We have covered hundreds of expeditions in 2005. It's difficult to choose the best, as they all contributed in their own way, sharing their story - their very soul in fact - with us and the world.
And yet, there are those who continue to linger in our minds long after their final debrief. We have chosen 8 expeditions who have contributed in an extraordinary way to the Spirit of Adventure in the year of 2005.
Today number 4: Christian Walter and Jens Sommerfeldt, German Alpinclub Sachsen
October 8, 2005 a 7.6 earthquake with epicenter in Azar Kashmir, an area of the war-torn Kashmir under Pakistan control 100 km north from Islamabad struck at 8:50 am local time. Villages crumbled to rubble, landslides blocked roads, and communications were cut. Islamabad shook for about a minute and aftershocks came for hours afterward. The quake leveled urban concrete and rebar buildings. Subsequent mudslides and rock falls, unleashed by the earthquake, came tumbling down from the mountains and buried the earthen houses.
Besham and villages on the Karakorum Highway below Besham were totaled. The worst-affected area was Kashmir, the worst affected city was Muzzaffarbad, the capital of Kashmir. 70 percent of the entire housing was destroyed, and no survivors were reported in several villages in the Bagh district. "It's like ground zero," said authorities about Balakot, around 80-100 miles north of Islamabad. Mass burials could be seen taking place in the city. A huge number of children were lost: Most at school when the earthquake struck. At one girls' school more than 250 girls were either dead or trapped inside. We have lost an entire generation, army sources told news agencies. A national tragedy, said Major General Shaukat Sultan Spokesman of Pakistan Army, this is the worst earthquake in recent times.
But the quake was only the beginning of the nation's suffering. Already last winter, heavy snowfalls hit the area. Greg Mortenson reported to ExWeb the actual fatalities probably were above 2,000 in the worst snow falls in 40 years. That year - people had places to stay. This year, the winter has descended on people residing in tents - if they are lucky.
Why climbers cared
"They carry our loads high up the Karakorum glaciers wearing ragged clothes and flip flops. They bring home the tip and fix another hole in the roof of their clay house. Yet when one of us gets stuck on a mountain wall, they send an army to save us. That's why we should care about the earthquake in Pakistan," wrote ExplorersWeb when the news came that a Pakistan Army helicopter had crashed in the aid effort - killing 6 army guys. BBC published a tribute to the helicopter pilots of Pakistan's armed forces - "perhaps the only group of people in the sordid drama that have delivered more than was ever expected of them."
We remembered the Army pilots rescuing Tomaz Humar from the Rupal wall, risking their lives and charging the climber only a small fee for the effort.
First to react on the situation was climber Greg Mortenson. Since a 1993 climb on K2, Greg who runs the Central Asia Institute has dedicated his time in efforts to set up over schools in remote mountain villages of Pakistan and Afghanistan and probably spent more time in the region than most foreigners (60 months over 29 trips). A no nonsense, hands on man, little has been known about Greg's work, compared to more famous establishments such as the Hillary fund in Nepal.
Greg quickly compiled a first hand report on the situation, recounting a few hard facts:
"Pakistan and USA have a decades long relationship, it was Pakistan that first helped broker détente between USA and China during the Nixon years, helped USA funnel personnel and arms into Afghanistan in the 1980's to overthrow the Russians, and Pakistan who has been America's closest ally in the 'war on terror'," he wrote at ExWeb.
"Pakistan has killed or captured more al Qaeda and Taliban-types than any other country except USA. Last year, with only a week's request, Pakistan deployed 70,000 troops into the very rugged mountains where Osama is currently believed to be hiding. And President Musharraf has had two assassination attempts by al Qaeda," Greg reminded in an urgent plea for help to the nation, concluding:
"From what I've heard, the fatalities and consequences of this disaster add up to about 10 Katrinas."
Greg was wrong. Katrina's death toll landed at around 1,300. At a 87,000 fatality count and more than 3 million people homeless, Pakistan's earthquake added up to almost 100 Katrinas.
Most of the western media stays at five star hotels in Islamabad, and go out for an hour or two for a dispatch and back to the hotel, it's important to get first hand field reports, and not rely on media wires," Greg wrote.
"The damage, destruction and deaths are catastrophic, and I'm afraid with all the issues in Iraq and Katrina, this will soon be forgotten," he warned. This time, Greg was correct.
A December 28, 2005 search of Google news gave the following results:
153,000 hits for Iraq
73,700 hits for Katrina
9,180 hits for Pakistan earthquake.
Even the Tsunami had more hits - 18,500 - one year after the disaster.
Jens and Christian's story
But there were people who didn't forget Pakistan: They were the world climbers. Within days of the disaster, the Alpinclub Sachsen (the Saxony Alpine Club) from Germany launched a hands on aid campaign.
A team was sent with supplies to northern Pakistan: Christian Walter and Jens Sommerfeldt took a plane to Islamabad, to check the situation and provide first aid to the most isolated areas. There, they loaded their supplies in a mini-bus and set off northwards. The last miles to Besham were nothing more than a dirt path. The first sight was frightening. The hospital was empty. International help had not arrived. That same day, they continued to the Hindu-Kush Mountains. Where the road ended, they put on heavy backpacks and trekked up mountain paths to the upper villages.
They found families living under plastic sheets in constant rain and cold. Christian and Jens distributed tents and plastic covers they brought from Germany and gave first aid. People were coughing, the kids wouldn't speak. The two men began to shuttle electrical generators, rescue blankets, canvas and plastic from Besham. Relief agencies lacked people strong enough for the walks. A few days later, Christian and Jens trekked to Sakargah and set up a BC. "The greatest need is for tents and heavy-duty plastic sheets. If someone reads these lines and could provide us with those items, it would be greatly appreciated, they dispatched, and started attending to injured people even before setting camp.
UN emergency relief chief, Jan Egeland shared their concern, "We have never had this kind of logistical nightmare ever. We thought the tsunami was the worst we could get. This is worse," he said, pointing to lack of tents for shelter as the most urgent problem with the upcoming cold season. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan chimed in: "That means a second, massive wave of deaths will happen if we do not step up our efforts now."
"First came the hail, followed by heavy rain"
Over in their BC, Jens and Christian were working alone in a valley of about 10,000 people - all left homeless after the quake, "for about 6000 of them we are the first chance of medical aid - the other 4000 are unable to reach our camp.
The two climbers got used to aftershocks waking them in the middle of the night, causing new landslides and sending big chunks of rock flying in the air. They began to economize bandages, treating the injured around the clock and organize air evacuation for the most serious - calling the army over satellite phone at their own expense. In four days they treated about 200 wounded, 80 of them very serious, most women and children - their wounds left unattended for two weeks, and seriously deteriorated. Our work here seems never-ending," they wrote.
Meanwhile, the Pakistan industry was trying to produce 7000 tents a day in order to make refuges in a race with forecasts announcing a decrease in temperatures and rains. In Jens and Christians valley, there were 200 tents to be shared between the ten thousand of people. 53 helicopters were working around the clock in the aid tasks, compared to the 1000 helicopters deployed after the tsunami.
Over by the climbers' mini M.A.S.H., a new quake (6.0 Richter scale) had a terrible effect on peoples moral. Just hours later, along with nightfall came the rain.
"First came the hail, followed by heavy rain. Thunder and lightning shook the ground and the earth trembled all at once. Despite conditions, we kept attending to the injured, they dispatched. Our last night in Sakargah was the worst. Thunderstorms and lightning struck prevented us from sleeping. The tremors continued, whilst our camp was turning into a pond, with water carving its way through the kitchen and hospital tents.
World climbers gaining momentum
But now, the world began to wake up. A group of Ukrainians established a hospital in Besham. Oxfam/Catholic relief was distributing tents. Italian Mauricio Gallo supported by the well-known pyramid near Everest BC traveled to Balakot: Most of the inhabitants of this area have died and remain under the rubble. I just cant believe what I am seeing, Bakalot has been absolutely flattened. The villages school is now a communal grave. NATO asked its member-countries to send troops to the area in order to contribute to the on-going relief efforts. Even rival India offered Pakistan $25 million in aid.
While governments around the world discussed Pakistans situation and possible aid measures, the climbing community gained momentum by each day. Emails were filling ExplorersWebs inbox with reports from all continents on groups already providing assistance in the area, and asking all climbers to contribute.
The American Alpine Club had a coat drive, The North Face ran a tent drive to collect used tents at the NF stores and planned to ship out a few shipping containers. A few weeks later, Willie Benegas, five-time Everest summiteer was chosen to lead The North Face Athlete Team to the Kashmir region to provide aid to 12 villages at Uri and Karnah Valleys - an area of 250,000 people reached by traversing over 11,000 foot Himalayan Mountain passes. The North Face collected about 5 tons of gear - and matched monetary donations 100% thanks to an anonymous donor, until January 6, 2006 or until the $10,000 fund runs out.
Australian Karakorum expedition outfitter Field Touring Alpine donated all expedition tents they had stored in Skardu, launched a vast campaign to collect tents and sleeping bags, and battled problems with transportation. 4000 (!) tents and a near new 8000m down suit were raised by FTA and Western Australia's outdoors people. The Fire Service in Victoria alone, made available over 600 units of tents and sleeping bags and warm winter jackets. In UK, the Mountain Company teamed up with Cotswold Outdoor to co-ordinate the collection in the UK of second hand tents, sleeping bags and other warm clothes to be sent to the affected regions in Pakistan.
ADEPT - Meetings in local climbing wall bars
It was just about time. "In some villages above 10,000 ft., snow is already on the ground. reported Greg Mortenson. There is an urgent need for tents and blankets for about 3 million people," wrote Nazir Sabir. "Some of the far-flung areas and villages are in dire need of shelter and food but because of lack of helicopters or communications, we are unable to deliver the relief supplies these people so desperately need.
"In some remote mountain villages where little or no aid has yet to arrive, villagers have been forced to live a stone-age type existence in caves, eating their remaining livestock, and digging out grubs and roots in the dirt with their bare hands, wrote Greg.
Now came a call also from Indian Kashmir: Dear Explorers, now is the time for you to do what you do best, an ADEPT Director wrote. In two weeks time snowfall begins in Kashmir and the death toll will skyrocket. Villages are accessible only through mountain tracks. We need climbers who can reach where our medical teams cannot. Can you help us save the survivors?
The plan was to send out a 4-5 climbing teams of 5 with medicine and basic food supplies to one village each day, on a weekly rotating basis starting early December, and continue working for about 3 months. The volunteers should be ready to leave everything behind for about three months and spend Christmas and winter Kashmir, in an area where terrorists operate and where, last year, hundreds of people died in several avalanches following record snowfalls. And they had to pay their own airfare.
The response from the climbing community was instantaneous: In less than two weeks, a dozen climbers joined the team. Within a month, over 50 volunteers from Iran, Europe, USA, and Canada applied. Assistance was also offered from mountaineering clubs in Iran and Catalonia. This international group of mountain-men was larger than any Everest expedition ever assembled.
Douglas Briton, coordinator for Eurasia, spread the word everywhere including local climbing wall bars (!) while Don Bowie (Broad Peak attempt this summer) is coordinating the US response. Several climbers such as Steve Swenson in Seattle, US and Valenti Giro (the Magic Line team) in Catalonia, Spain organized slideshows to raise attention and donations from their local climbing communities.
Winter arrives - but only 20% of promised aid
The world was slower than the climbers. Early November, the official death toll increased to 73,276. With 978 aftershocks, and winter just a few weeks away, only 20% of promised aid had reached Pakistan.
Vice Admiral John Stufflebeem, NATO commander of the 500 (so far) deployed NATO disaster relief team, said, "That's what the real enemy is here - time." United Nations were concerned about the slow response towards Pakistan among foreign countries - compared to previous catastrophes.
December 1st, the season's first heavy snowfall covered the quake affected region of Kashmir. In Pakistan, winter claimed its first victims: A young boy and an old man. "In the next few days we will be buried under snow, an 82 year old man told a Reuters journalist as he pleaded to him: Nobody is coming to help us. Even God is angry with us. Please help us. Families feared their children wouldnt survive the winter.
"Allah is angry with us. Allah, alone, can save us now," Mohammad Showkat Khan, the chief priest of Drangyari village (Indian Kashmir), told Reuters. Roads were closed and helicopters were grounded. Respiratory infections turned into pneumonia, hypothermia sneaked up on the kids and the elderly.
Greg Mortenson wrote: "In Urdu, the lingua franca of Pakistan, the word for earthquake is zalzala, but according to Sarfraz Khan, one of our workers in the field, he says locals refer to this disaster as Qayamat: the Apocalypse. In the face of this catastrophy, the dismal response from wealthy countries is a travesty of humanity."
We operate, but then we have to send patients back out into the cold"
The German Alpinclub Sachsen continued their hands on medical assistance campaign in Pakistan. Christian and Jens were relieved by a second team consisting of Dr. Rutker Stellke and sanitary assistant Thomas Mecklenburg, attending to an overwhelming number of injured in Gibouri and performing surgeries, including amputations, under very basic conditions.
Daybreak begins with the Muecin chanting in the middle of the night, before 5:00 am. Heading to the restroom, our breath freezes. Above, a fairy tale starry sky straight out of the Arabian nights, contrasted below by a toilet straight out of Alcatraz I glance for shooting stars, and then return to my sleeping bag. Two hours later, I wake up again everything is trembling, the air filling with dust. It lasts only some seconds, dispatched Thomas.
Gas, kerosene and efficient wood stoves were now high on everyone's Christmas wish list. Last night came the winter, reported Thomas. Thunderstorms raged all night. And it poured non-stop. The village - together with our camp - sank even deeper into the mud. The mountains around us are covered in white. Many of our patients from the surrounding villages can no longer reach us."
The Doctors working at local hospitals with Caritas NGO reported to Montagna.org, We operate, but then we have to send patients back out into the cold. There is no heating in the tents and thus no conditions for a proper post-operatory treatment. The medical- and surgery conditions are the worst Ive ever seen.
Money was the big problem. UN needed $550 million to keep UN aid helicopters in the air, but had only received $135 million. The helicopters, which cost up to USD 6,000 per hour stood grounded. With no transportation, donated gear was buried under the snow.
The Germans continued their hands-on work at the light of headlamps, earth trembling below them. "Yet through it all, I feel something great in this. Looking into the eyes of these people, I know I am at the right place, doing the right thing. We are really needed here."
The wall comes down
In the midst of the devastation - an amazing event began to unfold. November 7, the Pakistan - India disputed border that had been closed since their 1965 war re-opened for relief and medical assistance, uniting thousands of divided families. India and Pakistan had no other choice but to collaborate. Telephone lines were restored in Kashmir for the first time in 15 years (!) so that families on different sides of the Line could talk to their loved ones and check if they were OK after the quake.
"If this earthquake brings peace for our countries, then the earthquake martyrs lives will not have been lost in vain," said a CAI worker, who had been separated from his family since the 1947 partition. For him, the border opening was like the Berlin Wall coming down, it was the biggest event in his 78 years of life.
The earthquake had also brought the international communitys attention towards an otherwise forgotten (and closed) area. Now the Pakistan government was ready to grab the chance and take steps unthinkable a few years ago, such as granting access to foreigners to conflicted areas, and opening some points of the Line of Control to promote tourism beyond conflicts and lines of border. Mid December, the Alpine Club of Pakistan organized a National Workshop in order to set up a strategy. The workshop organizers proposed to use part of the international donations granted by UN and individual foreign countries towards rehabilitation for growth of the tourism sector in the effected areas.
Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz shared the idea. During his visit to the quake affected areas, the Prime Minister said Azad Kashmir will be opened for tourism to exploit the areas full potential and help generate opportunities for the people. We will provide all facilities to attract tourism here. the PM said.
The North Face - outfitting 1000 families
Over in Srinagar, the North Face team reported that getting to the people was proving the final crux. But after a long meeting with local government officials, the North Face Team got the permits to proceed with their relief mission. Eight trucks were loaded with metal sheets and headed for Thangdar near the epicenter of the earthquake where about eighty percent of the houses were damaged. Base camp was set in a wrecked building, for missions into the most inaccessible villages.
The last Western civilians to visit the area did so some fifty years ago. "Exploring the unique mountain villages, and jeep trails, we truly have the feeling of being trailblazers, dispatched TNF team.
Next, the team traveled from Thangdar to Jibri, which lies on the very edge of the Line of Control (a strip of no man's land which separates Indian from Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, and scene of constant combat), delivering a large truckload of giant pink foam padding and woodstoves.
Now followed a blur of jeep rides, broken buildings, diesel fumes, endless sad stories, stomach aches, laughter, poverty, proud and hopeful people. Within a month, the team visited and distributed aid to almost 1000 families. In one day alone, Willie and Dr. Zameer visited over 150 houses writing vouchers to families for foam and stoves. Willie adopted a tiny puppy skittering up an icy road in the middle of nowhere, and named it Thangdar Kashmir.
The climbing veterans described the experience as the most challenging expedition theyve ever taken part of. When it was time to go home, the team wrote, "It is hard to believe, but our trip is finally over, and it is time to go back to our easy and comfortable western lives. For people in the Kashmir region of India and Pakistan, the struggle goes on: Much more assistance is needed. While the team endured much hardship along the way, we are closer friends because of it and have shared some amazing experiences that words can only begin to describe."
Claude Nadon - 8,000 shelter kits
In Pakistan just on the other side of the border, a two-man team of Canadian Claude Nadon (Cho Oyu and Cerro Torre summit, BP, K2 Everest attempts) and Jean-Philippe Bourgeois, (who worked for the Banff Film Festival for a very long time), was working 7 days a week and 15 hours a day to coordinate deliveries of over 8,000 shelter kits to isolated mountain communities in Northern Pakistan, right on the infamous Line of Control in quake-struck Muzzaffarabad.
Claude had come to Pakistan from Afghanistan: "We all lived and worked in the mountains, sleeping wherever it was possible: In our trucks, in mosques, etc. We used snowmobiles to reach the unreachable, heavy machinery to clear the roads, and hired over 5000 people for cash for work programs," he told ExWeb in an interview, and "I was quite happy to see that you are still putting a lot of emphasis on this forgotten disaster, and that climbers are responding as much as they can..."
Germans: Berlin after the 2nd World War
As for the Germans, it was time for the docs of the second team to go home. The surgeon and his assistant despaired, overcome with depression upon their arrival back in Islamabad. At one point, the doc had treated over 150 patients in a few days, but it was never enough. "I cant find the strength to describe what we've seen, nor could we bring ourselves to take pictures or film. The only comparison that comes to mind is the images of Hiroshima, Berlin or Dresden after the 2nd World War, he wrote.
"What will happen when we leave this place?"
Alpin Club Sachsen members quickly resolved to send a third aid team - led once again by Jens Sommerfeld, the very same climber who had trekked to the remote villages backpack on his shoulders, before the world had barely woke up to the disaster. Returning just in time for the 6,7 aftershock - Jens Sommerfeld was right at home this time.
Greeted by the entire village, children were especially happy to see him. As he walked up them, they called out to him: Bergwacht! - The German word for mountain ranger.
The German Alpinclub Sachsen stay in our memory as a symbol for all the world climbers' courage, idealism, self reliance, ingenuity, compassion - and heart.
By their performance, the awarded expeditions have proved themselves outstanding in all or most of the following:
- Self reliance
- Respect towards competition
Previous in the countdown:
5. Ed Viesturs and Christian Kuntner - for courage, idealism, determination, comradeship and the spirit of a climbing life.
6. Didier Delsalle and his Mystery Chopper - for pioneering, courage, ingenuity, and magic.
7. Broad Peak SW face - for pioneering, courage, self reliance and persistence.
8. Expedition Siberia - for heart and Shackleton Spirit.
An additional 4 expeditions have received a special mention award:
Marcin Miotk - for his self-sufficiency and courage to speak up.
Minoru Saito - for his humble life of great adventures.
Pavel Rezvoy - for his power of will and refusal to retire.
Fedor Konyukhov, the Renaissance explorer - for his pursuit of fairness.
More about the earthquake
Climbers planning the 2006 Karakorum will find that Skardu, Hunza, Hushe, Kande, Gyanesh, Khaplu, Shigar, Astor and Chilas villages were all unaffected. Continous climbing in Pakistan is crucial to the countrys economy.
Government estimates put the reconstruction costs at US$ 5 billion - international aid agencies having committed just one fifth of it. The Red Cross received over $ 1.2 billion for the Katrina disaster and $ 500 million for the Indian Ocean Tsunami, but less than $2 million for Pakistan's disaster relief work by November.
A UN official reported in December that 90% of the tents distributed so far are unsuitable for the Himalayan winter. After the snowfall, the temporary shelters, built of tin sheets distributed by relief agencies, have been turned into freezer boxes.
Donations through Alpinclub Sachsen team:
Mail firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to help. Find also a bank account set up for donations to the project at www.alpinclub.com
Alpinclub Sachsen e.V.
Donation account Pakistan
Account Holder: Alpinclub Sachsen e.V.
Account Number: 030 866 28 02
BLZ 850 800 00
Dresdner Bank AG IBAN DE39 850 800 00
SWIFT DRES DE FF
Gregs CAI has twelve years experience in northern Pakistan mountain villages. The organization is small, but effective on the ground, and works mostly in remote mountain regions, with focus on girls education. Disaster aid is focused on long term support of schoolchildren impacted by earthquake with temporary tents and supplies to continue education
Greg Mortenson's Central Asia Institute
PO Box 7209
Bozeman, MT 59771
Phone 406 585 7841
Fax 406 585 5302
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