As Search Nears End, Sliver of Hope for Lost Climbers on Nanga Parbat

A sliver of hope this morning amid the despair on Nanga Parbat, where Alex Txikon reported seeing two silhouettes on the mountain Thursday, hours after the active search for missing climbers Daniele Nardi and Tom Ballard was suspended. The duo have been missing on the world’s ninth-highest mountain for 11 days, as avalanches swept their ascent route on the Mummery Rib.

The sighting, through a telescope from base camp, suggests that against all odds there may yet be hope for the missing climbers. Rescuers were not able to investigate further before nightfall in the Karakoram. Frustratingly, a planned helicopter reconnaissance was canceled as tensions between Pakistan and India again escalated, and the Pakistani Army choppers were reassigned to military priorities.

Nardi, 42, and Ballard, 30, were attempting a winter ascent of Nanga Parbat (8,126 meters/26,660 feet) via the unclimbed Mummery Rib. Weeks of heavy snowfall made for unstable conditions on the route, a knife-edged spur on the mountain’s western face.

Unstable snow conditions hampered the expedition from the start. At the end of January, Ballard, Nardi and their Pakistani teammates Karim Hayat and Rehmatullah Baig climbed to their Camp III only to find it buried under tons of snow. “Tents, our down gear, sleeping bags, food, fuel, and technical equipment were all lost,” Ballard wrote. Hayat and Baig elected to leave the expedition, citing the dangerous snow conditions. Ballard and Nardi vowed to carry on.

Ballard probes a chute near base camp. Tom Ballard via Facebook

They spent many restless days in base camp as the snow continued to fall. “Basecamp life is becoming, almost, like a holiday while we wait for that elusive weather window. Many new and interesting drytooling boulder problems, luncheon in the sun and afternoon skiing,” Ballard wrote Feb. 19. The weather window finally cracked open three days later, and the duo started up the mountain “full of energy and confidence,” according to Nardi’s support staff in Italy, which posted regular updates to his Facebook page throughout the expedition and the ensuing search.

That first day, Feb. 22, they pushed past their planned stopping point to Camp II, then ascended through Camp III and established a fourth camp at about 6,000 meters the next day. “However the communications come and go, therefore we don’t have the GPS coordinates,” Nardi’s team reported. On Sunday, Feb. 24, Nardi sent a cheerful message to his wife using his Thuraya satellite device: He and Ballard were camped at about 6,300 meters on the Mummery Rib, perhaps a bit higher. It was the last anyone would hear from either climber.

The base camp consisted of two cooks and a Pakistani climbing agent. They’d lost visual contact with the climbers soon after they began their climb, as intermittent clouds shrouded the mountain’s flanks. In Italy, Nardi’s staff waited for updates. On Feb. 25 they reported, “still no communication from the Mummery Rib.” The following day they began to organize a search.

Tom Ballard and Daniele Nardi leaving their base on Feb. 22, 2019. Danile Nardi via Facebook

When the news broke Feb. 26 that Nardi and Ballard were missing somewhere above 6,300 meters on Nanga Parbat, it immediately drew comparisons to the daring rescue of Elisabeth Revol and the death of her climbing partner, Tomasz Mackiewicz, exactly 13 months earlier.

Nardi and Ballard were on the same mountain, in similarly harsh winter conditions. Both were experienced alpinists, respected and well-liked in the rarified world of elite climbers, each with life stories full of tragedy and obsession. And in both cases, the hope of rescue came from K2, about 115 miles northwest, where large teams were attempting to claim the last 8,000-meter peak still unclimbed in winter.

The hope, perhaps even the expectation, of another dramatic rescue spread through the mountaineering community. On social media, climbing fans readied for another emotional example of the Brotherhood of the Rope, even as more experienced alpinists tempered their hopes.

The first problem would be getting the would-be rescuers from K2 to Nanga Parbat, which was complicated not only by weather but also an undeclared war that had erupted between India and Pakistan, both of which lay claim to this corner of the Karakoram. The rivals had traded airstrikes across the Line of Control (LoC) dividing their forces, and Pakistan shot down a pair of Indian jets.

Tom Ballard training in 2018. Ballard via Facebook

Search flights over Nanga Parbat were possible because the mountain is not particularly close to the LoC, but K2 is much nearer the line and there was initially some question whether Pakistani authorities would open the airspace.

The choppers didn’t fly Feb. 27, but the next day chartered Pakistani Army helicopters made two flights over the Mummery Rib with Pakistani mountaineer Muhammad Ali Sadpara on board. He observed signs of recent avalanche and fragments of an orange tent inundated with snow and ice at about 5,700 meters—about 300 meters below the site of Nardi and Ballard’s Camp III. There was no sign of the missing climbers, and still no boots on the ground.

The K2 climbers—Txikon, Felix Criado and two members of their base camp team—wouldn’t arrive until March 3, and only then after the intervention of the Italian ambassador to open the airspace, and another day’s wait for clear weather.

The original plan had been to send a team of four climbers from the Russian-Kazakh-Kyrgyz K2 team, but as the days clicked by with no sign of Nardi or Ballard it made more sense for the Spanish to respond. They have a small fleet of drones with them, which could be used to search areas climbers couldn’t reach due to avalanche risk.

The decision pointed out two difficult realities facing the rescue effort. First, no one knew where Nardi and Ballard were. Second, conditions on the Mummery Rib were dangerously unstable. Simone Moro, who was part of the first winter ascent of Nanga Parbat in 2016 with Sadpara and Txikon, describes the Mummery Rib as “Russian roulette,” telling The Times the route is plagued with frequent avalanches and car-sized chunks of falling ice. “If we continue to say they were just unlucky, the risk is someone will die there next year,” said Moro, who abandoned his own attempt to climb Manaslu this winter due to heightened avalanche danger.

Nardi, left, and Ballard at Nanga Parbat base camp, 2019. Daniele Nardi via Facebook

When the helicopters arrived with the Spanish team March 3 they made a thorough search of the Mummery Rib and the normal Kinshofer route. Txikon and Criado climbed as high as Camp II, which they found buried in avalanche debris. The next morning they joined forces with Baig and Sadpara, searching the area between Camp I and Camp III on the Mummery Rib. They moved carefully and stopped to fly the drones, which revealed nothing, not even Camp III. Nardi and Ballard had been out 12 days, and missing for 10.

The rescue of Revol a year earlier had been a race against time, but there was never any doubt where she and Makciewicz were. She sent more than 100 satellite messages on her descent, each containing her GPS coordinates. Two members of the Polish Winter K2 team, Adam Bielecki and Denis Urubko, shuttled to Nanga Parbat and climbed through the night of January 26-27, 2018 to bring Revol to safety. They were unable to reach Mackiewicz, a father of three who had tried seven times to scale Nanga Parbat in winter.

Tomasz Mackiewicz summited Nanga Parbat in winter on his seventh attempt, and died on the descent. Tomasz Mackiewicz via Facebook

The effort was so achingly bittersweet because the rescuers knew precisely where he was, sheltered in a crevasse at 7,300 meters. He was simply too high to help.

Even now, no one knows where Tom Ballard and Daniele Nardi are. Eleven days after Nardi’s last message from 6,300 meters on the Mummery route, rescuers are still speculating where they might be. They could be either above or below their last reported position on the Mummery Rib, which has been ravaged by avalanches for weeks. They also could be on the Kinshofer Route along which, it stands to reason, they could have decided to descend given the unstable conditions on the rib.

That would have required them to top out on the Mummery Rib, then traverse across the summit plateau to reach the Kinshofer route which is less prone to avalanche and partially equipped with fixed ropes from previous expeditions. That escape path, if they did choose it, would have brought them within a few hundred meters of the crevasse where Mackiewizc rests.

Such connections are not unusual on Nanga Parbat, which seems to draw climbers back time and again. Mackiewicz got his winter summit on the seventh try and died on the descent. Revol summited with him, on her fourth attempt. Nardi tried the Mummery Rib four times, always in winter. He climbed with Revol in 2013, and was a key contributor to the international effort that made her rescue possible. In 2016 Nardi climbed with Txikon and Sadpara, but left the mountain before they claimed the first winter ascent with Moro.

The Nanga Gang in 2016, with the Mummery Rib in the background. Philippe Poulet via Facebook

As the search continued, French climber Philippe Poulet posted on Facebook a photo of “Le Gang Nanga” taken in January 2016. It includes Bielecki and all five people who have stood on the mountain’s summit in winter. Each played a role in Revol’s rescue, and the attempted rescues of Nardi, Mackiewicz, and Ballard. Looking at the people in that photograph, it’s hard not to imagine the suffering and the joy, the moments of triumph and terror and boredom they shared.

Ballard, too, has a long history with mountains. By some measures, his first summit was the North Face of the Eiger, which his mother Alison Hargreaves climbed when she was six months pregnant with him. She became the first person to solo the six major north faces of the Alps in a single season—an astounding achievement, even in light of her more media-ready unsupported ascent of Everest without supplemental oxygen in 1995. Hargreaves, who died later that season on K2, was only the second person (after Rheinhold Messner) to accomplish that feat, and the first woman.

Ballard came to prominence as a climber after repeating his mother’s north faces solo, except in winter rather than summer. He was a relative newcomer to high-altitude mountaineering but was one of the world’s best mixed climbers while still in his 20s.

Soon, weather and politics permitting, rescuers will overfly the mountain in Pakistani Army helicopters to determine whether the silhouettes Txikon saw from bases camp are men or merely a mirage.


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