Karakoram Summer 2019: Dramatic Rescue on Gasherbrum VII

While we’ve been fixated on the unfolding events on K2, there have been other mountaineering efforts ongoing elsewhere in Pakistan, most notably on the Gasherbrum Massif. There, several climbers have successfully summited Gasherbrum II, including Denis Urubko and Polish alpinists Jaroslaw Zdanowicz and Janusz Adamski.

But the big news coming from the region isn’t about those summits at all, but a dramatic rescue that took place on Gasherbrum VII that very nearly turned tragic.

The story unfolded throughout this past weekend when Italian climbers Cala Cimenti and Francesco Cassardo made the first ascent of GVII. According to ExWeb, the duo was hoping to stay under the radar when they made the climb, choosing not to post information to social media or other outlets.

On Saturday, they reached the summit of the 6995 meter (22,949 ft) peak and then decided to ski back down. Recently, Cimenti had done the same thing on Nanga Parbat, so this seemed like it would be a challenging, but skiable hill. While on the descent however, Cassardo fell and was severely injured after sliding more than 500 meters (1640 ft) down the mountain.

Alive, but in rough shape, Cassardo immediately put out a call for help, which Urubko, Zdanowicz, and Adamski picked up on GII not long after they had summited. The three men went straight from that mountain to GVII to lend a hand, while Canadian Don Bowie abandoned his summit push to do the same. Meanwhile, Marco Confortola served as a rescue coordinator of sorts, staying in Base Camp to help organize all of the climbers who were coming to Cassardo’s aid.

With Cassardo stabilized and in a safe location on the mountain, his climbing partner Cimenti descended to Camp 1 to retrieve gear that would get him and his friend through the night. A Pakistani rescue helicopter would reportedly be dispatched the following morning in an effort to airlift the injured climber off the mountain. But until that chopper arrived, they would have to sit tight.

The problem was, the helicopter didn’t arrive when it should have and hour passed as the two climbers waited. As it turns out, the helicopter that was meant to rescue Cassardo was diverted to K2, where climbers were abandoning their expedition and simply wanted a ride back to Skardu. Stephen Nestler reports that eight mountaineers were picked up from K2 BC and flown out of the Karakoram rather than going to lend a hand to the injured climber.

By late in the afternoon on Sunday, Urubko, Bowie, and the Poles had arrived to lend a hand. The four men, working with Cimenti, were able to lower Cassardo down to Camp 1, where they had to wait out another night on the mountain. The team had deemed it too dangerous to continue down in the dark, so they were forced to wait until dawn. Fortunately, the following day the helicopter finally arrived at C1, where it was able to retrieve the injured man and fly him out to safely and medical attention.

Upon reaching the hospital Cassardo was examined by doctors and it was determined that he had a fractured wrist and elbow, as well as several broken fingers. He is bruised and battered, and suffering from frostbite, but has no other major injuries. He is expected to be flown to Islamabad today for further treatment before heading home. Luckily he didn’t suffer any more damage and will likely be on the mend and back climbing again soon.

The most disturbing aspect of the story is that the Pakistani rescue helicopter was diverted to K2 to pick up climbers who simply didn’t want to make the trek out to Askole. The pilot and coordinator of the flight obviously should have prioritized things differently and went to Gasherbrum VII first. Why this didn’t happen remains a mystery, but those involved with the rescue have blamed bureaucratic red tape in Pakistan for the delays.

Just one quick update from K2 this morning before we wrap up our coverage. Nims Purja says that he will be leading the rope fixing team as it heads up the mountain today in an effort to install the lines.

If successful –– and remember this is where the teams ran into trouble last week –– the route to the summit should be opened. Right now, Nims says he hopes to summit tomorrow, with a commercial team of Seven Summit Treks clients behind him waiting to top out on Thursday. Stay tuned for updates.

Kraig Becker