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Killer Mountain: Death and Rescue on Nanga Parbat in Winter

Stranded high on Nanga Parbat after making the second winter ascent, Elisabeth Revol and Tomek Mackiewicz seemed beyond help. Who could rescue them? Could they reach the climbers in time? How would they get two incapacitated climbers off an 8,000-meter peak in winter?

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Darkness enveloped Elisabeth Revol. Her headlamp battery had died hours earlier, and she could navigate only by reflected light from the stars and the waxing moon, nearly full, on the snow before her. This was her third consecutive night without a tent or sleeping bag above 6,000 meters in the winterscape of Nanga Parbat, at 8,126 meters the ninth-highest mountain in the world. The wind chill was a cutting minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and at 50 miles per hour the gusts could blow a person backwards.

Revol’s left foot was a frozen block as she stumbled downhill, occasionally plunging through the icy crust into sugary snow. She couldn’t feel her fingers, and her thin pair of gloves were stiff with ice. Her only gear was a daisy chain, a carabiner and trekking poles.

It was 1:40 a.m. on January 28, 2018. At 6,565 meters, Revol was utterly alone. Hers was the only expedition to attempt the mountain last winter, and she had had to leave her incapacitated partner, Tomek Mackiewicz, at 7,280 meters. In its storied 65-year climbing history since the first ascent, Nanga Parbat had been attempted over 30 times in winter, yet only one team, in 2016, had succeeded. Now Revol and Mackiewicz had repeated the feat, and by a new route. But at what cost?

A rescue effort coordinated by her friends and family back in Europe had gotten would-be rescuers to the base of the mountain, but she had learned via a satellite message in the early evening that they wouldn’t be able to get to her. No one was coming that night.

“Immediately … I realized that I needed to escape from this mountain myself,” Revol says. She sent a message in French: “If there are fixed ropes, I’ll keep going down.” Then she turned off her InReach satellite device because there was only 3 percent battery left.

She says of the descent: “I was thinking about a lot of things. About the incoming storm for the 28th. My husband had sent me a message saying, ‘Be in Base Camp on the 28th.’ I was very afraid about the weather. So I knew I had to go down. Step by step. Stay focused. I told myself, If you have to walk all the night, you walk all the night. I was only concentrated on this…. But I was very afraid, very afraid.” 

And then suddenly, in the still of night, Revol saw a bobbing light, a white glow making its way toward her. Were the hallucinations of the night before returning, or was this real? 

Revol started screaming.

This story of part of The Vault, a compendium of over 2,000 articles on rockandice.com and is available to members only. Please join us with a membership to continue reading. If you are already a member, click here and enjoy.