Five days after Muhammad Ali Sadpara, John Snorri, and Juan Pablo Mohr Prieto launched their summit bid on Winter K2, and more than 100 hours since they were last seen from base camp, the search for the missing climbers has effectively ended.
A fourth climber, Ali’s son Sajid Sadpara, 22, descended Saturday to base camp in winds as high as 60 miles per hour after waiting overnight for the others. Sajid had turned around at the Bottleneck before noon Friday due to a faulty oxygen mask. As the others continued their ascent, Sajid returned to Camp 3 to wait. He brewed tea and kept a light burning in his tent to help his father and the others find their way back. They never did.
As rising winds began to whip the mountain late Saturday morning Sajid made the excruciating decision to descend without them. Whisked from base camp by helicopter, on Sunday a visibly exhausted Sajid told Pakistani media that the time for rescue had passed.
“I think if they search for the bodies it makes sense to continue the operation,” he said in Urdu, “but their chances of surviving if you are at 8,000 [meters] in winter for two or three days, a person’s chances of surviving are next to none.”
The large Seven Summit Treks team on Tuesday disassembled their base camp. Only the kitchen crew of Snorri and Sadpara’s team remain to cook for Sadpara’s cousin and nephew, who on Monday refused to call off a brave and seemingly futile rescue effort. Imtiaz Hussain and Akbar Ali reportedly climbed as high as Camp 2, despite difficult weather and no acclimatization.
The effort has the sense of a devotional ritual, more tribute than realistic rescue mission. As long as a shred of hope remains Hussain and Ali refuse to let go, but with a week of brutal weather in the forecast even they retreated Tuesday to base camp.
The Pakistani government, which has taken an interest in the search at the highest levels, vowed to resume helicopter flights as soon as weather permits. Three flights on successive days yielded no sign of the missing climbers. That’s not altogether surprising, as the helicopters could fly no higher than 7,800 meters (25,590 feet) and the men are believed lost somewhere beyond the Bottleneck at more than 8,200 meters (26,900 feet).
On Monday SST expedition leader Chhang Dawa Sherpa rode along, directing an aerial search of the climbers’ planned ascent on the Abruzzi route as well as the lesser-used Česen line, on the theory that the trio may have attempted to descend by that path. They found no trace of the missing men.
With bad weather on the way, the last of the SST expedition broke camp and headed down valley, some by helicopter and others on foot.
Their departure marks the bitter end of a season that on January 16 saw the first winter ascent of K2. A group of 10 Nepali climbers marched the last few steps to the summit arm-in-arm, singing their country’s national anthem. It was a stunning triumph, tempered by news the same day that Catalan climber Sergi Mingote had fallen to his death only hours before. Then, on the morning of February 5, Bulgarian climber Atanas Skatov fell while changing anchors below Camp 3. He too was killed.
Late that morning higher on the mountain, Ali Sadpara told his son Sajid to go down and wait at Camp 3 due to a faulty oxygen apparatus. “When I was putting the regulator on, the oxygen started to leak because it didn’t fit well,” Sajid Sadpara said. “As I was not feeling well, my father told me to go down, while they continued up.”
Ali Sadpara’s last word of fatherly advice likely saved his son’s life. As sons and daughters, we imagine Sajid’s torment as he waited through the night and into the morning, weighing the slim chance that he could help his father against the likelihood that any further delay would cost his own life.
This is no time for speculation, but how can any parent escape the thought that in Ali’s last hours he took comfort in the knowledge that his son was down the mountain? All of the missing men were fathers. Sadpara, 45, and Mohr, a Chilean who would have turned 34 on Tuesday, have three children each. Snorri, 47, leaves six.
All were accomplished mountaineers, particularly Sadpara, who had climbed eight of the world’s 14 mountains higher than 8,000 meters. He started as a young man, carrying loads for foreign mountaineers and the Pakistan Army for the equivalent of $3 a day. According to a remarkable Alpinist profile by Amanda Padoan, he began working exclusively for mountaineers after an Indian mortar shell killed two fellow porters on the contested Siachen Glacier. “After the Siachen, I wasn’t afraid anymore,” he said. “In climbing, there are two outcomes—life or death— and you must find the courage to accept either possibility.”
Following a decade of high-altitude exploits including summer ascents of Nanga Parbat and Gasherbrum I and II, Sadpara took part in the first winter ascent of Nanga Parbat, reaching the top of the world’s ninth-highest mountain in a borrowed down suit. In her 2016 Alpinist profile, Padoan unpacked his nuanced partnership with his European teammates.
“Their employment relationship was ambiguous. For professional mountaineers climbing by some variation of ‘fair means,’ it’s compromising to hire a high-altitude worker. Ali’s role was that of an unpaid ‘equal partner.’ In practice, though, he often led the way; he earned the use of his gear through labor; and if the others quit, he was expected to quit, too.”
The same dynamic was at play on K2 this winter, with Ali and Sajid Sadpara listed as “high altitude porters” on Snorri’s permit. However the Icelander was no mere tourist, having summitted four 8,000 meter peaks since 2017 including a summer ascent of K2. Snorri and the Sadparas were the only climbers on the mountain this season who were not climbing on the SST permit. They were the first to arrive, in early December, and fixed the lines to Camp 1.
Juan Pablo “JP” Mohr joined forces with them for the summit push Feb. 5. The Chilean was five peaks into a project to climb all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter mountains without supplemental oxygen or Sherpa support. He came to K2 with Sergi Mingote when he fell. After the death of his climbing partner Mohr decided to continue his climb with Italian Tamara Lunger. When she couldn’t continue, he joined forces with Snorri and the Sadparas.
The trio left Camp 3 for their summit bid around midnight Friday, Sept. 5. Mohr climbed without supplemental oxygen. The others carried O2 but Ali, climbed at least to the bottleneck without it.
Sajid Sadpara believes they reached the summit and met an accident on the way down. We’ll likely never know. Now, in the rawness of this tragedy, the question hardly seems to matter.
Top Image: Wikimedia Commons