Saving Chief Mate Gukov
Thursday, July 26. Third day of rescue
Julia became more like a sister, Vadim Viktorovich Zaytsev was solving unsolvable issues, I couldn’t believe such people existed. I was getting sidelong glances at home due to my 24/7 involvement. The option of my packing up was discussed sarcastically – “Suitcase, plane, Latok”, to modify the infamous saying “Suitcase, train station, Israel”. My work was not getting done. My dog was looking me in the eyes reproachfully: when will we go for a walk? I was gnawing on apples and drinking coffee by the litres – there was no time to cook.
Gukov, what about Gukov? My lively imagination was presenting a picture of him dying there on his ledge.
Little by little.
Life is going to seep out of him over a long, long time because he is healthy, not injured, and the weather is relatively warm.
A total airhead, but too pitiful to give up on. (To that, Michael Fomin would say ironically I was a typical Russian woman)
July 26. Correspondence with Sanya
- - My love, wait for the helicopter at six. Hold on, we need you.
- - We will save you, dear. Don’t lose heart, hold on with everything you’ve got. Hundreds of people are praying for your rescue. Love you. The kids are waiting.
And me, typing in the SMS language:
- - We will save you!
It will later turn out that the Pakistani tour operator made a mistake: David was with Herve Barmasse. We asked about Adam twice and twice did we get a positive answer.
- - Heli L frm Skardu, it takes an hr 2 get 2 BC, they’ll try 2 lift U off o drîp U som ropes
- - WHY DO I NEED ROPES? I HAVE NO GEAR
- - If d heli Cnot get clOs Enuf 2 lift u off they’ll drîp a full set of gear. U hav food?
- - GOT YOU. I HAVE FOOD.
- - They departed.
- - I AM AT 6200. WHY ARE THEY FLYING SO LOW?
- - Clouds, no visibility, they turned back, waiting for an improvement. Hold on.
- - THEY SHOULD HAVE COME EARLIER.
- - Can you descend if we drîp you the gear?
- - I’M TIRED, AVALANCHES ALL NIGHT LONG. THE DESCENT IS ALMOST 2KM. ALONE – NOT SURE.
- - ANNA, WHAT IS THE FORECAST? IT’S SNOWING HARD.
- - The forecast is bad. What if we get some guys above you so that they rappel down?
- - Adam Biletsky and David Gottlieb are ready to go for you. Waiting for the weather.
The pressure was severe. The time was against us, every hour of delay meant that Gukov was getting weaker, losing hope. Every delayed departure reduced the chances of flying today at all. Helicopters only fly until 17:00 in Pakistani mountains.
And in every message from Gukov, we could see this 1 percent of battery life left – of our connection with Sanya and probably his life, too.
There are 160 symbols in a message only, so I switched to the SMS language to make it more concise. Gukov would later say that my textspeak was horrible (“2” for “to” or “too”, “U” for “you”, “R” for “are”, sounds ez 2u?).
- - WHAT’S THE FORECAST?
- - d wedr is bad, dey R undR G2, it’s also overcast ther bt dey nEd a window of a cupL of hours 2 transport d guys
You can send one message every half hour. His battery could die over half an hour. What if this was his last message and we will not be able to contact him again?
Iridium operators checked all possible services that were draining the battery. We asked him to turn off coordinate data transmission. Why do we need it if he doesn’t move? We sent Sanya instructions on what he should do to prolong battery life.
Sometimes, when both Julia and I would send a message and Sanya would respond with a question, we would ask the Iridium operator to deliver it straight away, without the 30-minute wait.
The weather turned nasty and clearly for long. Meteorologists whom we asked to analyse the situation in the Latok area were searching for some windows trying to help but were generally talking about five – six days.
Their forecasts were not optimistic in their own right but they also had little to do with reality – there were no promised windows.
The only reliable weather man throughout all these days was Victor Koval in Latok BC. Every hour, he would get in touch with a brief weather report.
How do I tell Gukov that he will most probably have to wait for a helicopter for almost a week? If he had a charger we could feed him promises every blessed day – today is not an option, Sanya, but tomorrow it’s going to be sunny for sure. Tomorrow I could come up with something else, the day after tomorrow I could feed him yet another bait of falsehood. But we did not have the luxury of unlimited communications.
It took me a long time to decide if I should tell him about the six days or gloss it over.
I imagined how he would set his mind to tomorrow, be left without communication and the weather would stay bad for a very long time. Back then, we all believed the helicopter would depart in the morning – but what if it doesn’t?
He would later tell me it had been cruel. The text message was sent from the Iridium number to avoid the 30-minute limitation. Sanya didn’t believe it and thought it was someone’s silly joke.
- - Get ready for five – six days, good weather will come.
But he immediately wrote a tender goodbye to Julia: MY DEAR, THE WEATHER IS SHIT, NO ONE WILL SAVE ME, I LOVE YOU
And to me:
July 26, 2018 was Thursday, we will lift him off on Tuesday, July 31.
- - DID HELIS REFUSE TO LIFT ME OFF WITH A LONGLINE?
- - dey sA it’s dangerous. bt I found d pilot hu rescued Humar! Trying 2 involve him. Sanya, so many ppl believe n U dat U hav n rght 2 get tired. Heli 2moro
- - d heli wiL b n BC @ 6 a.m., they’ll try 2 lift U off, don’t 4get 2 self-Blay oF! if dey Cnot do it, they’ll drîp food. d heli wiL drîp dem off above U & dey wiL start descending 2 U frm ther
- - ANNA, I CANNOT MAKE HEAD OR TAIL OF YOUR WRITING
- - Humar was waiting for a heli for eight days on the ledge at the Rupal Face. And he lived to see it. They are promising a good day on Saturday.
And now for the background to all of that.
At half past three in the morning of July 26, Vadim Viktorovich Zaytsev wrote that pilots were refusing to depart due to a suspected bad forecast.
Sanya sent two SOS signals over the night. Now we know that his tracker wouldn’t turn on in any other way but we didn’t know it then.
Of course, Julia received those, too:
Eventually, the helicopters departed, picked up Victor with the gear from the glacier, flew around for a while but couldn’t see anything because of clouds.
The first communication problems were emerging. The pilots thought Victor didn’t speak English well enough. They asked if there was someone else.
Victor thought the pilots were not so good: “We need to find others. Maybe Simone Moro?”
- - Anna, maybe he got sick? Why two signals?
Things will surely settle down later. Victor would speak proper English and the pilots would turn out to be professionals but it didn’t feel great at the time.
The pilots confirmed Sergey Glazunov’s death. They had seen a body lying without movement at the foot, near Victor’s camp.
We called Evgeny Glazunov. We needed to solve the issue of repatriation of remains. He will be in Novosibirsk tomorrow to talk to his mother.
I call Julia and explain the risks – that Sanya can die during the evacuation – but what are our options? Later, Vadim Viktorovich has a long and delicate conversation with Julia. She gives her consent.
- - Askari doesn’t want to risk lifting Alexander off on a longline. They think it’s a big risk. They are asking if Alexander is able to hook up and do everything in his powers for such an evacuation.
- - Yes, he is ready for this option.
- - Will he be able to?
- - No one can know for sure but Humar was able to, after five days on the mountain face.
- - Askari will take this step only if you assume the responsibility.
We distribute responsibilities. Dmitry Klenov is dealing with news on Mountain.RU and posts in social media.
- - Julia, I think that no one will start moving unless we make a fuss on the Internet today. We need to get to a new level of support.
Alexey Ovchinnikov is preparing a release for federal channels changing his location almost daily (he is on vacation) – he moves from Garda to Venice to Chamonix to Courmayeur.
Rossiya 1 channel is asking for a flyover video.
That was the day when Janez Skorjanc wrote to me. Another lucky find thanks to our posts on Facebook.
Janez coordinated Tomaz Humar’s rescue from the Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat. He contacted the pilot who carried on that operation – currently General Rashid Ulah Baig.
The General found the pilot who was flying yesterday and today – it turned out to be his student! Rashid promised to consult the pilots, train them to use a longline and monitor the process.
For me, getting to know Janez was simultaneously a support and a sign from heaven: “Do not lose hope, everything is going to be all right.”
I somehow immediately believed we would do it. Janez did, so it wasn’t all in vain.
On July 26, Masha Gordon wrote to me. Masha gave me the contact of Riaz who coordinated the rescue of Elisabeth Revol on Nanga Parbat, and Shamyl – a Pakistani mediator living in Paris. He and I are going to stay in touch 24/7 on July 27 through 30. Shamyl coordinated the rescue of Bruce Normand on Ultar Sar.
But most importantly, Masha found the simple and right words.
ATP, Pakistani tour operator, doubted that a helicopter rescue would be effective: “Rescues on Latok are different from those in other high K2 mountains. We need the help of strong mountaineers, not high-altitude porters. The route where Alexander got stuck is technically difficult. We need to develop a united strategy and act together.”
David Gottlieb and Herve Barmasse offered their assistance (we were misinformed about Adam Biletsky).
On the same day, Andrzej Bargiel would write to us. Andrzej has a great experience of working as a rescuer with a longline. Besides, he knows how to launch a copter. And he is in Skardu.
The end of the day was nice with this kind of guys.
We needed to solve the issue of communicating with Sanya. We were not sure that the guys took their satellite phone for the ascent, they could have left it in the camp at 5512m. Just in case, I ask Victor to search Sanya’s tent. They found it. A fully charged Iridium. We decide to drîp it to him together with food and gear.
I call Odintsov. I tell him how the day has been, speak about the weather and problems with the helicopter.
Alexander thinks the only viable option is having someone go towards Gukov to help him descend. Ideally, it should be our guys (Koval, Markevich and Parfenov) or acclimatised Slovenians who are already under the wall.
But if they are ready to transport Gottlieb and Barmasse from Broad Peak, then fine.
I write to Victor, asking him to talk to the Slovenians: “No, there is rockfall there every five minutes. Impossible to approach the face.”
I call Mr. Zaytsev:
Valera Shamalo suggests a similar option. He was on this mountain last year and he knows the route well. We can try to drîp off a pair on the slope between Latok I and Latok II, below the intersection.
- - Vadim Viktorovich, one of most experienced bigwall climbers Alexander Odintsov suggested two options: one involves drîpping the gear and having Gukov start the descent on his own, but it’s a 50:50 chance since Sanya is tired. Or we could drîp climbers above him, so that they start rappelling down towards him and then descend little by little, close to the ridge where the rockfall and avalanches are not so hard.
It is possible to get to Sanya from there in a day and a half or two days, traversing to the left towards Latok I.
But it is hardly possible in bad weather. It is very difficult to land on the wall or the crest since you first need to fix the belay.
These two options can be discussed with ATP. Helicopters do land on Khumbu at 6500 in good weather. Or drîp off a pair on the buttress – we need a two-hour window for that.
Almost everyone agrees that it’s impossible to lift Sanya off with a helicopter – too high and steep. It’s possible to drîp him some ropes and gas but he won’t be able to descend alone.
Victor Koval: “They [the military] have a base 10 minutes away from there. They need to fly there right in the morning and then start checking the weather. We need to plan for tomorrow, for the earliest morning. Today the weather has been great for two hours but the pilots flew in too late. Also, I don’t really believe it’s possible to drîp someone off on the ridge. Lifting Sanya off with a longline is far easier. Otherwise it’s either the wall, or cornices and seracs for many meters. Helicopter is the only chance of rescue.”
Friday, July 27
It’s past midnight. To relieve the stress, Ovchinnikov sends me a motivating poem, a comic with clowns and photos of the Venice panorama at night, and also a reminder – check the press release.
At four a.m., he informs me of the new problem – the guys have drained their insurance limit. They have $3,000 left.
Alexey asked me this question several times during the rescue. Thank you, dude.
- - I guess we have to start crowdfunding. Your card or mine?
- - Let’s make it yours.
- - The helicopter company spent $20,000 in 3 days. According to my estimate, we need minimum $10,000 more. I sent you the insurance from Savitar Group and helicopter bills. Shall we announce it tomorrow night?
- - Yes, let’s do it.
- - Ok. It’ll be clear tomorrow based on the flight outcome. How are you?
- - I am . Contacting ATP and the pilots, Victor and Sanya, Julia, you, Vadim Viktorovich, Shamyl and a dozen more people. That’s not even counting people I barely know who are sending me private messages out of curiosity or with exhortations (“Anna, why all the show? Why are you doing this?”).
- - How can I help?
July 27. Correspondence with Gukov
- - Can you handle the media on your own?
- - Yes, direct them all to me.
- - Ask them not to call me. I understand it’s super important but I am not made of iron. I am sometimes talking to four people simultaneously (minimum). Financials and the insurance too, ok?
- - What the . Why so many avalanches? Cannot make water.
- - Sanya, helis are ready but the weather is going to be bad today. Hold on. We are all rooting for you!
- - I was able to find half a Snickers, drink a little and even pee.
- - Humar survived the last three days on a single apple. Have patience. Good weather will come.
- - When?
- - In a couple of days but the heli will be there on Sunday to use any window.
- - In a couple of days I will die here on the ledge.
- - No, Sanya. Humar didn’t die, and neither will you. Russians do not give up.
- - Humar also thought he would die, he said goodbye, everyone was crying. Yet he survived.
- - The weather will be perfect for a week starting on the 29th. Endure and wait.
- Can you see a safe spot below you where the heli can drîp off rescuers?
- - Wait, good weather will come. Save your energy. Rub your limbs, make sure not to freeze. Breathe quietly.
- - Endure it for two more days and you are back to normal life. Massage and watch your breathing.
- - They will make several attempts to lift you off with a rope. Pilots are training every day.
- - There will be a short window at nine tomorrow. We will drîp you some stuff so you can gorge yourself until Sunday.
- - I don’t need food, I cannot shit in this snow capsule.
- - Are you on self-belay? Think it through how you are going to catch the rope and clip off the anchor.
6 a.m. Julia:
I ask Victor about the weather. Rescuers are ready to fly, they have a window.
Visibility is zero in the base camp. I found Slovenians’ number. I’ll try to find out if they know how to use a copter. We could send Sanya his satellite phone.
Julia is an evening person, she was low-spirited in the mornings. To distract her from gloomy thoughts I ask her to call the operator and cut off everyone who has access to Sanya’s tracker. The battery is draining, we need to reduce the number of incoming requests. Only Julia and I remain in touch with him.
As soon as she gets down to business her melancholy vanishes.
- - Anna, good morning. Any news?
- - Cancelled but ready to start. Waiting for the weather window.
- - I see. Have you written to Sanya?
- - Yes, immediately.
- - Anna, my hope is melting with every passing day… I have a bad feeling about it.
The good news is: Askari agreed to use the longline.
The bad news is: Ovchinnikov talked to Savitar Group – there is no money to repatriate Glazunov’s body, it’s not covered by the insurance. There is no money to lift off Gukov, either.
- - Julia, you and I need to understand that the heli will not come today and most probably not tomorrow either. I’ve written to Sanya that the helis are ready but the weather was bad that day. Good weather is promised for Saturday but it will actually set in on Sunday at best. He understands everything and will wait.
Don’t worry about the avalanches. Avalanches hit the wall and he gets only the dust. Of course it’s scary when it’s thundering around you but he camped in a safe place.
The pilots sent some photos of the body. They were not clear.
- - OK, we will launch crowdfunding tomorrow morning.
I call Evgeny Glazunov and tell him to have a look. I forward the photos to him in maximum possible resolution.
I ask him what they decided concerning the repatriation. His mother and his wife Nina would like Sergey’s body to be lifted off, cremated, and the ashes to be sent to Russia.
Evgeny also says that they have discussed this topic with Sergey once. And they both decided it would be better to stay in the mountains forever. Cemeteries and funerals are not their thing.
If there is any risk to rescuers’ lives, let it be the way Sergey would have wanted.
I forward this information to Ovchinnikov and Mr. Zaytsev. Vadim Viktorovich sends a request to a flyover and repatriation before the remains are completely covered with snow, while Alexey is negotiating with the insurance company.
Later, when the photos are studied in detail, it will turn out the pilots were mistaken. They saw a sleeping bag. The rope in the snow was red while the guys were using black ones.
On July 27 in the morning, Shamyl called – the very person Masha Gordon had mentioned the day before.
Today, you can smile looking at locations of people involved in the rescue: Vadim Viktorovich Zaytsev was working from Islamabad, Shamyl from Paris, Ovchinnikov from Courmayeur and Chamonix and finally, I was doing it from Moscow countryside in the peak of vacation season.
By that time, our news on Mountain.RU and Facebook posts about Gukov were followed by tens of thousands of people from all over the world. Dmitry Klenov was reading some of the comments to me during our regular evening communications and if crying was an option then, I would have cried.
Central TV channels, radio stations, newspapers and leading Internet portals were on it. Even Navalny, the leader of the opposition, mentioned Gukov’s rescue.
It was no longer possible to merely sweep us under the carpet, we couldn’t be ignored. And no one tried to. Everyone was supportive.
It means that our community is not absolutely lame since all of us got together and rooted for Gukov whom no one knew. Everyone wanted him to get home alive.
And thanks to you, your support, and your belief we were able to do the impossible.
He introduced himself in French. He said he had been coordinating the rescue on Ultar Sar and that Christian Trommsdorff had given him my number. That’s what Piolets d’Or brotherhood does!
Shamyl connected several dots at the same time – the agency, important military personnel, and pilots.
Shamyl and I are going to get in touch every 10 – 15 minutes until July 30. Day and night. Shamyl helped me solve a gazillion issues.
People, you are sometimes so good.
The plan for tomorrow is as follows: the weather permitting, we will take the rescuers to the base camp in the morning and try to lift Sanya off with a longline.
If we are not able to do that, David, Herve and Andrzej will be taken by the helicopter to the closest spot to Sanya and they will start moving towards him.
Sounds like a fairy tale.
A landing spot for helicopters needs to be prepared on the glacier.
I tell Victor to be ready by six.
Saturday, July 28
At two o’clock Moscow time (four o’clock local time) Victor Koval reports the weather to me:
“Thick clouds from 5100, the mountain is overcast.”
I forward this information to Shamyl.
At three a.m., Sanya sends me a text message:
Julia sends a wonderful answer:
- - Anna, should I wait for them today? 1 percent of battery left.
I write to him that the pilots are at the ready but the weather will only be good tomorrow:
- - Today the pilots are waiting for a window. Two helis are on stand-by. Tomorrow the weather is going to be better. Don’t give up. We love you and are waiting for you. J.
Then it occurs to me that he might be cheered up by a message Jeff Lowe sent me: “I’m sure he’ll be safely lifted off. My hopes and wishes are with Sanja.” Your harness on? Put it on.
At this point, Sanya probably decides he might not live to see the helicopters and remembers he hasn’t answered my question asked three days ago about whether they had made it to the summit:
- - It is merely a matter of time. Watch your breathing, rub your hands and feet. Wait. Good weather tomorrow.
- - I’m trying but it’s cramped and I have a stomach ache.
A call. The Iridium operator (they are saints) says the battery is completely drained and all communication is lost.
This was an emotional moment. I knew the weather was not going to be good tomorrow. Probably not the day after tomorrow either. And how will he cope up there without the only link to the external world?
I explain to the operator that I really, really need to send at least one more message, a very important one, for Sanya to understand what exactly we are going to do and what he should do himself.
I write to the pilots and ask for clear instructions that can fit into 160 symbols.
- - We climbed somewhere up but couldn’t find the summit. Poor weather.
Ouff! The guy is thinking about his stuff, it’s not as hopeless as it seems.
- - Wait for the heli, leave a harness on today! Catch the rope. CLIP OFF and you are home. We’ll make a few attempts + Plan B (climbers).
- - Can I take my sack?
This was the last message sent to Gukov.
- - No, minimum weight! How long do you need to get on self-belay and how long to clip off after that?
- - I don’t know. It’s hard to open the tent. I’ll try when I hear them.
- - Tomorrow the helis will be ready at 6 a.m. We catch the window and fly off. We will try every day. Think everything through. Don’t mess around.
I wasn’t even sure it was delivered.
There were no more communications with him.
To be finished…
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