x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Mountaineers call for 'revolution' in Pakistan's rescue scenario

Leading mountaineers and rescuers have issued an urgent call to overhaul Pakistan's limited high-altitude search and rescue capabilities.

A Pakistani Army helicopter winches the Slovenian climber Tomaz Humar from Nanga Parbat in 2005.
A Pakistani Army helicopter winches the Slovenian climber Tomaz Humar from Nanga Parbat in 2005.

ISLAMABAD // After one of the deadliest climbing seasons in the thin air of its Himalayan and Karakoram peaks, leading mountaineers and rescuers have issued an urgent call to overhaul Pakistan's limited high-altitude search and rescue capabilities. Sixteen mountaineers have been killed in avalanches or falls on Pakistan's perilous peaks this summer, including 11 on K-2, the world's second-highest mountain; two on Nanga Parbat, the 8,126-metre deadly western anchor of the Himalaya range, and one on the rocky Mustagh Tower.

With no search and rescue organisation, the winching of injured or avalanche-stranded climbers from treacherous towers of rock and ice is left to Pakistan Army helicopter pilots. The army pilots have executed some of the world's most breathtaking mountain rescues at altitudes considered near impossible for helicopters. This summer alone one army helicopter unit has brought down 81 climbers, dead and alive, during 130 hours of rescue missions. But these are pilots diverted from regular military missions and saving mountaineers is not their official duty, nor are they trained in the delicate arts of alpine rescue.

"These army pilots do things James Bond wouldn't do," said Tomaz Humar, the world-renowned Slovenian summiteer who flew from his homeland last week to lead the rescue of a Slovenian climber whose partner had fallen to his death on Mustagh Tower, 7,284 metres of sheer-faced stone in the Karakorams near K-2. "They perform miracles. I owe my own life to them. But these pilots should be given specific alpine rescue training; and there should be formally trained mountain rescuers who can launch search and rescue from the ground."

Three years ago, Mr Humar was plucked from near-death in the most daring helicopter rescue mission in Himalayan history. Stranded for seven days in fog and storms under a narrow ice ledge on Nanga Parbat, nicknamed "Killer Mountain", the Slovenian was winched by helicopter at 6,300 metres from its Rupal Face, the planet's highest vertical wall of rock. The helicopter had nowhere to land, its rotors were inches from the cliff face, and it hovered in an area subject to fatal thermal blasts.

"It was mission impossible. These miracle-worker pilots pulled it off," said Mr Humar. He has changed his birthday to his rescue date: Aug 10. Col Rashidullah Baig was the chief pilot in Mr Humar's 2005 rescue. "With a dedicated search and rescue organisation, time can be telescoped. Time is the most precious commodity," Col Baig said. "There is an urgent need for a single organisation which is solely responsible for search and rescue and is trained at international level. Not having trained ground rescuers wastes time."

Alpinists and army pilots want a school established to train locals - already naturally deft at scaling mountains - in professional mountaineering and high altitude rescue. They also want a singular and properly equipped search and rescue agency, similar to Europe's International Commission for Alpine Rescue. Nasir Sabir, Pakistan's best-known alpinist and president of the Pakistan Alpine Club, is inviting the mountaineering fraternity to pitch in and help co-ordinate the training of ground rescuers and the establishment of a rescue body.

"We are sending the message out within Pakistan and especially to the mountaineering community around the world that here is what is needed, and this is what we want them to do: we want them to join hands and bring a revolution to the present mountaineering rescue scenario in Pakistan. We need to have our own mountain climbers trained in mountain rescue. "In light of the unfortunate tragedies on K2, Nanga Parbat and other mountains across the Karakoram and Himalayan ranges, we have to revamp our present rescue system in line with increasing rescue demands," Mr Sabir said.

"We need a proper system with a high altitude crew and manpower trained and skilled in line with international standards and present-day practices. Pakistan Army pilots have done wonders ... but they need to be given opportunities for proper mountain rescue training along the standards practised in Europe's Alps and elsewhere." Nepal has a mountaineering school, set up by Slovenians 30 years ago and manned by instructors from around the world. Nepalese Sherpas are now considered the world's most professional mountain porters and guides. Two Sherpas were among the 11 climbers killed on K2 in July.

"Sherpas come to Pakistan because they are highly trained and expeditions bring them along, and because we don't have trained manpower for high altitude," said Mr Sabir. Lt Col Khalid Amir Rana, commander of the 8 Army Aviation Squad and co-pilot in Mr Humar's 2005 rescue, said ground rescuers are critical in poor weather when helicopters cannot fly or land. "If we had an organisation which could train people for ground rescue, then local people could initiate rescue attempts from the ground and people like Tomaz wouldn't have to fly from the other side of the world," he said.

Changes in both mountaineering trends and climate patterns are also precipitating the need for upgraded rescue systems. "Now the trend is not so much for bagging the highest peaks, but to try impossible routes, difficult routes and dangerous new routes," said Mr Humar. "A specialised organisation trained and equipped for rescues in such difficult and dangerous terrain is required." Lt Col Baig blames climate change for the spike in mountain accidents worldwide this year. "This is a global phenomenon. Nepal and Europe are also experiencing it. Weather changes are causing all these accidents."

Mr Humar, who is a certified mountain rescuer, said: "Every year it gets more dangerous. Crevasses are becoming more open and more complicated. So we all have more concerns. It's our duty as mountaineers to give something back. "Our goal is to install a teaching centre for local people and alpinists. Pakistan has the highest and most important mountains on the planet. It has the bravest and best pilots. But they should be given alpine rescue training."

Last month, pilots lowered their helicopter 30 metres inside a crevasse on Spantik mountain (7,027m) to rescue three Austrians. With rotors spinning, the chopper hovered between the narrow walls while the climbers scrambled inside. "That was pure sci-fi. James Bond wouldn't have attempted it. It would have been better to just land at the edge of the crevasse and pull the climbers up by rope," said Mr Humar. bcurran@thenational.ae