Walter Nones: "We made it...for Karl"

Posted: Jul 24, 2008 06:08 pm EDT

(K2Climb.net) July 15, Italian Karl Unterkircher died on the Rakhiot face. Opening a new route on Nanga Parbat together with Walter Nones and Simon Kehrer, Unterkircher was breaking trail slightly above 6000m, when a snow ledge collapsed and he fell into a crevasse.

The golden years

The accident came as a shock to the mountaineering community. Karl Unterkircher and Walter Nones were members in the "50 Years After" expedition on Everest and K2 in 2004. Unterkircher summited both peaks; Nones reached the top of K2 - without supplementary O2.

Two years later, the two friends opted for a change in style - forgoing large expeditions on 8000ers and instead set their sights on virgin peaks in isolated China. Together with Gerold Moroder and Simon Kehrer, this was part of the Up Project, developed by Luca Maspes, promoting young Italian climbers in light, exploratory expeditions to rarely visited regions.

Next came Karl Unterkircher's and Hans Kammerlander's summit of Jasemba ( 7,350 m) in their third straight year of attempting the peak. The two men climbed 2,000 vertical meters non-stop to the summit and back, in a 20-hour push.

Last year, Karl Unterkircher, Daniele Bernasconi and Michele Compagnoni summited GII via the north spur, traversing down the south side and achieving the first complete ascent of the mountains north side.

Rakhiot face

Returning to Pakistan this year, Unterkircher, Nones and Kehrer had opened a new route up the west ridge of Chongra Peak (6.824m), in alpine style. After a tough bivouac on the ridge, the team topped out on July 3rd, completing Chongras second ascent as a preparatory climb for the difficult attempt on Nanga Parbat's Rakhiot face.

That's where, on 6000 meters in a maze of seracs, Unterkircher ran out of luck. Walter and Simon spent the entire night trying to save their buddy, all their efforts in vain.

We cant climb back its too dangerous, Nones reported over the sat phone some time after. We are OK, already at 6,400m and out of the serac area. Now we must proceed further up to 7000 meters, in order to exit the face and go down the fastest and safest route.

Expedition organizer Agostino da Polenza acted fast. Silvio Gnaro Mondinelli was urgently airlifted from Italy together with Mauricio Gallo, reaching BC the next day. Chris Warner and an Italian team were holding to help from the Diamir side.

Hopes were that Walter and Simon would be able to descend on their own. Mondinelli and Maurizio would provide morale and comms support at first; but go up for the two climbers if needed, also asking Simone Moro, in the nearby Batura area, and Marco Confortola, in K2s BC - for help.

The descent

Late evening on July 17, Walter and Simon were spotted pitching a tent at 6,950m, some 200 vertical meters below the top of the Bazin glacier, which they had to exit in order to reach the summit ridge and then a pass to the safer Diamir side. Meanwhile, military Pakistani chopper pilots were scouting the face. An Italian expedition climbing down the normal Kinshofer route on the mountains Diamir side left two tents in C4, at 7,200m.

Down in BC; Maurizio Gallo and Silvio Gnaro Mondinelli were observing the wall, studying Diamir descent lines on Google Earth and pinpointing the climbers location with the help of GPS coordinates. The plan was to attempt an airlift rescue, or at least get aerial shots of the climbers' location.

As a last resort, the Pakistani pilots would try to lift the climbers off the wall straight from the 6600 meter location. This operation would however be very risky for everyone involved so the best was if Walter and Simon managed to descend to 6000 meters where the helicopter could land.

By July 23, after almost ten days on the face, Simon and Walter were however unable to move down from their bivouac at 6700 meters. Worn by the prolonged struggle on very high altitude, they were short on climbing gear while deep fog obstructed all visibility. Simon had a headache and the mountaineers were running out of food and gas.

Thus spirits soared this morning when the climbers were spotted skiing down from the Col. The two had rappelled down two large crevasses and finally managed to reach flat ground on the glacier at about 5,700 meters where the Pakistani pilots could pick them up at last.

Tribute to Karl

"This is our tribute to Karl," Walter Nones told Montagna.org only a few hours ago.

"All our climbs together urged me to hold on hard, to use my heart and my head. I dedicate it all to Karl. Walter Nones told Montagna.org that after eleven days and ten nights on the wall, the climbers had focused on just one thing: to arrive safe and sound to BC. "We took it day by day; we stuck together, and clinged our teeth."

About Karls accident, Walter said, "we were at 6.400 meters; Karl went ahead slowly slowly, when he disappeared over the edge, falling approximately 15 meters in a crevasse. Lost of snow fell on top of him." Walter said that both he and Simon quickly climbed down after their buddy, and after some digging Simon though he'd find Karl, who however was gone by then, probably due to injuries he had suffered in the fall.

The climbers were then forced to continue up, as it would be much safer than to come back down the 2000 meters of difficult territory on the hardest part of the wall. Walter said that they had limited climbing gear due to the alpine style nature of the climb, but they had skis and provisions. The climbers made their way up to 7.200 meters and intended to climb down Bhul's route when bad weather arrived, slowing their progress.

When a helicopter dropped a bag, the two mountaineers were most happy to find a sat phone in it. "As soon as we could we called to say that we were still alive." Yesterday finally they grabbed a small window in the fog and "came down fast crazy." They were very happy to find Gnaro and Maurizio in BC, and grateful for the efforts of expedition organizer Agostino da Polenza, whom they had been in contact with around the clock. Their main objective now is to bring home Karl's remains.

Simon told Montagna that while Karl's death was a shock, Nanga Parbat is still the most beautiful peak he has ever seen and that he has great respect for Hermann Buhl who climbed it alone and without oxygen. The climbers have therefore placed the memorial plate for Karl under Buhl's cross; Walter dedicating their own survival and climb entirely to Karl Unterkircher.

Montagna's video and pictures of Walter and Simon (Italian)

Go to the website for more images from the helicopter airlift and climbers in BC.


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Walter and Simon by the memorial plate for Karl, placed under Buhl's cross. Image courtesy of Montagna.org (click to enlarge).
Scouting a new route on Nangas Rakhiot face, Karl (38) perished in a crevasse fall. Image of Unterkircher in K2's BC in 2004, courtesy of Unterkircher's website (click to enlarge).

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