Desperate Rescue in the Karakoram



Oscar Perez and Alvaro Novellón, during a previous expedition. Photo courtesy of Efe

August 12, 2009 - Pakistani Army Air Corps helicopters and mountain climbers of diverse nationalities are immersed at the moment in a desperate rescue in the mountain range of the Karakoram. The objective is nothing less than to rescue alive a climber from the wall of Latok, a massive peak of 7,125 meters in the heart of the Karakoram, the Spanish mountain climber Oscar Perez, is at approximately 6,200 meters with a broken leg and arm immobilized after suffering an accident while climbing with companion Alvaro Novellón. 

The rescue has become a fight against the clock since Oscar already has spent six days trapped on the wall. In all this time he has had to survive wounded, without tent, in a small sleeping bag, with only a gas canister for making water and some basic food. They gave everything in their attempt to open a new route in alpine style on Latok II.

The drama increases because the rescue marches on with the uncertainty of knowing if Oscar Perez remains alive, since he does not have means to communicate with the outside world. After the accident, his companion attempted to assist him but when seeing that it was to be an impossible descent, left with him all the food and descended to request aid. A day and a half later after arriving at the base camp, he raised the voice of alarm Saturday to his club, El Peña Guara de Huesca, which since then has been mobilized to help. Also in coordination of support is Sebastián Álvaro, who by chance is traveling in the Karakoram. 

Image of Latok II, with the route that the two tried to open. Oscar is, approximately, between camps 2 and 3. Photo courtesy Desnivel.com

The efforts to try to rescue the Spanish climber are two-fold. The first option would be to send a group of alpinists (some of them are members of the Peña Guara and friends of Oscar and Alvaro) to climb to where he is and assist in him back down. This option is the most viable but has several disadvantages that would extend the rescue, since it is an unclimbed and unfixed route, which requires very experienced mountain climbers to undertake. The route Oscar and Alvaro tried to open in alpine style is within reach of very few, so this rescue effort will ascend slower while having to fix the route. In addition, they must combine efforts between the experienced mountain climbers who are already in the zone of Latok, already acclimated, and with sufficient equipment. Thankfully, these factors have aligned although only in a single climber, the North American Fabrizio Zangrilli, who although he just finished descending from an attempt near K2 has offered full support with these efforts. Zangrilli is already in base camp, where a proper helipad has been made and today the ascent with Alvaro Novellón will begin. Novellón despite suffering slight frostbite had no doubts in returning up.

Meanwhile, from Spain yesterday a team of five departed for Pakistan. Simón Elías, Jordi Corominas, Jordi Tosas, Jonathan Larrañaga and Dani Ascaso are some of the best Spanish alpinists of the present time, and all of them members of the Peña Guara and friends of Oscar and Alvaro. The problem is that in the best of all cases (that is, that once they land in Islamabad they are directly transferred by helicopter to Latok) they would not arrive at base camp before morning on Thursday. There is also hope that today two other Spanish mountain climbers arrive at BC, who were in the area as well, Ramon Portilla and Alvaro Corrochano. 

Alvaro (left) and Oscar (right) next to their cook with Latok I to the bottom, which they tried before Latok II. Photo courtesy of Efe

The other option consists of removing Oscar Perez by helicopter from the ledge on where he is, at 6,200 meters. This option is very complicated as much by the technical aspects as in the bureaucratic ones, and it has occurred once before: the rescue of Tomaz Humar in Nanga Parbat in 2005. On the technical side, it is necessary to consider the elevation as the helicopters fly over their height limits, so to control them is very difficult. In addition, it is impossible to look for a place to land, so it requires quite literally taking the mountain climber off the wall, or sending down a cable to him on which it is possible to be grasp hold, or if his wounds prevent this, to send down from the helicopter another mountain climber who hooks him to the cable and removes him from the mountain this way. 

And although it seems incredible, this mission is not without precedent. Colonel Rashid Ullah Baig, then lieutenant, in 2005, astonished the world with his almost impossible rescue of Tomaz Humar on Nanga Parbat. His heroic deed reached such dimensions that he was compensated with a position in the Pakistani Government.

So it is logical that the Peña Guara team thought immediately about this pilot to save Oscar. But this is where they have run into the bureaucratic challenge. These helicopters are military and the Karakoram is considered a war zone due to its proximity to Kashmir. Therefore, all flight operations must be authorized by the Army. And an operation like this could be considered risky for such a government. For example, the rescue of Humar could only be realized after the express authorization of the then president, Pervez Musharraf, after he succumbed to the international pressures by the obvious media dimension that reached the accident of Humar. 

So the Peña Guara team coordinating the rescue has wasted no time before contacting the Exterior Ministry to try to manage this crisis at the highest level so that the Pakistani Government itself authorizes the rescue operation. 

Oscar Perez climbing on Latok III in 2006. Photo courtesy Barrabes.com

In the middle of all of this accumulation of difficulties, time is not on their side. Without these approvals, the entire process would undergo more delays. In the case of the helicopters, a rescue team and their equipment could not reach the base camp, because they could not fly; and in the case of the mountain climbers, because the ascent of the wall is enormously complicated. 

Meanwhile, Oscar Perez awaits his rescue at 6,200 meters of altitude, alone, on a small ledge of an almost vertical wall in the middle of the Karakoram. Those who know him assure us that his greatest strength resides in his head, the tranquility and the calm in which he confronts the difficult moments. And these they are. More than anything.

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