Nanga Parbat rises 26,660 feet above sea level, hovering over the Indus River Valley in Pakistan, and within the international mountaineering community it has infamously earned the nickname “killer mountain.” It continues to earn that nickname, claiming another life after a tragic rescue attempt this weekend.
French mountaineer Elisabeth Revol and her climbing partner, Tomasz “Tomek” Mackiewicz, found themselves in a life and death situation after becoming stranded on the world’s ninth highest peak. The team was attempting to make the second successful winter ascent of the mountain, but their objective was compromised when Mackiewicz was struck with severe frostbite and snowblindness above 24,000 feet. At this altitude, humans experience the loss of vital functions such as the body’s ability to maintain function in the heart, eyes, lungs and other vital organs, brain swelling, loss of appetite, decreased cognizance. The terrain at 8,000 meters (26246.72 feet) and above is known as the death zone for good reason.
After Mackiewicz’s condition continued to deteriorate, Revol recognized the necessity of descending as quickly as possible and abandoning the mission. But unfortunately, Mackiewicz was beyond the ability to recover and Revol knew she wouldn’t be able to make a solo rescue for her partner. Needing to make critical decisions to save both Mackiewicz and herself, Revol set up a tent for Mackiewicz under 24,000 feet to protect him from the brutal conditions of the winter weather and continued to descend in hopes of finding additional contact for a formal rescue mission.
It was then that the world heard of the two mountaineers in need of a miracle and a comprehensive effort to save them materialized. A global fundraiser to garner enough money to fund a helicopter rescue was set into motion and contact with the Pakistani government was made in diplomatic requests to send in Army forces for a rescue attempt. However, the mountain was hit with another, more intense storm—with winds clocking in at more than 50 miles per hour—that halted all rescue efforts over the course of the weekend.
When the storm broke early Saturday morning, a rescue team of elite Polish mountaineers was able to make contact with Revol on the face of Nanga Parbat after abandoning their own summit bid on the nearby peak of K2. Rescue seemed highly unlikely after a Pakistani Army helicopter sighted Revol that same day, but were unable to pick her up or confirmed Mackiewicz’s status. At that point, Revol—knowing that the team of Polish climbers were able to make an attempt to rescue her—began to descend. It was a decision to save herself, and leaving Mackiewicz (who was unable to move) behind was a necessary judgment call in order for one life to be saved. As Revol descended, the rescue team climbed up—finding her on the face of the mountain around 2 am on Sunday. She was immediately flown by helicopter to a hospital in Islamabad, where she is currently recovering, according to NPR reports. Unfortunately, there was no contact made with Mackiewicz after Revol left him in his sheltered tent, and he was declared dead. His body has not been recovered.
It is not often that such a dramatic, attention-grabbing rescue takes place in the mountains—but anytime a person elects to climb a peak, there is a certain amount of risk, known and unknown. “In a situation like this, where you cannot continue a mission, as a mountaineer you have to make decisions based on very logical priorities,” explains Fred Bernard, an IFMGA certified mountain guide—which is the highest level of international mountain guiding certification—and founder of Peakpowder expedition guides in Chamonix, France. “You can’t rescue everybody at this altitude. Luckily, Elizabeth was conscious enough to analyze the situation knew what to do. Because of that, she was able to save a life. Her own.”
And although a life was lost, this rescue mission can still be seen as a success, considering the intense circumstances. “The goal in any rescue is to save the maximum amount of lives possible—and of course you want to rescue everyone—but you do what you can in a situation like this,” explains Bernard. “Ultimately, as a mountaineer or guide, you must analyze the risk before an accident occurs so you don’t have to manage an accident.”