Pakistani authorities in the past have come under fire multiple times for not promptly executing Search and Rescue Operations in the mountains. These rescue operations which are only conducted by Askari Aviation- an agency directly run by Pakistan Army Aviation and which is the sole rescue service in the region, have been repeatedly accused in the Past for the loss of mountaineers in the north mainly because of bureaucratic hurdles and absence of insurance cover which denied rescue flights.
Notwithstanding these accusations, the agency and its sturdy pilots have conducted rescue operations which are unprecedented in time and scale. only in the year 2018, more than 38% of the climbing expeditions called out for rescue. Even for climbers who have a universal insurance cover, rely only on Pakistani authorities because private operators are not allowed in the border sensitive regions high up in the Karakorum.
Most of the time, however, Pakistani authorities get bad media due to lack of information or inadvertent discrimination which exists by and large towards the country. Most of the media reporting rescues are hardly aware of the weather limitations in Baltoro and the kind of perils that creep under the massive glacial terrain. Often, the diplomatic pressure is so intense that Pakistani authorities have to take decisions which are otherwise against their set protocols.
Scottish climber Bruce Normand who was rescued from Ultar Sar in 2018 says;
‘It’s only a matter of time until some pilots are killed. People need to get informed”
Bruce and his climbing partners Tim Miller and Christian Huber were stuck at 5900m on Ultar sar Hunza after their high camp was hit by an avalanche. They waited for the heli rescue for two days surviving in a broken tent. Huber, however, could not be rescued.
As people sit and watch quietly for this eventful year to come to its conclusion, K2 continues to receive hordes of mountaineers from all over the world, watching silently, pretending to be asleep like the proverbial giant. For the first time in history, K2 has received more dispatches to its Base Camp in winters that it normally doesn’t receive even in summers. How this saga is going to unfold? Is a question which is sending shivers down many a spine.
After the sad demise of Tomasz Mackiewicz on Nanga Parbat in 2018, Pakistani authorities made it mandatory to have heli rescue deposit fee duly paid or have a written assurance from their respective embassies before the climbing permit is issued tot eh climbers. Although all of the climbers coming for K2 this year (with a few exceptions) have a stellar profile, Pakistani agencies may have to chart out a strategy to be able to effectively respond to more than one rescue operations called out at the same time.
Unlike in parts of Europe, where mountain rescue is free of cost especially around the Mont Blanc Massif, Baltoro remains a warzone for more than 40 years and the only helicopter service operating is the Pakistan Army Aviation. With a 63 kms long glacial stretch, longest in the world after the Polar caps, Pakistan Army uses French made single tubine Écureuil B3 helis and because they are single turbine helis, a malfunction essentially means a crash landing in the dangerous glacial terrain. This has forced the Pakistani authorities to enforce a ‘Two Ship Protocol’ which means that every heli dispatch will be accompanied by another heli for the backup for any ‘just-in-case’ scenario. Obviously, this increases the cost twofold.
Most of the expeditions and expedition’s members have already reached Pakistan and are on their way to K2. There are at least five independent International expeditions vying to scale K2 for the first time in winters-the only 8000er in the world never climbed in winters.