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Nanga Parbat
Nanga Parbat
Photo by Steve House
Karl Unterkircher
Karl Unterkircher
Photo by arch. Hans Kammerlander
Walter Nones
Walter Nones
Photo by montagna.tv
Simon Kehrer
Simon Kehrer
Photo by montagna.tv

Nanga Parbat: Walter Nones and Simon Kehrer safe in Base Camp

24.07.2008 by Vinicio Stefanello

24/07/2007 After 10 days on Nanga Parbat Walter Nones and Simon Kehrer managed to descend to 5700m, from where they were picked up by a helicopter which flew them to Base Camp. The odyssey which began on 15 July with the death of their partner and leader Karl Unterkircher finally comes to an end.

Walter Nones and Simon Kehrer have done it! After 10 days on Nanga Parbat, of which two were spent blocked at 6600m due to bad weather, the two Italian mountaineers managed to ski down to 5700m where they were picked up by helicopter and flown to Base Camp. One must underline immediately that during this ugly adventure Nones and Kehrer acted extremely well, for what they chose to do and how they managed to escape from an truly difficult situation, both psychologically and physically. And one must also say that, during this moment of great happiness, the pain for the loss of Karl Unterkircher must surely remain at the forefront.

The vicissitude which monopolised the attention of the entire Italian media has therefore drawn to a close in the best possible ways. It is our duty to remember that the vicissitude began on 15 July wit the death of Karl Unterkircher, the mountaineer from Val Gardena who fell into a crevasse at circa 6400m while attempting a new route together with Nones and Kehrer up the difficult and dangerous Rakhiot Face on Nanga Parbat, the 9th highest mountain in the world.

News of the accident spread like wildfire on Wednesday 16th July. Walter Nones and Simon Kehrer had managed to get in touch with their families and the death of Unterkircher, an extremely capable Himalayan mountaineer, struck like lightening out of the blue. What rendered the situation even more difficult was the fact that the two seemed unable to retreat as the section they had just climbed was too dangerous. To say that the situation was difficult is somewhat of an understatement, seeing that the climbers were engaged on one of the less known walls of Nanga Parbat, an 8000m peak infamous for its dangers.

Another detail worth considering is that high altitude mountaineering has always worked on an unwritten rule: those who climb the highest mountains in the world know that they must be self sufficient, because a rescue on these immense mountains is always difficult if not impossible. The only possible ray of hope might come from someone else engaged on the same route or the same face, but even in this case one must not bank on outside help. This holds true above all when, as was the case of Unterkicher, Nones and Kehrer, one plans to climb a virgin face where one is completely alone. All of this is not new to anyone.

Having said that, as all know a rescue operation was mounted from Italy. Upon hearing the news Agostino da Polenza called Silvio Mondinelli and Maurizio Gallo, asking them to fly to Pakistan's Nanga Parbat. This was an impossible mission, above all because both were certainly aware of the fact that without proper acclimatisation they would not have been able to climb to help the two mountaineers.

But Silvio Mondinelli, the iron man with a heart of gold who has climbed all fourteen 8000m peaks, has carried out numerous rescuers and is in the mountain rescue service. He simply could not say no. Just like Maurizo Gallo, the engineer and mountain guide from Padova who has an enormous experience in Pakistan and expedition logistics - one mustn't forget for example that he was one of the first westerners to reach Pakistan after the earthquake in 2005. Their choice was certainly courageous: it is not easy to be responsible for an operation which has lots of question marks, nor say no with the doubt that things could get worse.

The fact is that on 18 July Mondinelli and Gallo reached the base camp of the Rakhiot face. On 19/07 they organised two helicopter flights and they managed to lower a satellite phone, food and gas to the two mountaineers at circa 6800m. One thing became clear immediately: in that position a helicopter rescue was out of the question. They would have to descend at least 400m but despite the satellite phone they could not make contact. Nones and Kehrer then made up their mind: they climbed upwards via their only line of escape. The choice proved a good one, seeing that they managed to reach the lip of the Bazin glacier and then the glacier at 7200m on 20 July. From there they had two possible lines of descent: either via the line chosen by Hermann Buhl during the first ascent in 1953, or down the Kinshofer “normal” route.

American and Iranian expeditions engaged on the Kinshofer left tents and food to help the Italian climbers. But Nones and Keher chose something different: they descended via the Buhl route, as originally planned. Once again the decision proved correct: they had previously deposited a camp at 6400m and they had also climbed with skis to facilitate their descent. But bad weather hampered their plans: on 21 July they were at 7000m, on 22 July at 6600m while on 23 July they remained blocked in their tents. Today the happy epilogue, in just an hour Nones and Kehrer skied down a line which, at present, seems independent of the Buhl route. After having overcome the two large crevasses, one of which by abseil, they reached 5700m. Here a helicopter sent by Gallo and Mondinelli picked them up, helping them avoid the tortuous glacier. Now, after 10 long days on the wall, they are finally safe in Base Camp.

So today is a happy day for all. For Walter Nones and Simon Kehrer the odyssey has finally come to an end, an odyssey during which, we must repeat, they behaved like expert mountaineers, exiting alone. But it is certainly also a happy day for Maurizio Gallo, Silvio Mondinelli and Agostino Da Polenza who have been relieved of a heavy responsibility. And it's a happy day for all mountaineers.

It's highly likely that much will still be said about this event in the mountaineering world. A world which does not appreciate headline news which, in this case as well, abuse the age-old Leitmotiv of the killer mountains. But this is nothing new: this is the “game” information plays. Even if hearing the voice of Nones, practically live via internet, speaking via satellite phone with the outcome still uncertain, did not seem to us the correct choice. But probably this is just a small detail. What counts is that at least Walter and Simon are safe.

What remains is the memory and pain for Karl Unterkircher, a man held in high esteem by many. And what remains is the awareness of the danger of this high altitude world, above all when attempting to explore those boundaries where risk is no longer manageable other than by fate. It's an age-old theme, as old as mountaineering, but once again one must be strong enough to confront it and be aware of it in a serene manner. And Karl Unterkircher, with his final message left online prior to his last adventure, can help us in this direction.

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