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Families despair as weather halts Pakistan search for K2 climbers

A cellphone photo of the snow-covered K2 mountain
K2, the world’s second-highest peak, is displayed on a cellphone in Islamabad, Pakistan, on Feb. 9, 2021.
(Anjum Naveed / Associated Press)

Families of the three mountaineers who went missing in Pakistan last week while attempting to scale K2, the world’s second-highest mountain, grew more desperate Tuesday, a day after bad weather halted the search for the climbers.

Hopes for the survival of the three — Pakistani climber Ali Sadpara, Jon Snorri of Iceland and Juan Pablo Mohr of Chile — were waning as heavy clouds continued to obscure K2.

Pakistani military helicopters were grounded. They waited for an opening in the weather but were unable to resume the search Tuesday, said Karrar Haidri, head of the Pakistan Alpine Club.

The three lost contact with base camp late Friday and were reported missing Saturday, after their support team stopped receiving communications from them during their ascent of the 28,251-foot-high K2 — sometimes referred to as “killer mountain.”

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Located in the Karakoram mountain range, K2 is one of the most dangerous climbs and usually not attempted in winter. A team of 10 Nepali climbers made history last month when the group became the first people to reach the peak in winter.

The three-day search for the three climbers was halted Monday as heavy clouds enveloped most of K2. The families in a statement late Monday said they made the “difficult decision” to wait for the weather to improve before the search resumes.

The statement said the search-and-rescue mission was receiving high resolution satellite imagery that can enable it to view “areas inaccessible to helicopters because of harsh winter conditions and excessive winds.”

In winter, winds on K2 can blow at more than 125 mph and temperatures can drop to minus 76 degrees. In one of the deadliest mountaineering accidents, 11 climbers perished in a single day trying to scale K2 in 2008.

From New York, where she is assisting in the search-and-rescue mission, Vanessa O’Brien, the first American woman to summit K2, said she has spoken with the families of the climbers as time is running out and the survival of the three seems more impossible with every hour.

Together they crafted the statement thanking all those who have been assisting the search, including the Pakistani military, which has been flying the helicopters, even as clouds hid the mountain and made each successive run increasingly dangerous. The family statement said the mission, before it halted, was “72 grueling hours of nonstop intensive search-and-rescue efforts.”

The dimming hope was particularly poignant as Tuesday was the Chilean climber Mohr’s 34 birthday.

“The families are so gutted as weather and winds have stopped the search and rescue,” O’Brien said in an email to the Associated Press.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi called his Chilean counterpart, Andres Allamand, on Tuesday to express his “deep concern,” promising “to make all possible efforts to trace the missing heroes.”

Among those waiting at the base camp was Sadpara’s son Sajid Ali Sadpara, who had begun the climb with his father but was forced to abandon the summit attempt after his equipment failed. He waited 20 hours at a lower camp before making the descent last week. Since the search started, he has been on the helicopter flights, searching for his father.

“We know only a miracle can bring them back alive and we are waiting for the miracle,” he said Tuesday. He also said his father had volunteered for dozens of search operations and had “saved many climbers.”

Dwarfed by Mt. Everest, K2 is considered one of the most difficult ascents — for every four climbers attempting to summit K2, one dies, said O’Brien, compared to 1 in every 20 attempting to climb Nepal’s Everest.

Chhang Dawa Sherpa, a member of the Nepali expedition last month, has also been assisting in the search and rescue, as has Sadpara’s close friend Roa Ahmad.

O’Brien scaled K2 in 2017, after three unsuccessful attempts, becoming the first American and British woman — she holds dual citizenship — to summit the treacherous peak. It was a “tough summit,” she recounted to the AP. “Sixteen hours one way.”

Few people would consider something as difficult and dangerous as a summit ascent, she added, but “mountaineers do it all the time.”


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