Brendan Cusick on Christian Kuntners last hours: "Six grown men sat around him crying"

Posted: Jan 11, 2006 01:37 pm EST

( <b>Annapurna, May 18, 2005:</b> Two Italian teams are on the mountain; one of them led by Silvio Mondinelli, the other consisting of Abele Blanc and Christian Kuntner. A third international team led by Australian Andrew Lock, is also there. All are on their definitive summit bid.<cutoff>

Somewhere between camp 2 and camp 3, a big serac breaks off. The falling ice plummets past the climbers located higher up, and heads straight for Christians group, just a few meters below. Abele Blanc is one of the injured but it is Christian who gets the worst of it.

The men on the mountain do their best to help him, but their efforts are futile against the climber's massive injuries. Christian dies a few hours later.

Among the survivors was a "Doctor from Colorado", a member in Locks team. A few days before New Year, after we paid tribute to Christian with ExplorersWeb 2005 awards, the Doc contacted us. His message read:

My name is Brendan Cusick, I am the 'Doctor from Colorado' who attempted to save Christian Kuntner when the avalanche roared over Mace, Gnaro, and others. It hit him with full force. I have included my diary entry that followed so that many more can understand the events of the demise of a great climber, just one week after the tremendous success achieved by Ed Viesturs and Veikka Gustaffson.

Here is the excerpt from Brendans diary written during the Annapurna expedition:

<b>Base camp May 15, 2005</b>

May good fortune prevail, and the gods be in our favor. The weather is strong, steady, and above all else pleasant. Tomorrow morning we go for the summit push.

<b>May 18, 2005</b>

Woke up at Camp 2 (19,000') this morning feeling decent and ready to head higher after a two day weather forced rest. Conditions have improved and we packed to move to Camp 3 (23,000') for a summit go. We are 10 men strong: 1 Aussie, 2 Americans, and 7 Italians.

We headed out this morning under glorious stars and low winds with summit ambitions and good feelings. At 7 am, six of us reached the base of the fixed lines up through the ice fall at around 20,800'. Most of the second Italian Team were moving a bit slower, but strong. At about 7:30 Silvio, Christian Gobbi, young Marco, and I were at about 21,300 with Charley and Andrew just below. Christian moved around a steep rib of ice onto a snow ramp when a large avalanche came ripping down.

I am not sure whether I heard anything or not, but I felt the heavy snow hit and knew to lock my axe into the ice and snug up on the fixed line. I looked down yelling "avalanche!", and at that time I saw Stephan, who having returned to camp 2 because he forgot his jumar, was running to the east but not fast enough. The next time I saw him after the avalanche had passed he was further to the west and linearly about 1000 feet down the slope. I, and the others, thought he was the only one hit, but soon one, two, then three others began to show up out of the debris.

<b>We all raced down at the cries of pain</b>

Silvio yelled down to find out if anyone needed help. Then we could hear severe moaning and cries of pain. Without further thought we all raced down the hill. All the work, sweat, and ambition to climb the mountain was sucked away by the need to focus on helping my fellow climbers downed by the avalanche I was walking away from. So I hustled knowing the importance of my presence.

Marcos, Abele, and Stephan had already hightailed it to camp 2. While Silvio, Charley, Andrew, Christian Gobby and I gathered around the more seriously injured Christian K. I immediately identified that I had medical training (though on websites it came to be known that I was a doctor). Christian had a broken a clavicle, and had a large laceration to his skull with possible fracture. We bandaged the most severe looking injuries and began to move. We were in a predicament sitting in the run out zone as the mountain was warming up and knew we had to get moving down ASAP, unless we too wanted to be hit by another avalanche.

<b>Christian was conscious the whole time</b>

The next 1.5 hours cruised by as we shuffled, dragged and carried Christian down to camp 2. All the time Christian was coherent and crying in pain he was only able to go 20-30 yards before needing to stop and breathe. At camp 2 the gravity of his injuries became apparent. I also checked the severity of the other 3 injured in the avalanche. A laceration through the lip to the teeth (older Marco), a possible broken humerus (Stephan), and Abele blind in shock, mumbling incoherently obviously induced from a hit on the head he took.

Christian was still in the most severe position, unable to get comfortable, with HAPE starting to develop and obviously other internal injuries. I knew his chance for success was small. Silvio frantically made calls to arrange a helicopter evacuation. This was with good intentions, but sadly at 9:45 am Christian went unconscious. Then his heart stopped - after one two minute session of CPR he was trying to breathe again, but only had 12 beats of his heart per minute before he went down again and, at 10:12 am Christian passed away.

<b>A soul departing on the wings of a butterfly</b>

Six grown men sat around him crying - his eyes were open, but his soul was gone. Right then Charley pointed out a butterfly going by us over the body and he said "there goes Christian. It was beautiful.

We closed him up in a sleeping bag and I turned my attention to those still with us. Abele was still uncooperative so it took three of us to carry him 100 feet down the hill to a suitable hover/landing spot for the chopper. Silvio called and told the chopper to take its time as the most dire patient was no longer with us. At the landing site we placed all three injured climbers in a tent.

<b>Helicopter rescue through the clouds at 21,000 feet</b>

However, by 12 pm the clouds had begun to roll in and now any evacuation seemed unlikely. So Christian G., Charley, Andrew, and I descended with Stephan with the broken arm, and Marko with the torn lip, knowing that getting the walking wounded off the hill was crucial. We arrived safely down at 17,000 feet onto a plateau on the glacier near camp one when miraculously the chopper broke through the clouds at around 21,000 feet. In two turns pulled into camp 2 and plucked Abele, uninjured Marco, any possible gear and Christian Kuntner off the hill.

Then it dropped to our location and pulled Marco and Stephan from the glacier. Suddenly all was silent and they were gone. Silvio came down and joined us from camp 2 and we high tailed off to firm land.

<b>Basecamp, Friday May 20 2005</b>

Two days have passed since the avalanche. We are waiting for our flight off this Godforsaken hill. The images, emotions, and life in general feel raw, almost like a new born. I lay down to sleep only to see the living then death of a fellow climber, with the same ambitions and love of the hills. All night I awake to new images of that day. I am not sure what I feel yet; numb sensitive, confused.

This fellow was a bit gruff to first meet, but life is life and I respect the importance of his. We have similar beliefs a world apart. For almost three hours I worked to save this man from death, only to be beaten by internal damages out of my control. As Charley has pointed out, I did save 9 lives that day and should be thankful, which I am.

<b>Grateful to leave the mountain</b>

I for one, am grateful to be leaving this mountain and be heading home to the love that awaits me. While I am not a changed man, I feel very sensitive to everything at this juncture.

Thanks for reading and best to all

PS: After two days in the hospital, Abele started to come around. He does not remember the accident and when I saw him last Saturday he had a lost look, but at least an alive one. Stephan had only pulled muscles and was going to have more extensive review by doctors in Italy. Marco was feeling good although he did look beat up. All three flew back to Italy last Saturday. Christian's body was waiting out bureaucratic battles to be flown home.

<i> Like Messner, Kuntner, 43, was born in South Tyrol, Italy. Unlike Messner, Kuntner rejected the notion of being a climbing celebrity. I climb for myself, not for anyone else. I dont have anything to prove, he said.

Christian's climbing life included mates such as Wanda Rutkiewicz and Krzysztof Wielicki until he met Italian Abele Blanc in 1999. The rope mates became inseparable. Kuntner climbed North Faces and 8000ers with the same zest, in 2002, he and Abele climbed 64 of the Alps 84, 4000ers. Bad weather conditions prevented them from climbing them all, but Christian expected to finish the call this past summer. First however, both headed for their final 8000er - Annapurna - their third attempt on the peak, and fifth expedition together. It would be the last for Christian, who died when a serac fell, whilst Abele and two others were left injured.

Abele Blanc has recovered from the commotion he suffered, and now he is considering returning to Annapurna later this year and attempting a new route. Mate Silvio Gnaro Mondinelli might join him if the expedition goes ahead.

Brendan Cusick is not a Medical Doctor, but he is indeed an experienced Himalayan climber, professional mountain guide and climbing instructor at the American Alpine Institute. He has guided and accomplished rock and ice climbs throughout the American continent. In 2001, he attempted Makalu.The events described in this story occured when Brendan was attempting Annapurna along with fellow American Charley Mace, and Australian Andrew Lock.</i>

#Mountaineering #feature

Image of Annapurna's summit in the moonlight.
Image by Mario Merelli courtesy Mario Merelli
"The images, emotions, and life in general feel raw, almost like a new born," wrote Brendan (left) waiting to be airlifted off what he would later refer to as &#039;this Godforsaken hill&#039;. "For almost three hours I worked to save Christian Kuntner (right) from death, only to be beaten by internal damages out of my control." Image of Brendan courtesy of American Alpine Institute; image of Christian courtesy of his website; Background image of climbers on Annapur..

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