Rescued

Posted on: December 1, 2005


The cry came as we reached the Grand Teton's Lower Saddle. It might have been the wind, or a climber's call to his partner... but it wasn't. It was a cry for help.

We peered up, trying to locate its source. Five hundred feet above us a figure stood on a ledge, halfway up the Lower Exum Ridge. His voice came to us with surprising clarity.

"My partner has fallen. She has a broken arm, maybe a broken hip. She can't descend on her own."

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It was Alex, our production manager. A strong athlete, he had been climbing all summer, and I knew he had been planning to try the Exum Direct with his friend, Leah, that morning. One month before, Alex's girlfriend had died in his arms, the victim of another climbing accident. My chest felt tight with the news.

Of all the places to fall and break your arm, Leah had found the perfect spot, and the rescue was underway within minutes, the helicopter soaring up the valley. Still, I knew too much backstory: I knew what Alex had gone through a month earlier, had seen him come to work late with circles under his twenty-four-year-old eyes that no one that young should have. I knew the helicopter pilot, Lawrence, from evenings in the bar; his outrageous sense of humor made the back of my head hurt from laughing. A mutual friend had introduced me to the Jenny Lake Climbing Ranger, Marty, calm and genial and now swinging in a controlled parabola at the end of the bright orange line.

Lawrence gently lowered Marty to the ledge. The helicopter floated, for one minute, then two, its rotors twenty feet from the black and orange stone. A gust came over the Saddle, late summer wind with a bite of autumn. The helicopter wobbled toward the rock. My imagination veered with it: the rotors might hit the wall; Leah might die; the burden of another accident might be too great for Alex.

When the rope went slack, the helicopter fell away from the wall and banked back toward the Saddle. It hovered above us, silhouetted against the mushrooming clouds as though the world had been reversed and it floated on the surface of an ocean. A filament of improbable brightness extended down to the Saddle. The next ranger, Jack, clipped in, and in a moment he too was airborne, adrift in a sea of sky. Only when we heard from another ranger that Leah was stable and Alex was making his descent did we begin to relax.

Not all rescues are as straightforward. On August 10, 2005, Tomaz Humar was rescued off Nanga Parbat's 4100-meter Rupal Face from a bivouac at ca. 5700 meters. What we witnessed on the Grand was an ordinary, if unfortunate, moment in climbing; what happened on Nanga Parbat was something else.

Humar is a masterful performer. His 1999 expedition on the south face of Dhaulagiri—with its live coverage, dramatic events (such as his much-publicized extraction with a pocketknife of a troublesome tooth partway through the climb) and helicopter evacuation from 5700 meters during the descent—set a new standard for solo climbing, but also for media coverage of an alpine climb. The 2005 Nanga Parbat expedition picked up where Dhaulagiri had left off.

Humar's more than twenty sponsors on Nanga included the telecommunications company Mobitel, Radio Slovenija, the Slovenian national newspaper Delo, POP TV, the supermarket Mercator and the road construction company SCT. His expedition was covered in real time by live feeds coordinated from both Slovenia and base camp. During preparations for his climb, his Web site reported that "climbing conditions [on the face were] the worst in the last three years" (July 26); that "the whole of the northeast part of Pakistan has found itself in a monsoon" (July 27); and that avalanches were prevalent on or near his intended route in the days immediately preceding his attempt (August 2). Despite his own reports of poor conditions and a limited, three-day weather window forecast, Humar began climbing on August 2. Three days later, pinned to the face by the conditions he had predicted, he called for help.

Andrej Stremfelj wrote in the 2001 American Alpine Journal about Humar's climb on Dhaulagiri, "To what extent does risk in the form of exposure to greater and greater objective danger seemingly increase the difficulty of ascent—and in this way also increase its market value?" After Humar's 2005 rescue, General Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani president, feted him in Islamabad. Hourly updates on the national news and a reception complete with a band and a crowd of admirers accompanied Humar's return to Slovenia. His media sponsors maintained a steady stream of reports, one that was quickly picked up around the world, including by mainstream magazines in the US such as Outside and National Geographic Adventure. Only a month later, when Steve House and Vince Anderson climbed the Rupal Face in a six-day push, did the "market value" of Humar's attempt go down.

We are relieved that Humar emerged from the rescue unharmed and that none of his rescuers were injured in their work. We might note, however, the loss of adventure his rescue represents. As Jean-Christophe Lafaille writes in this issue, going into remote areas where no helicopters can save you is one of the allures of high-altitude climbing, because it reduces you "to your most basic—and essential—self." Humar made much of this appeal on his Web site: "Rescue from the middle part of the Rupal [F]ace is impossible," read August 5's report. "[T]hat is what makes mountaineering special.... If it would be so easy to get rescued someone would try to climb this route before. All mountaineers [who] decide to do such a feat know there might be no way back. They know [the] only one [who] can help them are themselves and 'Him'." Later that day, he asked for the rescue.

The differences between the Grand rescue and the one on Nanga Parbat couldn't have been more pronounced. Two friends climbing the Exum Direct with no motives other than to have fun and push their personal limits embodies the spirit of alpinism perfectly. Packaged for an audience like a reality television show, Humar's Nanga Parbat attempt was not alpinism, it was business. And while Alex and Leah were just unlucky, Humar's decision to climb in conditions he himself had declared unreasonably dangerous was a rash one that ultimately jeopardized the lives of his rescuers. That he was then portrayed as a hero is insulting, both to his rescuers and to all climbers who venture into the mountains conscious of the risks involved.

We climbers just go climbing; when bad things happen, we are sometimes fortunate enough that pilots, rangers and fellow climbers are able to help us. We should never depend on them to be there, even if we always hope they will be. The heroes in Humar's story are the pilots and the soldiers who saved him, just as the heroes that day on the Grand were Lawrence and the Jenny Lake Climbing Rangers. To present the events any other way is to degrade the spirit of climbing. And that, in the end, hurts us all.

—Christian Beckwith



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