The ‘Rescue Mission Impossible’ at 19,700 Feet

This was the first-ever unprecedented historical landing at the height of 19,700ft. Sitting closely on a razor sharp ridge, a little mistake or judgment error could have been fatal for all.

 

It was rise of a calm sunny day on May 29, 2018 when three seasoned climbers Bruce Normand, Timothy Miller and Christian Huber kicked off expedition of Ultar Sar Peak. While both Bruce and Tim hailed from Britain, Mr. Huber joined them from Austria. All three climbers hold a special affection for Pakistan’s Northern Areas, evident from their expeditions of peaks in the previous climbing seasons.


After joyously flying to Gilgit and passing through the Fairy Meadows, they checked into a beautiful riverside resort at Hunza. The selection of both time and weather for trekking were ideal. Eager to get close to their destination, they travelled alongside Hunza River for 5-6 hours and reached Karimabad. Here, persistent refreshing sound of Hunza River flowing parallel to the road was constantly adding to their excitement. 


Their mission to scale Ultar Sar was no doubt an arduous job but their resolve was even higher than the peak itself. Ultar Sar (also Ultar, Ultar II, Bojohagur Duanasir II) is the south easternmost major peak of the Batura Muztagh, a sub-range of the Karakoram. It lies about 10 kms northeast of Karimabad, a town on the Karakoram Highway in the Hunza Valley. Though it is not one of the highest peaks of the Karakoram, Ultar Sar (24,238 ft) is notable for its dramatic rise above local terrain. Its southern flank rises over 17,388 feet above the Hunza River near Karimabad in just a flip of 10 kms. It is a visually striking peak in Batura group of mountains of Karakorum. The prominent surrounding peaks covering Ultar are Ladyfinger, Marble, Harchinder, Passu and Diran peaks. There are also famous glaciers surrounding such as Attabad, Ultar, Hussan Abad and Batura. Technically, it is hard, steady ice, over-hanging rocks, crevasses and sharp ridges. In the past, it was attempted by many expeditions, but all of them failed. The only expedition which could scale this peak in 1997 was from Japan.


Bruce, the team leader of the trio, joined local tour guide Abdul Ghafoor. A 51-year-old physicist by profession, he had been to Pakistan thirteen times before as part of various expeditions. But Mr. Miller, a 21-year-old geology student, was making his first attempt in Pakistan. 


From Karimabad, they reached Shahabad and stayed there for two weeks to acclimatize themselves. The team set out and reached the Ahmadabad base camp on June 18, 2018, fully geared with requisite hiking equipment. It was after two days that they commenced their actual journey using Alpine style climbing technique to scale the Ultar Sar Peak in perfect weather. Such style of climbing is a mountaineering technique influenced by  self-sufficiency carrying all of one's food, shelter, equipment, etc. as one climbs up. While, they kept trekking towards Camp-1 and then to Camp-2, they started encountering the difficulties posed by over-hanging ridges on one hand and dreads of treacherous weather on the other. On June 27, 2018, the weather turned much worse than forecasted. At just over 19,700 ft they settled in for a break so they could go back down, digging a platform in the snow for their three-man tent at Camp-2. During the night of 29/30 June 2018, at about 0100 hours they were stuck due to heavy snow blizzards and deadly avalanche. The avalanche covered them under a 6ft layer of ice. It was a big challenge to fight and survive.  Their the final test came in the form of game of nerves started. Tim ripped his way out of their buried tent with his teeth and battled to the surface before digging to save the life of his trapped comrades, Bruce and Christian. The pair from Glasgow could make it as Tim pulled out a half-conscious Bruce from a semi-airhole. Together, they made an endeavor to trace and pull out Christian. It took them around more than an hour, however, Christian Huber, aged 40 years, had suffocated and did not survive the avalanche. Once clear of the buried tent, the pair was left in a snowstorm in only their base layers of dress and had to dig out their kit to avoid frostbite. Bruce Normand later said, “We are very disturbed and grieved that we could not save our comrade. Moreover, we feel sorry for the family members and specially Christian’s only son, that their beloved is no more”. Mr. Miller and Mr. Bruce Normand communicated their condition on a satellite phone to their tour operator for earliest rescue through helicopter. Unfortunately, on June 30, 2018, the weather did not permit the rescue attempt. These two surviving mountaineers spent two days in their broken tent, waiting for the weather to ease before they were finally air-lifted to safety by aviators of Skardu based 5 Aviation Squadron.
In such unfavorable weather conditions, pilots of 5 Aviation Squadron took off from Skardu for Ultar peak on July 1, 2018 at 0500 hours. At 0600 hours, the formation comprising two Ecureuil helicopters flown by Major Fakhar-e-Abbas with his co-pilot Major Irtaza Ali Hamdani and Major Abid Rafique along with his co-pilot Major Zia-ur-Rehman, reached Hunza. After refueling, they took off again and at around 0630 hours reached near the possible avalanche site. Then it took them almost 20 minutes of hovering to spot the exact site. The real challenge began there. Formation leader Major Fakhar-e-Abbas narrated, “We started analyzing the site for possible landing. It was an extreme altitude. To our dismay, there was utter absence of basic landing aids like windsock, marking of the helipad, leveled ground or any facilitating feature. We made several attempts to check the landing configuration and availability of some safe margins. Despite significantly reduced margins and prevailing temperature of -2 Celsius, we finally planned to land. Major Abid Rafique touched down on an ice rock very professionally and picked up Time Miller and the deceased Christian. Then I made an attempt and picked Mr. Bruce Normand with the equipment and flew back. This was the first-ever unprecedented historical landing at the height of 19,700ft. Sitting closely on a razor sharp ridge, a little mistake or judgment error could have been fatal for all. Then, at about 0730 hours, the formation safely landed back at Hunza”.


This daring mission of Major Fakhar-e-Abbas and his team in unusual and challenging circumstances was acknowledged and praised not only by the mountaineers but also by the British High Commission in Pakistan and international media. The remarkable action by Pakistan Army Aviation pilots has not only raised the morale of mountaineers who want to visit Pakistan for scaling different peaks but also improved the image of Pakistan at the international level.


We are really proud of our aviators who are not only proving their mettle in Pakistan’s war against terror but also playing their significant role in disaster relief works and in such rescue missions in challenging flying conditions.

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