K2 Expedition 2018

Jake’s K2 Blog #18: Missing Climber on Broad Peak

Location: Basecamp

Please note that I am going to keep this note short and generic, and is certainly not meant to be an official report on this incident, or should be used for reference by other parties. I am conscious that this event is still fresh in people’s minds, with some having done some heroic things, and others may have been left rather embarrassed by their actions (or lack there of) in the proceedings. My words are purely my memories and interpretations of what occurred, and may be fallible (especially considering I was exhausted from returning from my own BP summit attempt). I have also declined to name (or mention the nationalities) of anyone involved who I don’t directly know – so that the innocent and guilty alike are protected. I’m sure that in time, their own recollections/thoughts about what happened will be come public record.

When I arrived in C3 on Broad Peak ahead of my summit attempt the following morning, I met a couple of climbers who kindly gave me a cup of tea, which was immensely refreshing considering the heat of the day, even high on the mountain, when I arrived. Whilst chatting, they asked me if I’d seen (name/nationality omitted purposefully), who had left for his summit attempt some 24 hours previously. As far as I could understand, whilst not specifically the missing climber’s climbing partners, they were ostensibly on the same team. It appeared that they had all set out on a summit attempt the previous morning (although not necessarily together) and the climbers in C3 had returned after a few hours. They’d been unable to reach the missing climber on his radio, and were fearing the worst, at one point even suggesting that he was probably dead, as he’d been out for so long.

When I got up at 0130 for my summit attempt, I did ask them if there was any sign of (the missing climber), and they said no. Of course, I also assumed the worst, and throughout my summit attempt, I half expected to come across a body at any moment. The ‘team mates’ who’d started following me up soon turned back, and subsequently took down their tent and headed back down the mountain. Of course in retrospect, this does appear like they had made the decision that (the missing climber) had perished, otherwise their actions might appear to constitute an abandonment. The missing climber’s tent, along with food was left up in C3. Of course I don’t know exactly what was going through their minds when they decided to descend, and the reasons for the decisions that they made.

I made my summit attempt, and returned to BC, where I met another couple of climbers (from a separate team). They had arrived late the previous evening, and were aware of the missing climber situation. They gave me some water (again, I was parched), and we chatted about my attempt, the route, and then the missing climber – of whom none of us had any additional information. My opinion at this point (he’d now been out for 36 hours) was that the climber was dead, especially considering I’d seen no sign (nor obvious footprints or similar) on my attempt that day, even with beautiful clear skies and good visibility.

About an hour later, I received a radio call from basecamp informing me that the missing climber had been spotted – appeared to be moving, and as we were the only ones high on the mountain, could we mount a rescue. The immediate relief that he’d been seen, and was still alive (as far as we were aware), rapidly turned to a sense of helplessness and guilt as a realised that I was so exhausted from my summit attempt, that unless he was within a few hundred meters of C3, I was extremely unlikely to be able to provide anything in the way of actual help. I was struggling to even look after myself (both exhaustion and altitude related), and even though I desperately wanted to help, my body was just refusing.

I called down to the other climbers to see if they could help, and they started preparing themselves. Part of the problem at this stage was that we didn’t know exactly where the missing climber was. Apparently they could see him moving (through binoculars) from basecamp, but were finding it difficult to describe in relation to where we were.

As an aside, our LO had been relaxing in K2 BC at this point with some of his friends when he’d been told that ‘someone on a BP summit attempt has fallen and is probably dead’. Knowing that I was the only person making a summit attempt that day, poor Zaid immediately feared the worst and raced back to our BC to see if I was dead… Fortunately as he arrived, he bumped into Tomasz, who informed him that he’d just spoken to me on the radio, and I was fine.

Meanwhile up on the mountain, the Polish team had managed to fly a drone up near the injured climber, in order to relay coordinates and altitude. The first information we got through had him at 7300m (around 300m vertically above C3), and some way off to the side. As we were trying to input this data into one of the guys GPS watches, someone else from BC came on the radio and very calmly described that the injured climbers was actually between C2 and C3, and gave a very precise description as to where he was. Thinking that this sounded good (and also rather thankful that this meant going down, rather than up), the two climbers (taking with them a bottle of oxygen and some rope that is given them), started down towards where they thought he might be. At the same time, our team was on their way up from C2, and therefore we all thought that they might meet in the middle and be able to help.

Unfortunately, after meeting up and searching, it was then reported that the missing climber was indeed above C3, approximately 200-300m higher and up to 1000m (although this was subsequently unlikely, given the scale of the ground) to the North. Wearily the two climbers who’d gone down, came back up and prepared to go on further, along with one of our Sherpas. Part of the challenge was the fact that they might have to cross some heavily crevassed ground, and we only had static rope (which is very dangerous in situations where you might shock load the system). Meanwhile, I’d been melting snow and preparing water bottles to send with the rescue party (including trying to disinfect my pee bottle with boiling water in case we needed more bottles – thanking for all involved, this was never needed!).

Part of the problem was that the injured climber was way off route, and if he’d continued heading down, he’d fall off the end of the serac of the high glacier, something which would certainly be fatal. We didn’t know if he knew where C3 was, or if he was too disoriented or injured to know what was going on.

Fortunately, the rescue party managed to get his attention, by shouting and screaming, so at least he’d start moving towards them. He was essentially crawling along the ground, stopping every few paces to rest his head on his hands or in the snow.

In the end, the rescue party reached him, gave him some water and then managed to bring him back into C3. He’d had an earlier fall, dropped his head torch, tried to climb down after it and that is part of what had led him off route. According to him, he reached the summit of Broad Peak (I’m not sure if this has been verified with proof yet – but I have no reason to distrust this claim). He’d sustained a nasty cut to the face, but by the time he came into C3 he sounded quite cogent – and had perfectly sensible conversations with others. He didn’t need any oxygen or medication in the end, and after having some hot drinks provided by our Sherpas, went to sleep in his own tent (which was right next to ours).

The next day, he climbed down to C1 with our team (I’d gone all the way down to BC in a single push), where he spent the night, before our team walked him into his basecamp to ensure that he got back safely. I think that his team were very relieved to see him and find him safe (as we all were), but I expect there might have been some rather emotional conversations around the camp after our team left.

So – apologies for vagaries – those who know, will know what happened. I am writing about it more as an example of the kinds of things that happen on big expeditions, rather than an objective post incident report of what happened and why (I’m sure the story will come out in the press at some point). Accidents happen, things don’t go to plan, people make assumptions or poor decisions in the moment and fortunately this time everything worked out just fine (nothing more than some bruises, and perhaps a few bruised egos), but it could have so easily turned out very differently.

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