable time for his own area and altitude currency from a local pilot who is current in that setting. Pakistani High Altitude Squadron proudly known as “Fearless Fives” have undertaken three successful rescues from 19000 ft and above in 2018. Two injured British climbers Bruce Normand and Miller Timothy were successfully rescued while an Austrian mountaineer, Christian Huber’s dead body was recovered from Ultar Sar (19800 ft) on July 1, earning Spirit of Mountaineering Commendation by British Alpine Club. The dead body of 32-year-old Italian climber Maurizio Giordano was recovered from Gasherbrum IV Camp 2 (19900 ft) on July 11.
Their epitome of efficiency was, however, tested to limits once they hover picked nearly starved to death Russian Alexander Gukov, stranded for 7 days in the bad weather on a narrow ledge at 20,000 ft on Latok Peak on July 31. This widely publicized feat of courage and dedication earned the unit Medal of Courage from the Russian President. It was a well acclaimed success through a rope using helicopter that was made possible only because not only Gukov was stuck at just 6000 meters but he was strong and conscious enough to grab and hook up with dangling rope. Helicopters were especially rigged and carefully fueled to afford just few minutes of flying which was possible only in that particular setting. There are questions in international discussions about the efficacy of using two helicopters in tandem in all missions. I, being one of the pilots belonging to the same Squadron and having served there twice, offer my considered opinion that this issue may be viewed in a larger spectrum. Pilots are stationed at Skardu at an altitude of 2200 meters but when they are required to operate at altitudes of 4000 meters and above, the only hope of speedy recovery they can rely on in case of an emergency is the second helicopter, besides having two extra pairs of eyes in the sky and the feeling of operating in a military buddy style. Anyone landing straight at altitudes of above 4000 meters stands to die within hours due to high altitude effects let alone the subzero temperatures. I am also of the firm belief that two helicopters in tandem also indirectly inhibit each other from being rash under pressing situations. Nevertheless, there are procedural issues requiring attention. There is a pressing need to speed up the whole procedure to match the time constraints of winter climbing.
In a nutshell, high altitude rescue is a tight rope walk; anybody opting for winter high altitude climbing is fully aware of the potentially fatal web of physical and environmental challenges.
As regards this year’s winter expeditions to 8000 meters peaks, bad weather has forced Simone Moro to abandon Manaslu in Nepal. K2 Expedition from Russia and Kyrgyzstan led by Vassiliy Pivtsov returned back from 6200 meters without any loss of life. Whereas Spanish K2 expedition led by legendary Alex Txikon has just aborted from K2 Camp 3 on March 17 as I finalize this article.
British Alpine Club has very rightly named the commendation certificate as the Spirit of Mountaineering. This freelance spirit is independent of individuals unrestricted by creed, birth and race, though occasionally inherited by a son from a mother, like Tom Ballard. I, for one, wish to join both families in mourning the loss but at the same time salute the spirit of mountaineering and wish to see its re-emergence among many who would spend sleepless nights in pursuit of their dreams. It is the same spirit which enabled Denis Urubko and Adam Bielecki to volunteer for the rescue of Élisabeth Revol in 2018, and this time courageous display of the same spirit by Alex Txikon and his team enabled them to volunteer for physical search and rescue of Daniele Nardi and Tom Ballard. Finding it too risky to climb further than Camp 2, Alex walked back to Base Camp and then to Jeep Head i.e., about 50 kms only to join his team at K2 Base Camp. I also thank Nazir Sabir sahib, Pride of Performance holder, for helping me edit the article. Let me also extend special thanks to Daniele Nardi and Tomasz Mackiewicz for many underprivileged children studying in those very schools who were looked after by them during each of their pilgrimage to Nanga Parbat. I will end my article with Tom Ballard’s words during an interview: “Mountaineering is a quiet thing, especially at the summit, when you feel you have achieved something. Climbing is a combination of things: beauty, danger and a sense of achievement. And it’s addictive.”
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