“Justin A Louis …OVER…..”
An Epic Rescue on Gasherbrum II
By writing about and actual incident that took place on Gasherbrum II during summer 2011, it is our greatest hope that, with this information, climbers will live and experience with this story. One that they can maybe refer to should they live a similar event.
2011, July 15th, Camp 3 (7000m) on the normal route of Gasherbrum II
“Justin to Base Camp. Justin to Base Camp. Over”
“Justin to Base Camp, this is an emergency. Over”
“Justin to Base Camp, I repeat, this is an emergency. Over
“To all team members on Gasherbrums One and Two, please respond, this is an emergency. Over”
I knew that the radio reception between Base Camp and Gasherbrum II (GII) was not good because Gasherbrum V and VI were in the middle of the way. But I was hoping that the silence to my calls was because the radios were currently off.
Moments before, my two tent mates and I were slowly waking up at 7000 meters on GII. Tired from our tentative summit push the day before. I sat up and looked around. Sylvain was slowly waking up. Andrew seemed still asleep. I thought: All right, lets get this thing going and started to prepare the stove to heat up some water. A little breakfast and we would be climbing back down the face of the mountain. Back to Base Camp for some rest. Once the hot chocolate was ready, I handed one over to Sylvain and said:
Justin: “Wake up Andrew, your hot chocolate is ready”
Andrew: “Yeah… ok” he mumbled
While I slowly sipped mine, Sylvain and I started to get our things together. After a few tries in getting Andrew up, we started to press him a little more.
“All right. All right” he said.
I asked him how his night was and he said ok. During the night, mixed in with the coughs, I had heard him do little sounds from time to time. Tired sounds. No. Exhausted little sounds. But I thought: Hey. We’re all beat
The day before was a big one. We had started off for the summit at around 1 am from Camp 3 at 7000 meters. Sylvain and I with about 15 other climbers had pushed on the last stretch towards the summit regardless of the high winds and whiteout. Not knowing it then, Andrew was far below along the long traverse towards the col. In the whiteout I looked around and saw 5 members pushing on. The rest of the group was turning around, with Sylvain looking at me about 10 meters below. what do we do? Keep on pushing in the grainy snow? Every three steps made we would slide down two. Waist high in snow, in a white out. I said, yelling above the wind:
Justin: “Sylvain! This isn’t worth it. We still have some time to try for a second attempt”
He seemed just as disappointed as I was but decided to follow the rest of the group. We had turned around at about 150 meters from the summit which elevates itself at 8035 meters.
I snap back to Andrew in the tent and look at him. I had a feeling that he had a mild altitude sickness but wasn’t sure. Everytime I would ask him how he felt, he would always mention that he is fine. Just a little out of breath but overall, he felt good. Everybody is out of breath at 7000 meters. I kept looking at him. He would sip his hot chocolate, rummage through his stuff, take another sip, pack some gear, put on some gloves, another sip…
All is good I thought.
Then I saw him try to put something inside one of the pouches along the side walls of the tent. He misses the opening by a little. He tries again. Misses again. Tries. Misses. This went on 3 to 4 times and he finally got it. Right there, a bell rang in my mind but I somehow ignored it. I just wanted to get going and start feeling warmth in my body after a cold nights sleep.
I open the tent door and peek out. Awesome. The sun is coming up. No wind. Wow. What a contrast with yesterday ! As other team members are doing the same, I get out and start putting on my crampons. Giving more room for Sylvain and Andrew to prepare. Crampons on my feet, I look around and greet other team members, friends. While doing so, Sylvain calls out to me:
Sylvain: “Justin, could you come here? Andrew is not feeling well and I need some help to put on his pants”
My mind screamed : What??
I suddenly opened the tent door and kneeled inside. Andrew was sitting up and he was constantly tilting while trying to control his balance. Sylvain was in front of him, trying to dress him up. Shit. I started to rummage through my bag to find the medication that Louis had given us prior to the ascent. In my hand I had medication for pulmonary oedema and medication for cerebral oedema. Louis had told us: If one has high altitude sickness symptoms, give one pill every 5-6 hours. Andrew had been sporadically coughing during the night and the day before. I was thinking that he maybe had pulmonary oedema. Only thing is that I find that his present condition looks more like cerebral oedema. What to do? Give him one of each just in case?
I decided that he was currently developing cerebral oedema and gave him one pill. Fortunately, he was still able to react and he took the pill and slowly drank some water.
Back outside, I yelled at everyone that Andrew was having high altitude sickness and that I needed everybody to stop taking down their tents and loading their packs. Rescuing someone at these altitudes with a loaded pack can be cumbersome and dangerous.
Justin: “We will need everybody to help us take Andrew down and we will not let one of our members die on this mountain!”
I was very direct in my directives because I had been a witness of a similar rescue back during the 2003 K2 Polish/Russian winter expedition. Denis Urubko had waken up at 7000 meters on the north face and realized that his tent mate, Marcin Kaczkan, was in an advanced state of cerebral oedema. I had followed their descent by radio from Advanced Base Camp. Marcin was saved by Denis’s brute stamina and devotion, helped by other ascending team members.
There was no time to wait and Andrew’s health was not going to get any better. To my surprise, everybody literally stopped what they had been doing and gathered around to help. One had suggested that I give him both type of medications, just in case. I resisted the temptation. I didn’t know if the mixture of both medications could worsen his condition.
Meanwhile, inside the tent, Sylvain was struggling at putting the parka, pants and harness on Andrew. As I crouched back inside, I noticed that Andrew’s condition had worsened. He had this distant look in his eyes, with a swaying head. He looked like if he was completely drunk. I thought: Louis never mentioned to give TWO pills at the same time… What to do… What to do. Louis would know.
I try the radio again:
“Justin to Base Camp. Justin to Base Camp. This is an emergency. Please respond. Over.”
Santiago, a member from another team, approached me. He was all packed and ready to go down. He stops and mentions that he has a satellite phone. Great! I thought. We could then reach Gerfried, our team leader, at Base Camp. We only needed the number. But no one had the satellite phone number at Camp 3! He then proposed to speed down to Camp 1 and get help from below. What we needed was to start getting some bottled oxygen up towards us while we would slowly bring Andrew down. And I knew that we had some bottles at Camp 1, 1200 meters below.
I get back in the tent. Sylvain seems worried by the deteriorating condition of his close friend. I look at the pills. Okay. I will give him another one. I tell Andrew to open his mouth. No response. I then forcefully push my fingers inside his clenched mouth and pry his jaw open. I drop the pill on his tongue and give him a little water. All the time talking to him. “Everything is going to be all right”. Luckily, he swallows the gulp of water while some pours out onto his coat. I make sure that the pill is well swallowed and I suddenly had and idea. Maybe if I start telling him about his family and his children, will he somehow “sober” up and find a will to live and climb down the mountain. Being also a father, I had always wondered if, in a sickening condition, I would be able to control my body and get back down the mountain, just at the thought of my son.
I started to talk to him about his family and the empty look in his eyes made me despair and it broke my heart. He was not responsive. We had to take him down now. For his family. For his children.
Meanwhile, Sylvain with other team members, started to prepare the makeshift sled. They put Andrew inside a sleeping bag and tied him, cocoon style, to a sleeping mat. One rope attached to Andrew’s harness. We were a team of seven with Tony, Otto, Karl and Hubert (all Austrians) with Abbas (Karl’s pakistani high altitude porter), Sylvain and myself. We started to pull Andrew down the soft slope of Camp 3 towards the first fixed rope anchor. Once there, I clipped Andrew to the anchor with a rappelling device and I started to lower him down the crevassed slope that had now gotten a little steeper. Sylvain stayed close to his friend, talking to him all along and guiding him down with Tony and Karl. Otto, Hubert and Abbas stayed just above as backup.
We initiated the long process of securing, lowering and guiding Andrew down the mountain. Repeating each step over and over again. Every so often, I would try the radio again :
“Justin to Base Camp. Justin to Base Camp. Over”
“… ” (silence)
We had started at 6 in the morning and I knew it was going to be a long day.
Louis (Base Camp, 5000 meters):
I was lazy getting up this morning. I needed to go have breakfast with the others but I was still tired of our ascent of Gasherbrum I (GI) the day before. Of all the GI group, I was the only one that hadn’t reached the summit. But I was proud of what I had done. I had geared all of the most technical section of the mountain: the Japanese Couloir. We were in no rush today since it was a rest day and we waited for the return of the GII group to Base Camp to celebrate all together. They had attempted the GII summit on July 14th. A day after us.
I was putting on my camp booties when I noticed that there was some commotion going on around my tent. I was trying to distinguish the voices but I couldn’t understand a thing since they were talking in German. One thing was for sure: I could feel the urgency in their voices. Something unusual was going on.
As I pop out of the tent, Gerfried, the expedition leader, looked at me in a way that I immediately understood the severity of the situation.
Gerfried: ” It’s one of the Quebecers…”
Louis: “No no no! ” The worst scenarios were running through my mind.
Gerfried: “We do not have details about the situation but we think that he is having a cerebral oedema”
Louis: “Who’s our contact on the mountain?”
Gerfried: “We spoke with Santiago, from the other team. He quickly came down from Camp 3 in order to contact us with his Sat Phone. He’s currently in Camp 1″
An emergency meeting was quickly organised in the mess tent. Since I spoke French, English and Spanish, we had agreed that I would need to go up higher on the moraine in order to have better radio reception. I needed to gather more information and relay this to Base Camp in order to properly organise the rescue.
I got dressed, put on my boots and just before leaving camp, I looked up to the sky to see how the weather was faring. I smiled. We had a nice blue sky.
Good. The weather is going to be on our side. I quickly started going up the moraine. I knew that path by heart since I had crosses it almost 20 times over, to and from the vertical South Face of GI. Gerfried, Alex and I had tried a new route last winter. I knew exactly where I needed to be in order to have contact with my friends on GII.
After 30 minutes going up, I started to try to contact Justin since I knew he carried a radio.
“Louis à Justin. Louis à Justin. Over”
Justin (Somewhere between Camp 3 and 2).
We were all working hard to bring Andrew down. He was still semi-conscious. All of us were in it as a team. Some relaying others so as everything ran as smoothly and quickly as possible.
Andrew was at the end of the rope and just as Tony was clipping him in to an anchor, I suddenly heard static on my radio.
Louis : “Louis à Justin. Louis à Justin. Over”
Justin : “Yes!!!”
Louis : “Justin can you hear me? I’m 30 minutes above base camp on the moraine. I ran up to have a better radio signal. Over…”
Justin : “Yes I can hear you. Over…”
Louis: « Can you give me details about your situation and the health condition of Andrew. Over…”
I slowly and clearly answered all of Louis’ questions on Andrew’s condition, how many people were on the rescue team, how our progression went, where we were and the overall morale. What a relief. I was glad to know that we now had contact and weren’t alone in this ordeal.
Louis (On the moraine near Base Camp)
Justin calmly explained in detail the status on Andrew’s condition, his symptoms and the progression of the group going down. I told him that I would get back to him. I then relayed the info to our expedition doctor, Stefan Zechmann, at Base Camp. I wanted to validate with him the medical advices that I would give to Justin. It was important for me that it all be done right.
Louis : “Louis to Justin. You have to give 8mg of Dex to Andrew immediately and then 4mg every 6 hours, do you copy?”
Justin: “Yes I copy! I already gave him 8mg 3 hours ago. Do I still give him a dose now?”
Louis: “Ok then. Give him only 4mg now and then one every 6 hours. Keep him warm. He should drink a lot and eat a little if possible.”
I tried to control my stress while talking to Justin. I would speak in simple and short sentences. I wanted to be clear. The hardest part was to choose what to say to encourage them. I didn’t want to burden them with useless talk because I knew that bringing down Andrew was quite complex and extenuating for my friends that had attempted the summit the day before.
Justin (Halfway between Camp 3 and 2)
It was just be a matter of time before a team would be reaching us with oxygen.
There was something that we were not doing that I had only realized when I thought about the rescue months later. The grade between Camp 2 and 3 is, overall, not that steep. During the rescue, we were working alot around Andrew without us even clipping onto the rope. We would hold on to him, or the rope, and slide on our heals, guiding him. We were all so concentrated in saving him that we put aside basic safety elements for us. 10 days later, during the expedition, I recalled seeing gear tumble down this same slope at great speeds and a chill got me when I thought it could have been one of us during the rescue.
“Andrew, everything is going to be allright.”
Time flies when you’re focused on someones life. The whole day, defined by applying basic movements, routine like on a production line. Check on Andrew. Fix the matt. Tighten a rope. Pull his hood up higher so that the snow doesn’t get in. Clip in the line. Guide it down. Pull. Anchor Andrew again when his line ends. Repeat…
Andrew started to complain the he had snow coming in his coat and that the rope that bundled him up was hurting a rib.
“Great news!” I said. It was a sign that the medications were working. He was semi-conscious and was able to respond to some of our questions but his condition did not permit us to let him stand and climb down. We tried to make his situation as comfortable as possible but we didn’t have the time to adjust every little detail. What was important was to take him down quickly. It was really uncomfortable for him and he was a good sport about it.
Louis (On the moraine near Base Camp)
I stayed there for two hours, looking up towards GII, imagining them on their descent. I would continuously try to get rid of any bad thoughts that would pop up in my mind. I was worried that a fixed rope would let go under the weight of the distressed group. I told myself that I would head up to Camp 1 when the group would reach Camp 2. This way I would be able to meet with them at the foot of the mountain and relay the rescue team that would be on the limits of exhaustion.
Each time that I would relay information to Base Camp, I would also advise them that I will start my way to Camp 1 very shortly and that a team would need to get prepared to accompany me with medication, oxygen, food and fuel.
Back at Base Camp, Gerfried was in communication via satellite phone with Camp 1. He was trying to organise a small rescue team that could quickly go up towards the descending party in order to get O2 to Andrew as soon as possible. Two high altitude porters, Nisar Hussain and his brother Kazim, that were part of the summit attempt on the previous day, volunteered. They had slept at Camp 2 and had just arrived at Camp 1 and were now preparing to go back up.
Justin (Nearing Camp 2)
I knew that the route down to camp 1 would get much harder after camp 2 but we were so focused on the present that we would deal with the terrain as we passed it. We had to pass on the edge of a few crevasses on a 45 degree incline and there were a few traverses that would slow us down but overall we were doing good. We reached a part just before arriving at the lower Camp 2 where it got quite steep for about 10 meters and then it would just go vertical all the way down to the glacier. It was tricky to get Andrew just were the slope reached the ridge on the left. We had to get him over that edge on a little platform. At this point, Sylvain was descending Andrew and Tony and I were guiding him down. All three of us almost suspended over emptyness. It was unnerving.
As we pulled Andrew over the ridge onto the platform, Pascal, a French alpinist that was camping at around 6000 meters had heard of the rescue attempt and came up to assist us. He offered his help in bringing Andrew down and I didn’t refuse a fresh mind on the team. Ten minutes of pulling Andrew down brought us to lower Camp 2 where Norbert (Germany) and Elio (Holland), both part of our team, greeted us. They had left Camp 3 early in the morning, minutes before we realized of Andrew’s developing oedema. When Santiago reached them in his sprint downwards, they decided to stay at Camp 2 to help us.
By now, Andrew was being responsive. But his condition was worrisome. Sylvain helped him out of the now drenched sleeping bag and into a tent that was already up. Andrew took as much warm liquids as he could. A little while back, Louis had told me to give another Dexamethasone to Andrew but we were in a precarious position along the line. Now was the time for Andrew to take it. As he’s regaining some strength in the tent, Pascal and I discuss on how to bring Andrew down the steepest section of the mountain. All were ready to continue to help but I gave leave to Tony, Otto, Karl, Hubert and Abas. I knew that Norbert and Elio spoke good english (way better then the others!) and it was important for us to team up with them along the steep line. Miscommunication is too easy to happen when we are all spread out on one fixed rope. The plan was to have Andrew crawl on all fours up the 20 meters that separated Camp 2 to the ridge. From there, Pascal was to go down with Andrew. Sylvain and I would relay ourselves in descending Andrew. Elio and Norbert were to second us.
Allright. Seems good. I look around and see clouds covering the glacier far below. Time is flying. Lets go !
Louis (On the moraine near Base Camp)
As I was waiting, the weather was deteriorating. Very quickly, a cloud cover settled low on the surrounding mountains and it started to snow. Big snowflakes created a veil in front of GII and I now couldn’t clearly see all the altitude camps. This is when I lost contact with Justin. It was now my turn to radio in and be only greeted with static. Just like static on an old TV…
Twenty long minutes went by.
Snow. Static. Worries.
All right. I told myself now’s the time. It’s time to go up to Camp 1.
Louis : “Louis à Justin. Louis à Justin. Over…”
Louis : “Justin, I don’t know if you can hear this, but I’m coming up, I’m coming up now”
I ran down to Base Camp and this is where I discovered, breathless, that nobody was ready to climb up to Camp 1 with me!
I just couldn’t believe it. Maybe they thought that everything was under control since the group was making progress down towards Camp 2. I started to yell at the group to get a move-on and when I saw all of them wide-eyed and motionless in front of me, I decided to go up alone with my gear, an oxygen bottle, a mask and a bottle of Coca-cola.
As I started preparing my gear, Alex Txikon comes out of his tent -and his nap- woken up by the commotion. He quickly organises his stuff and rallies Ali Naqi, a Pakistani cook that worked for me during our 2007 K2 attempt. I told them that I would wait for them higher on the glacier.
On this 15th of July, as I waited where the large crevasses start, I sat there and looked around. I could see, some 200 meters lower, the multicoloured tents of Base Camp being crushed by the thick grey clouds. Not far away behind, both Gasherbrum peaks were hidden in this blanket of grey. Somewhere in this desert of rock and ice was our dying friend. I hated waiting. It gave me time to worry.
When Alex and Ali Naqi finally arrived, we had less then 4 hours left till we reached Camp 1. I could visualise in my mind the rest of the way up : a highly crevassed section, a long and lazy upward slope, a small valley exposed to avalanches from Gasherbrum VI and then this never ending section, the path zigzagging between crevasses the size of small apartment blocks. Nothing really difficult but the weather wasn’t helping. Nearing mid-day, strangely enough, the temperature was a little above 20 degrees Celsius on the glacier. We would sink knee deep in the snow, heavy and wet. It slowed us down. Even in our t-shirts, we suffocated under the weight of our packs and the humididy. Each step was exhausting.
As we were just getting out of the large crevassed section, nearing Camp 1, I noticed little black dots between Camp 2 and the foot of the mountain. They were in the steepest part of the ridge. “It’s them !”. No time to get overwhelmed with joy. I knew in what shape Andrew and the others were in. This is where I tried the radio again.
Louis : “Louis à Justin. Louis à Justin. Over…”
Justin (On the steep “banana” ridge, just below Camp 2)
I heard Louis radioing me but I couldn’t answer. Norbert was just above me, I was descending Andrew with Pascal and Sylvain near him. My hands were holding the rope. I couldn’t let go to to pick up the radio.
Louis was great. He knew that I could hear him. He let me know where they were and he gave me some good words of encouragement.
Louis: “Justin, We are almost at Camp 1. We are coming up to meet with you. All is good. You are big up there. You guys are doing good. Hang in there. You are doing incredible things. Don’t give up!”
Those last words went straight to the heart. We were there, exhausted, starting to feel the cold. All day we were just doing. Almost mechanically. Not thinking about what was great or what was dangerous. We were just thinking about saving our friend. And just then, when he said “You are doing incredible things. Don’t give up!”, it made me realize what we were going through. What we were accomplishing. For me, it was a very personal and emotional moment. One that I couldn’t respond but just listened to. As Louis finished his positive and encouraging radio contact, I took a deep breath and snapped back to reality. As soon as Andrew was anchored, I unroped his line from my descender and radioed Louis back.
Justin: “Ok. Good. Merci Louis. Just to let you know that I can hear you. When I don’t answer, it’s because my hands are on the line! We are in the steep part so I won’t be able to talk much.”
Louis knew that, and many times he would send encouraging words to me when I couldn’t reply.
At this point, our progress was very slow. We we’re all confined to this thin line. It was tedious to overlap each other and we couldn’t just hang left or right of Andrew to pull and guide him. We started to be further appart from each other. The sun was now low and we all started to be tired. Our routine started to slow down. Each step took us longer to do.
Louis (On the glacier near Camp 1)
The sun was slowly setting at the horizon as we neared Camp 1. It was time that we arrived.
Louis: “Louis à Justin, I’m at Camp 1. I can see you guys. Alex and I will reach you at the foot of the mountain.”
Santiago, the one that had contacted us at Base Camp early in the morning, was still at Camp 1. He greeted us with water. Little details like that helps enormously. He had waited for us. He could have called it a day and gone back down. Unlike some at Base Camp, he wanted to be part of the help.
Justin (Midway between Camp 2 and 1)
We were now all in the steepest and crappiest section of the mountain. The face had been exposed to the sun all day and we were trying to crampon ourselves to a thin layer of grainy snow, trying to find purchase on the ice underneath. I could hear water trickling under the ice and it worried me. Pascal and Elio were now far below. Sylvain was up high descending Andrew. Norbert and I were anchored to a relay in between. I was ready to clip in Andrew’s rope when the end reached Sylvain. We were in the middle of the clouds and the wind was picking up. Nothing good in sight.
All of a sudden, Andrew’s rope, passing by me, stopped it’s downward motion. And we waited like this for some time. I yelled down to Pascal, asking him if all was ok but I counldn’t hear his reply. The wind was hindering our communication. I yelled up to Sylvain, asking him if he still had some rope.
Sylvain: “No! I am at the end of the line!”
Shit. I tried to pass Andrew’s line in my descending device but it wasn’t possible. The line was too tense. I yelled back down to Pascal to give me some slack. Not knowing it then, Elio anchored both his crampons deeply in the soft ice and lifted Andrew up to give me some loose. Pascal yelled at us something that I couldn’t decipher but I felt the urgency in his tone. For some reason, I saw Norbert, just a meter above me, starting to build a prussic from Andrew’s line to the anchor. I frantically passed the rope in my descending device, clipped it to the anchor and yelled back OK. The line went tense again and it slowly started to slip through my system. What??!? But it shouldn’t! I’m holding onto the line!
My heart stopped.
Norbert and I looked at each other and I yelled at him: “Hold onto the line!!! Hold onto the line! I’ve got the system backwards!”
I yelled down to Pascal: “Stop! Stop! Andrew is not secure!”
In the rush of clipping Andrew’s line and relieving Elio from the weight, I had passed the rope in the system in reverse. There was no friction to stop the line from slipping out. To my relief, Norbert’s prussic came tense and stopped the line. We were all getting tired and mistakes were bound to happen.
Louis (Camp 1 at 5800 meters)
Alex and I started coordinating some people already at Camp 1 to help out. When in a rush, we loose breath quickly at these altitudes and anybody that can help is welcomed. Split the chores between as many people as possible. I asked Santiago if he could prepare a medical tent. Make it comfortable with extra mattresses and sleeping bags. Our Pakistani friend, Ali Naqi, started right away to melt snow for water and food. We had to prepare camp so that there would be no waiting for Andrew once he arrived. Everything had to be ready.
Andrew’s line reached it’s end in my system. Sylvain passed me and continued down to reach Pascal and Elio. I let Norbert go next. I was now alone on top. I was waiting for the fixed rope to go slack so that we wouldn’t be all descending on the same anchor. I didn’t trust it after a hot day in the sun. I waited there for a very long time. Almost 40 minutes for the line to become loose. Pascal and Elio worked hard at descending Andrew on that last section. As I descended the last steep section , I met with the group on what we call the “balcony”, a little inclined plateau about 150 meters above the glacier. Pascal’s camp was there and we were able to give warm liquids to Andrew once more. Nisar and Kazim where there to greet us. And they had oxygen!
I quickly radioed to Louis to let him know where we were and to get clear directions on what we might need to know regarding the oxygen. We put the mask on Andrew’s face and asked him to breathe normally. Louis was telling me live on the radio that Andrew should feel a cool sensation around his lips and nose but he only nodded a negative. I tried it on myself to see and I couldn’t feel what Louis was describing. We played with the regulator to no avail. We were all greatly disappointed. The regulator was defective!
No time to wait here we thought. I looked down towards the glacier and saw Kilian and Willy climbing up! This was a welcomed sight. We were all exhausted and I was happy to see that fresh guys were going to do the last 4 pitches down the mountain. We didn’t want any mistakes happening now.
Louis (Camp 1 at 5800 meters)
When I heard the news that the regulator was defective, I became very worried for Andrew and thought that our chances might be turning for the worst. From Camp 1, Alex and I continued onward. We had to relay the descending party. They were on the rescue for 14 hours now and were probably nearing exhaustion. We had our eyes riveted to the face of the mountain as we literally ran the 30 minute walk across the last parts of the glacier leading to the bergschrund. I could now hear the voices of Kilian Volken and Willy Imstepf, two Swiss mountain guides, part of our team. They had also stayed at Camp 1 and followed up behind the two Pakistani high altitude porters to help relay the rescue team. I noticed that it was now them that were descending Andrew. They had taken over at the “balcony”.
The sun was now behind the horizon and darkness was quickly settling in. Alex and I were hurrying up. As I reached the bergschrund, I noticed a black form slowly descending in erratic movements. It was Andrew at the end of the rope, sliding on his bum. He was out of the sleeping bag. I arrived just in time to catch him before he continued on into the bergschrund. I right away placed Andrew in front of me, my back towards the mountain to protect Andrew from the shower of snow and ice, broken up by the descending group.
Justin (3 pitches above the bergschrund)
It was now dark. I could see the headlamps of everyone below. Louis and Alex were waiting at the bergschrund to receive Andrew. What a relief. It was just now that I felt exhausted. All my energy weened away now that I knew that we were relayed by new people and off the mountain. I finished my rappels in the darkness, in silence and reached the group just below the ’schrund.
As Alex, Kilian, Willy and myself were positioning Andrew in a make-shift rescue sled, the rest of the group descending the mountain was gathering around, ready for the last stretch to Camp 1. I was finally able to give oxygen to Andrew. The last member to come down was Justin. We quickly spoke and he continued on to Camp 1 to get everybody ready for the arrival of Andrew.
It was now pitch dark. All of us, Alex, Kilian, Willy, Nisar, Kazim, Sylvain and myself got into position around the sled. We all looked like sled dogs, ready to jump at the sound of the gun. Alex, with his Antonio Banderas accent, gave the rallying yell.
Alex: “Ok! Now’s the time to become powerfull, we will do one hundred meters! Be ready to pull!”
All exhausted but all together, we agreed.
Alex: Yelling strongly “READY! …. VENGA VENGA VENGA!!!”
And we pulled like hell. The snow was so deep. We stopped every 2 minutes! It was too hard. Even with 7 people, it was impossible. The sled, larger then the foot path, would plow through the snow. We had just barely started and my heart rate was peaking. Between each effort, we would pause for 20 seconds. Breathless, I would, each time, have to adjust the oxygen mask, the bottle and the sled. While I did this, Alex would lean towards Andrew to encourage him. He would say: “Now Andrew, you must be STRONG! It must come from inside… from here.” as he pointed to Andrew’s heart.
Alex: “OK ANOTHER 100 METERS ! READY! … VENGA VENGA VENGA!!!!!”
As we arrived at Camp 1, we placed Andrew right away in the warm and cozy medical tent that had been prepared by Santiago. I took Andrew’s oxygen saturation and it was alarmingly low. We changed his wet clothes and slowly started to eat the warm soup that Ali Naqi had prepared. Always giving him as much oxygen as possible in between drinks. Once Andrew’s condition was stable, everyone settled in their tents to quickly fall asleep. All was now calm except for this little sound: “kshhhh…. kshhhhhh… kshhhhhh…”. It was the nicest sound that I ever heard. Andrew’s slow but constant respiration through the oxygen mask.
I kept watch over Andrew all night long. I had set the alarm of my watch to beep every hour to verify the positioning of the oxygen mask and check on Andrew’s oxygen saturation with our portable oxymeter. I would give him 4mg of dexamethasone every 6 hours. The hardest was to see him between two states. For a few seconds he would seem lost, not knowing where he was.
The next day, we roped up in teams of 3 and descended the glacier all together. Andrew was now able to walk on his own but still aided with his oxygen supply. Once away from the dangers of the large crevasses, we were greeted by Gerfried and a small team with cookies and Coca-Cola bottles. We paused there, realizing all that we had accomplished, smiling, congratulating each other and enjoying some small treats. The rest of the way down the glacier was somewhat peacefull. The sun came out and warmed us and we were greeted at Base Camp with cheers and cries of relief.
Andrew’s health greatly improved in the first 24 hours but somehow started to slowly deteriorate the following day. He seemed again extenuated. The elevation of 5000 meters was not a good environment for him to rehabilitate. He took the right decision to descend, with Sylvain, back home.
Both Louis and Justin rested at Base Camp for a few days and returned on Gasherbrum II to successfully summit the peak on July 22nd, 2011.
Louis and Justin would like to thank, on behalf of Andrew, all those who have participated in the rescue. We would like to thank Tony with his infinite amount of energy, always placed at the feet of Andrew, pulling… with a smile. Karl, Hubert, Otto and Abbas, relaying themselves along the line, giving a helping hand. Sylvain staying close to his friend, making sure he was allright. Pascal, putting temporarily his team’s summit objectives aside to help us down the most dangerous part of the mountain. Kilian, Willy, Nisar and his brother Kazim, going back up the mountain to bring oxygen and extra help. The energy and speed in which Santiago litteraly ran down from Camp 3 to alert Base Camp. The calmness and composure of Norbert and strength of Elio during our steep descent from Camp 2. The never ending Basque energy and optimism of Alex and the generosity of Ali Naqi who didn’t have to go up the glacier, but did, to help prepare food for the rescuers.
It is not true that on these high mountains, every man is for himself. Some choose not to help because they are too tired or afraid of an unfortunate outcome but many are ready to help out and are willing to put aside any personal objectives. Sometimes, just to be there to hand out a bottle of water or to give encouraging words is good enough. We were lucky to have so many people participating in this rescue. We wouldn’t want to imagine of the outcome if it were just a few us…
Justin Dubé Fahmy and Louis Rousseau
High Altitude Cerebral Oedema (HACE) is a killer!
Ignorance of symptoms and lack of appropriate treatment can lead to death, sometimes in a few hours.
HACEis usually preceded by Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS, including headache and often, vomiting) and typically heralded by:
- Ataxia (absence of coordination appearing such as difficulties to walk toe to the heel following a straight line, repetitive falls, unusual clumsiness,…);
- Unusual behavioural changes (withdrawn, apathetic);
- Altered consciousness;
- Confusion, hallucinations.
It is believed that HACE and AMS have the same origin, i.e. an increase in cerebral blood flow accompanied by vascular damages (such as increased permeability of the blood-brain barrier), brain swelling and increase in intracranial pressure. HACE is thus most likely the consequence of an untreated AMS.
Treatment of HACE:
- Immediate descent;
- Dexamethazone (8-10 mg followed by 4 mg every 6 hours);
- Oxygen (of limited benefits; only to postpone evolution of symptoms, waiting for rescue);
- Hyperbaric chamber, if available.
The use of acetazolamide (Diamox®, 250 mg 2-3 times a day) could be considered, but it has limitedbeneficial effects.
Pascal Daleau, PhD
Researcher, Quebec Heart and Lung Institute
Author of a practical guide for understanding and treatment of AMS and other high altitude related illnesses: Le mal des montagnes.