'No Rescue Operation Was Even Attempted'

Uproar and probes after video emerges of climbers walking over dying Pakistani porter on the way to K2 summit with no rescue

'No Rescue Operation Was Even Attempted'

There is an uproar in the global mountaineering committee after footage and accounts emerged that a young Pakistani porter lay dying on the most dangerous mountain in the world. Still, no one from around 70 climbers who walked over his slowly freezing corpse stopped to bring him down to safety.

Islamabad, however, has launched a probe into the circumstances surrounding his death.

A video from Nepali Sherpa Lakpa from July 27 showed the 27-year-old father of three Muhammad Hassan lying on a steep track high on K2 - known as the 'Bottleneck' - taking his final breaths.

It is called the 'Bottleneck' because it has dangerous ice seracs hanging above while a single file track provides the only route upwards and a 50-60 metre incline downwards on the other side at a height of 8,200 meters -- well into the death zone where atmospheric oxygen is too little to sustain life. A misstep here is considered certain death.

Hassan was an employee of the Lela Peak Expedition. Alex Abramov's Seven Summit Club assigned Hassan, a high-altitude porter, to assist rope fixers during the summit push.

Some climbers, including Lakpa Sherpa of 8K Expeditions and cameraman Philip Flämig, noted that Hassan was inexperienced with high altitude climbing and his equipment was inadequate for a summit push on K2.

On the day, around 100 mountaineers had summitted the mountain. Some were chasing time-bound records, and others knew that due to the conditions on the mountain, with snow and fresh avalanche, this could be their final window to summit at the end of a very expensive expedition.

Explorersweb in a post said that Silvia Azdreeva of Bulgaria scaled K2 that day as a member of the EliteExped team and recounted what he saw.

"During the summit push, there were five avalanches next to us below the bottleneck," Azdreeva told Explorersweb.

"One of them hit some of us on the way up. Luckily, we weren't injured and managed to dig out of the snow. We debated if we would continue or give up."

"[Then later,] a person died in front of my eyes. One moment he was alive, and then on the way back, we had to jump over his corpse on the ice edge that we were passing." 

Hassan is said to have fallen, breaking his oxygen mask. At the same time, he did not have other critical equipment necessary to sustain himself at that height, including a suit made of down feathers for the extreme temperatures, gloves, goggles and boots.

The controversy gained further traction after Austrian climber Willi Steindl gave interviews suggesting that not only did the dozens of climbers fail to stop and help a fellow human high on the mountain, but no attempt was made to rescue him.

In multiple media interviews, Steindl stated he was on the mountain with his German cameraman Philip Flämig. He had turned back from below the Bottleneck after seeing the avalanches just below the steep traverse. But drone footage they later reviewed, seemed to catch how Hassan was still alive for hours after his accident, and people continued to step over him on their way to the summit.

Steindl stated that the condition on the mountain in the days leading up to the summit push was quite dangerous, with heavy snow and some avalanches. The situation was made worse due to the extreme rush of climbers.

The Alpine Club of Pakistan certified that this was a record year for the Savage Mountain, with 300 people applying for permits to climb and on the day Hassan died, some 100 people had summited.

"When we got below the Bottleneck, we saw that it was jamming up in the traverse. Then, when an avalanche went off right in front of us and narrowly missed many climbers, it was way too dangerous to climb up there from our point of view."

'No rescue operation even attempted'

In response to a question by the German blog Abenteur-Berg, Steindl said  rescue missions at such a high altitude are possible. 

"Of course, a rescue is possible there – just like on the summit ridge of Mount Everest," he said, noting that a rescue team is stationed at Camp-IV on Everest to effect such rescues. 

"You just have to want it and have the manpower and strength to pull someone down from there," he said, noting that it would take three, four or five people, along with a willingness from everyone following behind to turn around and clear a path.

"Then you could at least get an injured person down to Camp 4 (at 7,600 meters) and give him bottled oxygen and warm him up in a tent there."

Asked if the porter would have survived had he been rescued, Steindl said he had no idea if that would have happened.

"But no rescue operation was even attempted."

He added that when the climbers descended to base camp, "people were busy celebrating the summit victory. They didn't talk about it [Hassan's death] with us."

Criticism for record chasers

One of the mountaineers who has come under intense criticism for walking past Hassan determined not to let a dying human keep them from their record, was 37-year-old Norwegian climber Kristin Harila.

Harila became the first woman to summit all 14,000-meter peaks in just 91 days, breaking the record held by Nepal-born British adventurer Nirmal Purja's record, set in 2019 of six months and six days.

She was climbing K2 with a four-man crew including two cameramen and a guide, Nepalese Tenjen Sherpa Lama but several other porters and sherpa were helping her in fixing ropes.

However, she has since defended herself, claiming that her team spent around an hour and a half to help Hassan when others wouldn't even be at great risk to themselves.

Termed as an 'Egotistic' mountaineer by Daily Mail for "celebrating after reaching the summit of K2 just moments after climbers 'walked over dying porter' in a scathing article in the Daily Mail, Harila said her cameraman and two others spent "1.5 hours in the bottleneck trying to pull him [Hassan] up". 

She claimed that her cameraman, identified only as Gabriel, stayed with Hassan and shared his oxygen and hot water with the Pakistani porter "while other people were passing by.

"Considering the amount of people that stayed behind and had turned around, I believed Hassan would be getting all the help he could and that he would be able to get down," Harila said.

Gabriel left after another hour when he needed "to get more oxygen for his own safety", she wrote in an Instagram post.

Harila, who was supported by a large crew of rope fixers to help her chase a record, said her team of four "was in no shape to carry his body down" safely, noting that it would have required at least six people.

His death was "truly tragic... and I feel very strongly for the family", she said, but "we had done our best, especially Gabriel".

Probe launched

The Gilgit Baltistan government's Tourism, Sports and Culture Department, which regulates high altitude porters, has since launched a probe into the matter, setting up a five-member committee. The probe was formed ten days after the incident after media reports emerged.

The team comprises Archaeology and Museum Director Iqbal Hussain as chairman. At the same time, Baltistan Deputy Director Rahat Karim, a representative of the district administration, a representative of the Alpine Club of Pakistan and a member of the GBATO will also be part of the committee.

They have tasked with ascertaining facts surrounding the incident, conditions on the mountain at the time, actions of the group who had employed Hassan and whether any rescue efforts were made, determining conditions of Hassan's climbing gear and his level of experience, verifying accounts of fellow porters and Sherpas, whether he was a part of the 30 porters trained at the Snow School in Rattu among other things.

The inquiry committee set a deadline of 15 days to complete their report.

What of Hassan's widow

Steindl, who visited Hassan's widow along with his crew, said she was devastated to learn of the news.

He said that all his wife knew was that Hassan was a regular porter who ferry goods between Askole - the last smidgen of civilization before the Baltoro Glacier - and K2. 

In fact, this was his first time going up the mountain just to save more money for his three children.

Moreover, she disclosed that while regular High Altitude Porters are insured for $1,500, Hassan was not insured.

"I sat with the family and watched them. The two of them cried through almost two hours. The sight of the family was so heartbreaking, and what the widow told was even more so."