A record-breaking Norwegian climber on Sunday fought back claims she could have done more to save the life of a Pakistani porter who slipped off a narrow path near the summit of the world's most treacherous mountain and died there after several hours.
The circumstances of Mohammad Hassan's death on July 27 on K2, the second highest peak in the world, sparked ongoing controversy. Two climbers argued that he could have been saved if everyone who was on the mountain that day had aborted their ascent and focused on descending it safely.
The aftermath of Hassan's death eclipsed a record set by Norwegian climber Kristin Harila and her Sherpa guide Tenjin. By climbing K2 that day, they became the world's fastest mountaineers, climbing the world's 14 highest mountains in 92 days.
Harila told the Associated Press Sunday that “with the snow conditions we had up there that day, it wouldn't be possible to carry him down.”
“I'm sure if it was possible we saw a chance to take him down from there everyone would have tried,” she said via Zoom from Norway. “But it was impossible.”
The riot was sparked by drone footage showing dozens of climbers pushing past a seriously injured Hassan toward the summit. The route to the summit was crowded on July 27, which was described as the last day of the season for a possible climb.
In Pakistan, local authorities in the Gilgit-Baltistan region, which is responsible for K2, formed a five-member committee on August 7 to investigate Hassan's death. The committee's mandate noted that it was vital to establish the facts after “troubling reports circulated across various social media platforms”.
Among other things, investigators will try to determine whether more could have been done to save Hassan, said Sajid Hussain, deputy director of Gilgit-Baltistan's sports and tourism department. He told the AP Sunday that investigators are scheduled to report their findings on Aug. 22.
Hassan, a 27-year-old father of three, was hired by the Pakistani expedition company Lela Peak and assigned to a team of Russian mountaineers, company director Anwar Syed said.
When asked if she felt the controversy affected her record, Harila replied “of course,” but didn't elaborate. During the interview, she appeared distraught at times and said she had received death threats.
“We spent hours trying to save him and we were in probably the most dangerous area” of K2, she said, adding that she and her teammates “were taking a very, very big risk”.
Harila said Hassan slipped and fell off the narrow path around 2:15 am on July 27, dangling upside down from a rope. At this point, Hassan was second in the mountaineering series. Harila said she was 8th and her teammates were 7th and 9th respectively.
As they attempted to pull Hassan onto the trail, an avalanche crashed near where their forward fixation team was located. After tending to Hassan for 90 minutes, Harila and a teammate headed towards the summit to check on the repair team while her cameraman Gabriel stayed behind with Hassan, she said.
Gabriel shared his oxygen with Hassan, gave him warm water and tried to keep him warm. She said Gabriel stayed with the porter for two and a half hours, but he ran out of oxygen. Gabriel then went to the summit to meet with Harila's Sherpas, who had supplemental oxygen tanks. At the time, others were also taking care of Hassan, she said.
When Gabriel arrived at the summit, Harila asked him how Hassan was doing. She said Gabriel told her he was “in very bad shape”.
On the way back, she saw Hassan's body lying on the path.
Harila dismissed claims by Austrian mountaineer Wilhelm Steindl that more would have been done if a westerner had been injured on the mountain. Steindl and German climber Philip Flaemig, who took the drone footage, had called off their climb of K2 earlier in the day due to bad weather.
“We really tried to save him and we would have done the same if I or anyone else was hanging there upside down,” she said. “We couldn't have done more.”
Harila said Hassan doesn't appear to have the right gear or training as a high-altitude porter and that it appears to be his first ascent.
“It was a very tragic accident that happened on K2 that day,” Harila said. “And we feel so sorry for Hassan himself and his family, his wife, his children and his mother.”
Hussain, the regional official, said investigators were looking at the carrier's equipment and training. They will also review weather conditions on July 27, including avalanches, and study the actions of the expedition company that employed Hassan.
Investigators interview porters and Sherpa guides, he said, though it's unclear if foreign climbers are also being interviewed. The team has collected relevant documents from government agencies and private companies involved in the K2 ascent. Hussain said investigators also visited K2 base camp and other relevant locations.
Steindl told the AP on Saturday that he thinks more could be done to save Hassan. “Everyone should have turned back to bring the injured person back down to the valley.”
“I don't want to blame anyone directly,” said Steindl. “All I'm saying is that no rescue operation has taken place and that's really, really tragic because that's actually the most normal thing you would do in a situation like this.”
In Hassan's home village of Tisar, friends and neighbors visited the family and offered their condolences.
A childhood friend, Basharat Hussain, said Hassan was determined to give his children opportunities he never had, including an education.
“I think that's the most dehumanizing event in my life,” he said, adding he hopes “it won't happen again in the future.”
Steindl visited Hassan's family and started a crowdfunding campaign. After four days, donations reached more than 125,000 euros (just over 137,000 US dollars).
Associated Press journalist Zarar Khan contributed to this story from Islamabad, Pakistan.