Sunday, July 27, 2008

Savage country

Karimabad is a popular spot for backpackers - with great views everywhere you look, a quiet laidback village vibe and a clutch of guesthouses that do communal dinners. You can easily spend days doing nothing - it's called acclimatising. But there's two British guys here who don't have time to relax. They're climbers. They came here in a group of four to attempt a new route up a 7,000m peak, but the attempt failed. One of them flew home, and another went off on a solo attempt on another peak, against the advice of the others. The team leader, Bruce, has just returned from Nanga Parbat where he was helping a group of Iranian mountaineers caught in bad weather - one of them died. Meanwhile the remaining member, Pete, had returned to look for the young guy who went off on his own. Due to a miscommunication everyone thought he had come down, but he hasn't actually been seen for some days. Pete found avalanche debris at the foot of the mountain and thinks he has probably died.

He tells us this whilst Bruce is trying to contact insurance companies, the British Embassy and rescue services here in Pakistan that may provide helicopters for a search. Unfortunately the Iranians are chasing the same helicopters to recover the body of their team member. Two helicopters are required in these searches, in case one crashes - the air is too thin at altitude. Meanwhile on the other side of Nanga Parbat an Italian climber has died. It's a world far removed from the trekkers and backpackers lounging along the Karakoram Highway and a stark illustration of the dangers lurking in these big mountains.

It's hard to tell what Pete feels as he recounts what has happened. He seems emotionally detached from his colleague's accident. We think it is the climber's need to isolate himself from the dangers and the attrition. He and Bruce are to return to lead the search as there are no other mountaineers to do it, but Pete looks as though it's all a bit of a fag. He'd rather do a search by helicopter than have to climb back over the glacier to the mountain face. Later we meet him in a shop looking for equipment - he is holding a cheap toy plastic pair of binoculars - one of the lenses falls out. The pathos of it all.

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