Feature – A Rescue that Wasn’t

Matt Farrell gets into trouble in the mountains of Pakistan

WORDS & IMAGES: Mat Farrell

I wake up in a bed. I haven’t slept in one in a month… two months? My fingertips are swollen, split and stiff. My feet a mass of blisters. My lips burnt and tender, but I’m otherwise fine. Sergiu is more or less the same. I still woke with the sun at 5.30am. I can’t be in bad condition then, although I feel that I ought to be.

Two weeks earlier, Sergiu and I had set off to climb a new route on a rarely climbed 7500m peak in the Karakoram, Yukshin Gardan Sar. Sergiu and Ollie had been doing valuable glaciology fieldwork in the area, investigating the presence of glacial lakes, which risked rupturing and razing the villages and towns downstream. Tim and I were there to photograph their work and shoot a documentary about it, respectively.

Sergiu Jiduc navigating crevasses on the plateau above Camp One.

Sergiu Jiduc navigating crevasses on the plateau above Camp One.

When the science was done, Tim, Serg and I planned to climb a new route on the mountain, partly for personal joy, partly to attract media attention for the trip. It felt good to be able to tell folk that we were a part of a useful climate change and natural disaster scientific investigation with climbing tacked on, rather than hedonism with token scientific justification.

Days before the climb, Tim tore a ligament in his ankle ice climbing and had to cancel his membership. Serg and I set off for Yukshin.

Serg had done a monumental job of putting the expedition together, contacting and convincing sponsors to back us, finding and vetting the team, and many other tireless jobs. He was used to leading and he had an impressive climbing resume, including the appropriate altitude experience, which I lacked. Our initial forays onto technical ground, however, soon showed him to be an under-confident, even under-equipped climber. I started wondering if this was a worrying combination. Fortunately, without resorting to confrontation, or even many words on the topic, Serg was happy enough to relinquish control of the climbing to me.

The climbing went well, although it was way more arduous and tedious than I’d naively imagined a 7000m peak to be. Despite wanting to climb pure alpine style, we did double trips to each higher camp – first to drop off food then returning the next day with equipment. This method helped us acclimatise and move the heavy loads. If anything, it left us more committed than a more self-contained ascent would have.

The view across the valley from Camp Three, the mighty peak of Kanjut Sar.

The view across the valley from Camp Three, the mighty peak of Kanjut Sar.

The initial glacier approach was hellish. I’ve never entered such a fragmented, cut-up glacier. I didn’t like the look of the serac mazes we would climb on the first 1000m of vertical gain and 3km of horizontal, especially with full packs. The one concession was getting this crap out of the way early in the climb. If it was unacceptably difficult, we weren’t too committed to return.

The glacier proved horrid but manageable with lots of technical skill and route finding. I’ve been proud of entire routes that were less technical than this initial approach. The next few days were more straightforward, and the climbing became classically interesting.

It was wonderful to engage with the mountain, to navigate, climb and live within portions of it that at first are mere lines traced by fingertips on a photograph, but which then became streets, avenues and suburbs to us. We worked hard in the increasing altitude. It was never easy in the thinning air and decreasing temperature, but we moved well and earned our high camp at 6400m. Sergiu was content to be guided and looked after, and I was happy with the responsibility and extra work. We’d taken over a week to get here, though the time felt immaterial. Serg did what he did best and kept track of the numbers, knowing we had enough gas, food and meal supplements to keep us strong for as long as planned and a bit more.

He eventually worked out my secret porridge recipe was a packet of sweet biscuits, a handful of milk powder and some sachets of Mountain Fuel supplement. Serg later proclaimed it a fantastic start to each day, although I’d never eat it back on flat ground. The farts alone wouldn’t be worth it.

Sergiu rounds the final hills en route to Camp One.

Sergiu rounds the final hills en route to Camp One.

Our summit day was the first pre-dawn start of the entire trip. Alpine starts are always filled with trepidation. You try to sleep much earlier than is natural, mind racing with the mingled fears of missing the 1am alarm, the horrid cold anticipated and the unknown climbing ahead. We needed enough daylight for our final 1100m of climbing over unseen ground, so had several hundred metres of 60 degree ice headwall to climb in the dark, followed by a long ridge. We slept fitfully, our minds caught in torturous dream loops that wouldn’t let go.

At 1am my alarm went off. We melted snow for breakfast and bashed frozen boots onto our feet. We stamped into crampons, flaked ropes and I stepped off our serac-top campsite and onto the head wall. The bite of my axes matched by the bite of the cold air in my lungs. Freezing nose hair and my bristling moustache told me it was at least -30 degrees. Serg soon called up to me, though, that he had to turn back as his feet were freezing and wouldn’t warm up. We returned to the tent. I gave the miserable bugger a load of the day’s chocolate ration and made him hot drinks to return him to health.

We spent that day dozing, listening to music and cutting up pieces of space blanket to line Serg’s boot-inners for a possible attempt the next day. All the while we mentally juggled the weather report my wife Kim had satellite-phoned in from Australia – ‘even more heavy snow’, though the previous ‘heavy snow’ days had made a Christmas shortbread tin scene look like Niflheim by comparison. We felt that conditions would be good.

The next morning was noticeably less cold (though my altimeter watch still gave up at -10). We repeated the previous day’s procedure, but this time made it halfway up the headwall. Stellar ice slowly gave way to metre-deep snow. Not ideal for a 60 degree slope, especially with kilometres of exposure at our heels. I was also having grave thoughts about the avalanche risk. We’d seen many slides in recent days, and I had no desire to see one from the inside. With the end of Kim’s last text, ‘recommend you get down off that hill’ still echoing in my head, we once again started down.

We rested at Camp Three again that day, with its precarious yet gorgeous view, half of the Karakoram open to view. It is a weird juxtaposition, feeling anchored to a tiny patch of safe ground while simultaneously part of a wide-open world. It snowed. Gently, but it snowed.

The next morning we planned to retreat to Camp One, at the top of the horrid part of the glacier. Still it snowed. Serg’s still-cold feet and fear of down-climbing kept us slow, and we only made it to Camp Two, which was on one side of a wide corridor, with the bulk of the mountain’s steep flanks opposite us. We dug out our return-food stash and set up the tent.

Sergiu brewing up at Camp Three.

Sergiu brewing up at Camp Three.

During that afternoon and night those steep flanks delivered many artillery-barrages of avalanches. We were out of range of the shrapnel, though the aftershocks would stove in the lee wall of the tent and ice crystals would puff in through the air vents. We were safe, but suitably respectful. It continued to snow.

Conditions had been fine before now, but the mix of heavy snow, daily moving and living in a tiny single-skin tent meant we started mashing frozen condensation into our sleeping bags every time we packed them. The tent became bigger and heavier every time we scored and folded up its rimed walls. We ran out of gas. Serg didn’t really believe me when I refused to make him a hot water bottle at Camp Two. We might just have enough gas at breakfast time, I said – which was going to be freeze-dried meals, as the special porridge had run out too.

The next day was once again arduous. We’d finished the descent of the mountain-proper and started across the upper glacier to roughly where Camp One should have been. We had no solid intentions of stopping, hoping to hit the valley floor if all went well. All wasn’t well. It continued snowing. It was desperately hard work. The snow was so deep that even downhill movement was very hard. Up-hill progress between undulations was horrific.

We debated where to go. Serg was in favour of a new descent route – over a shoulder we’d seen days ago, then abseil down a steeper part of the mountain where it looked clean. It sounded nice, but I was wary of getting lost in uncharted territory when we were already out of gas and most food. I pulled rank, and attempted to retrace via Camp One. We didn’t find it, but pulled up exhausted in the rough vicinity. We mixed the last of our water with some meal supplement and slept, knowing that the last remaining chocolate block would be our fuel down the horror-glacier.

Half a block of dark chocolate to share for breakfast, then score, fold and pack the tent, and we were off. Still it snowed. Still it was friggin’ hard. As we’d missed Camp One we were in uncharted territory. We knew generally where we needed to go, but there were so many micro-choices over crevasses and around seracs that had us lost. Every backtrack was disheartening, burning calories we couldn’t afford. By midday we hadn’t made it far at all. We still had to clear 1000m vertically over several horizontal kilometres covered in thick snow. Serg’s feet were still numb and he was relying on me to get him down. My thumbs were starting to cramp shut with alarming frequency, and my fingertips were continuing to split and get sore from the cold. We weren’t totally screwed, but I could foresee things going badly wrong.

limbing above Camp Two; the altitude was really slowing us down by this point.

Climbing above Camp Two; the altitude was really slowing us down by this point.

We’d been maintaining three daily radio schedules with Base Camp whenever our signal would get through. At the 1pm schedule, eating our last half block of chocolate – with Serg’s naked feet trying to warm themselves in my armpits – I called in a rescue.

I’d never come remotely close to calling in the cavalry before. I’d been in fearful, painful and dire situations in the mountains, but this was different. This was clinical – we were in a dire situation that I thought we may not survive, and I didn’t know when we’d next get a clean radio signal through. I chose to seek help, especially as it might take some time to materialise.

We put in the call, finished our chocolate and kept trying to descend. After all, no-one had a precise fix on our location and we may yet need to get ourselves out anyway. It would be a damning report on our social expectations to simply give up now and “wait for daddy to fetch us”. For the rest of our world, however, we’d started a shit-storm of activity and worry.

After telling Tim at Base Camp to initiate a helicopter rescue, we also sat-phoned Tim’s dad in the UK. Our rescue insurance was with the Austrian Alpine Club, and Tim’s dad was our designated liaison. With the last minute of our sat-phone battery I got just enough time to tell the guy we needed a heli-rescue from 5000m on Yukshin glacier. I didn’t even get time to tell the poor bastard his son was safe, and not with us. I wasn’t at all sure how much of the message he got before the electrons stopped moving and the phone snapped off.

The author's hands after coming off the hill.

The author’s hands after coming off the hill.

Meanwhile, Tim became our local centre of rescue coordination. Our other sat-phone was with our guide Ali Saltoro in Shimshal village, five hours walk away. Tim dispatched Ollie and Shar-Ali (one of our base camp staff) to Shimshal to get Ali to simultaneously try and launch a heli. More than guide, Ali was incredibly capable as our Pakistani fixer. He had contacts and influence everywhere in the abidingly corrupt and bureaucratic Pakistan. He was able to clear our baggage from freight during the nation-stopping Eid holidays, he secured dinners with former army bashars, and now proved invaluable in launching a helicopter. For although my logic was that a level-headed European could liaise with the Austrian Alpine Club and swing enough international clout to arrange a heli-rescue in little ole’ Pakistan, this was not so. Apparently it takes a briefcase loaded with US$30,000 up-front to start the rotor blades turning, and that is precisely what Ali’s friend NaikNam had in hand, and something which the AAC was completely unprepared for and incapable of when Tim’s dad telephoned the nice lady in their British office.

For the rest of that day, Serg and I struggled around, up, and overall, downward, debating our rescue call and making pitiful progress.

Serg was starting to worry about fallout from partial sponsors like the Royal Geographic Society, who didn’t necessarily know about the climbing portion of the expedition. Accurately, he reasoned, we weren’t actually injured or incapacitated yet. He begged me to call off the rescue until we were more certainly stuck. I was aware that we were out of all of nearly all resources. I stuck to my guns.

By day’s end I spotted a rocky outcrop on the side of the glacier we knew from the way up. It had free flowing water and was half a day’s climb to the valley floor if we found the same route again. We set camp within sight, perhaps 500m from the outcrop. We still didn’t have certainty of reaching it without incident the next morning, or of finding a smooth route down from there, but I was once again happy with our odds and radioed Tim to cancel the rescue. We stuffed our water bottles with snow, put them in our jackets to melt overnight (giving us each 100ml of water by morning), and wriggled into damp, thirsty, cold, hungry sleep.

At first light the next morning Tim dispatched chef Moscow’s assistant Ishq to Shimshal to call off the dogs. Fleet footed Ishq raced down the moraine and river flat in three hours.

It bears saying that whilst Ali was able to call on his friend NaikNam, it was hardly a simple snap of his fingers to procure US$30k. Ollie had been on the phone to NaikNam, and hesitated at the point of becoming verbal guarantor for the cash. Tim’s dad was called, who by this point was convinced that it was Ollie and Tim in trouble on the mountain. Ollie’s girlfriend was alerted, and frantic. Tim’s dad bought a load of sat-phone credit for the coordinated effort, personally guaranteed the rescue funds and continued to work on getting our heli.

Ali and his long-time Shimshali friend Hasil packed their own axes and crampons, ready to jump in a chopper and abseil from its open doors to our rescue. They not only took the welfare of their clients seriously, they also felt an obligation to their brother alpinists. Sitting on the sidelines was not an option for them.

The ex-army-run rescue service had meanwhile leaked news of the pending disaster and the local media was spreading word fast. My last message to Kim had been that we were on our way down, but we were now overdue without sending word. My father had caught word and was trying to get a flight to Pakistan.

While this truly international effort raged, Ishq ran to Shimshal, and Serg and I began another hungry, thirsty day.

Poetically, I’d like to think that Ishq banging on Ali’s gate set off an instantaneous chain-reaction of Ali’s call to NaikNam, who failed to release his grip on the briefcase, while Tim’s dad slumped back in his office chair at the instant Serg and I took our first gulps of fresh water in days. The truth was drawn out of over half a day, with tears, sweat and shouting interspersed, but the imagery works for me. A pertinent fact, however, is that Ishq burst breathlessly into Shimshal and found Ali not 30 minutes before NaikNam would have handed over his briefcase, the point of financial no return.

Oblivious to the chaos, Serg and I continued, somewhat fortified by the water and the knowledge of our position. We had the choice of finding something akin to our ascent route through the glacier, or risking abseils between the glacier and the rocky crag we were on. With even sounding odds, we went with the possibly quicker of the two and abseiled. Sure enough, rapid progress didn’t last and we hit another maze of crevasses and seracs.

Tim limped to Advanced Base Camp with food and gas, hoping to meet us with hugs and hot drinks. By 3pm it was apparent we wouldn’t arrive by nightfall. Tim had travelled light and had no bivy gear, so he returned to Base Camp. Serg and I battled on. Every serac, every bizarre abseil/clamber we hoped to be the last. Eventually, well after dark we abseiled off a snow bollard into space, and landed in the final crevasse. We clambered out onto a debris cone which we knew led straight to the valley floor. Roped up, we almost ran down the cone to comparatively flat ground and safety.

In the dark, with one good headlamp remaining between us, we stumbled through the night, slowing to a crawl up and tumbling down the undulations of the lower glacier.­ In our state, it took hours to find the remains of Advanced Base Camp. Locating the tent was hard. Finding and demolishing a packet of biscuits each before we’d even got crampons off was easy. In the course of time, we chipped off our frozen crampons and boots, harnesses and overpants and lit the stove. We jovially slipped into wet sleeping bags and started on soup and freeze-dried meals. My usual favourite chili-con-carne was murderous on my tender, burnt lips, sending me into fits of sweating and shivering. I woke at 6am, curled tight in my sleeping bag. Serg soon woke too, and we resumed eating.

After a few hours of lounging we were joined by a pair of porters who carried the bulk of our gear back for us. In our home countries these chaps would have pulled an aged pension. Here they pulled 30kg backpacks whilst two broken young men limped behind.

Base Camp was no more, having been cleared by porters before we got back. We were met by Tim’s hugs and a teary, fretful Moscow. His hands shook as he tore open biscuit packets and filled mugs with soup. It was sobering to see how concerned he was at our well-being. We later learned that this normally taciturn man has on other occasions been left at base camp while his charges were lost in the hills, some of them never to return.

After we’d eaten and rested a while, we strapped boots back on swollen feet and beat it back to Shimshal.

As I’ve sat in the sun writing, I’ve met many villagers, all relieved, ‘alḥamdulillāh’ that we are down safe. I’ve made phone calls to relieved parents and Kim, and have been hit anew by the gravity and breadth of the world’s awareness of our predicament. I’m jointly grateful for the speedy network of communications that spread across the planet, whilst simultaneously upset that so many were given cause to worry unnecessarily. This certainly impacts my interest in returning to hills much more than the events themselves. I hope my friends and family’s emotions heal faster than my fingertips.

Matt Farrell

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