Rescue on Nanga

Bernadette McDonald

“We understood that if we left Elisabeth and went up for Tomasz, she would die,” Adam explained. They knew that the two of them couldn’t move him down the mountain if he couldn’t walk. And he was too high for a helicopter.
“We chose to rescue Elisabeth,” Denis explained.

French alpinist Elisabeth Revol and Polish climber Tomasz Mackiewicz left Nanga Parbat base camp for their summit push on 20 January, 2018. This was not their first time together on the ‘Killer Mountain’, as it is sometimes called. In 2015 they had reached 7800 m and in 2016, 7200 m. This was Elisabeth’s fourth and Tomasz’s seventh attempt at climbing the 8126 m giant—in winter. Their goal had always been to make the first winter ascent, something no longer possible since Muhammad Ali Sadpara, Simone Moro and Alex Txikon did so in 2016. But style was important to Elisabeth and Tomasz, and if they succeeded, theirs would be the first alpine-style winter ascent of Nanga and the first female winter ascent.

Already acclimatized, they progressed smoothly up the mountain until 6600 m where high winds pinned them down. On the 23rd, they reached 6900 m, but could hear a violent wind screaming over the Mazeno pass at 7000 m. The next day they found a sheltering crevasse at 7300 m and stopped to spend the night. On 25 January, they crossed a large plateau, traversed to the base of the summit pyramid, and began the final climb to the top. The sky was heavy with cloud and visibility was limited, but thankfully the wind had stopped. As Elisabeth recalled, “That was late but we decided to continue together to the top because clouds arrived and it was not possible to see anything anyway, so climbing during the night wasn’t a problem... only for the severe coldness!” It was dark when they reached the summit, around 6:15 p.m.

Elisabeth and Tomasz were a curious climbing team. Elisabeth was a highly-trained athlete, petite, self-disciplined, quick, focused, and rather quiet. Tomasz loved to talk, was a free spirit, with much less high-altitude experience than Elisabeth, yet with a fondness for Nanga that bordered on obsession. A former drug addict, many considered Nanga to be his current addiction. They usually climbed some distance apart when they weren’t roped together, since Elisabeth was much faster than Tomasz. This was the case on 25 January.

When she asked Tomasz how he was feeling when he joined her at the summit, he answered, “I can’t see you. I can’t see anything.” He had removed his goggles and was obviously suffering from snow blindness. It was soon clear that he was also suffering from altitude sickness and frostbite. Very soon, he could no longer move on his own. Elisabeth helped him descend, his arm over her shoulder, leaning heavily. “I was pushing, pushing all the time”, she recalled. I hated to do that – it was kind of cruel – but I had to do it to keep him moving.” When they reached a crevasse at around 7280 m, Tomasz said that he could go no further. “So, I took a piece of rope and made a belay for him in the crevasse,” she explained. Tomasz was having trouble breathing, blood was seeping from his mouth, and his nose was white with frostbite.

At 11:10 p.m., Elisabeth used her In Reach satellite device to send text messages to her husband, Jean-Christoph; Tomasz’s wife, Anna; and a friend, Ludovic Giambiasi. Her message was clear: Tomasz was in trouble, he could no longer move, he would need to be evacuated.

Her messages soon spiralled out into the interconnected cyber world of mountaineering. It was inevitable that they would eventually land less than 200 km away – at K2 base camp, where an elite Polish team was attempting the first winter ascent of the peak, the only unclimbed 8000er in winter.

The team was led by Krzysztof Wielicki, one of the original ‘Ice Warriors’ – those Polish alpinists who first tackled 8000 m peaks in winter back in the 1970s, and who had dominated the world of high-altitude winter climbing for 20 years. Krzysztof had three first winter ascents of 8000 m peaks in his repertoire. When he heard the news, he knew that there were only a handful of people in the entire world who were adequately acclimatized and in position to attempt a rescue of Tomasz and Elisabeth. They were all at K2 base camp. They would have to try.

It was not a decision taken lightly. They were in the middle of a difficult task – maybe even an impossible task – to climb K2 in winter. They were making slow, yet steady progress. Nevertheless, he turned to his team and asked if anyone would be willing to interrupt their K2 climb to go and help with the rescue. “Every single one said yes,” he recalled. He chose Adam Bielecki, Denis Urubko, Piotr Tomala, and Jarosław Botor. All four were major contributors to the K2 effort, but it’s important to note that both Adam and Denis were widely considered their best chances for the summit. Choosing Adam and Denis to go to Nanga could be a crippling blow to the K2 effort.

Adam Bielecki was an obvious choice for the first summit team for a number of reasons. He had already climbed K2 in summer, and he had made first winter ascents of both Broad Peak and Gasherbrum I. He was young, fast, and seemingly impervious to the suffering that is an integral part of high-altitude winter climbing. When Adam first learned of the situation on Nanga, he was terrified. He had been in enough dicey winter situations to understand how serious it was. He knew Tomasz and Elisabeth from a previous Nanga expedition, and was particularly impressed with Elisabeth. “I had this strong feeling...that this small lady is actually very, very strong, both mentally and physically” he said. They had even considered climbing a new route on Everest together. When the opportunity arose to help with the rescue, Adam didn’t hesitate, despite the potential impact on his chances for K2. “At the moment I did not care about K2,” he said. He may have been thinking, as well, about the debacle following his winter ascent of Broad Peak. When two of the four summit climbers died on descent, there was a lot of finger-pointing. Adam had taken the brunt of the blame and was undoubtedly not keen to repeat the experience.

Denis Urubko, a Kazakh climber, trained in the military, with nineteen 8000 m summits to his record, including two in winter, was the arrow in the quiver for the K2 team. Everybody knew that. Even the Polish government probably sensed it when they had granted him a Polish passport. The joke in the Polish climbing community was that they needed Denis for K2 in winter, and that was easily worth a passport. More seriously, Denis was close friends with many of the Polish team, had climbed with them, partied with them, and was as deeply committed to the K2 winter ascent as any of them.

His reputation was impeccable. He either summitted peaks, or rescued people trying to summit peaks. His dramatic rescue attempt of Iñaki Ochoa on Annapurna in 2008 was the stuff of legend. Denis felt no qualms about turning his back on K2, at least temporarily, in order to help his friends on Nanga. “I felt that for my friends, my team, it will be necessary to use my efforts and my experience in high-altitude rescue,” he said. Due to financial haggling about who would pay for the rescue, it wasn’t until January 27 that two helicopters and the four rescuers finally lifted off.

The pilots deposited the climbers on a small rocky platform 100 m below Camp 1 on Nanga, at 5:10 p.m. “The helicopter pilot took a very strong risk for this mission with his life,” Urubko later told Alpinist. “It saved me and Adam, and other members of the rescue team, around five to six hours of the very difficult rush over the deep snow over the glacier.” They quickly came up with a strategy: Piotr and Jarosław would remain at the landing site for back-up while Adam and Denis would start climbing. They began ascending the Kinshofer route at 5:30 p.m.

In the meantime, Elisabeth had made the most difficult decision of her life. At Tomasz’s urging, she had started down without him. She left him in a sleeping bag with nearly all their gear and started down the Kinshofer route. “I don’t know if Tomek pushed me to go down to save my life,” she later reflected. “I knew only that I had to go down to save his. And I knew that if I went down the Kinshofer route, I could get safely to Camp 3 – no crevasses in that stretch, and quite easy. But after Camp 3 I also knew that I could go no further. It was a prison at Camp 3. From there I would need a rescue. So, it was a risky decision.”

Adam and Denis raced up the mountain – 1200 m in eight hours. Denis explained their extraordinary pace: “Adam and I, we were very well-trained before the expedition on K2 and of course we were already acclimatized…and it helped us to expend, in short time, a lot of effort.” They both knew the route, but climbing it at night was another game altogether. They went as light as possible: no bivouac gear, no sleeping bag, just a bit of food, some drink, a bivy sac, a stove, gas and spare mitts.

Along the way, they broke one of the cardinal rules of mountaineering: no grabbing onto old fixed lines. Two years earlier, Adam almost died when he had grabbed an old fixed line that broke, hurtling him down that very face. He recalled the decision that night: “I almost killed myself because of a broken fixed rope. I also have this rule that I don’t climb on old fixed ropes. And here I am, climbing at night, in the same place I almost lost my life and the only help are old fixed ropes.... It’s not such a common thing to climb at night, but also, it’s not as unusual as you might think. We know how to do it. But we usually don’t do it in winter on altitudes above 5000 m because it’s too cold. But this time we literally had no choice.”

Denis discovered Elisabeth at around midnight. “One moment I heard him screaming, ‘Adam I can hear her!’” Adam said. “A moment later he shouted, ‘Adam, I got her! I got her!’” Denis brought her over to Adam, who described her appearance: “She was really frostbitten, and she was unable to do any manipulation with her hands. She couldn’t clip on and off the carabiner.” Elisabeth was travelling even lighter than Adam and Denis: no headlamp, no pack, no sleeping pad, and only thin gloves on her frostbitten hands.

They moved her to a ledge where they could sit together, replace her thin gloves with warm mitts, then heat some water and give her some pills to help stimulate her circulation. Elisabeth spoke of her lonely descent, of her night in a crevasse at 6100 m, of her hallucinations, of having removed her boots for a phantom woman who had requested them, of Tomasz – his frightening state.

They spread out the bivouac sac and tried to secure it from the wind, nestling Elisabeth between them. “She put her legs on me and she lay down on Adam’s side,” Denis explained. They watched as she slept. They talked quietly about what to do next. Should they get Elisabeth into a safe spot, secure her to the mountain, and continue up to Tomasz? Elisabeth had explained that Tomasz was unable to move – he would need to be carried. “We understood that if we left Elisabeth and went up for Tomasz, she would die,” Adam explained. They knew that the two of them couldn’t move him down the mountain if he couldn’t walk. And he was too high for a helicopter.

“We chose to rescue Elisabeth,” Denis explained.

With her damaged hands, it was clear that she would be unable to rappel down the steep terrain that lay below them. Luckily, her legs still worked reasonably well, so she could move on her own steam while on moderate ground. They took turns lowering her, doing tandem rappels and climbing next to her on the snow slopes.

Eighteen hours after they had discovered Elisabeth, they reached their teammates and the helicopters at Camp 1. It was 11:30 a.m. They flew down to base camp for some basic first aid treatment for Elisabeth. She was then flown to the Skardu hospital, and the next day to Islamabad. On January 30, she flew back to France to begin treatment. During all this time, Elisabeth assumed that the rescue was continuing for Tomasz. “I didn’t realize that he died until I was back in France,” she later explained. “I was convinced that he could survive that. He always survived. I was so sure that he was alive.” Not this time.

The rescue team returned to K2 base camp. From that moment on, they were inundated with calls, emails, media requests for interviews, every detail about the rescue on demand. I was in Warsaw at the time, and saw the public fascination and the insatiable appetite for the story. Particularly for Adam and Denis, their K2 climb had morphed into a Nanga rescue. Adam tried to explain that it was a much bigger effort than the two of them. “We are the ones who climbed to Eli but it was possible because of involvement of many people,” he said. But to no avail. From that moment on, he and Denis were swamped with media requests, diluting their attention from the task that was now (again) at hand: a winter ascent of K2.

The climb soon fizzled. It was a combination of factors: bad weather, a distracted team, rockfall and injuries, lethargy at base camp, disgruntlement with the leadership, and a rogue, solo attempt by Denis. But upon reflection, Adam doubts that their rescue was the cause of their failure on K2. “I don’t think that it made any difference,” he said.

When there was talk of the rescue team receiving the French Legion of Honour, the highest civilian award in France, the rescuers balked. “I think we did nothing extraordinary,” Adam explained. “Everybody would do it. It’s the obligation of every climber to help others. It’s the duty of every man.”

Maybe so. But I had the opportunity to observe the public response to Denis and Adam, Piotr and Jarosław, several times during the last twelve months since the rescue. At Polish mountain festivals in Zakopane, Ladek and Krakow, I watched as two thousand people rose to their feet to honour them, to thank them for their actions. I saw tiny Elisabeth come onto the stage, still suffering terribly from post-traumatic stress, fragile and emotional, engulfed by Denis and Adam’s embrace. And finally, I saw Anna, Tomasz’s widow, approach them: her husband’s last climbing partner and the rescuers who ultimately had to leave him on the mountain of his dreams. A poignant reunion, it was filled with affection, thankfulness and grief, fitting reward for the brave rescue team.

This is the story of a remarkable rescue. In January 2018 French alpinist Elisabeth Revol and Polish climber Tomasz Mackiewicz had somehow reached the summit of Nanga Parbat. They were in serious trouble on the descent as Tomasz was in very bad shape. Elisabeth’s SOS via the cyber world reached the K2 base camp, 200 km away, where an elite Polish team was attempting the first winter ascent of the peak, the only unclimbed 8000er in winter.

Adam Bielecki, Denis Urubko, Piotr Tomala, and Jarosław Botor were selected to go for the rescue. Faced with a horrible choice, they chose to rescue Elisabeth because of the peculiar circumstances they found themselves in..

About the Author

BERNADETTE McDONALD, A.O.E. was the founder of The Banff Centre for Mountain Culture and has authored eleven books on mountain culture and mountaineering. Her work has been published in fourteen countries and has received many awards, including the Banff Grand Prize, Boardman Tasker, the Kekoo Naoroji Award and the American Alpine Club Award. She has received the Alberta Order of Excellence and the King Albert Award for her contributions to mountain culture. Her most recent book, Art of Freedom, has won three international awards to date, including the Banff Award for Mountain Literature, Boardman Tasker Award and National Outdoor Book Award. She is an honorary member of the Himalayan Club and the Polish Mountaineering Association, and has been appointed a Fellow of the Explorers Club. When not writing, Bernadette climbs, hikes, skis, paddles and grows grapes.

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