Written By: Major General Muhammad Khalil Dar
Night of January 26, 2018 was a routine cold winter night with temperature well below freezing point. The pilots of Pakistan Army Aviation High Altitude Squadron based in Skardu were busy having dinner with officers from Frontier Works Organisation (FWO) when few of them noticed signs of growing worry on the face of their Commanding Officer (CO) while attending a telephone call. 2130 hours was the time when first information was received regarding brewing tragedy at Nanga Parbat. At 8126 meters, this majestic mountain, that, ranks 9th in 8000 meters above class, holds 3rd position in numbers of lives it has consumed, is fairly named as The Killer Mountain.
The mission received, though quite ordinary in relative terms of flying, but it was increasingly difficult to fathom in scope of its entirety and precedence even for the experienced minds. Two world acclaimed climbers, Mr. Tomasz Mackiewicz, a Polish national and Ms. Elisabeth Revol, a French national were stranded at height of 7400 meters and 6500 meters respectively. While successfully having attempted the summit in Alpine Style, they were forced to take refuge owing to very high winds. Alpine Style meant that they only had few carefully calculated provisions and critically depended on reaching the tent site before nightfall. They were exposed for three days and were now badly suffering from frostbite and extreme exhaustion reduced to hours of survival. For their help four rescuers were to be heli-lifted from K2 Base Camp flown across Skardu Valley and dropped at Nanga Parbat Base Camp. They would then climb up and try reaching the stranded climbers. All this had to be done without losing any further time. But what overshadowed the whole undertaking was unfavourable prevailing weather conditions and not so promising forecast. By late night January 26, it was abundantly clear that a miracle alone could save the two stranded climbers.
Dawn of January 27 slipped into a typical winter day of Skardu and the valley remained engulfed in seemingly unconcerned static clouds, ditching all hopes. 250 kms to NE at K2 Base Camp gloom must have been overpowering on finding the morning full of low clouds and strong winds. Thousands of miles west in France and Poland families of the stranded climbers were awake all night praying for some miracle to happen. Wife of Mr. Tomasz, Anna Antonina Solska along with her three young children pinned all hopes on the mercy of Mother Nature and strongest display of courage by the elite Polish rescuers.
At K2 Base Camp Jaroslaw Botor (Team leader), Denis Urubko, Adam Bielecki and Piotr Tomala were ready in their rescue gear which included things ranging from oxygen cylinders to Gamova Bag. While they waited with waning hopes they must have been shrugging off the worst fears which every high altitude climber is aware of i.e., succumbing to merciless breathlessness and exhaustion under freezing conditions. One can certainly assume that whenever they looked at their watches they had flashes of images about the predicament faced by their fellow climbers in the frigidness of Nanga Parbat which could go to minus 60 degrees Celsius below freezing point. The pilots at Skardu, however, utilized these few early hours in calculating the weights and temperatures to the smallest details and planning ahead for possible variations in the seemingly impossible undertaking.
Just before noon it seemed that prayers of families and friends were joining somewhere far above Nanga Parbat as the clouds started to lift up, rekindling the hopes at Skardu. At 1130 hours a video link at K2 Base Camp was established by Mr. Dariusez; a fellow member of K2 Expedition. It was ascertained that Mother Nature could offer a window of opportunity should the brave ones were ready to grasp. As the luck would have it, Mr. Dariusez himself had been rescued on helicopters few days ago following high altitude sickness and now needed to be dropped at K2 Base Camp anyway. A little more time was spent in double checking the weather through military detachments along the Baltoro Glacier before taking the critical decision of going for it. It had turned into a situation of now or never. By 1245 hours a standard team of two Ecureuil helicopters and four pilots (Lt Col Anjum Rafique, Maj Fakhar-e-Abbas, Maj Jehanzeb Qazi and Maj Hussain Hamid) along with Mr. Dariusez and a technician took off for 45 minutes’ flying to K2 Base Camp. Helicopters touched down briefly at Payu (3100 meters) to drop the technician who had to work very hard for preparation of quick refuelling of helicopters before returning to Skardu.
As per the official release by the K2 expedition leader the elite team of Polish rescuers were picked up at 1330 hours from K2 Base Camp. It’s not hard to imagine the mixed feelings at K2 Base Camp. Gloom, hope and above all the highest human virtue of courage in the face of death while saving the fellow human beings must have been all mixed. Even the disciplined hearts of the elite team must have been sinking and beating up high simultaneously as they knew very well that what they were up to that had never been attempted before. Surely they were hardened and passionate climbers and pilots who enjoyed facing death while fulfilling their dreams and missions.
After landing at Skardu, the combined team of pilots and rescuers appreciated the next part of flying while the technicians refuelled the helicopters to the calculated precision. Every passing minute must have been viewed as adding up against the success of the mission, which now started looking doable. In the race against time at 1540 hours the helicopters took off for the most critical part of the mission. A higher but shorter route of flying was chosen to save on time. Lt Col Anjum’s conversation must have soothed Jaroslaw Botor (Team Leader), Denis Urubko and Adam Bielecki when he told them that he was quite familiar with Nanga Parbat especially the Diamir approach route known as Kinshofer Route (one of the nine routes discovered and named after a German climber in 1962). It’s also not hard to imagine that what must have been going on in the mind of Lt Col Anjum Rafique. On one hand he was confident about the ability of his newly acquired machine i.e., Ecureuil 350 B3 coupled with his past experience of rescuing Italian climbers Mr. Simone Kehrer and Walter Nones back in 2008. On the other hand, his shoulders must had been weighing heavy with every passing minute as there was hardly two hours of daylight left.
Luckily Denis Urubko and Adam Bielecki were veteran winter climbers. Adam Bielecki is known for the first winter ascents of the Gasherbrum-I and Broad Peak (both 8000 meters). While Denis Urubko known as Snow Leopard has climbed all 8000 meters peaks and holds world’s speed climb records. Both were familiar with the Kinshofer Route having climbed it with Italian Daniele Nardi (played the pivotal role in gathering international support for this rescue mission).
A quick and mutually agreed discussion led to the conclusion that if the helicopters drop the team at Base Camp then they would probably require more than 24 hours and super human efforts just to reach the last reported location of Ms. Elisabeth Revol. But if somehow they were dropped just below the massive snow wall i.e., 1000 meters below the reported location then the shadows of death could be countered. The odds of her survival could swing in her favour as the rescuers would be only 6-8 hours away and of course a lot more fresh to handle her and bring her back after finding her. Pilots made quick calculations and were able to drop the team of dare devils where they wanted. This was the second critical decision on the part of pilots which mainly contributed to the eventual success of this epic rescue mission. It was a living example of a miracle-in-making beyond any doubts.
Now one has to switch to none other than Mr. Nazir Sabir (President’s Medal for Pride of Performance) who was amongst the first professional high altitude climbers to post a constant stream of updates on his Facebook page. Excerpts were also taken from official report released on January 29 by Polish Winter K2 Expedition leader Mr. Krzysztof Wielicki.
By the time the team successfully got dropped it was already 1700 hours with sun setting on their backs and soon the temperature would be plummeting steeply. The real race against the time had begun. Two of the best acclimatized veteran climbers Denis Urubko and Adam Bielecki started steep climbing up the snow wall anticipating to cover a kilometre i.e., 1000 meters before dawn. It was not an ordinary climb as they were heavily loaded with rescue equipment, not taken under normal circumstances especially the heavy Gamova Bag. But they were lucky on two accounts, Kinshofer route is historically well provisioned with anchored ropes and there was little snow in relative terms. With these two factors on their side they could undertake a steep climb at night with better speed. Meanwhile rest of the two climbers, Jaroslaw Botor (a medic and team leader) and Piotr Tomala, started establishing camp and communication. By 0200 hours on January 28 i.e., about 8 hours later both the valiant climbers had climbed 1100 meters and it was then that they heard the faint replies of collapsing Elisabeth Revol. She was indeed up to proving her acclaimed courage, strength and endurance as she had descended few hundred meters herself to catch up with her rescuers. It was somewhere above the Camp 2 at the dizzying height of 6,130 meters i.e., 20,229 feet and temperature touching 60 degrees Celsius below freezing point. It’s the height where Turboprop Airliners fly and it’s the temperature 5 times below the household Deep Freezer.
She was taken into a quickly set up two-men tent and administered with medicines and hot drinks. She was suffering from severe hand and left foot frostbite besides extreme exhaustion. Before giving her rest till the day break she was asked the most anticipated question i.e., whereabouts and physical condition of her co-climber Tomasz Mackiewicz. It was the most disheartening information. Tomasz had been left by her at an altitude of 7280 meters (27000 feet) in a snow cave with a sleeping bag. Three nights of exposure had rendered him disoriented mentally, a typical condition of High Altitude Sickness, and severely frostbitten hence, ruling out any possibility of his further descent at his own. He must have calculated his survival chances in a manner that a true high altitude climber alone is capable of. He wilfully sent Elisabeth down to fetch help and save herself if possible–many hours had passed by then. This was the extreme display of human courage at 27000 ft. One can imagine how hard it must have been for Ms. Elisabeth, too. They made a good pair for Alpine Climbing Style. Both were here at Nanga Parbat in 2016/17 for winter ascent which they had to abort due to strong winds and extreme cold. But this time things were different–they had to face the worst nightmare of high altitude climbing.
After having consulted the leader, the most painful decision was made in that small two-men tent i.e., not to endanger the lives further. The deciding factor was extremely harsh conditions, including a wind chill factor of -62 Celsius and winds of 80 kmh.
Denis Urubko and Adam Bielecki had to begin the descent without Mr. Tomasz. By 1300 hours i.e., after a little more than 20 gruelling hours of superhuman efforts they were safely flying back in helicopters on their way to Jaglot. Ms. Elisabath was then flown in a helicopter directly to Islamabad where she was shifted to medical centre in Islamabad before she was flown to France. As of now she is critical; but has survived a life threatening ordeal high above the clouds without drinking and eating, and without shelter, for days. She defied a certain death. The four Polish heroes were flown back to Skardu on same day where they await the weather to clear so they can join back their expedition; the expedition leader is also anxiously waiting for them to join in.
But what a heroic end of one of the greatest Alpine Style Climber i.e., Mr. Tomasz Mackiewicz. Before leaving this world, he proudly left inheritance in addition to his three children–that he was the first ever, along with the Revol, to climb a new winter alpine style route on Nanga Parbat. "Tomek's love for Nanga Parbat almost verges on mania," Stefan Nestler, who covers adventure sports, wrote in November 2017. This was his 7th ascend at Nanga Parbat. Sadly he was only 43.
This time he seemed to have preferred staying forever in his dream and joining many climbers who were there to greet him. I am sure that he must be very happy finding himself amongst the mighty climbers Jose Antonio Delgado (July 2006), Karl Unterkircher (2008), Iranian Saman Nemati (2008), Austrian Wolfgang Kolblinger (2009) and above all the only female climber losing her life, Go Mi-Young (2009). We all pray to God to bestow peace on his family and bless his soul. He was indeed a great man. We all join Anna Antonina Solska in thanking the elite rescue team, who tried to save her husband Tomasz Mackiewicz risking their own lives.
Professionally speaking, right at the apex is the courage of the Polish rescue climbers who decided to undertake this seemingly impossible venture upfront. It was duly matched with the extraordinary display of human resilience by Ms. Elisabeth Revol who defied a certain death. Pivotal contributing factors are the professional judgments and honed flying skills of the pilots of 5 Army Aviation High Altitude Squadron. They operate in the most unforgiving geography. By doing this they have kept the flag of the Squadron high and demonstrated that they are worthy of being known as the “Fearless Five”. Last but not the least, are the back stage hectic efforts by the tour operator Mr. Ali Saltoro and Brig Ikram (Retd), Director of Pakistan Adventure Foundation in coordinating the rescue operation. Being an aviator, I consider it unfair not to acknowledge the technical superiority of recently acquired Ecureuil 350-B3 helicopters which afforded the speed and ability to operate at higher altitudes with greater safety.
“There are people who are willing to put their lives at stake to pursue a freedom that has not compromised, far from the logic that most people share. Those people recognize them from how they talk about past adventures and adventures they will face because the challenge is the ultimate expression of the desire to live”.