K-2 Search and Rescue Mission for Missing Climbers

By: Rashid Ullah Baig,
High Altitude Rescue Pilot

Question: Could it be done better?
 Answer: Yes!
The answer needs deep contemplation transcending emotions.
Hundreds of friends have asked me the above questions. With hindsight of rescues using only a magnetic compass and an old map in early 90s up to the miracles of modern-day technology, a quantum jump has been made in search and rescue efforts but one thing has not changed TIME!
Like in any other emergency, the difference between life and death is decided by timely location and transportation to a medical facility. In the “Death Zone” you can’t survive more than a few hours.
This emergency was no different for me. A friend from Nepal called in the morning, “Rashid, disaster on the K2. Quick help”. I contacted General Khalil Dar immediately and was much relieved to know the helicopters are already on their way. ’ .
But sending a timely response is one thing while locating the missing climbers is quite another. It is more difficult than finding a needle in the haystack. Search is aided by few gadgets on ground but there were none with the lost party. Thuraya satellite phone was off the air and finding it’s last location entailed cumbersome official protocols consuming days not hours. The pilots had to search , in almost white-out conditions, on one of the most gigantic mountains in the world.
; . But there is a limit to every helicopter’s capabilities. Yes, Didier Delsalle landed on the top of the Mount Everest in 2005 using a similar helicopter but a solo attempt at a world record on an ideal day is one thing and fighting elements at the most rarefied atmosphere attempting to pick a casualty is quite another.
It must be remembered that Pakistan Army Aviation is organized and equipped to support troops at the most hostile and the highest battlefield of the world. It has accomplished some of the most difficult rescues in the history, not as a part of its primary duty but as a courtesy to the visiting guests. No army in the world has as bright a record as that of Pakistan Army in this field. This time, they raised the bar further.
First and the foremost is the responsibility of the leader in foreseeing, forecasting, planning and equipping to execute a rescue effort when needed. There is no doubt a leader carries out risk assessment to the best of his capability and assigns resources accordingly. Undoubtedly, there are a number of delicately balanced changes forced upon by multiple pressures in time and space, financial, reputational; may be with a shade of emotions as well. The summit attempt from Camp-III, even if forced by weather forecast, was a very high-risk decision.
I wonder how an experienced man like John Snorri preferred Thuraya over GarminInReach that could send live location in an emergency on a single press of a button. The difference between the two is like someone calling you for help saying, “help! I have got a heart attack in Islamabad” and the other sending you live location with Google Maps along with the declared emergency. In which case would you reach in the shortest possible time?
The commercially available off-the-shelf technologies have made search and rescue possible in a matter of hours and minutes but only a dedicated organization, designed, equipped and positioned for SAR as their primary role can integrate systems with users and equipment manufacturers to accrue maximum benefits. An effective SAR organization is like a magnet for the tourists, it is like an insurance scheme. If the adventurers are assured that help would arrive when needed, the tourism figures may rise exponentially. But setting up such an organization is very costly. Since 2014 I made numerous efforts but at the end every investor finds venture too risky for his money. While the present government intends to promote adventure tourism, setting up an effective SAR organization would prove a great attraction. Without solid incentives and sovereign guarantees, no investor would take the plunge. It is therefore dire need of the time to go beyond words, to practical steps in regulatory and operational procedures that may make such a setup a reality.
We lost our friend with most contagious smile; Hasan Sadpara would be missed forever. His full of life videos would continue to remind us of his oneness with the place he love the most, but let us join forces, private as well as public to ensure such incidents are minimized in future.
Lastly, we must not forget accidents do not happen due to a solitary cause. A number of factors join in one time and space to cause an accident. What really happened may remain a mystery like so many in alpinism.
Part – II 
Responding to my earlier post a number of readers have reflected upon my “ignorance” of equipment. Yes, I wrote whatever I was “informed” about.
On the first contact by Karim Shah who was in direct contact with Alex Gavan I asked for location data. I was informed that they only had a Thuraya which went off due to battery. They believed that last position is recorded by the system and if we request Thuraya HQ, they could share it with us. Although it was their responsibility still I contacted local representative of Thuraya, Mr Tahir who was most helpful within his domain but was helpless himself in data sharing as it could only be done on State Request. It was a weekend which meant even if we run from pillar to post, it couldn’t be done in less than 24 hours; that is where I asked if they had Garmin InReach and was responded in negative. Please note all this was done by friends voluntarily to expedite the rescue while on the official channels formal rescue request had already been initiated.
Immediately, after my article appeared on the Face Book, Hamza Anees was kind to share Garmin InReach page of John Snorri. I was shocked why those coordinating the rescue did not know about it ? After all, such things have happened in the past! A close study revealed that it was …..this data could be good to score likes on social media but a rescue pilot would prefer latest position data transfer into his navigation system for best planning and execution without loss of time; time that makes difference between life and death. The data available on the webpage was just as good as an early 80s navigation chart (see the picture).
It is a dilemma; an equipment available but underutilized or under-prioritized. . Could he continue if a shoe of a climber was torn?
Readers to please note that in order to facilitate Search and Rescue (SAR), all aircraft are required to have Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) onboard which sends position to the satellite in case of a crash landing that is immediately transmitted to the national SAR organization in order to facilitate earliest help at the crash site. No aircraft is allowed to fly without a serviceable ELT. This speaks of the priority accorded to the immediate detection of those in distress.
To ensure further safety the regulators may mandate additional survival equipment depending upon the level of risk any flying mission may have. When the first Pakistani pilot to circumnavigate the globe Fakhar-e-Alam was crossing Atlantic and the Pacific, he was required to carry an additional PLB (a Personal Locator Beacon) in his flying suit, so that, in case of a ditching if he drifts away from the wreckage SAR helicopters find him easily. Attempting K2 or Nanga Parbat is no less dangerous than crossing a sea. Should the regulators in Pakistan not mandate equipment that facilitates SAR? How could the insurance companies of the West overlook this?
This incident bears few lessons:
• Extrication and emergency planning should be as meticulous as the summit attempt itself. It is generally experienced that on declaration of the emergency the helicopter pilots are expected to do everything. They do it for sure, but a prior integration in planning and data share can turn the tables assuring much faster response. Today’s amazing technologies are not used to their optimum potential.
• Garmin company may consider replaceable batteries, a G-sensor to trigger SOS automatically at a fall or a defined g-shock and a vitals sensor algorithmed to trigger SOS in case of incapacitation in next upgradation of InReach.
• The assurance of transfer of data to the rescuing agency seamlessly in the shortest possible time automatically at the SOS trigger.
• An Air Band communication set to be made mandatory for high altitude rescue coordination.
• Rules of essential equipment for porters, high altitude porters as well as climbers be reviewed by the government of Pakistan and a minimum equipment list, ensuring safe execution of emergency response be mandated.
All this entails a separate Emergency Response System that registers, updates, tracks and maintains communication with all climbing parties. The technology is available today that can track one in near-real-time. The final approach has to be visual in any case and if above system can get the pilot within a few kms of the emergency site, rest can be taken care of safely.
While there are excellent porters and climbers, certified rescuers are only a few in Pakistan. Many times climbers from camps nearby have to be requested to join as rescuers. Promising young porters may be trained as rescuers from abroad and employed mandatorily with climbing teams.
At the end, I would repeat accidents are not caused by a single factor. A number of factors join in one time and space to cause an accident. Whatever has happened has happened, let us now make an effort to prevent recurrence.

The writer has served as a high-altitude rescue pilot for almost 35 years, with multiple difficult rescues to his credit. He holds commercial pilot licenses for both helicopters and airplanes. After retirement, has worked with several companies to establish search and rescue infrastructure.

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