After Harrowing Weekend Rescue, One Climber Saved, One Lost To 'Killer Mountain'

Jan 29, 2018
Originally published on January 31, 2018 9:38 am

After a global fundraiser, a plea to Pakistan's Army for help, an ill-timed snowstorm and a daring overnight climb by a team of volunteer rescuers, French mountaineer Elisabeth Revol has been rescued from Nanga Parbat, one of the world's tallest and most dangerous mountains.

But her Polish climbing partner Tomasz "Tomek" Mackiewicz, whose life she was attempting to save had to be left behind.

The rescue team of elite Polish mountaineers was brought by helicopter from nearby K2, where they were attempting to make history in a separate climbing expedition. But after risking their lives to reach Revol, they could not make it through a storm to the crevasse where Mackiewicz, struck down by frostbite and snowblindness, was believed to be sheltering from the brutal winds.

Mackiewicz, who was making his seventh attempt at a wintertime ascent of Nanga Parbat, has been declared dead.

Pakistan's Nanga Parbat — literally "Naked Mountain," also known as "Killer Mountain" — is the world's ninth highest mountain. As it's nickname suggests, it's famously dangerous.

And it's especially perilous in the winter. Until very recently, Nanga Parbat and K2 were the only two mountains of 8,000 meters (about 26,000 feet) or higher that had never been summited in winter.

In 2016, after decades of failed attempts, an international team of climbers managed the first successful wintertime ascent of Nanga Parbat. K2 remains unconquered.

National Geographic explains why such wintertime climbs are so challenging:

"In short, nearly everything that makes Himalayan climbing in April and May either difficult or dangerous is amplified during the winter. Temperatures are obviously much colder, and the snowpack is much less stable. In winter, virtually every slope above, around, and beneath climbers threatens to let loose an avalanche of an unfathomable size.

The only predictable variable is the weather, which is guaranteed to be horrible—especially on Nanga Parbat, whose 'naked' summit ... stands prominently above all surrounding terrain and therefore is even more exposed to the jet stream."

Mackiewicz and Revol wanted to be the second team to manage a wintertime summit of Nanga Parbat. It was Mackiewicz's seventh attempt on the mountain, and his third with Revol as a partner.

Meanwhile, another Polish team was attempting to summit K2 in winter for the first time ever.

The Polish team making the audacious attempt on K2 looked at Mackiewicz's determination with a certain awe, writing in an official update:

"As if the defeats did not exist, Tomek returned with the winter calendar like a boomerang under this Mountain. ... He was digging in and kept trying. Fought. Seventh time!!!!!"

But at around 24,000 feet (the mountain is 26,660 feet tall), things started going badly. Mackiewicz had frostbite and snowblindness. On Friday, Revol helped him come a little further down the mountain, then set him up in a tent to provide some shelter from the brutal weather. She set off solo to descend a little further use a satellite phone to call for aid, explaining Mackiewicz's condition and their urgent need for help.

A worldwide effort to save the two climbers suddenly materialized. A friend named Masha Gordon set up a GoFundMe page to raise the tens of thousands of dollars it would cost to have a rescue. Diplomats began making appeals.

And the world-class mountaineers on nearby K2 immediately volunteered to help.

"We realized that we are their only chance," the team wrote in their public journal. "We are prepared, we have equipment, we are acclimatized."

But they needed a helicopter to pluck them up from K2 and drop them off at Nanga Parbat. As money was raised for the helicopter, the mountaineers were restless with the wait. "Rustling papers that block the start of helicopters, are worse than the wind, inclement weather and wars," they wrote bitterly in their public journal.

There would be no rescue on Friday. The mountaineers on K2 tried to sleep as they waited eagerly for the chance to leave, while the two climbers on Nanga Parbat fought to survive. "Revol, sends her position," the K2 climbers wrote. "She is alive. She is indestructible. Nothing about Tomek ..."

Saturday morning dawned with bad weather in the forecast. Four of the Polish mountaineers set off to start the rescue.

Pakistani military helicopters "spotted Elisabeth Revol of France at about 6,700 meters [about 22,000 feet]," Reuters reported on Saturday, "but were unable to communicate with Tomasz Mackiewicz from Poland, who is believed to be in a crevasse."

The Polish K2 climbers were dropped off on Nanga Parbat at Base Camp 1, at 4,800 meters (15,700 feet). Two of the men, Denis Urubko and Adam Bielecki, began the climb up, while two others set up a camp.

Meanwhile, Revol started down, according to her friend Gordon, who ran the GoFundMe campaign.

"Elisabeth took a decision to start a descent down from 6700m towards them provided she can find fixed ropes," Gordon wrote.

She wasn't expecting any more dispatches from Revol. "She has not battery power left," Gordon wrote. "We believe in the strength of her spirit."

The climbers moved up the mountain end of Saturday's daylight hours, and then kept going in the dark. They knew that Revol was descending toward them, frostbitten and struggling to move, but didn't know where she was.

They climbed through the night, and it was around 2 a.m. Sunday before they finally found Revol.

A Facebook page for rescuer Denis Urubko shared a video of the reunion. It shows nearly absolute darkness, broken by a weak flash of light.

"Elisabeth," a voice cries out, panting heavily with exertion. "Nice to see you!"

The jubilation was not complete, as The New York Times noted: "The extreme weather conditions — winds of more than 50 miles (80 kilometers) an hour and a wind chill nearing minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 62 degrees Celsius) — forced the rescue team to postpone any plans to ascend further to search for Mr. Mackiewicz."

The official journal for the Polish rescuers put it more poetically.

"The forecast of evil, here the wind, and there the wind," the climbing team wrote. "And snow is coming ... They are coming back. But there is no Tomek."

After descending to the base camp with the help of the four climbers, Elisabeth Revol has been airlifted to a hospital in Islamabad, where she's recovering from her ordeal, The Associated Press reports.

The money left over from the crowdfunding effort that saved her will be donated to Mackiewicz's family, Gordon says.

Mackiewicz's wife has posted on his Facebook page to thank the fans, well-wishers and donors for their support. She also said that while he didn't make it home, he did achieve the impossible.

That is, before the altitude sickness struck, Mackiewicz and Revol did summit the mountain, Mackiewicz's wife writes — success on the seventh attempt.

And the rescuers? They "feel good," the official K2 expedition's Facebook page says. They will rejoin the rest of the team and the rescue will have no effect on the overall plan.

"K2 is waiting," the team wrote.

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