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Choppers unable to drop Spanish rescuers on Nanga Parbat

Updated March 04, 2019

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Spanish climbers and the rescue team at Skardu. — Dawn
Spanish climbers and the rescue team at Skardu. — Dawn

ISLAMABAD: Army helicopters could not drop four Spanish climbers on Nanga Parbat on Sunday to initiate a drone search operation for the missing climbers due to bad weather and security risks.

Strong winds and low clouds enveloped the mountain where Italian climber Daniel Nardi and British climber Tom Ballard went missing last Sunday. The two veteran climbers were attempting to summit the 8,126 metre peak this winter; Nanga Parbat was first summited in the winter of 2016 by two foreign and one Pakistani mountaineer.

According to the official Facebook page for the Daniel Nardi expedition, the four Spanish rescuers, Alex Txikon, Felix Criado, Ignacio de Zuloaga and Dr Josep Sanchis, were picked up at K2 base camp with their gear and brought to Paiju, from where they went to Skardu.

They then left for Nanga Parbat, where Pakistani mountaineer Ali Sadpara and two others, as well as cooks and a liaison officer, had set up landing pitches. However, cloud cover was extremely low around 8 kilometres from Nanga Parbat, and after discussing it with the rescuers the pilots turned back and headed towards Jaglot.

Strong winds, low clouds hinder search operation, drop-off to be attempted again today

They decided to fly back to Skardu given the security risks involved in attempting to land on the mountain in such low visibility.

Alpine Club of Pakistan (ACP) Secretary Karrar Haidri said army aviation helicopters could not drop the four Spanish rescuers at the Nanga Parbat base camp due to heavy snowfall on the mountain.

“Given the weather situation and security risks involved, the pilots decided to land at Jaglot and have now decided to return to Skardu. The Nanga Parbat drop off will be executed on Monday morning now, weather permitting,” he said.

Helicopters performed two sorties last Friday in search of the climbers on the Diamer side, one of the three faces of the mountain.

The ACP has also feared that the missing climbers could be running short on supplies, food and water.

“The ground team reached camp I, approximately 5,000 metres on Nanga Parbat, but could not proceed higher due to bad weather conditions,” Ali Mohammad Saltoro from Alpine Adventure Guides, the tour operator managing the Nanga Parbat expedition, said.

Two members of the expedition recently abandoned their summit push on the mountain after assessing the risks of avalanches and seracs, but Daniel Nardi and Tom Ballad stayed on, waiting for a window of clear weather to reach the summit.

Mr Haidri told Dawn the climbers went missing possibly after being hit by an avalanche.

“The helicopters performing the search mission last Friday saw avalanche debris and a destroyed orange test on camp III, a little over 6,000 metres. However, evidence where the avalanche hit has been buried under snowfall again,” he said.

Mr Sadpara and two other climbers – Imtiaz Hussain and Dilawar Hussain – had continued to search for the missing climbers on foot for a third consecutive day on Saturday, while Mr Txikon and his team have offered to initiate a drone search.

Via satellite, Mr Sadpara told Dawn the missing mountaineers had ascended through a new route that has not been used to summit the mountain thus far. The risk of avalanches is high on this route, he said, adding that they could not say whether or not the mountaineers had died. He said there were examples of missing mountaineers being traced after a week or 10 days.

Video footage of the entire Mummery Spur, from 5,100 metres to 7,000 metres, did not reveal any clues other than a collapsed orange or red tent, which is still unsure due to its position.

Daniel Nardi and Tom Ballard went missing from camp IV at 6,300 metres on Feb 24.

Mr Sadpara said weather on the mountain is bad, with high snowfall and high winds. He said they went up a few kilometres on foot but returned to base camp. He also said that the weather had prevented Alex Txikon’s team from assisting the search with the help of three high altitude drones.

He said they were in touch with Italian embassy officials and the mountaineers’ families, and are planning to search using the drones, although they were unable to do so on Sunday.

Mr Sadpara said he is friends with one of the missing climbers, Daniel Nardi, who has long dreamt of summiting Nanga Parbat through the Mummery Spur route, which has never been done before, even in the summer.

He said there is a 500 metre portion at the altitude of 6,300 metres which is very technical. If the missing climbers had crossed this point it would be easy to summit the mountain, but they seemed to have been stuck there, which is dangerous.

Mr Sadpara said what he observed through the helicopter operation on Thursday was that when they arrived at this point on evening of Feb 23, they would have gone to sleep and not realised the danger of this area. It was possible they spent the night there and their camp was hit by an avalanche, he said.

He said base camp staff told him that heavy winds were blowing on the mountain that night. He added that they would decide in the next day or two whether to continue the operation.

Published in Dawn, March 4th, 2019