One year to the day that Russian mountaineer Alexander Gukov was rescued after spending a week stranded at over 6,000 metres on Latok 1's North Ridge (UKC News) following the death of his partner Sergey Glazunov, Ash Routen tells the story of one of the most dramatic rescues in mountaineering history...
Time for bed? Actually…what the heck, just one more episode before I turn in. Besides, it's Saturday tomorrow, I've not got anything to do - Alexander Gukov said to himself. Later that night he woke suddenly to a loud whooshing noise, as cool air rushed over his body and snow stuffed every open piece of clothing. Far from the warm soft bed he expected to be in, the 42-year-old Russian climber found himself perched at 6,200m on a far away peak in Pakistan. A volley of loose snow avalanches swept over him. The evening spent watching his favourite boxset at home was an illusion. A fleeting hallucination created by a tired mind. A mind and body shattered and pushed to the edge.
Gukov, like most other climbers, would have first heard of the imposing rocky peak of Latok 1 (7,145m) thanks to a group of leading American mountaineers four decades earlier. In 1978 George Lowe, Jeff Lowe, Michael Kennedy and Jim Donini had spent twenty-six days in the Karakoram Mountains of Pakistan trying to climb the 2,600m north ridge of Latok 1, a hulking spine of granite and ice that rises abruptly from the Choktoi glacier to the heavens. The talented and powerful Americans were turned back just 150m from the summit, as Jeff Lowe fell semi-conscious with a fever. For the next forty years, the ridge rebuffed some of the very best alpine climbers. Jeff Lowe once called the route "the unfinished business of the last generation."
Over the decades the irrepressible influence of global climate change has served to exacerbate the ridge's difficult snow and ice conditions, and what legendary British climber Doug Scott describes as dangerous snow mushrooms. Meanwhile, its reputation has grown exponentially. Mountain guide Kenton Cool said last summer, "It's been considered as one of the last great Himalayan climbs. Many of the very best have pitted themselves against this colossal ridgeline, and all have been repelled, either by technical difficulties, the route's condition or by the notoriously bad Karakoram weather."
The ridge was a perfect challenge for the ambitious and talented Alexander Gukov, who in 2015 was awarded a Piolet d'Or for completing the first ascent of an unclimbed route on a 6,000m peak in Nepal. And so on July 5th 2018 Gukov found himself at Latok Base Camp craning his neck upwards to gaze upon the hallowed granite spine above. He was joined by Sergey Glazunov, a 26-year-old hotshot from Siberia. His brother Evgeni was due to join them but had pulled out of the climb a day before departure due to a brotherly bust-up.
With Evgeni's absence, Gukov told himself that something was wrong, that climbing as a pair on such a complex route was not a good idea. But having already had one attempt at the ridge in 2017 with another party, and believing in the abilities of his younger partner who was in "fighting mood", the pair headed up the ridge for an acclimatisation run on July 7th. They climbed up to a shoulder at 5,875m and spent two nights there and one night 600 metres lower. Not enough time at altitude they reasoned, but there was no easy ground any higher up, not even on surrounding peaks.
Tramping back into Base Camp on July 10th the sun bathed the surrounding peaks, and the sky was cloudless - a deep royal blue. In this kind of weather, the mountains wake from their slumber. Avalanches tumble, and the loose rocks previously glued together by ice pepper parts of the mountainside. A little before they had arrived at Base Camp on the Choktoi, a Korean team had left the mountain because of the avalanche threat. No time to waste, we must get going, the Russian duo said to each other.
Gukov and Glazunov weren't the only ones with eyes on Latok 1 last summer. Fellow Russians Victor Koval, Konstantin Markevich and Alexander Parfenov were there to take on the north face, another difficult line over to the left of the north ridge. Gukov had considered joining up with them and leaving Base Camp together, but decided against it as he felt he and Glazunov were carrying too much equipment in their packs.
After discarding a spare ice axe, cutting down toothbrushes, butchering their dehydrated meal packages, removing parts of their snow shovel and other weight saving adaptations, their rucksacks were brought down to 20 kilos apiece. A shaving of six kilos, and still room for ten days' worth of food. Meanwhile, the other Russian party had set off and were hiding from rock fall in a crevasse at the bottom of the north wall. They retreated back to base soon after.
"There were rockfalls all day long, no chance of getting out of the crevasse," they told Gukov as he called by their tent on the morning of July 13th. Despite this ominous sign, Gukov and Glazunov left for the ridge. They agreed to periodically message their friend Anna Piunova in Moscow, the editor of well known Russian climbing website Mountain.RU. This was possible as they were carrying a satellite tracker and messenger, vital to raise help if they came unstuck later down the line.
Just as in 2017, Gukov started up the left-hand side of the ridge. He and Glazunov hid from a barrel of wet avalanches as the sun rose, and by the end of the first day, they were each soaked through. They decided to make camp at 5,360m. Over the next two days, the duo climbed up to the end of a snow-laden part of the ridge at 5,800m. Still feeling burdened by their packs, they dumped a further two kilos of equipment. Now only five days of food left.
The next four days they forced their way up the route. Scratching up steep rock and weaving in and out of sections of precariously loose snow. Despite not having climbed together before, the new pairing was working out. "Our styles were absolutely different, but we came together quite well," Gukov later recalled. By July 19th they had reached a large platform at 6,800m, now 100m above Gukov's highpoint from the year before.
Later that evening the weather took a turn for the worse.
Up until now, things had gone relatively smoothly. They exchanged turns at leading the route, and despite a nasty fall each hadn't encountered any major difficulties. But one thing that hadn't gone according to plan was the draining of the satellite tracker battery. To stop the device constantly recording their GPS location and draining precious power, Gukov switched the tracking mode to manual. With some charge left he checked in with Piunova on the morning of July 21.
Gukov: The weather is shit this morning. Staying put. We are at 6780. Where was Markevich's [The other Russian team] overnight?
Piunova: Markevich and Co. got under a rockfall. They are OK but started descending. How's the weather?
Gukov: Cleared up. The crest is over. The wall is next. Tomorrow will depend on the weather.
The other Russian party had turned back on July 20th due to severe rock fall, which had shattered a rib and helmet of one of the men. The next two days, July 20-22, Gukov and Glazunov remained hunkered down on the snowy platform at 6,800m, waiting for the weather to break. They shared one dehydrated meal packet, leaving just a breakfast meal for the summit push. With weather clearing on the evening of the 22nd, they climbed to an impregnable looking wall, started up it a little, and then retreated to the platform to sleep.
Far below on the rocky glacier, three other climbers had been following their progress. Briton Tom Livingstone and Slovenian's Luka Strazar and Ales Cesen had arrived on July 14th, to attempt a line somewhere on the north side of Latok 1. Livingstone was surprised the Russian pair were still moving upwards. He reasoned they had been pushing for too long at high altitude, and with dwindling supplies, he felt they were taking an unnecessary risk.
On the morning of July 23rd, Gukov was beginning to question their chances. But the driven Glazunov convinced him to leave the tent behind and push for the summit. They ate their last pack of food and Glazunov swung into action, forging the route ahead. Their progress was slow as they faced hard technical climbing on exposed rock, and worsening weather. At 2.40pm Gukov recorded their height as 6,980m, just 165m from the summit. At this point, the tracker turned itself off.
By 4pm Gukov began to have serious concerns over their ability to summit safely. The wily alpinist was ambitious, but not suicidal. However, they pressed on despite his apprehension and the weather closing in. Around 7pm Gukov was shooting video of Glazunov above. "What do you mean somewhere? It's Latok 1, Sanya," Glazunov shouted as his partner talked over the video. "This is unreal, Sanya. Everything is covered with snow mushrooms and vertical slopes here." With no higher ground visible, Glazunov believed the snowy mushroom he was standing on was the summit. Unable to find a suitable belay, he declined to bring his partner up. Gukov was less certain they had reached the summit [later evidence confirms his suspicions]. Regardless, they needed to begin descending as clouds were swirling above and darkness was just around the corner.
Gukov admitted to being a poor a navigator at night, and so Glazunov began to lead the weary pair back down the ridge. They abseiled to their tent on the snowy ledge at 6,800m. It took them into July 24th to reach that point, and Gukov has virtually no recollection of those hours. "I do not remember this at all. I do not remember the overnight. Maybe we were sleeping for the whole day?" The other Russian party had heard no word from Gukov and Glazunov, and neither had Anna Piunova back in Moscow. They began to worry.
Piunova had been communicating with Victor Koval (from the other Russian party) at Base Camp. On the 24th Koval and co. had walked to the base of the north ridge, but couldn't spot Gukov or Glazunov. In response, Piunova started a flurry of communication to charter a helicopter fly-by to try and make visual contact. Easier said than done in Pakistan as there are no private rescue services, and the pre-paid bond to third-party Askari Aviation then had to go to the military who head up search and rescue. Layers of red tape aplenty, and all the more difficult due to the military's involvement in the imminent Pakistani general election.
"It looks like we found a private heli ready to set out tomorrow. I hope everything will play out well and the weather will be on our side. The rescue operation will begin tomorrow," Piunova texted Glazunov's brother Evgeni. From Moscow, Piunova had opened communication with Vadim Zaitsev, assistant to the Russian Ambassador in Pakistan, who seemed to fast-track the start of the search process. In addition she spoke with Alexey Ovchinnikov, the former director of the Russian Mountaineering Federation, who was to assist her in the coming days.
Slicing through the thin air, the Pakistani B3 helicopters filled the skies with the familiar humming of rotor blades on the morning of July 25th. Looking up, Gukov and Glazunov spotted the aircraft overhead. They were a little confused and assumed it was a search party for the other Russian group, who they knew had been hit by rock fall thanks to Piunova's earlier message. They mused that the crew had decided to fly overhead as a secondary aim. "They saw us and threw off some food and a gas can. How Sergey caught it, I have no idea. There wasn't much food, though. I took it into my backpack," Gukov recalls. Little was he to know how important those extra provisions would become.
Not needing further help, they waved off the helicopter.
Glazunov headed down first as they continued their retreat. They made abseil anchors using ice screws or by running cord through holes in the ice to create Abalakov threads. After a few rope lengths they stood together a moment, and Gukov handed over all of his equipment from the last anchor and prepared the ropes. They could see a snow and ice slope below, so Glazunov disappeared downward, secured by an ice screw and Abalakov thread. Gukov waited and waited for his turn. Expecting a shout to beckon him down, he received nothing but eerie silence.
"Maybe he cannot hear me because of the sharp edge of the slope," thought Gukov.
He re-arranged the ropes, left the ice screw and Abalakov thread in case he needed to return, and headed down. When he reached the rocky top edge of the slope he saw no sign of Glazunov. There was a piton attached to the rock and both of the ropes, and nothing else. Glazunov had clearly fallen in the process of making this new anchor to continue downward. He was gone. Gukov hurriedly hammered the piton further into the rock for security. "Down there is the dizzying kilometre-and-a-half of void where your friend fell," he told himself.
The rock on which Gukov was precariously secured ended in a few metres. Below, a snow slope stretched out into the distance. The ground beyond, where Glazunov's body may have come to rest, wasn't visible. Unbeknown to Gukov, a huge cliff lined the bottom of the snow slope. Glazunov had taken the rest of the climbing equipment with him, and so Gukov was stuck at 6,200m, unable to continue his descent by abseil.
The marooned Russian hurriedly hit the SOS button and punched out a message to Anna Piunova and a few family members and friends. There was two percent battery remaining on his satellite messenger.
"I NEED HELP. EVACUATION REQUIRED. Sergey fell. I'm hanging without any gear."
Assessing his equipment Gukov counted a down sleeping bag, a stove with fuel, the small tent, a water bottle and some chocolate bars. Nothing else remained. There was seemingly no safe ground except a patch of rocks on the snow slope below. Using a piece of cord that had been used to tie up the food bag, he managed to drop down to this marginal ledge below and set-up the tent, draped like a bag over him and secured to the cord above.
Meanwhile, in Moscow, Piunova had received the SOS message at 12:25pm. Taking action, she got straight on the phone to the Russian embassy in Islamabad and asked for help. A helicopter was needed to either drop a group of rescuers, an unlikely and needlessly risky option, or lower a long line rope, which Gukov could clip into and be hauled from certain doom.
In 1978 the American team had to get themselves out of trouble. The only other means of rescue in those days would have been assistance from fellow climbers. Helicopters now fly at extreme altitude in the greater ranges when stripped of unnecessary weight. But it's still a dicey affair. Flying close to mountain walls means pilots are only one wrong manoeuvre away from a violent end.
Another person Piunova had been contacting was Julia, Gukov's long-term partner. They were both concerned as July 25th was the day of the general election, and so all military staff were likely to be busy. Vadim Zaitsev began enquiring with Piunova if Koval's party could climb up, or as a second option if Livingstone et al. at Base Camp could be dropped on the mountain to help. After being told it would be like "rushing into hell," he somehow quickly arranged for two military helicopters to fly out from Skardu, the last outpost before the Karakoram Mountains, just 45 miles south of Latok 1.
Over the next few hours Piunova liaised with Zaitsev and Julia. A little after 1pm Piunova messaged Gukov, to tell him a helicopter was on the way. She knew he was stuck, but didn't know that he had a tent, some fuel and food. Meanwhile, the helicopter had turned back to Skardu to pick up further equipment, and the weather had deteriorated. At 4pm, Zaitsev told Piunova there was to be no rescue that day.
Piunova: Okay. Sanya [Gukov] lost spirit.
Zaitsev: Let him hold on. Can he move? How many hours can he survive?
Piunova: A very limited time. He wrote that he was hanging, which means his legs may fall asleep.
Zaitsev: What about the cold?
Piunova: The sun is down. It will be cold at night, though not extremely cold, a little below zero but he has no tent or anything. The guys seem to have calculated where he is hanging but not exactly. Sergey was not found.
Zaitsev: Maybe he is alive? We are working.
Piunova: Sanya has 1 percent battery left on his Iridium.
Zaitsev: I see. I'll be in touch.
Immediately Piunova messaged Gukov with the bad news. She told him to hang on, and to remember his family, and the dramatic rescue of Elisabeth Revol on Nanga Parbat, the world's ninth highest mountain, earlier in the year.
Piunova: Sanya, the weather turned bad.
Gukov: The weather is great where I am!
Piunova: It's bad in Skardu. They will not fly today. Remember Elisabeth Revol on Nanga, remember Julia and the kids. Hold on till tomorrow.
Gukov: I am on a shelf in a tent. Waiting till tomorrow.
Piunova: The departure is scheduled for six a.m. Remember to unhook from the anchor before the takeoff!!! Humar [a climber rescued from Nanga Parbat in 2005] almost crashed the heli because he forgot.
At the same time Piunova had been trying to contact Evgeni Glazunov, and alongside Julia, tried to track down Sergey's wife and mother. Sometime that evening Julia broke the crushing news to Evgeni – his brother was dead, plunged into the abyss from the end of a rope. The next morning on July 26th Anna Piunova posted information on Glazunov's death and a helicopter flyover confirmed a visual sighting of his body. Glazunov's mother and wife only learnt of his fate via the media – Evgeni had not passed the news on.
On the 26th, Julia sent her partner messages of support. Gukov and Piunova also exchanged messages as another helicopter set out. Gukov was tired and had been barraged by small avalanches throughout the night, although big ones would fly over him. The helicopter flew low, unable to reach 6,200m due to poor visibility. Once again it returned to base in Skardu to await clearer weather. But with snow raining down on Gukov and a poor forecast ahead, the situation looked increasingly dire.
Every hour Victor Koval would contact Piunova with a weather update. She also contacted meteorologists, hoping for news of a possible weather window, only to be told Gukov may have to sit tight for five or six days.
"How do I tell Gukov that he will most probably have to wait for a helicopter for almost a week? If he had a charger we could feed him promises every blessed day – 'today is not an option, Sanya', but tomorrow it's going to be sunny for sure. Tomorrow I could come up with something else, the day after tomorrow I could feed him yet another bait of falsehood. But we did not have the luxury of unlimited communications," Piunova mused.
The Iridium satellite service was limited to relaying one message every 30 minutes. "You can send one message every half hour. His battery could die over half an hour. What if this was his last message and we will not be able to contact him again?" a concerned Piunova told herself. So she asked Iridium if they could send messages directly to Gukov instead, and she maximised the 160-character limit by switching to text speak - something which Gukov would later poke fun at her for.
Eventually, she plucked up the courage to tell Gukov he would have to sit it out for another five or six days. But with the message coming straight from Iridium, he almost didn't believe it, thinking it a joke. He did however immediately message his partner Julia.
"MY DEAR, THE WEATHER IS SHIT, NO ONE WILL SAVE ME, I LOVE YOU."
Besides breaking the cruel news to Gukov, Piunova spent the most part of July 26th liaising with different parties, desperately trying to imagine suitable rescue scenarios. Midnight passed and at 4am she learned that there was only $3,000 dollars of insurance money left, the helicopter flights over the past three days had burnt through $20,000. The 27th passed with no rescue, but Piunova and Gukov communicated, whilst Julia became increasingly desperate as time rolled on.
At 4pm local time on the 28th, Victor Koval from the other Russian party at Base Camp, sent news of thick cloud and overcast weather. Piunova and Julia did their best to cheer up Gukov, but he was now down to one percent of battery on his tracker and suffering from cramps and stomach ache. In a last-ditch attempt to raise his spirits, Piunova relayed a supportive message from Jeff Lowe, one of the four Americans from the first attempt on the ridge in 1978.
In the intervening years, Jeff Lowe had gone on to become one of the finest alpine climbers of his generation. He had revolutionised the discipline of ice climbing and was an inspiration to climbers worldwide. But for the past 18 years he had fought a motor neuron disorder and was confined to a wheelchair. Lowe faced the disease with great courage and humility. If anyone could inspire a man to stay alive, it was Jeff Lowe.
This was one of the final messages sent to Gukov. Piunova also hurriedly told him not to forget to unclip his anchor into the mountain when the helicopter came and gave him further instructions, but she wasn't sure if he received them. Three days since Glazunov had fallen to his death, the satellite messenger finally ran out of battery.
Two days passed.
On July 30th Koval sent the message that Piunova and Julia had been yearning for.
"Mountain clearing out. We can see [to] 6300m."
At 4.45 am, two helicopters sprung into action in Skardu. After an hour or so of scouring the jumbled ridgeline, they spotted Gukov, his tent buried in snow after nearly a week of being pummelled by grainy avalanches. Dangling from the underbelly of one the aircraft were high strength ropes known as long lines. One of the helicopters flew into position while the other stayed back guiding the forward pilot in towards Gukov. They had to be careful; one snag of the line on a rock could cause a fatal crash.
Caught in a graceful but death-defying blur of motion, the two pilots danced over the mountainside in tandem as the exhausted Gukov struggled to clip into the swaying line. Finally attached, the helicopter swerved to pull away, but its engines strained, as Gukov had been slow to remove the anchor that tethered him to the mountainside. For a brief moment the anchor threatened to down the helicopter, before suddenly it gave way and Gukov was finally pulled from the slope he had been cast adrift on. His body dangled limply in the cool air as he was whisked away from a slow and certain demise.
And like that, it was all over. Seven days and six nights clinging to life. Countless hours of hallucination and desperation now behind him.
As soon as the helicopters reached the rocky moraine of Latok Base Camp the dishevelled Russian was pumped with dexamethasone, a steroid used to treat altitude sickness. Tom Livingstone recalled afterwards that his teammate Ales Cesen had said he had never seen someone so close to death but still alive. Livingstone, Cesen and Strazar were to go on and climb a variation of the north ridge in the following weeks.
Having been flown to a hospital in Skardu and then on to the capital Islamabad, Gukov's injuries were treated quickly. Despite being desperately exhausted and dehydrated, suffering from frostbite to his extremities and swelling of the brain due to the altitude, his condition was not critical. He was flown onward to Moscow, where his fingers were saved from amputation. The Russian was remarkably unscathed after a week marooned at over 6,000m.
During those lonely days on the mountain, Gukov had promised himself that if he survived he would marry Julia, his partner of 18 years and mother of their two children. He stuck to the pledge, marrying her a month after being rescued. Beyond the proposal, the stoic Russian has revealed little of what else went through his mind during those seven lonely days.
"I was sitting and waiting for the rescue team seven days and six nights on a tiny ledge of a couple of stones. I was in a tent without poles. What was I thinking during these days? Maybe I'll tell you about this next time, but not now. This is a different story, and it still hurts," Gukov said one month after his ordeal.
The annals of mountaineering are littered with remarkable stories, but the events that occurred on Latok 1 last summer are unlikely to be forgotten by Alexander Gukov or the climbing community anytime soon.
Thanks to Anna Piunova, Alex Gukov and Tom Livingstone for reading a draft of this article and correcting any inaccuracies. Thanks also to Tom Livingstone, Doug Scott and Kenton Cool for their insight on the route, and to Alex Gukov, Syed Fakhar Abbas, Alexey Lonchinskiy and Tom Livingstone for providing the images.
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