What Price a Summit? Update on Pobeda and Khan Tengri

There have been four deaths on the two neighboring peaks in the last few days, maybe more. A few tried to help. Others turned off their radio so they could go for the summit without interruption.

We reported this week on the fatal accidents on Pobeda Peak (7,439 m) and on neighboring Khan Tengri (7,010 m).

First, a lawyer and London-based activist of Iranian origin, Mehri Jafari, died in a fall from 6,300m.

Jafari originally went alone to Pobeda. She was experienced in that region: In 2008, she became the first Iranian woman to climb Khan Tengri. But she knew that she was not technically prepared to climb Pobeda alone. Her plan was to join other climbers and go up via the normal fixed route.

On July 22, she wrote on Instagram that she was expecting a group to arrive from her home country of Iran, and that she would try to join them. So she went with the four Iranian climbers on their summit push.

However, during the ascent, she was continually slower than the other Iranians. It was clear that she needed a more moderate pace, so Base Camp asked her to turn back.

She did. Unfortunately, she chose the wrong ridge to go down. She slipped off the ridge and fell onto the Diky (“Wild”) Glacier.

The treacherous Diky Glacier, where Jafari fell. Photo: Peter Vitez and Albert Kovacs


We are still unclear about the height of her fall, but it was at least 100m. Some Hungarian climbers nearby who saw the accident were unsure whether the fall killed her, but that section of glacier lay in a slide path and was full of snow-covered crevasses.

As we saw, the four Iranians refused to help search for her. They switched off their radio and continued toward the summit.

It took a few days for a helicopter to arrive, by which time she had perished and been buried under the constant avalanches. The helicopter searched three times. On the third try, Mehri’s friend Alex Stone was on board, along with the two independent Hungarian climbers who witnessed her fall, Peter Vitez and Albert Kovacs.

Peter Vitez and Albert Kovacs.


The helicopter dropped them at 6,000m on the glacier. The three searchers were risking a lot because the terrain was very, very dangerous. Crevasses yawned under their feet constantly. Only their rope kept them safe.

They found only her sleeping bag and concluded that the constant avalanches had already buried her. If the Iranian team had looked for her earlier, they may have found her.

The second fatality

As the Iranian group approached the summit, a young Iranian named Reza Adineh made a fatal mistake. Sources state that some other mountaineers who were in front of their party advised him to attach himself to the rope. Adineh replied that he’d do it shortly, when he was on the summit.

Moments later, he fell into the void. Some Ukrainian and Israeli climbers descended 60m onto the Chinese side to look for him. From their perch, they could follow his track 100m to a cliff, when it disappeared. The fall was impossible to survive.

As of yesterday, the retrieval of his body remained uncertain because of insurance issues. His body is on the Chinese side, complicating matters further.

The third fatality

Bottom right, the cornice that Valentin Mihailov fatally fell through.


Some Russian climbers also had problems on Pobeda at 7,000m. One member of the rescue team dispatched to help them, Valentin Mikhailov, fell through a cornice and also died. He was an experienced climber who had moved onto a seemingly safe section without a rope in order to help other climbers descend a difficult pitch.

Meanwhile, on Khan Tengri


Khan Tengri. Photo: Rick Wilton


On neighboring Khan Tengri, more fatal incidents occurred.

As we reported, a man died at 6,800m, likely of altitude sickness. His wife refused to abandon him, but she was eventually rescued.

Avalanches also raked Khan Tengri, devastating the route from C2 to C1. British climber, Rick Wilton, who later was evacuated by helicopter from Base Camp, said that he heard news of several missing climbers. We have no further details, and this has not been confirmed.

Most climbers hopped aboard the helicopter with Wilton and left Base Camp. Today, the two Hungarians who are pursuing their Snow Leopard project — the same ones who helped search for Mehri — returned to BC to begin another summit attempt on Pobeda. Albert Kovacs and Peter Vitez had hoped to summit on August 17-18.

But after moving up five kilometres, they reached their depot and discovered that someone had stolen one of their crampons. “This day belongs to the devil,” they said. They do have other crampons, but they have lost a day returning to Base Camp for them.

The Hungarians’ plundered depot. Photo: Peter Vitez and Albert Kovacs


What price a summit?

It is nothing new, unfortunately, that robberies occur on mountains and even in base camps. Vital gear goes missing. Sometimes the climbers can proceed, sometimes not.

The conclusion about these recent events in the Tien Shan is somewhat bitter. Punctuating these fatalities are careless safety practices and not even an attempt to help a stricken fellow climber.

Several weeks have passed since what happened to Kim HongBin on Broad Peak. I remember how Vitaly Lazo denounced how some 15 climbers passed without helping the stranded but still much alive Kim. Maybe those “project-climbers” had no idea how to help? Maybe they just weren’t technically competent?

But on high mountains, every climber needs to know basic safety measures, such as how to use extra ropes to save somebody. Lazo himself, a well-prepared and experienced climber, descended to Kim and tried to help him, putting himself at risk. Unfortunately, his attempt was in vain, but he tried. And he knew how to help.

This may seem obvious to experienced alpinists, but in this era of bought summits, we have to ask: Are these climbers prepared enough? Are they able to help in emergencies? Are they aware of the danger on these projects that are really beyond their capabilities?

Finally, how much should others put themselves at risk in order to try to rescue or search for someone? What is the limit? Are the “project-climbers” selfish or just incompetent? Trying to help without knowing what they’re doing might only worsen matters by getting them in trouble.

Hopefully, these deaths on Pobeda and Khan Tengri will prompt the climbing community to address these questions.