Travel and Adventure

Hope dims for British and Italian climbers missing on the 'Killer Mountain'

Pakistani helicopters ferry elite mountaineers from K2 to Nanga Parbat to aid in search. Thursday, 7 March

By Andrew Bisharat

It’s now been 10 days since British climber Tom Ballard and his Italian climbing partner Daniele Nardi went missing on Pakistan's Nanga Parbat – the world’s ninth-highest mountain – and hope is running out. A spokesperson for the Alpine Club of Pakistan told reporters that the search for the men was being called off and that the two were presumed dead. The families of the climbers have asked for one last search by helicopter, which is slated to take place Thursday morning.

Dubbed “Killer Mountain” because roughly one out of five people who have attempted to climb it has perished. The mountain was the scene of the first attempt on an 8,000m peak in 1895, claiming the life of early British mountaineer Albert Mummery and two Gurkhas in an avalanche. In 1970 the Italian mountaineer Gunther Messner died on the descent of the mountain after being separated from his brother, Reinhold Messner. 

Nanga Parbat has only ever been climbed in winter twice before: first in 2016, then again last year by two climbers, one of whom died on the descent, while the other one lived thanks only to the heroic efforts of an unlikely rescue team.

The search for Nardi, 42, and Ballard, 30, both highly experienced mountaineers, bears striking parallels to last year’s drama, primarily in that the search has been assisted by a team of elite climbers who were attempting to summit K2 (28,251 feet), located 120 miles from Nanga Parbat.

For the second consecutive year, alpinists attempting to make the first winter ascent of K2—the only 8,000 meter peak that has never been climbed in winter—have sacrificed their own expedition to come to the aid of their fellow mountaineers.

From the start, search and rescue efforts had been hampered by the fact that the distressed climbers did not pay the required $15,000 bond to Askari Aviation, the only agency authorized in Pakistan to conduct high-altitude searches and rescues.

Last week Stefano Pontecorvo, the Italian Ambassador to Pakistan, facilitated the initial deposit to launch an all-day helicopter search on February 28, four days after Ballard and Nardi were last heard from. Meanwhile, friends and family of the climbers began an urgent crowdsourcing campaign to pay for the search and rescue costs.

A military confrontation between India and Pakistan related to the country's longstanding dispute over Kashmir also delayed getting Airbus H125 high-altitude helicopters into the air on Nanga Parbat last week. On February 26, the two countries traded airstrikes along the Line of Control in Kashmir. The conflict grounded all aircraft for days. One source with knowledge of the situation described the request to make an exception to launch a humanitarian mission to search for Ballard and Nardi made its way to the highest levels of the Pakistani military. It was ultimately approved on the evening of February 27.

“Very grateful to Pak Army that even in these hectic moments have found the time for a humanitarian mission and granted permission for the helicopter flight,” Pontecorvo tweeted.

Bad weather also slowed the transfer of the four Spanish mountaineers led by Alex Txikon—from K2 to Nanga Parbat.

On February 28, two days after the men were last contacted, an initial aerial reconnaissance spotted a partially snow-buried tent around 18,000 feet on the Mummery Spur, the feature on Nanga Parbat that Nardi and Ballard are believed to have been attempting to climb. The tent appeared to have been swept by an avalanche.

Over the past few days, more avalanches have been raking down the mountain's snow-laden west face.

Nardi and Ballard’s condition and whereabouts remain unknown. Although no sign of the climbers themselves has been seen from air, one theory, however unlikely, is that the climbers could be hidden in a snow cave or crevasse, either trapped or injured.

As each day passes, though, it’s certain that their chances of survival grow dimmer.

“Going up the dangerous Mummery Spur on the mountain was like playing Russian roulette,” Simone Moro told a British newspaper. Moro, 51, was part of the team that completed the first winter ascent of Nanga Parbat in 2016. “When I heard they were missing I immediately suspected they were lost, and believe we are now looking for bodies."

An Audacious Goal, a Haunting History

Nardi and Ballard were believed to be attempting a new route on Nanga Parbat’s northwest face, on a rarely explored feature called the Mummery Spur. Given that the winter season intensifies all of the difficulties and dangers associated with climbing 8,000-meter mountains, winter climbers typically stick to pre-established routes.

Yet if anyone could have pulled off such a feat, it might be Nardi and Ballard. Nardi has attempted Nanga Parbat at least four times before. In 2016, he was on the mountain when Alex Txikon, Simone Moro, and Ali Sadpara became the first people ever to reach Nanga Parbat’s summit in winter. Though Nardi failed to climb the peak that year, he came close and has been reportedly obsessed with reaching this summit.

According to an Italian news website, Nardi’s last communication with his girlfriend, on February 24, describes how he and Ballard had just discovered a promising new route up a couloir on the Mummery Spur: “Today was a great day for me, with Tom we did a wonderful thing ... we saw a couloir of snow and ice in the middle of the rocky walls that would allow us to go up, up, much faster! And there we are exalted.”

The climbers are known to have reached a high point of around 20,650 feet, at which point they descended back to a camp around 20,000 feet—their last known location.

Ballard is one of Britain's best, young alpinists. He recently became the first person to solo all six “Great North Faces” of the Alps in a single winter season. This trip to Nanga Parbat is his second expedition to the Himalaya.

Ballard comes from a proud climbing lineage. His mother, Alison Hargreaves, became the first British woman to climb Everest without supplemental oxygen on May 13, 1995. In addition to not using bottled oxygen, she also climbed fully unsupported without the benefit of Sherpas or other teammates, potentially making her only the second person after Reinhold Messner to climb Everest in this purist fashion.

From the summit of Everest, she radioed a message to her young children, then ages six and four, respectively: “To Tom and Kate, my dear children, I am on the highest point of the world, and I love you dearly.”

Like her son would one day do, Hargreaves also soloed all six Great North Faces of the Alps in a single summer season. The feat was documented in her book, A Hard Day’s Summer. She also climbed the north face of Switzerland's Eiger when she was six months pregnant with Tom, to which she would quip to her critics, “My stomach was really quite flat. I was pregnant, not sick."

Criticism of Hargreaves unapologetic and brazen climbing career would follow her throughout her life and after her death. A few months after her big success on Everest, Hargreaves reached the summit of K2. She and six other people froze to death on the descent when they were trapped by a fast-moving storm. She was 33 years old.

In the wake of her death, critics excoriated Hargreaves for her irresponsibility as a mother who left her children behind in pursuit of her own selfish climbing goals. One columnist in The Times of London cited her “reality-denying, self-centredness.” Of all the people who died that day on K2, including climbers who were fathers, she was the only one to receive this line of criticism.

Her husband, Jim Ballard, also a climber, was left to raise young Tom and Kate as a single father in Scotland. In a 2002 interview with The Guardian, he said, "I just hope that there was a point to Alison's death and that, in the long term, what she achieved will help shift attitudes (toward women).”

A 2015 feature on UKClimbing.com drew a link between Hargreaves' fierce ambition and love for the mountains and her son's: “There’s no denying that part of Tom’s motivations come directly from his mother’s legacy. He’s chosen the same mountains, the same path, and he too wants to be a professional climber.”

The Ballard family has refrained from commenting on Tom’s disappearance.

Search and Rescue is Different in Pakistan

“I don't want to be a pessimist, but Pakistan isn't the Alps. People are trying to impose their modern idea of 'rescue' on a primeval environment,” says one professional climber, who has climbed Nanga Parbat and who requested anonymity to speak openly about this sensitive topic. “By the time the climbers are ‘overdue,’ they've probably been dead for many days.”

Pakistan's limited rescue services are hindered by the absence of a market of private helicopter operators that can be tapped for remote mountain rescue operations. Instead, the only available helicopters belong to the Pakistan military.

Unlike Nepal, which has a huge adventure market, with an estimated 200,000 trekkers and 7,000 climbers visiting the country each year, Pakistan sees fewer than 900 trekkers and climbers total. The market for supporting private helicopter operators is nonexistent. Geography and infrastructure also play a role. The Karakoram and lower Himalaya ranges of Pakistan are far more remote than the mountains of Nepal, making both the climbing and any potential rescue far more serious undertakings.

There are also dangers involved with the ongoing conflict between Pakistan and India. The Baltoro Glacier, the gateway to several prominent climbing objectives, including K2, is uncomfortably close to the Line of Control in Kashmir. Rescue helicopters could mistakenly become targets.

Askari Aviation was established in 1995 as a creative solution that would allow climbers to organize privately funded rescues through the Pakistan military. The services don't come cheap. It costs upwards of $50,000 per day to operate an Airbus H125 in the mountains, according to Shamyal Sharafat Ali, a Paris-based Pakistani mountaineer who has helped to arrange and coordinate many of the recent rescues in Pakistan.

“The army basically got fed up,” after a spate of rescues in 1994, says Ali. “We were running operations and no one was paying us. Pakistan doesn't even have the funds to take care of our own people—so why are we taking care of foreigners?”

Askari Aviation requires a bond of $12,000 for a single climbing team, which many climbers seem to be not paying, either out of ignorance or out of the presumption that they won’t need a rescue. Because Askari Aviation has been burned by European insurance companies in the past, who refuse to pay them for their missions or who only pay after months of costly litigation in Europe, the company now has a policy that it won’t begin a search or rescue mission until at least that initial deposit has been secured.

The crowdfunding phenomenon hasn’t proven to be a good solution to this problem, in part because most banks in the Western world won’t even wire large sums of money to Pakistan without delays and investigations.

The crowdfunding campaign for the 2018 winter rescue of Elisabeth Revol raised over $150,000. That money was offered to both the French and Polish embassies, which initially covered the costs of the rescue, to reimburse their expenses; only the French embassy accepted a reimbursement. Aside from a few miscellaneous expenses, most of the money was ultimately split among the deceased Tomasz Mackiewicz’s three children.

The GoFundMe page of Ballard and Nardi's rescue has raised more than $150,000 thus far. The page says that any unused funds will support Pakistani schools.

Exploring Each Possibility

On March 4, K2 expedition leader Alex Txikon and three teammates, Felix Criado, Ignacio de Zuloaga, and Josep Sanchis, who is a doctor, landed on Nanga Parbat to begin a search on foot and with the assistance of drones.

“We arrived at the camp, we are fixing on the plateau between camp 1 and 2 at 4,850m,” reported Txikon via text message on sat phone on March 4. “Wonderful weather. Very warm and avalanche danger increases. With helicopter we did a recon very close to the mountain … Unfortunately, no traces of our friends.”

Ali Sadpara, the Pakistani climber who along with Txikon and Simone Moro was part of the first successful winter ascent of Nanga Parbat, is also at Camp 1 assisting the search efforts.

On March 5, Txikon and at least four others climbed past Camp 2, but the avalanche danger was too extreme. De Zuloaga, a climber and engineer, set up drones to fly as high as 21,300 feet on the mountain—higher than Nardi and Ballard's last known point.

Still, no sign of the climbers.

“Each possibility will be explored,” wrote Txikon.

On March 6, the search continued on the neighboring Kinshofer route, adjacent to the Mummery Spur. Old fixed ropes discovered on the Kinshofer could've been used by Ballard and Nardi to descend.

Again, the rescuers found no sign of the missing climbers. The team was in base camp, evaluating next steps considering the persistently high avalanche danger. Tomorrow, Txikon and his fellow Spanish teammates will be picked up by helicopter, and on way back to K2, they and the crew will do one last search along the Mummery Spur.

Meanwhile back on K2, Txikon's remaining team of Sherpa climbers is advancing camps on K2. So is a competing team of climbers from Russia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, who have reached a highpoint of 23,600 feet and establishing camp 3. Both teams appear intent on continuing to try to reach K2's summit before the March 20 deadline, when winter officially ends. However, the persistent high winds and extreme cold continue to send the climbers down the mountain back to the safety of base camp.