While the missing alpinists Tom Ballard, of the UK, and Daniele Nardi, of Italy, have still not been spotted on the western flank of Nanga Parbat, a multi-pronged rescue operation is in full swing. Pakistani military helicopters transported three potential Pakistani rescuers—Ali Sadpara, Imtiaz Hussain and Dilawar Hussain—from Skardu to base camp below the Mummery Spur on the morning of Thursday, February 28. Two helicopter reconnaissances of the mountain during the past day revealed a snow-covered tent at around 5,500 meters.
Ballard and Nardi were attempting the first winter ascent of the Mummery Spur on Nanga Parbat (8,126 meters). They were last heard from on Sunday, February 24, and their last yrnown location was 6,130 meters. Ballard is the son of the late British alpinist Alison Hargreaves who, in 1995, became the second person (after Reinhold Messner) to climb Everest unsupported and without oxygen. Later that same year she died after summiting K2, and her body was never found. Hargreaves famously became the first person to climb all six major north faces in the Alps in a single summer. On a different occasion when she climbed the Eiger, she was five-and-a-half months pregnant with Tom, who later said, according to his sponsor Montane, “Since I was 10, all I’ve wanted to do was to climb. Even before I was born I climbed the Eiger. So it’s no surprise what I do now.”
That the helicopters were granted permission to fly today at all was a diplomatic coup for those organizing the rescue. Clashes in the last several days between India and Pakistan along the Line of Control in the contested border region of Jammu and Kashmir resulted in the closure of Pakistani air space yesterday. Just yesterday Pakistan shot down multiple Indian fighter jets in Pakistani airspace, and captured one of their pilots; Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has since announced his country will release the pilot. Luckily, the choppers got the green light to fly and set the rescue in motion.
By 3:00 pm, the helicopters had dropped off Sadpara and the two other rescuers at Nanga Parbat base camp. The pilots then conducted a reconnaissance flight above the Mummery Spur but found no sign of the climbers.
A second helicopter reconnaissance took place in the evening of Feburary 28, around 5:00 pm. According to Daniele Nardi’s Facebook page, pilots spotted a tent that appeared to be covered in snow. That and other observations of the nearby slopes suggested the possibility that there had been a recent avalanche, the Facebook post concluded.
However, Rock and Ice received additional information from Shamyl Sharafat Ali, a rescue expert who is helping coordinate the rescue from his home in France, where he works as a finance professional. The tent was “covered by snow, yes,” he reported, “but pilot isn’t sure if it’s avalanche or natural snowfall.”
At 6:30 p.m., Ali reported simply, “It isn’t avalanche.”
The most recent update from Ali came at 7:56 p.m, and provided the most in-depth recap of the helicopter sorties thus far. “Unfortunately they couldn’t find any sign of the two climbers,” Ali reported. “However they came across a tent (reddish-orange color) almost covered with snow around 5500m. … The climbers’ last known location was around 6130m and the tent at Camp 3 was around 5700m. The aerial reconnaissance team couldn’t find any trace of the tent on Camp 3 and the tent they found at 5500m is most probably the one that was on Camp 3. To be verified…”
Aerial Reconnaissance of the Mummery Spur, February 28, 2019
Other developments in the rescue operation include the continued possibility that members of the Russian-Kahzakh-Kyrgyz K2 expedition will be brought in to help. Despite no apparent detente yet between India and Pakistan at 12:00 p.m. when the helicopters transporting Ali Sadpara, Imtiaz Hussain and Dilawar Hussain to Nanga took off—and despite K2’s closer proximity to the Line of Control—the Pakistani military is willing to fly K2 expedition members to Nanga, too. Ali told Rock and Ice, “Unfortunately the route weather towards the K2 wasn’t favorable this morning. Thereby the decision was taken to drop off the Pakistani climbers as soon as possible on the Nanga Parbat. The foreign climbers on K2 might be used when need arises.”
While each passing hour increases the anxiety for those around the world hoping for good news about Ballard and Nardi, the famous alpinist Reinhold Messner counseled a message of hope and patience: “They are not dead, we must wait and hope that they will be alive,” Messner told Latina Oggie in a phone interview. “Three days have passed, maybe it may seem like an eternity, especially for family members, but the causes of this silence could be many and I do not think it is appropriate to arrive at hasty conclusions.”