Best of ExplorersWeb 2008 Awards: Spirit of mountaineering, Inaki Ochoa's rescue team

Posted: Dec 30, 2008 10:07 pm EST

Let us tell you a story about true mountaineering.

When Iñaki Ochoa de Olza became ill at 7400 meters; a tattered crew of mountaineers rushed to his aid. Feet frozen and bodies worn from recent climbs, they attacked Annapurna's deadly south wall as if it were a hiking peak. <cutoff>

We have covered close to a thousand expeditions in 2008. It's difficult to choose the best, as they all contributed in their own way, sharing their story - their very soul in fact - with us and the world.

And yet, there are those who linger in our minds long after their final debrief. We have chosen 8 expeditions who have contributed in an extraordinary way to the Spirit of Adventure in 2008.

<b>Today number 2: the spirit of mountaineering, Inaki Ochoa's friends</b>

"Talk is cheap at the bar."
"Most of the general media does not have the education or knowledge to understand what is worthy of attention or not."
"Comfort, security and money are the three modern Gods of our western civilized society."
"Friendship is much more meaningful than mountains."

With love for life and freedom on top, and money on the bottom on his list of priorities; Inaki did and said what he pleased.

But he was no suicide-climber. The Spaniard had climbed on many more 8000ers than his summit score showed (12). He was fast and bold, but also brutally honest with himself if the risk was too high.

Characteristically Inaki had turned back on Annapurna - seemingly in time - he and regular mate Horia had been climbing non-stop for 16 hours. Iñaki called home from camp 4, explaining, we had run out of rope to fix, and there was still a delicate section on the way to the summit, so we turned around.

But half an hour later, Inaki suddenly showed stroke-like symptoms. Stranded high up on the world's deadliest mountain; Horia desperately began to call doctors over the sat phone.

<b>Ueli Steck and Simon Anthamatten</b>

Inaki's and Horia's team mate Russian Alexey Bolotov had continued up when the two climbers turned around. Unaware of the situation, Bolotov was now somewhere above in his lonely summit push. Horia called on the only other climbers left on the dreaded peak; Swiss Ueli Steck and Simon Anthamatten.

"When we received the distress call from Horia, we instantly knew that we were going to help, Ueli told ExWeb. "I couldnt have lived with the fact that we did not help and instead had gone for our own attempt."

The wall was loaded with snow. Their high altitude outfits were stashed in a high camp on another route. They knew that Inaki's symptoms left no time to fetch it. Without hesitation the two mountaineers rushed up to Horia wearing only their BC gear.

They met with Alexey, just down from his summit success, in camp 3. Noticing that he had the same shoe size as Ueli; the two climbers swapped and Alexey was sent down to C2. Meanwhile, Iñaki Ochoas situation became critical. He could eat and drink but not walk or speak.

<b>"He didnt want to leave Inaki"</b>

"We knew that Horia was getting worse as well. I wanted him to come down, but he didnt want to leave Inaki alone," Ueli told ExWeb. "That night, on early Thursday, Simon had first signs of altitude sickness. This, along with the fact that he didnt have the right gear, made us decide that I would move on alone."

Reaching the two was one thing; getting Inaki down was another. ExWeb's call for help was picked up by Polish Robert Szymczak and Romanians Alex Gavan and Mihnea Radulescu. The three were airlifted to the peak soon after, along with Nepalese Sherpa Wangchu, Ongchu, Pemba Ongchu, and Chhiring Finjo.

Lena Laletina from RussianClimb was already organizing a back-up rescue team led by Russian Serguey Bogomolov. It included Kazakh Denis Urubko and Canadian Don Bowie who, after their chopper was grounded by bad weather, rushed on foot to the mountain and up to camp 2.

All climbers, most with fresh wounds from recent 8000+ ascents, ran up the difficult south face of Annapurna in a desperate battle with time.

Polish Annapurna winter climber Artur Hajzer provided route details and veteran Himalaya forecaster Javier G. Corripio compiled customized weather reports.

<b>Tricking Horia to safety</b>

By the time Ueli Steck was closing in, Inaki and Horia had spent a week at the edge of the death zone. On an altitude equivalent to Camp 3 on Everest; Horia had cared for his dying friend for three days.

"I radioed Horia when I reached the ridge, telling him to come and meet me and track the route," Ueli Steck told ExWeb. "He complied, which saved his life."

"We met up about an hour and a half later; he was so exhausted that he could hardly walk. I gave him Dex, food, melted water for him to drink and then a caffeine pill. He felt better and after a while was able to descend safely to camp 3, where Simon was waiting for him."

<b>Inaki was glad he wasn't left alone</b>

Ueli reached Inaki around 4 pm. "He recognized my voice and I told him that Denis Urubko and Don Bowie were on their way up to help bring him down."

"He could hardly move and was unable to sit up. I gave him water to drink and a shot of Dexamethasone. Inaki felt a little bit better with the Dex, but could not keep anything down."

"I think he knew that help was on the way, but I do not know if he really realized this. I think that Inaki was glad that he wasn't left alone, and that he was taken care of during all this time."

<b>Inaki's legacy</b>

On Friday morning, Mihnea, Robert, Serguey and the Nepali Sherpas had reached camp 2. Denis Urubko was only four hours away from camp 4, where Inaki suddenly asked for coffee.

"But there was no coffee, just water," Ueli said. "And a couple of hours later he passed away."

The danger of the mission became all too apparent. Alex Gavan - exhausted from his recent Makalu ascent - was downclimbing on the unfamiliar route back to BC in a 10 hour ordeal. ("I personally had a very minor role in this rescue operation," he later said.)

Weather forced Ueli to spend one more night in the dreadful high camp. It snowed all night. Alone on Annapurna's avalanche prone south wall, the next morning Ueli left C4 in terrible conditions. "I couldn't see more than 2-3 meters (5 ft) ahead of me, and the track was gone."

<b>The normal thing to do</b>

All rescuers made it down, including Ueli who used a GPS to backtrack his steps. The wish for Inaki to live had made heroes out of them; presenting a beautiful example of true mountaineering skills and spirit to the rest of the world.

As for Inaki - the bold attempt to save his life became his legacy. His rescuers showed what he had always stressed; what real climbers are all about.

Dignity and freedom - in summits, achievements, and life - nothing is worth accomplishing without it, Inaki said. He raged against charity without respect. He raged about Tibet. He raged about summit lies, and selfishness on Everest.

I will always remember Iñakis eyes, so transparent, Nima Nuru Sherpa recalled. We always treat our costumers as guests, but Iñaki behaved in a different way. He was just happy in Nepal, felt right at home - and made us feel as equal team members. He was our friend.

One of the few climbers who spoke out when kids were shot at by Chinese soldiers on Cho Oyu, Alex Gavan commented the rescue: "I want to acknowledge the simply wonderful men who came up from nowhere when the signal for help was in the air."

"This was surely a gesture in the very true spirit of mountaineering, opposite to what happened on Everest with David Sharp or people who kept silent over the shootings at Nangpa La."

As for Ueli Steck, he pointed out again and again: "You never give up hope that there is a tiny chance that everything will turn out OK. I must repeat; Simon and I could not have lived with the fact that we did not help. It's just the normal thing to do."

Related stories:
<a class="linkstylenews" href="" target="_new"> ExWeb's tribute to Inaki Ochoa: When good men die</a>
<a class="linkstylenews" href="" target="_new"> ExWeb interview with Ueli Steck: "We couldnt have lived with ourselves otherwise"</a>
<a class="linkstylenews" href="" target="_new"> Alex Gavan: About Nangpa La, Makalu and Annapurna</a>

<i>Previous in the countdown:
3. Against the wind, Tomek and Wacek
4. The longest row, Erden Eruc
5. Karakoram new route double, Babanov & Afanasiev
6. Red flares for freedom, Alberto Peruffo
7. The 14th knight, Ivan Vallejo
8. Wintering the Big White - Tara's 2007-2008 Arctic Voyage

Special mention:

North Pole winter, Matvey Shparo and Boris Smolin
B.A.S.E. jump, Valery Rozov
Everest seniors, Yuichiro Miura and Min Bahadur Sherchan
A personal sea voyage, James Burwick and the Anasazi girl

More on the rescue: the tremendous effort caught the hearts of Iñakis home town in northern Spain. Navarra's government agreed to give all the climbers involved - and Iñaki - the most important award of honor given to the regions sportsmen; the Gold Medal to Merits in Sport. </i>

#Mountaineering #feature

Top from left: Romanian Horia Colibasanu, Swiss Ueli Steck and Simon Anthamatten, Russian Serguey Bogomolov. Middle from left: Romanian Alex Gavan, memorial for Inaki, Kazakh Denis Urubko. Bottom from left: Romanian Mihnea Radulescu; Polish Robert Szymczak, Russian Alexey Bolotov and Canadian Don Bowie. Not in image: Pemba Ongchu Sherpa, Ongchu Sherpa, Wangchu Sherpa and Chhiring Finjo Sherpa.
"A summit is where everything goes down in each and every direction" thundered Inaki Ochoa, brave and outspoken on the mountains as well as off them.
Mihnea and the four sherpas resting on the way to Camp Two. In the background, the daunting South Face of Annapurna.
(L-R) Mihnea, Inaki&#039;s girlfriend Nancy and Robert, when there still was hope.
Alexey Bolotov (left) and Denis Urubko.
In spite of earlier differences; Canadian Don Bowie rushed on foot back to the mountain and up to C2.
"You need to interview this guy," insisted mountaineer and Nangpa La whistle blower Romanian Alex Gavan (right in image with Kazakh Denis Urubko) about his friend Dumitru. "We intend to open space travel to everyone and especially explorers like Alex Gavan," Dumitru told ExplorersWeb. "We need people like him for their courage and vision."
Serguey Bogomolov (right) and Mihnea Radulescu.
Nancy and Horia. On May 23, Inaki passed on with Ueli by his side (click to enlarge).
Ueli Steck (right) and Simon Anthamatten (left) after the Annapurna ordeal. "I think that Inaki was glad that he wasn&#039;t left alone, and that he was taken care of during all this time," Ueli told ExplorersWeb. All above images courtesy of Alex Gavan&#039;s (click to enlarge).
Wrote Inaki&#039;s family in an open letter: "By noticing the help you all wanted to bring him right before death, you allow us to believe and feel that there are reasons not to forget his joy, and to hope that his style helps others to build their own love for freedom." The Annapurna rescue team received the Gold Medal to Merits in Sport and toasted I&ntilde;aki Ochoa&#039;s memory in Pamplona. Image courtesy of Diario de Navarra (click to enlarge).
Ueli Steck (left) receiving the 2008 Eiger Award. Image courtesy of the award organizers (click to enlarge).