To call it a nightmare would be an understatement; it must have been hell.
On July 25, Russian alpinist Alexander Gukov was trapped high on the north ridge of Latok I in Pakistan. He and his partner, Sergey Glazunov, had climbed the ridge to within several hundred vertical feet of the summit but were forced to descend by poor weather and lack of food.
At about 20,300 feet (the height of Denali's summit, the highest point in North America) Glazunov was rappelling when something went terribly wrong. His anchor likely failed and he fell — along with their ropes — thousands of feet to his death.
Gukov was suddenly and dreadfully alone, more than halfway up a technical route with no way to descend.
You may recall Latok I's north ridge from a column I wrote last month about its infamous legacy as the "Holy Grail of Alpinism," as Jim Donini dubbed it. After his near-miss on the ridge in 1978 with three other Colorado climbers, the route has achieved legendary status in light of 40 years of failed attempts by the best alpinists.
Since July, the mystique of the Holy Grail has snowballed.
Eleven days into his attempt, on only five days of food, Gukov was helpless. He sent an SOS to basecamp requesting a rescue — a tall order for many reasons, not the least of which being the prohibitive altitude, at which few rescues have taken place.
Six days of unsettled weather left Gukov with little hope. He remained in a snow cave with almost no food or water, his condition deteriorating. He was desperate, hallucinating and his feet had frozen.
Finally, the weather allowed two helicopters to attempt a daring rescue. According to a report on mountain.ru, the lead helicopter dropped a line to Gukov while the second hovered "right behind the first giving adjustment instructions." After 15 minutes, Gukov was finally able to attach the line to his climbing harness.
"The fuel level was getting critically low by then," reads the report. "However, it was touch and go as Alex had forgotten to remove his anchor to the mountain. Thus he found himself connected to the sling of the (helicopter) on one end and Latok to the other as the mountain refused to let him go."
Thankfully, Gukov's anchor ripped out as he was pulled away from the ridge. He was flown to safety. A report on planetmountain.com called the rescue "an absolute miracle."
The latest twist in the Latok I epic came Aug. 12, when international climbing websites reported that the north ridge had, at last, been climbed.
A post on the CAMP - CASSIN Facebook page broke the story, "Amazing news from Karakoram! After dozens of attempts since 1978, the 'impossible' Latok I (7145 m) was finally climbed from north by our Luka Stražar together with Aleš Cesen and Tom Livingstone!"
The media assumed the British-Slovenian trio had climbed the coveted north ridge.
They did, in fact, summit Latok I via a new route — an incredible accomplishment considering the 35-plus expeditions that have failed (they were only the second team to climb the mountain since its first ascent in 1979).
However, three-quarters of the way up, the climbers deviated from the north ridge by traversing to the south side of the peak. "We climbed most of the ridge, but exited it at the top," wrote Livingstone in an Instagram post. "We won't claim to have climbed the north ridge."
After much confusion, the world of alpinism is still left with the seemingly untouchable Holy Grail.
"It's almost surreal, the Latok saga," said 75 year-old Donini. Right now he's in Pakistan leading 20 adventurers on a trek into the Latok region to raise money for the Balti Children's Education Fund.
"I want to see it done," he said. "And I want to see it done this year. I keep waiting for the circle to be closed."
A German team led by the supremely skilled Thomas Huber, a good friend of Donini, has recently arrived at the base of Latok I. With luck — or perhaps divine intervention — the north ridge may still be climbed this season.
Contact Chris Weidner at firstname.lastname@example.org.