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Author Anna Piunova, Mountain.RU
Translation Maria Samsonova, Ekaterinburg

Latok I
Saving Chief Mate Gukov
Part IV

  • Part I
  • Part II
  • Part III
  • In 2012, my Mom passed away. It was a hard year in terms of personal loss but I have never let Mom go, so she has to come visit me often in my dreams.

    I was ironing. It was her favorite pastime and one of the things I tend to postpone.

    She leant against the door frame as she watched me iron:
    - You know, you need to get yourself a new dress.
    - Mom, why do I need another dress to walk Yuji in the field?
    - No, buy yourself a dress.
    We decided to drink some tea and started going downstairs.
    Then, as it often happens in a dream, the space shifted and we found ourselves in a dark hallway of the apartment where she died.
    The door to the kitchen was ajar, Mom nodded her head and I shifted my gaze: Gukov was sitting at the table, lit with a narrow beam of light.
    He was drinking tea. He didnt see us.

    In a dream, I almost never remember that Mom is departed but now I did.
    Gukov was not supposed to be here. He is in the Pakistani mountains now, on Latok, we are saving him. I opened my eyes with my heart thumping as if I ran a 100-meter race. A minute later, my alarm went off for a communication session with Shamyl.

    Gukov will later tell me he had a mental portal with Shamalo and it was also in the kitchen, only they were eating pelmeni. I popped up out of the blue and said: so you are back already? Then why are we saving you?


    How many days can rescue operations last? How adequate are decisions made by the relatives who frequently know nothing or precious little about mountains? How ethical is it to put other peoples lives in danger for rescue work or involve them in the search for bodies?
    When should you stop the ramped up rescue operation?
    Who should make such a decision?

    The humankind will not notice the loss of a dozen people in the mountains but each individual life is a huge universe with its own world and its own links. Each new life and each death change this world even though we are taught to step over it and keep going whatever happens.
    It changes the lives of our nearest and dearest and those who could become these but wont, it changes the lives of children, their opportunities, their evaluation, it changes the lives of parents and everyone around. These links are much deeper than they seem at the first sight.

    July 28, 2018

    2:00 a.m. Moscow time

    The Chief Pilot has been at the starting position since 4 a.m.: Just depressing. Never expected we wont get a single slot of slightly better weather to go and do something. We will go to any length of weather permits. Sunday is looking good. Not sure about later today though.

    Ovchinnikov: Anna, the fundraising press release is in your mail. Please have a look.
    - Okay. The Pakistani from ATP are ready to consider the option of merging the two insurances.
    - The Pakistani rule, but what will Soglasiye and Savitar Group say to that? Formally, Soglasiye may refuse to pay. A different insurance should have been procured for death and repatriation not an accident insurance. The guys insurance is only good for rescue and evacuation.
    - Dont know, but yesterday they itemized for me how much money was spent and said that they could take the rest from Sergeys insurance. Ok for the release, well publish it.
    - Great option, if Savitar plays along. Ask the Pakistani to write a formal letter to Savitar with this proposal.
    - Fine, and we also need to call Olga Moroz and find out what color the guys tent for the summit push was. To let the pilots know.
    14:06

    V. Zaytsev: We need a weather report from Victor to move David Gottlieb.
    - Ive just sent it to the pilots, but here it is anyway: cloudy to 5600, weather still unstable.
    14:47

    Ovchinnikov: Vadim Viktorovich, Anna, as of this moment, we have already raised over 450,000 rubles. This is almost $8,000. We can guarantee payment to the helicopter company.
    Anna, ask Glazunov about his card number, let him buy the tickets. I will transfer him the money for the trip.
    - Ok. Isnt it too early to get a ticket, though? The body hasnt been found yet. The thing in the photo is most probably the sleeping bag.
    - As you say, but Id rather he went. It will take three or four days to get there.
    - Evgeny said they had decided at the family meeting that if the rescue was complicated and risky, they wouldnt insist on repatriation.

    Sleeping bag that pilots mistook for Sergey Glazunovs body during the first flyover

    Vadim Zaytsev:
    - Ive just spoken to David [Gottlieb]. The weather is bad where he is, snowing all the time. Its impossible to lift him and his mates off with any kind of aircraft. Although the military declare that they are ready. He says he has been consulting Askari pilots all day on how to lift Alexander off. He thinks that using a longline is the only possible option. It could work out tomorrow morning. As for his participation, he pronounced it to be useless, since he was not sure they would cope, considering the situation. They would only be able to get there in 3 5 days.
    - Vadim Viktorovich, we considered the option of lowering David to Sanya on a longline, so that David could belay him to be transported together, but weve done some calculations: altitude, low oxygen, high temperature all these factors combined make this impossible, so they will throw a rope to Gukov and he would have to self-belay to it and then self-belay off from the anchor.
    Ovchinnikov: As of this moment, about 600,000 rubles. Over a hundred money transfers. I think well make a million by the end of the day.
    - What wonderful, warm-hearted people we have in our country!
    - And not only in our country. Georgia, Ukraine, some transfers in euros and dollars.
    - Shall we stop the fundraising tomorrow, then, as soon as we get the required amount?
    - I think so. Abramov called. He is ready to transfer the outstanding amount if we are short of funds. And he has a pilot in Nepal who works with a longline, he is ready to fly to Pakistan.
    21:12

    Fundraising finished. We raised over 1 million rubles.

    July 29

    Waiting for the weather since 2 a.m. together with the pilots. Its snowing in the base camp.
    No news from Sanya. His battery is completely drained.
    The forecast promised a good day today but actually July 29 turned out to be the worst over the past five days.

    It snowed up to 20 cm. 20cm of fresh unstable snow. It means high danger of avalanches.
    A helicopter may provoke avalanches, which are already more numerous than we would want.

    V. Zaytsev: What is the altitude of Victors camp? Can they ascend to Alexander from there?
    - Theoretically, yes, but then we would have to save three more people. The bottom is vulnerable to rockfall, its very dangerous up to 6,000m and now it has also snowed up. If the sun comes out, itll be hell.
    Clouds are ascending, they are now at 5200. It could be clear above that. I suggest that helicopter pilots fly to the Base Camp to be closer.
    They responded that they were warming up their engines, waiting for a forecast from Victor.

    Ovchinnikov
    - Maybe we should promise them a bonus? We raised about $15,000.
    - Alexey, Ive asked about it. Pilots are getting a salary, they dont get a single cent from these flights or the insurance or our money. They are military pilots. They will fly for the sake of duty, money doesnt matter.
    By the way, Andrzej Bargiel advised to ask Americans for help.
    - Those from the military base? Ill call but the international cooperation program was curtailed now for obvious reasons.
    - It would be cool but we need to solve this quickly today. And fly tomorrow.
    - We are short of time, or we could bring our pilots. Arseny Boldyrev works with a longline. He lifted off Molodozhen in the winter, amidst avalanches, from the Koshtan-Tau crest.
    - Thats it, the flight was cancelled again :( Lets try to work with the Americans.
    - Ive already written to the Ministry of Defense but today is Sunday. Ill start calling in an hour. Well try to call Mr. Belousov, Assistant to President. He can help. Maybe we should invite the Nepali pilot? Its closer and cheaper.
    - Vadim Viktorovich, can we ask this question?
    - I will try.
    10:30am

    They are flying in 20 minutes but only for a flyover.
    Helicopters cannot stay at the base camp all the time to fly in the first short window. According to their instructions, pilots are not supposed to kill the engines at the base camps altitude there was a case when the engines stalled.

    Under such circumstances theres only enough fuel for a couple of hours of waiting.
    - Plan B: if we cannot do it with a longline I will try to contact the Slovenians. I found their inReach, they are below the route. And if they are ready to participate in the operation, we dont need to waste time transferring David and Herve. The Slovenians can join at any time.
    The pilots did a flyover but didnt ascend all the way up to Sanya. He should have heard them, though, and realized that we havent given up on him.

    It started snowing.

    We received an answer from David: Ales says they are all in BC and know the route and all conditions and only possible to rescue him with LongLine. so I think we really dont need to fly to Latok and we can focus on our climb here.

    V. Zaytsev:
    - The fueled-up helicopter will come back. It can lift some of the guys who are with Victor to the maximum possible altitude, for them to move towards Alexander on their own.
    Other international mountaineers refused to go. They are saying, your guys are sitting at the foot of the mountain and not participating, why should we? The pilots will videotape the whole situation.
    - Vadim Viktorovich, longline is actually our only chance now, but, truth be told, its really dangerous there and if they go, the chances are high they might not come back.
    Alexey, Channel 1, Russia, NTV and Komsomolka newspaper have found even Dmitry by now. I am snowed under with requests in the messenger, I told them to contact you please take over the others, too.
    - Ok. Vadim Viktorovich, should I call our General Staff or the Presidential Administration? Or is the time not right yet?
    - We need to use all opportunities, act simultaneously.
    There will be no other time. Our only hope is bilateral contacts at the high level. The Ambassador has just talked to Pakistani generals and was assured that the military commanders have this situation under close surveillance.
    Anna, who is currently in the base camp together with Victor Koval and who has a broken rib? Do they need evacuation? Whats the news?
    - The one with the broken rib is Konstantin Markevich. Parfenov is also there. They dont want to be evacuated now because they are claiming an insured event so that they get evacuated under the insurance after this rescue.
    Helicopters flew around Latok and Ogre cirques.
    - Maybe our guys will agree to go on a rescue ascent accompanied by foreign mountaineers?
    No more flights today too late.
    - No, our guys will not go. The forecast for tomorrow is clear from the morning until one.
    But the good news is, the pilots now know where he is for sure.
    And Sanya couldnt help hearing the hum of helicopters.
    Janez Skorjanc who coordinated Tomaz Humars rescue wrote that, as Tomaz said after the rescue, helicopters engines gave him the saving drive. So it wasnt in vain, anyways.
    Ovchinnikov: I contacted Mr. Belousov. He will talk to Ministers Shoigu and Lavrov and to the Ambassador tomorrow. Well try to use all our connections.

    19:40

    Ovchinnikov: We need visas for Boldyrev and Provalov asap tomorrow, they are ready to fly.


    Breakdown by days and altitudes
    Arseny Boldyrev,
    Highly qualified helicopter pilot,
    Did mountain rescues multiple times,
    Great experience of dealing with longline
    
    
    
    Denis Provalov,
    Highly qualified rescuer,
    Multiple mountain rescues,
    Longline instructor.

    We have two things to do:

    1. Procure visas for our two guys asap so that they fly to Islamabad at the first opportunity.
    Ask the Pakistani military to grant Arseny a permit to fly their helicopter.

    2. Request a permit to accept a Nepali helicopter with a longline.

    Vadim Zaytsev: Accepted, noted. Visas shouldnt be a problem. The second thing is more difficult the permit. But I think theyll get it agreed.
    - The weather is bad, everythings off, the next communication is in an hour.
    By this day, federal TV channels were broadcasting news from Latok all the time: TASS, Channel 1, Russia-1, NTV, Channel 5, leading information portals, the radio.
    Damn it, Gukov, you are missing all the glory.

    We bought the tickets for Arseny and Denis the same night and procured the visas by midday next day, we received permission for their accommodation at the military base in Skardu and for the flyover. We collected the items to be drpped to Gukov.


    Ambrose Bierce has a short story called An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Bierce is a toxic guy, an American classic who kills off all his characters.
    Its set in Alabama during the Civil War, at the railroad bridge, on a hurriedly built gallows for a plantation owner a rich Southern gentlemen whom Northern troops have sentenced to hanging because he wanted to burn that bridge down. And thats exactly what they are doing at the moment.

    The plantation owner is called Peyton Farquhar. He is standing with a noose around his neck and keeps thinking about the path that took him here. The officer gives the order, the executioners remove the planks from under his feet, the rope snaps and Farquhar plunges into the water below. The soldiers shoot at him and he dives deeper to evade the bullets.
    All his senses are keened and he seems to see the snipers grey eyes, they say all famous marksmen had grey eyes.
    He manages to loosen the ties around his wrists and struggle free of the cord, he swims downstream. Finally, he gets out of the water, delights with the sand: why has he never before noticed how beautiful these crystals were, glittering in the sun? He then walks for a long time probably throughout the night.
    By the morning he finds himself at the gate of his house, completely exhausted. He pushes open the gate and sees a flutter of female garments.
    His wife, looking fresh and cool and sweet, steps down from the veranda to meet him. Peyton wants to embrace her but at this moment he feels a blow upon the back of the neck, sees a white light and then all is darkness.

    The first revision of the last sentence read like this:

    his body, with a broken neck, hung on a strong rope that always rewards a civilian patriots zest in times of war, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.

    But then Bierce had second thoughts and softened it a little.

    I always zone out on such endings: why did he even go on that bridge? He could have stayed at home. He would live to a ripe old age. Why did he have to live his fate through?
    Each of us has a railroad bridge of our own.
    And some go to burn it down while others stay at home.

    The self-belay that snapped and saved Gukovs and pilots lives

    July 30

    When Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson free-climbed The Dawn Wall of El Capitan, the whole America was going crazy.
    When Tommy got fed up with calls from strangers he simply threw his phone away. It was at that moment that Obama, then President of the USA, called him.

    I remember thinking, hell no, it would never happen with us even a house superintendent, let alone the President would not care for some mountaineer. Three years passed.
    On July 30, 2018 President Putin was briefed on the Latok rescue operation.


    If I had this photo then I wouldnt be so sure that we would save him. How did I imagine that? He has a tent perched on a relatively flat and broad ledge, but this How did pilots spot him at all? How did he even stay there for seven days? How come the snow from above didnt collapse on him?

    July 31 On the morning of July 31 I woke up at four a.m., as usual. Winged ants were busily crawling around in the kitchen. Where did they come from? I remembered reading some time ago that no pilot would lay a finger on flying things on the flight day. I thought What if it concerns ants, too? They are flying after all, if only on the short days when they grow wings. I wished each one a good morning and didnt tread on any of them. Brew myself some coffee. Didnt write anything on FB. Julia asked me the previous day, maybe we shouldnt? Of course I replied with a comment on superstitions but it got to me too in the morning. No energy left. I was sitting there waiting for a text message. How it will all end.

    P.S.

    On August 24, 2018 Jeff Lowe died the one from the legendary four who tried to climb the north face of Latok I back in 1978.
    Jeff watched over the rescue on Latok very closely. He sent messages, left comments, responded to people who were unhappy with our actions, protected me and cheered me up.

    This was the last message I received from him: FANTASTIC! Give him [Alexander Gukov] congratulations and love. Im so thankful for everyones efforts! I cant wait to hear the whole story!

    Instead of an epilogue

    What was supposed to be a brief report extended into four parts.
    Enough time has passed for reflection.
    Maybe these records will help some of you some time during the rescue.

    I tried to outline the way our team worked, what we thought about, what doors we knocked on.

    We were very lucky to have each other. No one tried to grab the biggest piece of the pie, broke into hysterics, or played the king of the hill everyone did their job seamlessly and calmly.

    We went through a million options, we consulted with experienced mountaineers, we were not ashamed to ask for help.
    We were dealing with conflict situations, not exasperating them.

    We initiated rescue a day before we received the SOS signal, we were able to get helicopters into the air on the election day, when flights over Pakistan were prohibited, we drpped gas and food that lasted Gukov for seven days and six nights, we built good relations with the Pakistani military, pilots and mass media.

    Pilots deserve a special praise they are really cool guys! There were times when we doubted them, or didnt understand some of their actions, or didnt really believe in them because we didnt know what they were capable of.

    Every day at 4 a.m. they warmed up their engines, every day they waited for a window together with us.

    They flew out in bad weather upon our request.

    They spotted Gukov on the endless snowy face of Latok I, they lifted Sanya off, they took great risks because they had spent a long time looking for him and were hovering over him longer than they were supposed to, they used up all their fuel and landed in BC with the dashboard blinking in an emergency. They are real professionals and real heroes.

    Our thanks go to:
    Lieutenant Colonel Muhammad Anjum Rafique, pilot
    Major Abid Rafique, pilot
    Major Fakhar-E-Abbas, pilot
    Major Qazi Muhammad Mazhar ud Din, pilot

    Thank you, everyone who didnt look the other way, who watched the news and supported us with words and comments, who transferred money for the rescue all of you who believed, along with us, that Sanya would come back home. It was important.

    The Pakistani Army took up some of the expenses for flying hours.
    The amount of 640,000 rubles that remained after the rescue was divided between Sergey Glazunovs and Alexander Gukovs families. 50,000 was transferred to Evgeny Glazunovs card and 270,000 to his mothers.

    Alexander Gukov transferred some money to families of mountaineers who died last summer 160,000 rubles to Sveta Dvornichenko who was left with three children and 160,000 rubles to Anna Abrosimova she has two babies.

    Alexander Gukov. Impossible is not Forever

    List of persons who participated in organizing and carrying out A. Gukovs rescue operations on Latok I
    Lieutenant Colonel Muhammad Anjum Rafique, pilot
    Major Abid Rafique, pilot
    Major Fakhar-E-Abbas, pilot
    Major Qazi Muhammad Mazhar ud Din, pilot
    Naik Muhammad Nadeem, maintenance
    Naik Amir Sharif, maintenance
    General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Chief of Staff, Army of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan
    Major General Shahid Imtiaz, Head of Administration of International Military Cooperation, Army Staff of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan
    Brigadier Basharat li, Army Air Corps Unit Commander
    Lieutenant Colonel Mahammad Saim Saddiqui, Officer, Administration of International Military Cooperation, Army Staff of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan
    Muhammad Arsallah Khan, Honorary Consul of Russia in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan
    Major Muhammad Adeel Ahmed, Officer, Military Intelligence Department, Army Staff of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan
    Mr. Irfan Muhammad, Head of Rescue Operations, Askar Aviation Company
    Alexey Yuryevich Dedov, Ambassador of the Russian Federation to Pakistan
    Vadim Viktorovich Zaytsev, First Secretary of the Embassy
    Vladimir Leonidovich Berezyuk, Minister Counselor
    Sergey Vladimirovich Belosludtsev, Colonel, acting Military Attache
    Natalya Nikolayevna Baranova, Deputy Director, R&D Institute of Disaster Medicine
    Alexey Yuryevich Ovchinnikov, Director, Center of Professional Education Development, Moscow Polytechnic University
    Anna Valeryevna Piunova, Editor-in-Chief, Mountain.RU web portal
    Victor Alexandrovich Koval, lawyer
    Denis Vladimirovich Provalov, Senior Teacher, Russian State University of Physical Education, Sport, Youth and Tourism
    Arseny Boldyrev, Pilot, HeliAction
    Dmitry Alexandrovich Klenov, Editor, Mountain.RU web portal
    Mahboob Hamid, Representative of Russian Helicopters in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan
    Colonel (retired) Irfan Hassan Malik, Head of Department, & Associates
    Lieutenant Colonel Mansoor Qadir, doctor
    Major Salim Akhtar, doctor
    Nasir Mufti, Chief Medical Officer, Rawalpindi Combined Military Hospital
    Colonel Muhammad Farid, Assistant to Commandant, Rawalpindi Combined Military Hospital
    Colonel (retired) Amjat Iqbal Babar, Officer of Protocol, Combined Intelligence Agency, Ministry of Defense of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan
    Lieutenant Colonel Ziaullah, Army Staff Officer of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan
    Mr. Naiknam Karim, Operator, ATP Tourist Company
    Mr. Nizam Uddin, Operator, ATP Tourist Company
    Pavel Alexandrovich Yagoda, Mayor, Assistant to Military Attach
    Dmitry Vladimirovich Chebotarev, Mayor, Assistant to Military Attach
    Vyacheslav Vyacheslavovich Sentyurin, First Secretary
    Damir Renatovich Galiulin, Third Secretary
    Anna Nikolayevna Makarenkova, Attache
    Anton Andreyevich Bernyakovich, Administrative Assistant
    Irina Mikhaylovna Lavrova, doctor
    Andrey Removich Belousov, Assistant to President of the Russian Federation
    Sergey Viktorovich Lavrov, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation
    Igor Vladimirovich Morgulov, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation
    Anatoly Viktorovich Yakunov, Chief of Aviation, Ministry of Emergency Situations of the Russian Federation
    Veronika Igorevna Skvortsova, Minister of Health of the Russian Federation
    Sergey Alexanderovich Krayevoy, Deputy Minister of Health of the Russian Federation
    Sergey Fedorovich Goncharov, Director, R&D Institute of Disaster Medicine
    Amiran Shotayevich Revishvili, Director, A.V. Vishnevsky National Medical Research Center of Surgery
    Valery Afanasyevich Mitish, Head of Wounds and Wound Infections Center


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