Two weeks after she was rescued on Nanga Parbat in the Himalayas, Elizabeth Revol denounced the slow pace of the rescue operation, which, she said, cost her Polish partner Tomasz Mackiewicz, his life. “When a rescue operation is triggered, it’s an emergency situation, and in this case, we had to wait 48 hours for something to happen,” said the mountaineer at a press conference in Chamonix. The outrage expressed by the French mountaineer, struggling with survivor’s guilt, is understandable, but it has aroused criticism in mountaineering circles and in Pakistan, a country that suffers from a bad image.
“Several points have upset us, in particular comments in the media, expressing anger at the slowness of the rescue operation and the demand for money to be provided ‘in cash on the table’,” Pakistan’s Ambassador to Paris Mr. Moin ul Haq said to Le Point. The diplomat, very impressed by the Frenchwoman’s exploits and bravery, added: “Despite her criticism, she will always be welcome. She is a celebrity in Pakistan.” To understand the gray areas surrounding the rescue operation, one needs to take a look at the history of mountain tourism in the region.
In the 90s, during the May to July season, the Karakoram Range and its legendary peaks, Masherbrum, K2, Gasherbrum, Broad Peak, Hidden Peak and Baltistan Peak, used to host more than a hundred expeditions. In 1995, five hundred permits were issued, more than in Nepal. The mountaineers climbing these gigantic mountains were more or less experienced. There were numerous accidents. During the 1993 season, about twenty rescue operations were conducted, all managed by the Pakistani army. The cost of the operations amounted to around $400, 000. Only one expedition in ten took out insurance. All the money was not paid back. The military complained that the cost of relief operations was being taken out of the defence budget.
Accused of “slowness” and exorbitant rates, Pakistani rescue operations in the Nanga Parbat range follow very specific procedures.
In the face of numerous mountaineering emergencies, a private company, Askari Aviation, was created in 1995 by retired members of the army. In France, rescue operations are free because they are paid for by our taxes, but in Pakistan, Argentina and Nepal, one needs to take out insurance. The founders of Askari Aviation expected there would be 1,000 visitors in 2000 and double that number by 2010. Given that 10% of expeditions required assistance,they thought the service could begin to be profitableafter five or six rescue operations a month, and thus help to purchase more aircraft. But the market never took off. The country was shunned. Tourist numbers fell, divided by four, after the nuclear tests in 1998, the rise of the Taliban and the escalation of terrorism post 9/11.
-No helicopter rescue mission above 7,000 m.-
Askari Aviation is now a private charter company, which operates in the tourism sector, for missions, for industry, for the army, thanks to aircraft made available by the army. The helicopters are supplied by the Skardu military base, whose primary mission is to provide air and logistical support to army troops based on the Siachen Glacier at an altitude of 5,000 m., along the border with India, where the highest conflict in the world is taking place. The conditions of use are regulated by the army. Above 4,000m.,helicopters fly only in pairs for obvious safety reasons: the Baltoro Glacier is 62 km. long and if there is a problem, the crew can be easily rescued.These aircraft cannot be altered in any way, and must return to the Skardu base before sunset at the end of each mission.
On January 26, early in the afternoon, after Friday prayers, Polish and French diplomats went to see Askari Aviation with their mission statement, after a series of phone calls. The atmosphere was tense. “We said we would do our best. But 7,000 m., due to the technical limitations of the aircraft, was impossible. Our helicopters can climb to 6,400 m. but can not land when loaded. Furthermore in an air rescue mission, where the search for climbers takes time and requires fuel, their ability to carry useable cargo is reduced,” explained an internal source.
A helicopter has already climbed above 7,000 m. In 2013, an exhausted climber at the top of Everest was hoisted from a record altitude of 7,800 m. by a Eurocopter AS350 B3 belonging to the Fishtail Air company, near Camp 4 on the normal route. “This type of rescue operation is exceptional,” mountaineer and pilot Simone Moro told Montagnes Magazine. Indeed, at the base camp (5,500 m.), the aircraft was made as light as possible- its seats and doors were removed. The pilot, Maurizio Folini, was alone on board to handle the rescue. He did a few laps to get rid of the weight of the gas because he knew there was a nearby refuelling point. In theory, this aircraft is not allowed to fly beyond 7,000 m. This feat was carried out by a pilot who managed to stabilise the aircraft for one minute, while all the parameters were red, in sunny, stable weather, without too much wind. Ideal conditions. Nothing like Nanga Parbat.
-The risks of “hitting” the rock face are enormous-
On the morning of Saturday, January 27, weather conditions were not good on the Baltoro glacier, where Elisabeth Revol and her climbing partner, Mackiewicz were stranded. There were clouds and strong winds. At 11:30, after an exchange with the base camp teams, the pilots, who were hesitant, finally made the decision to launch the operation. The first step was to recover the Polish mountaineersat K2 base camp. The two helicopters took off at 1:30 pm, then returned to Skardu to refuel. The second step was to go to Nanga Parbat. It was 3:15 pm, already late since the sun would set at 5:30 pm. The helicopters are not equipped to fly at night. One strategy that was considered for a while, mentioned in part in the report filed by the medical officer of the Polish expedition, was as follows: a helicopter would climb to 6,500 m. to evacuate Elizabeth Revol, and at the same time drop off the rescuers who, armed with oxygen, would join Tomek, who was at 7,200 m. and bring him down to 6,500 m. where the helicopter would come back for them. This was a dangerous operation that left no room for improvisation and had little chance of succeeding. This type of mano euvringcan only be carried out by technicians who have been expressly trained for it, and whose task is to guide the pilot. They have to undergo multiple day and night training sessions to acquire precision. The risks of “hitting” the rock face are enormous. Moreover, the highest altitude reached by the Pakistani B3 helicopter is 6, 700 m. It was in 1989, but in the context of a commando operation.
In Skardu, the pilots were ready to cooperate, even if one can assume that they had doubts about the chances of success of such a plan, which was not mentioned on the mission statement. A technician clipped a cable to the helicopter. The hoist rescue method is not without risk. An injured person suspended too long in his harness runs the risk of cardiac arrest, because of the compression of the femoral artery. That’s why in the Alps, rescuers descend into crevasses to stabilise victims before evacuation. It was nearly 5pm when the two helicopters reached Nanga Parbat. On board each B3 were four people: two pilots, the Poles and their survival equipment for four days: tent, sleeping bag, eight bottles of oxygen, food, gas, hyperbaric chamber … All this was heavy. Not to mention the fuel, which was very heavy indeed. But in this area, there is no refuelling station. Pilots cannot afford to do laps to lighten the aircraft. After several unsuccessful attempts, the rescue team was finally deposited at 4,800 m. The two helicopters then joined their base and did not return because it was late.
The operation could have started on Friday, January 26. Yes, but Elizabeth Revol did not go through Askari Aviation, which offers its transport services to expeditions in the mountains of Pakistan. In order to obtain these services, one needs to register in advance by making a deposit of $15,000 (refundable if there is no rescue operation) as well as a $300 processing fee, and provide financial guarantee, from an insurance company and from the embassy concerned, as well as a climbing permit. Then a 4-hour briefing is given, to explain the limits of the operation, the types of rescue and what it is possible or not to do. The mountaineer must indicate which summit he plans to climb, which face of the mountain and the dates of his expedition. He is given an emergency telephone number to dial in case of a problem. Askari Aviation then undertakes to act within 90 minutes. Generally, when a member of a commercial expedition – guides are paid toaccompany clients – is in trouble on K2, the liaison officer dispatches altitude carriers to the mountain to help him and bring him down to the base camp. Solidary between the various expeditions is very strong, so that when a helicopter is called, it is often to support a mission that is already underway on the ground, so that it can pick up and evacuate the injured person to a hospital in Islamabad. Elizabeth Revol undertook a winter ascent, alone with her companion – who in this case, was sick – in alpine style and without a porter. The liaison officer, who remained at the base camp, was not much help to her. This accounts for a certain degree of slowness of the rescue mission.
-Askari Aviation was asking for cash before it could act-
But other reasons must be taken into account to explain why the mission to rescue Elisabeth Revol took some time. An arrangement could have been found with her insurance company, but Askari Aviation no longer works with foreign insurance companies, because of two unpaid bills in the past seven years, amounting to $280,000. Last year, out of the 35 mountaineering expeditions in Pakistan, 12 made use of the carrier’s services. Of the twelve,three were rescued. A 2-member expedition benefitted from services without having made a deposit, because their respective Embassies were guarantors. But the bill ($ 60,000) has still not been paid. This explains the mistrust on the part of the Pakistani agency with regard to the Polish and French diplomats who took care of organising the helicopters on the spot, and demanded that the operation be launched «immediately “. But Askari Aviation asked for cash before taking any action. The deposit was finally paid by the Polish Embassy, but the operation still took time. The helicopters were not ready, there were weather hazards. On the mountain, the two climbers were waiting for help that would not arrive.
It was normal, therefore, for Ludovic Giambiasi, Elizabeth Revol’s router–logistician, who coordinated the rescue operation from France, to tell Liberation, that he “found the time taken was too long”, and that “his anger rose as he noted that the bill was increasing hour by hour.” In the confusion that prevailed at the time, Askari Aviation’s opportunism appeared scandalous. But in fact, their conditions are clearly stated and the rates of their services are mentioned on their website: $ 3,818 / hour for a B3 with a maximum altitude of 6,000 m. For this type of operation, the duration remains a major unknown factor. In the end, it took around 18 hours, for an amount of approximately $ 68,000. The case sparked a reaction in Pakistan, which has set up a commission of inquiry. The country wants to promote mountain tourism and welcome more mountaineers and trekkers. “We hope to receive even more climbers and we will also strive to improve the rescue system,” said Pakistan’s Ambassador to France, Mr. Moin-ul-Haque. One way of doing this would be to draw up a list of insurance companies authorised to intervene in Pakistan for rescue operations in the mountains. Himalayan mountaineers, who are passionate about their activity but are often broke, have a hard time making two ends meet to cover an expedition, and very few have $15,000 on their bank account, for a deposit.(by: Yaser Ilyas)