Ultar Sar: An Avalanche, a Death and a Rescue in the Karakoram
A terrible accident leaves one experienced alpinist dead, but a remarkable rescue delivers his two teammates back from the edge.
At around 3:00 pm Mountain Daylight Time, on Friday, June 29, Jed Brown, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Colorado Boulder, was at work. He received a text message from one of his longtime climbing partners, the 51-year-old Scotsman Bruce Normand, who was currently on expedition to the 7,388-meter Ultar Sar, in Pakistan. Along with Christian Huber, an Austrian who had been living in Boulder Colorado for about 20 years, and Timothy Miller, 21, also of Scotland, Normand was trying to make the first ascent of the mountain’s southeast pillar—a high-altitude, unclimbed mountaineering objective rivaled by few other projects in the world for prestige and allure.
Normand’s messages, sent around 2:00 am Saturday morning, Pakistan time, were frank and jarring. The first: “Tent avalanched c2. Tim dug out self and bruce, christian dead. My bro will do emergency contacts in morning.” The second: “We are ok- Wet, warm enough, tent functional. Have all gear. Snow stopped sundown. No wind, cloudy. Still hope to get down Mon early. Not sure could get heli.”
Meeting up for their expedition in the Karakoram in late Spring, Normand, Miller and Huber were coming from all over the world from all walks of life. Unlike the Ueli Stecks and Dani Arnolds of the world, these climbers work day jobs. Normand is a theoretical physicist, and Christian Huber was an electronic engineer.
Before heading for Ultar Sar, the team acclimatized on the south side of Batura, a different 7,000 meter peak. They then made the trek from Karimabad to a more advanced camp on the moraine below the mountain. They had no permanent support crew at their final camp.
Jed Brown was one of the team’s primary points of contact, providing them with the best weather forecasts available for the region. He had climbed with Normand extensively, notably on an expedition to the Xuelian Group in northwestern China, along with the late Kyle Dempster. The men won a Piolet d’Or in 2010 for their 2009 ascent of the north face of Xuelian West.
Despite excellent conditions while acclimatizing, the weather took a turn for the worse once Normand, Miller and Huber turned their attention to the southeast pillar. Instead, they spent time going up the east ridge to around 5,500 meters to maintain their fitness. Back in Colorado, Brown distilled the weather forecasts from various sources—the nearest weather station to Ultar Sar is 250 kilometers away—but the coming days still looked iffy, with intermittent squalls and cloud cover.
Brown says of the climbers, “I could tell from our messages that they were getting a little bit antsy. The weather wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t big-route climbing weather either.”
A short weather window appeared on the forecast for Tuesday and Wednesday—“Not awesome, but better than they had been seeing,” Brown says. A small storm system looked likely to follow on Thursday and Friday, but it didn’t look all that worrisome at that time.
The team started up the mountain on the evening of Monday, June 25. Brown surmises, “I’m sure they wanted to climb the bottom gully at night when it was out of the sun. There’s like 800 meters of steep snow and ice climbing in these gullies on the lower rock buttress, but they’re very deep—everything that falls funnels down.”
Normand, Huber and Miller made good progress on this lower part of the route. On Wednesday, June 27, they climbed a narrow, diagonal snow ridge up to a small but pronounced col situated at approximately 5,900 meters. There, they made camp.
Brown reports, “It had been snowing steadily for several hours when they got there. And the Thursday-Friday system had also developed into something more significant than the Monday forecast would have indicated. So when they were making camp on Wednesday, we knew there was going to be a lot of snow.”
Reminiscent of the Walker Spur on the North Face of the Grand Jorasses, in France, the southeast pillar of Ultar Sar was first attempted in August 1992 by a three-man Japanese team, led by Toshio Narita. Ultar Sar had yet to be climbed by any aspect at that point. Narita and company reached 5,400 meters before turning back.
For a couple of years in the mid-1990s, Ultar Sar became the highest, open, unclimbed mountain on Earth. (Gangkhar Puensum, in Bhutan, is higher at 7,570 meters, but is closed to climbing.) In July 1996, the peak finally received its first ascent when a two-man Japanese team, led by Akito Yamazaki, reached the summit from the southwest. Yamazaki died from altitude sickness on the descent. In the 1997 American Alpine Journal entry detailing the first ascent, the Editor Jozef Nyka notes, “During the last decade Ultar Sar had attracted more than 15 expedition from six or seven countries.”
With the main summit conquered, attention among high-end alpinists returned to the southeast pillar. In 2000, Yannick Graziani, Erwin le Lann, Jerome Blanc Gras and Hervé Qualizza, all of France, hoped to try the pillar, but were stymied by weather. In 2005, Graziani and fellow Frenchman Christian Trommsdorff made it to approximately 5,900 meters, to the same col where Normand, Huber and Miller stopped to make camp on Wednesday, June 27. Graziani and Trommsdorff retreated from there.
Jed Brown and Colin Haley hoped to put an American stamp on the route when they traveled to the mountain in 2007, but encountered similar problems to the 2000 French team. “We actually didn’t get on the route,” Brown says. “It wasn’t in condition. Instead we climbed to a little over 6,000 meters on a different ridge and climbed some minor rock things in the area, before heading to a different zone.”
In September 2011, the Japanese alpinists Yusuke Sato and Fumitaka Ichimura took a crack at the pillar. Over the course of five days they managed to reach a new highpoint of 6,500 meters. With nearly 1,000 meters of steep, unexplored terrain still above, dwindling food and deteriorating weather, they turned around.
Like the north ridge of Latok I— first tried by Jeff Lowe, Michael Kennedy, George Lowe and Jim Donini in 1978—the southeast pillar of Ultar Sar has vexed all those who dare challenge it. But not one to shy away from a challenge, Bruce Normand—one of the leading exploratory climbers and first ascentionists in China and Pakistan over the past decade—signed himself up, along with Christian Huber and Timothy Miller.
Brown continued to communicate with Normand, Miller and Huber throughout Wednesday, June 27. The three climbers hunkered down in their Black Diamond Firstlight tent and waited out the pummeling snow. “It snowed all day Thursday and then picked up Thursday evening through Friday,” Brown says. Over 70 centimeters of fresh powder blanketed the col and the ramps above. Forecasts showed clearer weather Saturday through Monday, so the team planned to ride out the worst of the storm and then descend back to the valley floor.
Then, on Friday afternoon, when just enough snow had accumulated to upset the angle of repose on the slope above the team’s bivy, everything slid. The team’s tent was swallowed by an avalanche and buried under two meters of snow. In an email to Rock and Ice, Tim Miller wrote, “I was at the back of the tent and I ripped open a hole and managed to dig myself out. I then dug down to the other two who had been at the other end of the tent. When I managed to find them our partner Christian had unfortunately already suffocated. Thankfully I managed to save Bruce.
Miller continued, “We were only wearing our base layers, so we dug out the rest of the kit while trying to prevent hypothermia or frostbite.”
Normand told Rock and Ice in an email the events as he remembered them: “I had a hand up a semi-air-hole and was still able to wriggle it a bit, which might have been getting me some O2, but was less than semi-conscious. I think I was revived by [Tim’s] finding my hand (he heard it) rather than anything it was doing on its own. I’m not sure when Christian lost it—he was with me sharing the same air space and then he wasn’t — but he did unzip the tent and possibly made the semi-hole (possibly taking a faceful of snow in the process).”
After he and Miller recovered clothing and supplies and set up their broken tent as best they could, Normand sent those first two messages—“Tent avalanched c2. … christian dead,” and, “We are ok …Not sure could get heli”—at which point Brown sprang into action. Over the next eight hours, Brown, along with people connected with the climbers, namely the expedition’s Sirdar, Abdul Ghafoor, and his brother, Abdul Karim; others knowledgeable about rescue operations—Graham Williams, Jewell Lund, and Jesse Mease; and climbers who had tried the route previously—particularly Yusuke Sato and Christian Tromssdorff—started the wheels turning on a helicopter rescue.
Yusuke Sato—one of the two Japanese climbers who had reached the route’s highpoint in 2011—was able to provide invaluable photos looking down on the col where Normand and Miller were stranded. This helped Askari Aviation, the helicopter operator that would conduct the rescue operation, assess the viability of a landing and rescue.
Unstable weather prevented a helicopter rescue on Saturday. On Sunday, July 1, the skies began to cooperate. Low-hanging fog kept the choppers grounded in Skardu in the early dawn, but when the mist lifted two helicopters flew toward Ultar Sar.
Around 7:30 am, one of the choppers, flown by pilots Zia and Abid, plucked Normand and Huber’s body off the col, taking advantage of a landing platform that Normand and Miller had prepared. Then, the second helicopter, flown by the operations lead pilot, Maj. Fakhar-e-Abbas, along with his assistant pilot Irtaza, retrieved Miller and the remaining two packs.
Brown notes that the col was pretty much the only place on that side of the mountain where a helicopter rescue could have taken place. The AS350 B3 helicopter that Fakhar-e-Abbass was flying is not designed to fly above 4,600 meters; the rescue took place at almost 5,900 meters.
The difficulty and daring of such a rescue was perhaps obscured by how seamlessly it was carried out. But such a rescue is indeed a rarity in the Karakoram or the Himalaya. Brown says, “The only case I can think of that’s comparable in terms of a rescue on steep terrain is when they rescued Tomaz Humar off the Rupal Face [of Nanga Parbat] in 2005”—a legendary operation. Brown goes on, “I think it’s important to note that, even if you do things right, and you have this sort of coordinated response, it’s not something to count on.”
In explaining the great work of everyone involved that allowed the rescue to go off without a hitch, Brown was quick to credit Shamyl Sharafat. Brown says, “He is one of very few people who deeply understand Pakistani rescue logistics as well as high-end alpine climbing,” Brown says. “His work absolutely earned mention and he should be better known in case of future rescue operations.” Sharafat, who provided a quote via Brown, was also quick to credit others: “The key person in this operation was totally hidden and he signed off on it and was it touch with pilots through the operation. He was Brigadier Ehtasham of Askari Aviation. He was actually looking at backup options in case the operation failed.”
More details of the team’s partial ascent of Ultar Sar, the accident, Huber’s death and the rescue itself are sure to emerge in the coming weeks and months. For the moment, the death of Christian Huber weighs heavy on the Front Range of Colorado, where he lived and worked, and the wider climbing community. (Rock and Ice will run a remembrance of Huber at a later date.) But, even as Huber is mourned, there are things to take solace in. As Brown wrote in his initial email, “We mourn the tragic loss of Christian, but are also thankful to have recovered his body and thrilled that Bruce and Tim made it out alive without serious injuries. Successful rescues of this kind are exceedingly rare.”
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