An Epic Descent: Two Ailing No-O2 Climbers Helped Down Gasherbrum 1

They wanted the summit badly, they had no supplementary oxygen with them, and they took risks in “crazy” winds on summit day. Sirbaz Khan, Sohail Sakhi, and Naila Kiani of Pakistan summited Gasherbrum I on August 12 at around 7:30 am. But the descent became a test of endurance and leadership. They passed the test, and all three of them are alive and safe.

A timeline

August 10:

All the climbers on Gasherbrum I launched a summit push. Sirbaz Khan was on his 12th 8,000’er. He led Naila Kiani, on her third 8,000’er, and Sohail Sakhi.

The three of them had already summited K2 together on July 22. Now they were climbing Gasherbrum I. They joined the 8K Expeditions team that included Pasdawa Sherpa, Dawa Ongchu, and Kristine Harila.

Meanwhile, fellow Pakistani Shehroze Kashif was climbing with oxygen and supported by Imtiaz Sadpara (Sajid Sadpara’s cousin). The final couple on the mountain was Pioneer Adventure’s Sanu Sherpa of Nepal and Naoko Watanabe of Japan.

At Camp 2, Sajid Sadpara joined them. He aimed to summit without O2, at his own pace. That day, all the climbers battled extremely strong winds and technical sections among seracs and crevasses, in order to reach Camp 3.

Shehroze Kashif smiles back in Base Camp despite chapped skin on his face and nose due to high altitude and wind exposure.

Shehroze Kashif shows the scars from Gasherbrum 1. Photo. Shehroze Kashif

 

As Kiani reported, the wind raged up to 45 knots, and the day’s climb was a “very bad experience”. By the time they all reached Camp 3, they were at the end of their strength. None of the three was using bottled gas. But on the advice of their home team, Naila Kiani carried a bottle in her pack, just in case. The cautionary measure likely saved their lives.

 

August 11:

While the 8K climbers (on supplementary O2) left for the summit that night, the three Pakistani climbers and Pioneer Expedition’s duo decided to rest a bit and wait, hoping for slightly better conditions. Harila and her Sherpa guides summited on August 11, while the others prepared to leave on a clear but very windy night.

Sirbaz Khan, in t-shirt and sunglasses, poses with K2 in back ground on a sunny day in K2 Base Camp

Sirbaz Khan some days ago at K2 Base Camp. Photo: Sirbaz Khan

 

August 12:

The climbers who remained in Camp 3 left for the summit at slightly different times. Leading the pack was Shehroze Kashif, swift and strong on O2, and Sajid Sadpara, climbing extremely fast despite no O2. Samson Simon Sharaf, assisting Sirbaz’s team from Islamabad, reported that Sajid galloped up the mountain like an “Andean mule” as his “way of taking revenge against the mountains” that took his father’s life on K2. Like his father Ali Sadpara, Sajid is mind-blowingly strong.

What followed was, as Naila Kiani texted on her InReach, “a hellish experience, much harder than K2, that we will never forget.”

The route was windswept and dry, mainly bare rock and hard ice. Only small patches of snow remained, and just a few ropes were fixed on the last metres before the summit. Sirbaz Khan, Sohail Shaki, and Naila Kiani — like Harila and her team surely did the day before — had to progress roped up, so that the wind would not blow them away.

The three Pakistanis gave all they had to reach the summit. They wanted to send a celebratory message to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Pakistan’s independence held on August 14. But as the old mountaineering saying goes, the summit is only halfway.

The descent in high winds was excruciatingly snow. Sirbaz and Sakhi, without O2, were feeling the effects of altitude and exhaustion. It took them nearly all day to reach Camp 3. Once there, Khan and Sakhi badly needed a rest. Kiani had used the emergency bottle of O2 above Camp 3 and was in better condition.

Sajid Sadpara has shared this summit picture from the top og GAsherbrum I, in the middle of the night.

Sajid Sadpara on top of Gasherbrum I in the middle of the night. Photo: Sajid Sadpara

 

Meanwhile, Shehroze Kashif summited three hours before (shortly after 4 am) and had started back down. Sirbaz, Kiani, and Sakhi also crossed paths with Sajid Sadpara while they were on their way up and he was descending. They did not meet again during the climb.

Local outfitter Karakoram Summits reported that Sanu Sherpa and Naoko Watanabe (on oxygen) summited at 2:58 am, ahead of everyone else. No further details have emerged about their descent.

Kiani takes the lead

Through her InReach, Kiani was in contact with home team mentor Samson Simon Sharaf and with renowned alpinist Nazir Sabir. Both urged Niali to get her two partners awake and descending as soon as possible, but that was not easy. Both men were exhausted and obviously suffering from AMS.

“They must lose altitude or they may never wake up again,” the experienced pair told Naila. “You must take the lead and order your partners to go down. Kick them if you have to.”

August 13-14:

Kiani, a resident of Dubai and a mother of two, somehow managed to get the other two up and going. Carefully, they set off toward the serac area and the Japanese Couloir early in the morning of August 13. A heavily crevassed area forced them to use all their remaining strength. Somehow, they managed to zigzag around the cracks and proceed down.

“Take every step carefully, don’t waste a single gram of strength, and do everything to get down as fast as possible,” Nazir Sabir texted them.

At first, they downclimbed only 50 vertical metres an hour. Luckily, Khan and Sakhi began to feel better as they lost altitude. By the end of the day, the three climbers reached the Gasherbrum Glacier, despite nearly zero visibility. They then proceeded across the glacier to Camp 1.

Meanwhile, a helicopter airlift was requested. The few climbers and staff remaining in Base Camp, including Harila and her guides, were asked to get ready to go up to aid the climbers in Camp 1 if needed.

Naila Kiani poses in front of the helicopter that took her back to Skardu today, surrounded by 2 of the so-called Fearless Five military pilots in charge of high mountain rescues.

Naila Kiani and the two helicopter pilots who took her back to Skardu. Photo: Instagram

 

Details about the last part of the climb are not clear, as Kiani’s InReach stopped working. However, they did manage to reach Base Camp at 4 am local time without external assistance.

As the sun rose, a helicopter airlifted them to Paiju, from which they were driven to Skardu. Upon their arrival, a welcome party congratulated them. Sirbaz Khan had just been awarded Pakistan’s Pride for Performance award, along with a number of the country’s outstanding athletes.

Sajid Sadpara has chosen to trek back to Skardu via the Gondogoro La pass, likely with his cousin Imtiaz. News is expected soon about Sanu Sherpa and Naoko Watanabe.

Angela Benavides

Angela Benavides is a college-graduated journalist specializing in high-altitude mountaineer and expedition news. She has been writing about climbing and mountaineering, adventure and outdoor sports for 20+ years.

Prior to that, Angela Benavides spent time at/worked at a number of local and international media. She is also experienced in outdoor-sport consultancy for sponsoring corporations, press manager and communication executive, and a published author.