ExWeb interview with Latok II rescuer Dave Ohlson, "deciding to help was automatic"

Posted: Sep 11, 2009 03:32 pm EDT

(K2Climb.net) Four days after the attempt to rescue Oscar Perez had been called off, on August 20 Dave Ohlson posted the following on his blog: Myself, Chris and Fabrizio just returned to Skardu yesterday."

"We had returned previously from K2 of course, but circumstances changed when we heard of a Spanish climber trapped on the NW ridge of Latok II, a 7100 meter peak off the Biafo glacier.

The appeal for help arrived from Pakistan to ExWeb on August 8. Spanish climber Oscar Perez was stuck above 6500 meters on Latok 1 since three days.

Expedition outfitter Essar Karim (Adventure Tours Pakistan) wrote, "contact was lost with Oscar today; his climbing partner Alvaro Novellon is in base camp with frostbite. No professional rescuers or high altitude rock climbers are available in Pakistan to rescue the climber. We therefore request volunteers who can help to rescue Mr. Oscar Perez."

FTA's Chris and Fabrizio are currently leading climbing teams in the Himalayas, so ExWeb caught up with Dave Ohlson for more details on the events.

ExplorersWeb: When and how did you find out about the situation on Latok?

Dave: We found out about the situation on Latok II from Sebastian Alvaro who was staying at the same hotel as us in Skardu. This was on about the 10th of August. The same day Sebastian did a flyby of the accident scene I believe (but you'd have to ask him.)

ExplorersWeb:How long time had passed since Oscar's fall?

Dave: I believe at this point it had been three days since the accident, but again I am not the best person to ask. I am just working backwards from the numbers we were discussing while on the rescue.

ExplorersWeb: What made you decide to go and help?

Dave: Deciding to help was automatic. There was never any question, but that we would go. Oscar is one of us and we all hope our brothers would help if we were in need.

ExplorersWeb: Who was your main contact and how did you get to Latok?

Dave: Sebastian Alvaro was our main point of contact because he was constantly on the phone back to Spain speaking with the Pena Guara climbing club and in Pakistan, dealing with Askari Aviation who arranged our helicopters and the Spanish embassy in Islamabad. The embassy sent Iftikher Hamdani Checa to Skardu and he was enormously helpful.

ExplorersWeb: Had any of you met Oscar and Alvaro before?

Dave: I had never met Oscar, Alvaro or any of the Spanish. Chris had briefly met Jordi Tosas in Nepal the previous year.

ExplorersWeb: How did the initial rescue logistics play out?

Dave: On August 11th Fabrizio Zangrilli was flown to Oscar and Alvaro's base camp where he met up with Alvaro. Chris and I had planned to fly out with him, but the helicopter pilots refused to take anyone else.

On the 12th Fabrizio and Alvaro returned to Skardu to regroup and make a better plan. The North side of Latok II is extremely steep and technical and would have made a poor rescue route. This was when we began discussing an approach from the South side which would take us to the same col, but would be much easier to work on.

On the 13th Fabrizio, three Spaniards, seven low altitude porters and four high altitude porters flew out of Skardu on an MI-17. They were dropped at the confluence of the Biafo and Baintha glaciers and began walking to where a previous helicopter flight had dropped supplies, about 8km away.

Finally, on the 14th Chris Szymiec, myself, Alvaro and the remaining Spaniards were flown to the same point and began walking up to our base camp which Fabrizio and the others had reached in the dark the night before.

ExplorersWeb: How did you decide on the strategy?

Dave: All members of the rescue party would discuss the situation and the plan was developed by consensus.

ExplorersWeb: Which route did you guys finally decide on and why?

Dave: The chosen route was up the South side to the col below the NW ridge of Latok II. This was chosen because it was thought to be less dangerous and easier than the North side route Oscar and Alvaro had climbed.

ExplorersWeb: When and why was the rescue called off?

Dave: The rescue was called off on the 16th because of weather. Huge thunderclouds had grown all morning and it was pouring rain at base camp. Heavy snow was falling up higher. To proceed in those conditions would have been extremely hazardous for the rescuers.

ExplorersWeb: Did you get any help from the climbing community?

Dave: The fact that the Pena Guara climbing club was able to so quickly assemble a team and get them to Pakistan was really amazing. I don't think there are many climbing communities in the world that would be able to do something like that. They really take care of each other.

ExplorersWeb: Who footed the bills?

Dave: I do not know, but I imagine there is some insurance company involved somewhere. The Pena Guara club has graciously offered to cover our personal expenses.

ExplorersWeb: There were some comments in Spanish media on the necessity of creating a diplomatic issue, in order to get a proper rescue in Pakistan. Even the presidents of both Spain and Pakistan got involved. Do you believe it was really necessary?

Dave: I think creating a diplomatic issue out of this was a very good idea. Bureaucracy moves slowly and only political pressure can make it go faster. That being said, it was hard for us on the ground to know what effect this was having. The help of the Spanish embassy, especially Iftikher, was invaluable. I'm sure that the media attention the story generated made this help possible.

ExplorersWeb: A team of top Spanish climbers (but not acclimatized) was recruited and sent to the spot. Thoughts on that?

Dave: Amazing effort on the part of these guys. Although they were not acclimatized they climbed high and were strong. If we had gone higher than we did, they would probably not have been able to go, but their help on the lower reaches of the mountain would have made the higher efforts possible. Another important aspect is the emotional support they were able to provide to Alvaro. The value of this cannot be overestimated.

ExplorersWeb: In the final stages of the rescue, some Spanish media reports criticized the chopper pilots. What's your view on that?

Dave: It is easy to be frustrated in such a high stress situation, but it must be remembered that the Karakorams are not the Alps or Alaska. The pilots flying in the Karakorams do not have the kind of experience that helicopter pilots in other mountainous areas might. One pilot may feel comfortable doing something whereas another will not and you are subject, in a sense, to the luck of the draw.

ExplorersWeb: Finally: how can situations like these be prevented/made better in the future?

Dave: I think an exchange program whereby Pakistani pilots can travel to the Alps or Alaska and learn advanced mountain flying and rescue techniques would be very helpful for future rescues. It would also help if the paperwork aspect of things could be streamlined. We spent hours and hours waiting. It was rarely clear what we were waiting for or why.

Ed note: The Pakistan mountain range (top elevation 8,611 metres/28,251 ft) is much taller than both the Alps (top elevation 4,810 metres) and Alaska (top elevation 6,193 metres). Professional pilots consider aerial maneuvers in the rarified air above 6000 meters severely more difficult that at lower altitudes. The highest aerial rescue performed on Mount Everest was of American climber Beck at a flat section above the icefall (approx 6,000 meters) in 1996. In 2005, Pakistan pilots rescued climber Tomaz Humar from approx 6,000 meters at Nanga Parbat's very steep Rupal Face, rendering the local, aerial rescue service its popular name "The Fearless Five." Oscar Perez was stranded on a very steep section at around 6,200 meters.

For 10 days, Pakistani Army Air Corps helicopters and mountain climbers of diverse nationalities tried a desperate attempt to rescue alive a climber from the unclimbed and unfixed wall of Latok 2, a massive peak of 7,125 meters in the heart of the Karakoram.

Spanish mountain climber Oscar Perez was at approximately 6,200 m of altitude with a broken leg and an arm immobilized after suffering an accident when he tried to scale it in alpine style with his companion Alvaro Novellón.

The rescue became a fight against the clock for Oscar, trapped on the wall with no tent, only a small sleeping bag to sleep in, a gas canister for making water and some basic food. The rescue went on with the uncertainty of knowing if Oscar Perez remained alive, since he did not have means to communicate with the outside world.

The attempt was finally called off on August 16th, due to the time elapsed, the failure to locate Oscar, and the difficulty of the route in combination with bad weather posing danger to the rescuers.

Born in California in 1976, Dave Ohlson learned to climb with his father in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and currently resides in Seattle, Washington where he runs a small video production company. To date he has been on five expeditions to the great ranges including Pumori, Ama Dablam and K2.

This year, with the Field Touring outfit, Dave was working on a film based on the one hundredth anniversary of the Duke of Abruzzi's expedition to K2.

#Mountaineering #Mountaineering

Dave Ohlson on K2 shortly before the rescue. Image courtesy of Fabrizio Zangrilli (click to enlarge).
Fabrizio Zangrilli (left) Jonathan Larrañaga (right) and K2's Magic Line summiteer Jordi Corominas (second right) with porters inside an MI 17 on the way to Latok II. Image courtesy of Fabrizio Zangrilli (click to enlarge).
Fabrizio Zangrilli in a meeting with chopper pilots in Skardu. Image courtesy of Dave Ohlson (click to enlarge).
"This is a view I had a lot of," said Fabrizio about this image. "A pilot from the 'Fearless Five' navigating with a map that any tourist could buy of the glaciers and mountains of northern Pakistan." Image by F. Zangrilli (click to enlarge).
The large Mi7 chopper, loaded with rescuers, porters and gear, at Baintha Camp. Image courtesy of Dave Ohlson (click to enlarge).
Mi7 at Baintha Camp. Image courtesy of Dave Ohlson (click to enlarge).
The Mi7 chopper approaching Latok BC. Image courtesy of Dave Ohlson (click to enlarge).
View of BC from Biafo Glacier. Image courtesy of Dave Ohlson (click to enlarge).
Latok II as seen from BC. Image courtesy of Dave Ohlson (click to enlarge).