When a Climber Dies on K2 is Anyone to Blame?
This article originally appeared on Climbing
Ali Akbar Sakhi was an enthusiastic mountaineer with big dreams. By the time the Afghani was 36-years-old, he had climbed a number of high-altitude peaks, including 7,492-meter Nawshakh, the tallest in his home country. An ambitious climber, he had his sights set on still bigger mountains. So in 2022, he hired the Pakistan-based Karakorum Expeditions (KE) to help him climb 28,251-foot K2, the world's second tallest mountain, and one of its deadliest.
In late June, he trekked to base camp with a handful of other climbers, guides, and porters. There, he joined the rest of the KE team, a group of about 15 that included chairman and team leader Mirza Ali and Dhaulat Muhammad, who would accompany Sakhi and act as his high altitude porter (HAP). Base camp was busy. Over 100 climbers from about 20 different expeditions had set up tents on the Baltoro Glacier, at the foot of K2. Many, including Sakhi, planned to climb the Abruzzi Spur, the most common route up the mountain.
K2 was Sakhi's first 8,000 meter peak and he wanted to climb it without supplemental oxygen. But early on it became clear to those around him that he might not be at the extremely high level of fitness required for such a task. On the first acclimatization round--a 1,000-meter push from base camp to Camp 1 at 6,000 meters--Michael Pfeiffer, a longtime KE client from Denmark, remembers Sakhi lagging hours behind the others.
"After the first rotation, I said, 'Are you sure you're up for this, mate?'" Pfeiffer says. Sakhi waved off the concern and pushed onward but the pattern continued. "He was by far the slowest climber on the team," says Pfeiffer. Sakhi was always telling the others to go on ahead, and that he'd catch up at his own pace. A Pakistani fellow climber, Naila Kiani, found the determination inspiring; Pfeiffer found it troubling.
By July 20, Sakhi and Muhammad were climbing at 7,000 meters, hoping to make it to Camp 3 by nightfall.
Sakhi was in bad shape. For the previous few days, witnesses say, he had been suffering from a persistent cough--perhaps the early stages of acute mountain sickness. Now, with just 150 vertical meters to go to reach Camp 3, he'd begun to experience chest pain. According to Muhammad, Sakhi said he was having a heart issue and sat down in the snow.
Sakhi and Muhammad were alone and didn't have any supplemental oxygen. The rest of the KE team had gone ahead to Camp 3, hoping to beat an incoming windstorm. Around 8:30 P.M., Sakhi allegedly told his porter he was unable to go on. Shortly after that, Muhammad continued climbing, leaving Sakhi behind.
According to an official report by KE, Muhammad had intended to go for help. "[When] the extreme blizzard started raging on the mountain, Ali was very slow and couldn't move," the report reads. "Ali's guide headed to Camp 3 to get extra support."
"By 9:00 P.M., [Sakhi's] high altitude porter turned up in Camp 3," says Pfeiffer, who had gotten to the camp about three hours earlier, joining KE climber Samina Baig, who was supported by several guides and accompanied by a full expedition team and was hoping to become the first Pakistani woman to summit K2. (Baig is also Mirza Ali's sister.) Pfeifer estimates there were at least 150 people in Camp 3 that night. By the time Muhammad arrived at Camp 3, the storm was in full force and Baig recalls "extremely" high winds.
"Nobody was coming out from their tents," she says. Around this time, Pfeiffer asked Muhammad about Sakhi's whereabouts. Contrary to what the KE report states, Pfieffer doesn't remember Muhammad bursting into camp or drumming up support to go save Sakhi. Instead, he remembers Muhammad saying that Sakhi was probably a few hours behind, as usual, and that he'd told his porter to go on without him.
So the rest of the climbers settled into their tents, stripped off their boots, and got ready for bed. One hundred and fifty meters below, Sakhi lay in the snow, alone.
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