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Fall during ski descent on Gasherbrum VII results in dramatic rescue from 6300m

Posted on: July 24, 2019


[This story has been updated with additional comments and photos from Cala Cimenti. The photos have been shared with permission.—Ed.]

The west faces of Gasherbrum IV, V, VI, and VII. The peak of Gasherbrum II is just barely visible behind the southern ridge of Gasherbrum IV. Gasherbrum I (Hidden Peak) is hidden behind Gasherbrum V. [Photo] Florian Ederer, WikimediaThe west faces of Gasherbrum IV, V, VI, and VII. The peak of Gasherbrum II is just barely visible behind the southern ridge of Gasherbrum IV. Gasherbrum I (Hidden Peak) is hidden behind Gasherbrum V. [Photo] Florian Ederer/Wikimedia

On July 20, Cala Cimenti, of Italy, became the first person to stand on top of 6955-meter Gasherbrum VII. (In spite of some very famous sister peaks—including Gasherbrum I, II, III, IV and V, which were climbed in 1958, '56, '75, '58, and 2014, respectively—not all of the summits in this group have seen footprints or been well documented. Gasherbrum VII was among the last unclimbed peaks in the group, and Mountain.ru recently reported that Polish team is en route to attempt the unclimbed Gasherbrum VI.)

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Cimenti's elation, however, was soon cut short. His partner Francesco Cassardo—who had decided not to continue to the top in order to save strength for their ski descent—was injured in a massive fall shortly after putting his skis on to follow Cimenti down.

Cala Cimenti (left) and Francesco Cassardo. [Photo] Cala Cimenti/FacebookCala Cimenti (left) and Francesco Cassardo. [Photo] Cala Cimenti/Facebook

Cimenti's wife, Erika Siffredi, helped relay the ensuing SOS message, and she has been posting updates in Italian on his Facebook page. A post on July 23 explained the sequence of events: a translated version of Cimenti's narrative, lightly edited by Alpinist for clarity, reads:

When I met Francesco during the ski descent, the steepest part hadn't been done yet. When I got to the bottom, I messaged him with the inReach to tell him that the descent was not simple, and I suggested that he try skiing a section that was slightly less steep first, and that if he didn't feel comfortable there, to remove skis for the second part.

The mountain is very steep, especially in the lower part, and the snow was very hard.... He made a mistake right at the beginning of the super steep part and started to plummet head-feet, head-feet, for 450 [meters].... In the fall he lost everything: backpack and clothes, remaining only with a shirt that was ripped.

The hardest moment was definitely in the evening when I realized that the helicopter wouldn't arrive, and so I had to leave Francesco by himself for about two hours...to go get the sleeping bags and the stove. I seriously feared finding him dead on my return, but he was still breathing. For the second time that day, he amazed me. He showed great strength.

Cimenti preparing to begin his ski descent. [Photo] Cala Cimenti/FacebookCimenti preparing to begin his ski descent. [Photo] Cala Cimenti/Facebook

Cimenti on the ski descent. [Photo] Cala Cimenti/FacebookCimenti on the ski descent. [Photo] Cala Cimenti/Facebook

The face where Cassardo fell. He started his flight where the climbing track turns left, Cimenti wrote on Facebook. [Photo] Cala Cimenti/FacebookThe face where Cassardo fell. "He started his flight where the climbing track turns left," Cimenti wrote on Facebook. [Photo] Cala Cimenti/Facebook

Cassardo was ultimately rescued by helicopter at 5900 meters near Camp I on July 22 after a dramatic effort that included the Polish alpinist team of Denis Urubko, Janusz Adamski and Jaroslaw Zdanowicz, Canadian climber Don Bowie and Italian mountaineer Marco Confortola; all of whom had just climbed Gasherbrum II (8034m), except for Bowie, who abandoned his attempt to help Cassardo. (Alpinist will later update with information about the helicopter crew, when available.)

"My ascent was pure alpine style, one direct push from the tent to the summit," Cimenti told Alpinist after he returned from his expedition. He said the route was 950 meters long and rated it D+. "The slope was hard, steep snow with one technical passage of around 20 meters of ice (serac)," he said. "The weather was really good, perfect. I felt an incredible emotion at the summit. The ski descent was very nice but difficult: really steep, especially in the second part, and the snow was hard. Not icy but hard, you couldn't make a mistake.... It was my best ski ever, in addition to Laila Peak."

According to a series of reports by Stefan Nestler on his Adventure Mountain blog, Cimenti had summited Nanga Parbat (8126m) and skied down the Kinshofer Route on July 3.

It was initially feared that Cassardo had a serious neck injury as well as a broken leg. After he arrived at the hospital in Skardu, however, doctors determined that he had a broken wrist and maybe a broken elbow and some fingers, and he also had frostbite on his nose and fingers, Nestler reported.

On the mountain, the rescuers could not assume that Cassardo was able to move safely without causing more harm to himself. Urubko, Adamski, Zdanowicz and Bowie reached Cimenti and Cassardo on the afternoon of July 21, and the team was able to bring Cassardo down to Camp I, where they spent the night. Meanwhile, Confortola remained in base camp to help with logistics.

Siffredi thanked everyone involved with the rescue, including the pilots, the Italian embassy, journalists "and all those who participated in the recovery of Francesco.... It was nice to feel surrounded by so much affection."

Members of the rescue team, from left to right: Don Bowie, Marco Confortola, Cala Cimenti, Denis Urubko. [Photo] Cala Cimenti/FacebookMembers of the rescue team, from left to right: Don Bowie, Marco Confortola, Cala Cimenti, Denis Urubko. [Photo] Cala Cimenti/Facebook

Urubko is one of several climbers who are becoming legendary for recent high-altitude rescues, in addition to an already impressive list of ascents on big mountains. In a story for Alpinist 37, titled "Fifty-Fifty: Tales of A Climber's Life," he recalls escorting Anna Chervinska down from 8100 meters on Lhotse after her oxygen tank ran out, and how he, Ueli Steck, Bowie and others tried to save the Spanish climber Inaki Ochoa from the East Ridge of Annapurna in 2008. Urubko recalled how Bowie "plowed a route through deep snow from 3800 meters to 6800 meters in fewer than 24 hours." These days, Urubko is perhaps most famous for his winter exploits on K2 and his rescue of Elisabeth Revol on Nanga Parbat in January 2018, in which he and Adam Bielecki climbed 1100 meters through the night and saved her from a likely death.

"It is difficult to single out something important from the flow of time, because it is the flow of time that makes it important," he wrote in "Fifty-Fifty."

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