x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Two rescued after 10 days stuck on deadly mountain

Two Italian climbers were rescued by helicopter from Pakistan's most dangerous mountains after being stranded for 10 days.

ISLAMABAD // Two Italian climbers were rescued by helicopter from Pakistan's most dangerous mountains yesterday after being stranded at 7,000 metres for 10 days in freezing conditions. But the body of their expedition leader, Karl Unterkircher, was unlikely to be found after the accomplished climber plunged to his death down a deep crevasse, officials said.

Bad weather prevented any rescue attempt by helicopter until yesterday, when two Pakistan army helicopters managed to retrieve Simon Kehrer and Walter Nones, who were said to be in good health. The expedition was attempting to open a new route on Nanga Parbat, which is regarded as one of the world's most dangerous mountains. "They [Kehrer and Nones] were not injured or ill, they were psychologically stuck after the other climber died," said Col Ilyas Mirza, who co-ordinated the rescue for Askari Aviation, a branch of the army.

"All rescues are difficult on these mountains." The Pakistan army, which is highly experienced in mountain rescue, was alerted to the plight of the climbers on July 17. They were located by air two days later when a helicopter crew managed to drop food and a satellite phone to them. Because the pair were at a height above the maximum the helicopter was able to operate, the items had to be thrown to the climbers on a rope. Their altitude and poor weather conditions meant they remained marooned for several more days.

The climbers did not use the phone - apparently unable to work it - until the evening of July 20, when they called the Italian Embassy. They were informed that they must descend to 6,000m but did not manage to do so until yesterday, perhaps as a result of mental trauma. The helicopter picked up Mr Kehrer at 1pm local time, before returning for Mr Nones at 1.30pm. They were airlifted to Gilgit, a town in the foothills of the mountains which serves as a base for climbing expeditions. They were recuperating at a hotel called the Serena.

"They're pretty fine," said Rashid Ahmad, who runs Hushe, the company that organised their expedition. "It is technically a very difficult mountain. Every year, two or three climbers die on it." An Iranian climber died on Nanga Parbat this year. Mr Ahmad said the body of Mr Unterkircher would probably never be found. "He fell down very deep into the crevasse. There has also been fresh snowfall. He is lost," said Mr Ahmad.

Mr Unterkircher, a 37-year-old Italian with three small children, pushed the boundaries of mountaineering. He was the first person to have climbed the world's two highest peaks - Mount Everest and K2 - without oxygen, in a single season, back in 2004. He was honoured by both the Italian state and the pope. According to Herbert Mussner, Mr Unterkircher's manager, he fell into the crevasse at about 6,000m. He was trying to climb a new route on the Rakhiot Flank.

"After a hellish night of attempting in vain to rescue him, Simon and Walter had to continue the climb leaving Karl behind," said Mr Mussner, in a blog entry. It was too dangerous for the remaining two to descend from where the tragedy occurred, so they had to climb up, to 7,000m, to get off the wall and then try to find a safe route down. Nanga Parbat, which means "naked mountain" in Urdu, is the world's ninth highest peak and Pakistan's second tallest, after K2. But it is reckoned to be a much tougher climb than K2. On the western side of the Himalayas, it rises dramatically above the surrounding landscape, with a steep elevation.

Separately, a British climber, Benjamin Cheek, who was attempting a different peak in Pakistan's towering Northern areas, has been missing for three days, and it is feared that he may have died. Mr Cheek was climbing White Horn, in Shimshal Valley, having apparently broken off for the attempt from the rest of his party, who returned. The British Embassy in Islamabad confirmed that he is missing and that his next of kin have been informed.

sshah@thenational.ae