Latok I. Saving Chief Mate Gukov
Instead of an introduction
I will begin with the most important message in case you do not make it to the end: one thing that should be crystal clear about rescues is, NO HELICOPTER WILL COME AND SAVE YOU.
You must count only on yourself.
You must understand what you are going to do if something goes wrong.
You must have a good insurance covering search and rescue by a helicopter and body evacuation. Do not save on insurance.
You must have a charged communication device.
You must have a capable team at home (a brother, a wife, a friend) that knows what to do in a critical situation, that will raise the alarm, forget about sleep, food, family, work, obligations, and will be dealing with your rescue 24/7.
And despite all that, no helicopter will come and save you in 90 percent of cases.
What we were able to do resulted from a lucky coincidence, incredible efforts, and orchestrated team work, it will hardly be possible to ever repeat that. A huge number of people were involved. We were assisted by the Russian Embassy in Pakistan, Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Russian Government, Ministry of Emergencies, military attache’s office, and Russian Ministry of Health.
We were met half-way by Army Chief of Stuff of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, Head of International Military Cooperation Administration of the Army Stuff of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, and Joint Intelligence Agency of the Ministry of Defense of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, for which we are extremely grateful to all of them.
Further reading is optional.
Spring 2015. We were sitting in Bar des Sports in Chamonix. Gukov and Lonchinskiy have just received Piolet d’Or, meaning that the international mountaineering community recognized their ascent to Thamserku as cool, and they were now among the cool guys.
Alexey Lonchinskiy, Sir Chris Bonington, Alexander Gukov
Alexey has at least grasped some snippets of climbing history but Alexander was a perfectly blank sheet in this respect.
- - And what do we have to climb to get the second Piolet d’Or? Or do they ever give the second one?
- - Climb the North Face of Latok I and you will feature in history.
On June 26, Victor Koval wrote that he jumped on the departing train and is going to Latok together with Konstantin Markevich from Moscow and Alexander Parfenov from Novosibirsk.
On June 29, I received a text message from Gukov:
July 23, 2018
Gukov and Glazunov started on July 13. They dried their things on the 15th, discarded heavy stuff, took a five days’ worth of food. They warned that their tracker was getting discharged [even when it was turned off].
On July 21, they went to the summit push without a bivy.
“Text me SOS and height if need be.” What made me write that?
- - Our team changed.
- - Who didn’t go?
- - Evgeny.
- - So there’re two of you?
- - Yes, a pair.
- - Sasha, don’t overstrain yourselves there, get down if anything happens, Latok is not for a pair.
- - I get it, I hope my knowledge of the route helps. If it’s still going to be available.
- - Available so far. Or get together with another team. Why didn’t Evgeny go?
- - Long story, let’s say he fell sick.
- - Got it, text or call me if you need help. Fingers crossed!
- - Knock on wood.
Gukov: Where is Markevich and what’s with the weather?
Gukov: We are on top of a huge snow serac. The weather was great.
- - Tomorrow’s forecast is good.
Koval: We are about one and a half days away from you, it’s better to descend together.
Gukov: The weather is shit this morning. Staying put. We are at 6780. Where was Markevich’s overnight?
- - Markevich and Co got under a rockfall. They are Ok but started descending. How’s the weather?
Gukov: Snowstorm all day, staying put. Will it be sunny tomorrow? Did Markevich’s team descend? Did they leave us food?
- - Cleared up. The crest is over. The wall is next. Tomorrow will depend on the weather.
Sasha, please don’t go crazy. Tomorrow’s forecast is the best. You need to summit push and go down quickly. Descent is super dangerous on either side.
Gukov: 11:27 Went to storm the mountain without a bivy.
- - They descended. Didn’t leave you food, so count only on yourselves.
[Ask them how they descended – with Abalakov thread?]
11:51 Couldn’t do it. Fixed two pitches. Will try tomorrow.
- - They were descending on self-turning off ice screw and hooks, 60 meters rope. The ice is very thin. An ice screw melts out in 20 minutes. Very little ice, everything melted away. Where are you? How long to the summit?
Victor Koval: Sanya, go down. Extremely carefully. The rockfall at the bottom is like a war.
- - The weather is still going to be good tomorrow, then it’s hell. Time to leave. What height are you at?
Glazunov, Koval, Parfenov, Markevich
July 23. They started summit push yesterday evening, didn’t send any message. Not critical yet. No bivy. Fixed two pitches the day before. They are tired, have no food, the terrain is hard, they are ascending slowly. Their tracker is merely out of power.
12:42 p.m. Here, they sent the height point 6975m.
The issue of initiating rescue is always tricky, what if you are just over-reacting and they are doing fine? What if you are bothering people in vain? You will call a helicopter now and they will descend by the evening. Or at least get into the visibility range.
Whom else are they sending messages? I find Julia in Facebook messenger and introduce myself pretty stiffly (I learnt of Nina’s existence two days later from Julia). I ask if she has heard from Sanja today. Julia, in the same stiff manner (using the formal “You”), responds: no.
What wonderfully succinct Russian language we are going to use with her in just a couple of days.
I write to the BC [Base Camp]: Victor, what is the weather like? Can you see the guys?
Koval: Hi Anna. The weather went bad, everything is overcast, we cannot see the top of the mountain.
I need advice. I have not met the Glazunovs but I exchanged a few messages with Evgeny (Sergey’s brother) in VKontakte social network half a year ago:
- - Evgeny, did Sergey contact you?
- - I get information from the Internet. What do you know?
- - Our last communication was yesterday, today [they] haven’t contacted me. I think their battery is completely drained.
- They were planning to ascend yesterday, the forecast was so-so but the weather has been bad since morning, raining below and fresh snow above.
- I hope they started descending. They have no food.
- They were going to descend with Abalakov thread but the guys [Victor Koval] are saying an ice screw melts out in 20 minutes.
- - I didn’t know that. We’ll see. How were they, generally? I hope they don’t get frostbite.
- - Yesterday it seemed they were feeling down because they hadn’t reached the summit. Victor says it’s two days from their last bivy. It’s not cold there. Actually, the route is in poor condition due to abnormally warm weather, it’s also under rockfall.
- - If I were with them, we would cover it in a day.
- - Yes, it takes some desperation to try that as a pair.
- Oh, they turned the tracker on at 6975m. It looks like they are ascending.
- - So they’ll make the summit. If they climb the summit today, they will only descend tomorrow by night.
Poor weather since morning. Cleared out by three o’clock. Victor Koval, Konstantin Markevich and Alexander Parfenov approached the descent wall. Visibility to 6500-6600. No one.
So what now?
Many years ago, we were rushing to the Crimea on a rent car, to Mountain.RU Rock Trip climbing festival. Shura Balakireva was driving, I was sitting next to her, Gustik [Igor Gusak] and Zhuzha [Julia Abramchuk] were in the back seat.
As usually, a small truck was crawling in front of us and as usually, we began overtaking it, as usually, it turned out that another truck was moving in front of the first one. We were in the oncoming lane and a Land Cruiser was rushing towards us head-on.
There was this pause in the car. Everyone was sitting there facing the imminent death. And only Shura asked very quietly, as she pulled close to the truck: “So what now?”
So what now?
Victor suggests contacting ATP and calling a helicopter flyover.
I call Shamalo. He knows Latok’s character very well. Valery says it’s okay so far, they are probably tired and sleeping. They will crawl down over two days little by little. They have to.
Evgeny Glazunov contacts me via a messenger:
I am sitting there and smoking. Wasn’t able to wimp out. Why do I need all this?
To Victor: Could they go to the other side to descend quickly?
- - Any news? What does the tracker say?
- - The tracker is silent. The guys went to the wall. No one.
- - Damn.
- - We’ll try to call a helicopter flyover.
- - Good idea. Keep me in the loop. But I am flying to the Fann Mountains today.
- - Should I keep in touch with anyone else except you?
- - Not until we have the exact info. I will be available for a couple more hours.
- - You can only reach the other side from the summit crest, but then there is a wall, too.
- - What are Slovenians planning, where are they going to climb?
- - Chesen is having a rest after acclimatization. They want to climb the edge but are having second thoughts due to abnormally warm weather and rockfalls. It’s not even clear now how to start climbing the edge, the starting couloir is all black.
Making decisions is tough. If I could have it my way, I would never make any decisions at all. Let others decide for me.
- - Valery [Shamalo again], the guys approached the wall, they could see no one up to 6,600m. Does a flyover make sense?
- - Maybe they descended to the tent and are having a rest. Or maybe they are above 6,600m. Not all areas are visible there. A flyover makes sense only to find them. We won’t be able to take them off the edge. Helping them is also difficult.
It would be so wonderful. If they made the right decision – Ok, good job, if not – who is to blame? Definitely not me.
I remembered I hadn’t had breakfast yet. Brewed some coffee. What a dummy you are, Anna. You should have played the girlie at once and wondered how it was going with perfect sincerity. Been concerned together with the rest.
I looked at the bottom of my coffee cup – trying to read the signs.
Okay, let’s rock.
The response from ATP was almost instant. However, not exactly the response we’d wish for. So what next?
Help came from an unexpected place. Ovchinnikov called: “How are the guys doing there?”
I told him.
- - Julia, I will write a post on Facebook, don’t get nervous, we need to make the mass media aware in order to accelerate the helicopter involvement later if required.
- It takes a long time to get anything approved in Pakistan – they are military, after all. And you can write to insurance company and ATP and ask for a flyover.
That’s how our volunteer rescue office was established – Chip’n Dale: Rescue Rangers. I was obviously Gadget but I still had some questions left. I was asking myself: where from did I get this conscious public stance, “who else if not you” and all that stuff? I’ve never had it. And how could I get into that so deep? I still had some hopes of wimping out neatly out of this newly-created charitable organization pursuing other people’s important goal.
A couple of hours later we were already in the group chat with Mr. Vadim Viktorovich Zaytsev, Assistant to Ambassador in Pakistan. But he must have been Assistant to God, too.
“On July 15, Gukov and Glazunov set out from the camp at 5512m with a five days’ worth of food and minimum gear. On July 21, they left for a summit push with no bivy gear. Yesterday at 12:40 p.m. they were at the height of 6975m. The pre-summit crest begins at about 7050m. The summit is at 7145 m. The high-altitude camp is at 6800m. The camp with food is at 5512m.
There is a small chance that in case they reached the summit they could have started descending on the other side of the mountain, taking an easier route to descend faster but it’s not very probable without a tent or food. There are three Russian citizens in the base camp near the foot of the mountain, they keep in touch, one has a rib broken – they got under a rockfall. They don’t need help. But neither can they go on a mountain rescue. We need a helicopter flyover. There is a landing spot 500m away from the base camp (a huge glacier). The nearest settlement is Askole.”
A few more questions and answers, Vadim Viktorovich leaves for a short while and writes back in half an hour: “The rescue operation will begin tomorrow at six a.m. Moscow time. It will be performed by Askari Aviaion.”
Voila. Dear me, how easy.
Text to Evgeny [Glazunov]: it looks like we found a private heli ready to set out tomorrow. I hope everything will play out well and the weather will be on our side, too.
- - We need a helicopter. ATP gave Julia a polite refusal. They said there was a case recently when relatives asked for a flyover and the climbers descended on their own two days later. Tomorrow is the Election Day in Pakistan. All military pilots are busy. Can you contact the embassy?
“The rescue operation will begin tomorrow at six a.m. Moscow time.”
July 25: The Black Day
5:35am Victor Koval: We see a tent at 6600-6700. There is one man at the tent.
Why one? What if the other one is injured and cannot descend further?
At six a.m. Alexey Ovchinnikov wrote that he was flying on vacation to Europe in an hour, as he naively supposed.
Alexey Ovchinnikov (from the airplane): They will not risk a landing at 6700. They can pick someone up from about 5500.
- - Vadim Viktorovich, one man cannot descend, we need a helicopter with an external fixed line.
- - The Pakistani from Askari have no fixed line. They’ll find them but won’t lift them. Are they both alive?
- - There is only one man at the tent, they cannot identify who exactly by his clothes.
- - Can Victor fly with the pilots?
- - Yes, he is ready. They’ve prepared a food and gas delivery, they’ll try to drоp it.
Victor Koval: You cannot pick them up from 5500. Only from the glacier then.
Okay, there is a bergschrund at 4800. The tent with the food is at 5512. As long as they descend.
7:58 a.m. The helicopter set out. It will be there in 30 minutes, i.e. at 10:30 Pakistani time. I forgot to tell Victor about the first aid kit. We should have included drugs in the drоp delivery – dexamethasone and whatever else they inject for frostbite.
9:44 a.m. Koval: Did a flyover of the wall on a military helicopter. The guys are abseiling, though slowly, at around 6700. drоp them food and gas.
Phew! Hooray! They are descending. I promise Victor mountains of gold and the most beautiful girls to boot.
And for the umpteenth time this day: as long as they descend.
- - My wife is a photo model. She’ll kill me at once :)
They are supposed to crawl down by tomorrow evening, if everything is okay.
The only thing left is believing in their luck.
Tomorrow, porters are coming to the base camp – Markevich and Parfenov will leave with them, Victor will stay at the BC to wait for the guys. He will assess their condition after the descent and say if they need evacuation.
Gukov writes: I NEED EVACUATION.
- - Vadim Viktorovich, the guys sent an SOS signal. I had an arrangement with them that they should send an SOS and the height if things go south.
Read on the Mountain.RU: