In alpinism and mountaineering, risks and objective dangers are continuously assessed by climbers, especially if they are aiming at unknown peaks or unclimbed routes in remote locations. They know that if the life of a climber is in danger after an accident, even with all the modern technology available or with rescue teams on the way to help, the stranded climber must confront the consequences on his or her own.
No one expects miracle saves; but they can happen. With a little luck and the Brotherhood of the Rope, sometimes amazing things come to pass.
Extreme mountaineer and skier Carlo Alberto Cimenti, known as “Cala,” was not satisfied having summited Nanga Parbat (8,126 meters), on July 3, with his Russian partners Vitaly Lazo and Anton Pugovkin. He had made it up without supplemental oxygen via the Kinshofer Route, and had then completed a partial descent to the Diamir glacier below. But he had more in store, some 200 kilometers away.
The Italian mountaineer traveled to Skardu, where he met a different partner, Francesco Cassardo, a mountaineer and medic. The duo started a long trek to the Gasherbrum group, where they planned to make the first ascent of Gasherbrum VII (6,955 meters), and then a ski descent. (Gasherbrum VII is guarded by its better known and higher sister peaks, Gasherbrum V (7,147 meters) and Gasherbrum IV (7,925 meters), one of the reasons it has remained unclimbed.)
After a stop in Askole, the last village before the Baltoro glacier, where Cassardo dropped off much-needed medical supplies and taught local medical professionals how to use ultrasound machines, the two continued toward GVII. They quickly crossed the expansive Baltoro glacier and arrived at Camp 1 on Gasherbrum II, at 5,900 meters.
Here they briefly met fellow countryman, alpinist Marco Confortola, who was descending from the summit of GII with several others. Cassardo and Cala gave him a bottle of Coke to celebrate his success.
Finally, the two Italians continued up to the most remote part of the glacial tongue that snakes between the Gasherbrum IV and V. There they established their own Camp 1 at 6,100 meters, below the steep northeast face of Gasherbrum VII.
On July 20, the two began their attempt, choosing a direct line to the top. They crossed the bergschrund on hard, compact snow. They made quick progress and, once they reached easier ground, untied.
At about 6,800 meters, Cassardo, less acclimatized having arrived in Pakistan just a few days before, decided against continuing. He was fatigued and wary of the effort need to cross a difficult crevasse they had come to, followed by another delicate icy stretch. Cala Cimenti continued alone.
Cala reached the summit in a whirlwind of joy and emotion. Well aware of having completed the first ascent of Gasherbrum VII, he took a cheerful s summit selfie with the famous Gasherbrum IV behind him.
After a few minutes, he put on his skis and began his descent. He passed Cassardo, who was already making his own way down on skis.
Cala tackled the final steep step before the bergschrund, tired but happy. He stopped and turned to watch Cassardo.
Suddenly, to his horror, Cala saw Cassardo take a terrifying fall—right at the beginning of the steepest section. Cassardo tumbled for nearly 500 meters, losing his skis, his backpack, and many of his clothes in the process.
Cala hurried up to his fallen—surely dead—partner. He found Cassardo, who lay motionless, at about 6,300 meters.
The first miracle—stroke of luck, uncommon good fortune, call it whatever you will—of Cala and Cassardo’s GVII ordeal came here: Francesco Cassardo had somehow survived the fall. He was conscious, but obviously in critical condition. Cala Cimenti grabbed his Satellite phone and called his wife, Erika Siffredi, asking for an immediate rescue by helicopter.
Cala knew they Cassardo would have to spend the night right there, and that he would have to stay with him. He dug a small snow cave to shelter Cassardo, went down to their Camp 1 at 6,100 meters to retrieve sleeping bags and thermal blankets, and then climbed back up his injured partner.
Meanwhile, news of the accident had already reached Gasherbrum I Base Camp, and other alpinists on site were mobilizing: Marco Confortola—the friend of Cala and Cassardo whom they had given a coke; also an alpine guide and experienced rescuer—prepared to helicopter over to save his compatriot the next morning. Others at GII remained available to help in the rescue operation.
Meanwhile Cala Cimenti’s wife and Francesco Cassardo’s family had informed the media of the accident and unfolding rescue. The news—and a frantic call for help and cooperation—spread through social media like wildfire.
Cala spent the night of July 20 filled with anxiety and fear: what trauma or internal bleeding had Francesco endured? Would he make it?
The next morning, July 21, Cala and Francesco waited in vain for the helicopters. The choppers were needed elsewhere—a separate rescue of climbers between Broad Peak and K2 was underway. Temperatures around GVII rose through the morning, and once the helicopters were available, it was too warm and unstable to attempt to reach the two Italians.
Cala, desperate, sent frantic messages, fearing the imminent death of his injured partner. Cassardo was covered head-to-toe in hematomas and bruises. Cala was convinced his friend had broken bones the length of his body.
Meanwhile, at Gasherbrum II base camp, a team of climbers, frustrated by the delayed helicopters, decided to take action: they would try to reach the stranded Italians on foot.
Here was the second miracle: Among the four self-appointed rescuers was the legendary Denis Urubko, one of the strongest Himalayan climbers of all time and perhaps the most experienced high-altitude rescuer ever. One of the other climbers was Canadian Don Bowie—who was, with Urubko, one of the rescuers of the incredible, yet unsuccessful, attempt to save the Spanish climber Inaki Ochoa on Annapurna in 2008. Two other strong Polish alpinists, Jaroslaw Zdanowich and Janusz Adamski, rounded out the team that would mount the rescue attempt of Cala and Cassardo.
Urubko and team reached Cassardo and Cala, still at 6,300 meters, just before dark. Immediate, they decided to try to lower the waning Cassardo as much as possible, hopefully to a spot easier for the helicopters to reach. They moved him cautiously in preparation for descent. Denis Urubko gave an oxygen bottle to Cassardo. All six men spent the night in the open air.
The rescuers build a rudimentary ski sled and got Cassardo down to 6,100 meters. But instead of stopping Cala Cimenti, Denis Urubko, Don Bowie and the Poles made another risky decision: they continued to walk through the night, towing Cassardo the whole time, hoping to reach the glacier.
They reached Camp 1 of Gasherbrum II, at 5,900 meters, remarkably quickly. Arriving in the middle of the night, they were greeted by Marco Confortola, who had continued to coordinate communications between organizers in Italy, the Pakistani pilots, and the rescuers. Confortola received help from Agostino Da Polenza—a former alpinist and frequent organizer of expeditions to the 8000ers—as well as the Italian Ambassador to Pakistan, Dr. Stefano Pontecorvo.
In the early morning on July 22, Ecureil helicopters, operated by Askari Aviation, an outfit run by the Pakistani Army (there are no civilian helicopter rescue agencies in Pakistan) reached Camp 1. Rescuers and pilots loaded Francesco Cassardo, and he was then flown to Skardu Military Hospital.
The third “miracle” of this GVII odyssey was the result of the total body CT scan: no brain trauma and no spinal damage. Cassardo’s only injuries were fractures in his wrist, elbow and several fingers; treatable frostbite on his nose and fingers; and the aforementioned hematomas and bruises.
At the time of publication, Francesco Cassardo had already been airlifted to the well-equipped Islamabad Hospital. There, doctors found several other fractures, but his condition is stable. He faces a long recovery, but the prognosis is good. He is expected to fly back to Italy in short order.
Finally, Cala Cimenti could exhale after a tense few days. His Karakoram expedition was over. He had made the first ascent and first ski descent of the last untouched Gasherbrum peak. And, moreover, having saved the life of his dear friend with the help of fantastic international team, his faith in the Brotherhood of the Rope was stronger than ever.
“Start calling Denis Urubko Saint Bernard [the dog breed for rescuing on Alps] . That guy has saved more people in the mountains than anyone around. He is one of the most amazing mountaineers in history as both a climber and a rescuer ! Just mind blowing cool!”
— Mike Marolt, legendary 8000ers extreme skier and climber from Aspen, commenting on the rescue on Facebook
Special thanks to Erika Siffredi, Cala Cimenti and Francesco Cassardo’s family, Anna Piunova for updates, and Damien Gildea for the Gasherbrum tips.