Rescue and tragedy on Nanga Parbat

28th Jan 2018

I had just tweeted about Poland’s rich mountaineering heritage and how impressive the current Polish attempt to complete a first winter ascent of K2 is when someone tweeted a reply about the team being involved in a rescue attempt on Nanga Parbat.  I thought they must be mistaken but had a search around the internet to see if that was the case.  

Sure enough, my feeds were soon alive with the news that a rescue was underway and some of the K2 team were involved.  The French climber Elisabeth Revel and Polish mountaineer Tomek Mackiewicz were trapped high on the mountain during their descent from the summit.  Tomek was suffering from frostbite and snow blindness and was situated at around 7280 metres and Elisabeth was lower at around 6600 metres and, although suffering the same physical problems, was somewhat more mobile than Tomek who had been seen to be crawling.  

Nanga Parbat has a terrifying reputation for danger even in the normal climbing season and yet it had only had its first winter ascent last year.  The stormy weather patterns and the intense cold make an ascent of such a mountain in winter a superhuman effort at the limits of the possible.  Tomek and Elisabeth were well aware of this as both had history of attempts on the mountain in winter.

After people became aware that the pair were in trouble an amazing rescue effort was mobilised.  A Crowdfunding campaign was initiated to raise funds for a helicopter and within a matter of hours ten of thousands of dollars were raised.  The Pakistani government agreed to the use of a helicopter and some of the elite Polish K2 expedition team volunteered to try and help.

Despite challenging weather four members of the K2 expedition were flown to camp one on Nanga Parbat and so, while members Jaroslaw Botor and Piotr Tomala established a camp, Denis Urubko and Adam Bielecki climbed over 1000 metres in complete darkness to reach Elisabeth.  They then managed to descend with her over technical and the group were picked up at camp one by the helicopter.  

Elisabeth was soon on the way to hospital by helicopter and the Polish team members were taken back to K2 Basecamp.  Tragically, the assessment of the rescue team was that any attempt to reach Tomek was too dangerous and he has had to be left high on the mountain, presumed dead.  Tomek leaves behind a wife and 3 children.

This is a story of the limits of human endeavour, comradeship, success, tragic loss and the incredible physical efforts some will put themselves through to help others.  It is such a terrible shame that it couldn’t have had a completely happy ending and yet at least the saving of one life is to be celebrated.  Given the incredible circumstances, it is amazing news that either climber survived.  

The whole rescue is also an amazing example of the power of the internet and technology. I worry  a lot about some of the negative aspects of our online world and yet here is a prime example of its positivity. Within a short time of people becoming aware there was a problem (I understand they had a satellite phone, tracking equipment and radios), an online fund raising effort could be set up and within a few hours tens of thousands could be raised.  During this time a team of rescuers could be mobilised at a base camp 100 miles away and arrangements could be made with the governments of Pakistan, France and Poland.  A helicopter could then transport the team in challenging weather and, ultimately, a person could be rescued and soon on the way to medical care.  

While all that was happening, the power of the internet also meant those wanting information from around the world could be kept informed.  If you look online there is tracking of the K2 rescuers flight to Nanga Parbat, audio of the moment Denis meets Elisabeth high on the mountain, Instagram photos of the rescue team at various stages and of Elisabeth arriving at hospital, video of the K2 leaving by helicopter and now endless news reports and analysis.  More personally, there are messages left on Tomek’s Facebook page and surely there will be many more of those to come.

The whole situation is utterly tragic and my warmest sympathies go out to Tomek’s devastated family.  But, just as the internet helped with the rescue efforts, at least now there is the chance for the family to receive financial help via the ongoing crowdfunding campaign and some emotional support via the opportunities to leave messages of support and consolation.  It seems impossible to conceive that anything will now bring their beloved Tomek back to them, but surely knowing they have the love and support of so many millions around the world might help a little in the dark days ahead.

The internet can sometimes be considered a negative thing that has altered our lives and helped spread hatred and division, but here at least is an example of its immense opportunities to help others and share collective love and support.  The K2 rescuers have, I understand, now returned to their mountain and it will be both fascinating and thrilling to continue watching their ascent attempt - but please take exceptional care up there guys. 

Posted by Paul

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