ISLAMABAD, March 27: As the international mountaineering community mourns the loss of three climbers in Pakistan, it is becoming clear that a disregard of rules and lack of coordination may have contributed to this tragedy.
Take Lt-Col Manzoor Hussain, the president of Alpine Club Pakistan (ACP). He is of the opinion that early Sunday (March 11) - two days after the climbers went missing - was a clear and ideal time for the rescue of the missing climbers.
“Sunday morning was crucial,” he said as he explained that time is of the essence when people go missing while mountain climbing. “It’s impossible to survive even for a day if one goes higher than 7,000 metres where the climbers went missing.”
The mountaineers – team leader Austrian Gerfried Goschl, Swiss Cedric Hahlen – and their porter Nisar Hussain were attempting to climb Gasherbrum-I, which is also known as the Hidden Peak, when they went missing on March 9.
But this morning was lost, claims Hussain, because Askari Aviation (AA) was unaware of Gerfried Goschl’s expedition on Gasherbrum I. AA, which is a private company, is solely responsible for providing domestic and international aviation services such as air transportation of passengers/cargo, helicopter safaris and rescue services to stranded climbers on the highest peaks in northern areas. It is important to note that AA uses army helicopters to provide such services.
“It is mandatory that all expeditions deposit a refundable security ($10,000). However, this expedition had not deposited this security nor registered with the AA. As a result, AA had no idea about the expedition or where the climbers were,” said a senior official at Askari Aviation. He added that some expeditions took the risk of not registering, compromising their safety and that of the porters as well.
The official also explained that AA also provided the expedition a rescue kit which could be used to flash the sign of ‘H’ that could be seen from air.
The official’s assertion is lent further credence by the fact that the Askari Aviation website shows the registration of Italians and Russians besides one other group. But the expedition led by Austrian Gerfried Goschl is not visible on the website.
This is why, AA officials claim, the rescue could not be organised till 10am on Sunday when the Austrian embassy in Islamabad committed to pick up the bill for the rescue operation that was about $17,000. (The ambassador of Austria, Axel Wech, declined to comment on the subject when approached by Dawn.) However, by then the helicopters were flying a regular mission and could not be diverted. The aircraft returned by 1pm and were refueled; by then clouds had started gathering. By 3:30pm, it was decided to postpone the aerial rescue until Monday, March 12.
Askari Aviation is firm about not providing services for free. “It has happened several times in the past that climbers came and asked for and were provided an aerial rescue but did not pay for it later. We need guarantees that somebody will pay,” said the senior official.
According to the ACP official, “Alpine Club does not permit mountaineers to set foot out of its office until all mandatory requirements are fulfilled, including paying the security deposit. In the case of the three lost climbers, the tour operator, Adventure Pakistan, disregarded a major rule.”
Adventure Pakistan, that was providing services to the lost climbers, said Pakistan Association of Tour Operators (PATA) had boycotted AA services because of its exorbitant fees for aerial rescue.
“Askari Aviation raised their fees from $3,000 per hour for a MI-17 helicopter to $8,100 per hour in April last year. We used to deposit $6,000 as security. Now they demand $10,000. Askari Aviation is a private business set-up and these prices are unreasonable,” said tour operator Mohammad Ali who is with Adventure Pakistan. He explained how PATA would not deposit a single dime with the AA until the prices were reduced.
He also said the boycott had been in place since last year when AA raised their charges in April 2011. In 2011, only one expedition registered with AA out of the 60 plus expeditions that came to climb.
Mr Ali also confirmed that the Austrian embassy had guaranteed to pick up the bill for search and rescue and deposited the money on March 12.
ACP and AA confirmed that there had been numerous incidents in the past where tour operators had violated rules in a bid to try and save money.
However, it is not clear how climbers can start their expeditions without fulfilling the basic requirements such as registering with AA and why their violations are not being checked. The state has to take responsibility for its duty to ensure that its rules are followed.
Some people also feel that the liaison officer of the expedition team could have also played a more important role.
Liaison officers (LOs) from the Pakistan army and the air force are bound to accompany each expedition and ensure that safety is not compromised.
Earlier, the Ministry of Tourism used to forward a list of the expedition teams to the army’s military training directorate which then It was not the Hidden Peak that killed selected and assigned LOs. (After devolution, it is the Gilgit-Baltistan Council that now forwards the list to the directorate.)
Experts claim that in the past Los provided more help to the expeditions by accompanying them as far as possible. However, at present the tendency is for these officers to not go beyond Skardu or Gilgit.
“Back in the days, LOs were required to be good administrators and arrange porters and so on. Safety of the expedition is a liaison officer’s top priority as is his duty to accompany climbers as far as possible,” said a veteran mountain climber.
It did not even prove possible to find out how far this expedition’s LOs accompanied the mountaineers. Nor did it prove possible to talk to him for this story and discover what role he played in the rescue expedition.
Partly, some of this confusion and lack of coordination that is prevalent is due to devolution. Coordination between offices engaged in mountaineering expeditions suffered when the Ministry of Tourism was devolved. The Alpine Club, a private body funded by the government, was assigned by the then Ministry of Tourism five years ago to brief and debrief expeditions as well as check their necessary documentation. However, that role was now shared by Gilgit-Baltistan Council. A new office had been formed in the Council after devolution. However, nearly a year later it is still not clear which department does what.“Expeditions used to submit their documents along with the fees. Then the Ministry of Tourism forwarded the details of the expeditions to intelligence offices for clearance. The GB Council is now performing these operations. This creates confusion - first because there are no experienced personnel in the Council and secondly some expeditions go to the Council and some to the ACP for briefing/debriefing,” said another accomplished mountaineer. He argued that it was necessary for the government to form one centralised centre.
However, it is important to note that some of the problems even existed before devolution.
In fact, as far back as in 2008, some world class mountaineers, including Tomaz Humar, the world-renowned Slovenian summiteer and rescuer (who died in Nepal), had pushed for a complete overhaul of the search and rescue methods in Pakistan.
He had said the country needed to provide better services to climbers from across the world. Will someone heed his words now - after the recent tragedy?