Into the death zone

The attempt by some of the world's best climbers to reach a dying mountaineer on Annapurna has redeemed a sport once known for its selfishness
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Mingma Sherpa ran through the narrow winding streets of Kathmandu engaged in a desperate search. The Nepalese logistics expert employed by a Spanish mountain rescue team had been looking for help all night. It was not until 5am, shortly before dawn in the Himalayan capital, that he found the man he was looking for and began banging on his door.

Inside his hotel room, the Kazakh climber Denis Urubko was sleeping off the effects of a gruelling expedition to climb Makalu without oxygen. For the mountaineer, his conquest of the 8,463m (27,765ft) peak just a few days earlier was the 15th time he had ventured higher than the 8,000m mark – the point which signifies the start of the Death Zone above which human life is unsustainable. Yet, despite his state of near exhaustion, he was unable to refuse the Sherpa's urgent pleas. He got up, packed and immediately left for the airport prepared, without hesitation, to go straight back into that most lethal of places.

As Urubko and the Russian Serguey Bogomolov, himself recovering from severe frostbite after an 8,000m climb just two weeks earlier, boarded the first helicopter out of Kathmandu armed with bottles of oxygen and a medical kit, about 100 miles west of the capital, high up on Annapurna, the Spanish climber Inaki Ochoa de Olza lay motionless in his tent.

Unbeknown to him, what was unfurling on the mountains around him was an unprecedented international rescue operation conducted by some of the world's elite mountain climbers. The story of the heroic actions of the rescuers, though ultimately unsuccessful, is only now beginning to emerge to worldwide acclaim among devotees of a sport long dogged by reports of climbers prepared to abandon each other to their deaths in pursuit of the most glittering prizes.

Three teams were eventually mobilised on Annapurna last month, drawn from nearly a dozen nationalities. All wereco-operating with the single aim of bringing back one of their own from a height so great that helicopters are unable to fly there and from which few, if any, casualties ever return alive.

Ochoa's expedition ran into trouble the day before Urubko's early morning call. Heavily frost- bitten and having deemed himself ill-prepared for the final push towards the peak, the Spaniard had turned back. "We had run out of rope to fix and there was still a delicate section on the way to the summit," he told his support team over a faltering satellite phone, perilously low on batteries. "I didn't want to take risks with my hands in such a poor state," he added.

Ochoa's decision to go back was a calculated response fitting for a climber who, at the age of 40, already enjoyed a towering reputation in the highly competitive world of high-altitude adventure. The Navarran-born mountaineer, a veteran of 30 previous Himalayan expeditions, was tantalisingly close to completing his ambition of climbing all 14 of the world's 8,000m-plus peaks. Annapurna, at 8,091m, was to be his 13th.

Half an hour after he and his climbing companion, the Romanian Horia Colibasanu, took the decision to descend to a lower camp on the mountain's treacherous south face, Ochoa suffered a catastrophic stroke. The Spaniard began coughing and vomiting before slipping into a state of semi-consciousness. To make matters worse, the team's third member, the Russian Alexey Bolotov, was missing and the weather conditions were beginning to deteriorate.

Colibasanu, himself a highly experienced climber who had partnered Ochoa on many perilous expeditions in the past, did what he could. He wrapped his companion in every item of clothing available and administered drugs to combat the effects of high altitude. He fired up the satellite phone. After seeking advice from a doctor in Romania, he made an emergency call to base camp where the leading Swiss climber Ueli Steck was about to embark on his own expedition.

Under darkening skies, Steck, who a few months earlier had set a new speed record for climbing the north face of the Eiger, set off with his climbing partner and fellow Swiss Simon Anthamatten.

It was now a race against time and, by the following day, the Swiss pair were just one camp below the stricken climber and his partner. But it had become clear to everyone now involved in the increasingly complex rescue effort that more people were needed on the mountain if the Spaniard was to live.

The helicopter carrying Urubko and Bogomolov from Kathmandu had touched down briefly in the tranquil lake resort of Pokhara, picking up Don Bowie. The Canadian-born adventurer had volunteered to join the rescue effort despite quitting the ill-fated climbing team after a bitter row with the Spaniard.

But the weather was conspiring against them. Heavy cloud forced the chopper to land at Chomrong, a seven-hour hike from base camp. As the Canadian and Kasakh set off on foot, Bogomolov waited for the third back-up team now on its way from the Nepalese capital.

The climber's friends and family had been inundated with offers of help. As well as being provided with weather reports, top medical advice and logistical back-up including chopper lifts, leading climbers had also offered their services. The third back-up team soon contained more Russians, Poles, Romanians and Nepalese.

After two agonising days alone, Steck eventually reached the tent sheltering the two climbers. Ochoa was by now seriously ill and Colibasanu, too, was suffering the severe effects of several days at high altitude. The Romanian was ordered to descend while the Swiss took over the job of nursing the dying man. But moving him would prove impossible.

Last Friday, after five days stricken on the mountain, the Spaniard suffered further pulmonary complications and died. By that time, the mountain, first conquered in 1950 and which until recently had claimed the lives of four out of every 10 climbers that summitted, was crawling with rescuers.

Both back-up rescue teams were in place despite the return of heavy snow and declining visibility. The first, containing Bolotov, who had been previously unaccounted for, had climbed back up to the second camp laden with oxygen cylinders. Bowie and Urubko were just a few hundred metres from their friend.

A total of 14 climbers tried to reach Ochoa and now they themselves faced heavy snow, fog and avalanches as they attempted to descend Annapurna's treacherous south face. It was two days before everyone was safely down.

This week, the Spaniard's mother, father and three brothers issued an emotional thank you to the climbing world. "The loss of someone as healthy and strong, so bright and joyful as Inaki has awakened a movement of solidarity among those in tune with his way of life and love of mountains, far above our expectations. By noticing the help you all wanted to bring him, risking death, you allow us to believe and feel there are reasons not to forget his joy, and to hope his example will help others to build their own love of freedom," they said.

The story of the rescue has caused deep pride in the climber's hometown in northern Spain. Navarra's regional government announced this week that all 17 who took part in the rescue would receive the prestigious Gold Medal for Merit in Sport. A posthumous one would be awarded to Ochoa.

Plaudits were continuing to be paid yesterday. Among them was the mountaineer Sir Chris Bonington. He has been a fierce critic of climbers driven by so-called "summit fever" who ignore the plight of fellow travellers on the mountain in their single-minded determination to reach the top.

But according to Bonington: "This was the community of mountaineers – the world's serious climbers – who have a terrific common spirit ... everyone did everything in their power to help and this is something we would like to see everywhere."

Ochoa's body will remain on the mountain, in line with his family's wishes, a fitting monument to the solidarity of purpose that should always bind the spirit of those who enter the Death Zone.