Daring helicopter flight saves climber trapped on Himalayas' 'killer mountain'

Click to follow
The Independent Online

"I can see it!" he screamed through his radio to the support team at base camp. Straight afterwards, the pilot checked in to say they had spotted a waving mountaineer, dressed in red.

Two weighted ropes were dropped to the highly experienced Slovenian climber. He grasped them, tied them around his waist and gave the pilot the thumbs up to lift away. But, in the thin air above the cloud line, there was still time for a final brush with disaster.

In his haste, Mr Humar hadn't detached himself from a safety line, secured to the shelf with two ice screws. As his feet lifted away from the ice wall, the safety line went taut and, after an agonising tug of war with the helicopter, snapped.

After two aborted attempts, the Pakistani army rescue team pulled off what is believed to be the highest altitude helicopter rescue. And "killer mountain", the ninth highest peak in the world, had been robbed of its latest victim.

The two Lama helicopters had been waiting for the all clear since Sunday. To pull off the rescue, they were forced to fly 311 metres (1,020ft) above their safe operating ceiling.

"When we set out this morning ... I thought our chances for success were very bleak," said Colonel Rashidullah Beg, one of six pilots involved in the rescue. "It can only be described as the hand of God."

Nearly two miles down at the base camp, soldiers joined local people and Mr Humar's support crew in celebration as the choppers hovered into view with the climber still hanging from his rescue rope.

A visibly shaken and exhausted Mr Humar fell to his knees and kissed the ground.

Despite three days without food after electing to climb with only vital equipment, the 36-year-old came through his remarkable ordeal with only mild frostbite. He asked for liquids, but declined to be taken to hospital and elected to stay at base camp.

Mr Humar, a customs officer from Ljubljana, had been attempting a highly dangerous solo ascent of a new route on the sheer Rupal face of Nanga Parbat, which means "Naked Mountain" in Urdu. The Rupal is considered by many mountaineers to be the most difficult climb in the world.

Mr Humar, the conqueror of more than 1,000 summits, was climbing alone in very bad conditions, with close to zero visibility, when he was trapped by a harsh weather front. "He got stuck in a labyrinth of ice and unsettled snow, unable either to climb further up or to descend due to heavy snowfall and avalanches," his support team wrote on his website.

Trapped on a shelf with snow slides running all around him, he crouched for days in a tiny hole unable to sleep. "I can't stay long like this, this is not a bivouac, water is pouring on me and freezing on me," he said. He kept digging all night on the last night to avoid freezing to death, only to fall asleep as day broke.

At more than 4,500m wide, the Rupal face is the biggest mountain wall in the world. Only three routes have been successfully climbed to its 8,125m peak.