The death of the Pakistani High Altitude Porter Muhammad Hassan at the end of July in the upper zone of K2 is causing discussions all over the world. Two questions in particular are of concern even to people who have little or no interest in mountaineering. How could dozens of mountaineers simply climb over Hassan on the second highest mountain on earth, although he was obviously still alive? Why did no one try to bring him down from the accident site above the so-called “Bottleneck” – an extremely steep passage at 8.200 meters, directly below huge overhanging seracs?
The Austrian Wilhelm Steindl helped initiate the discussion. He was part of the team of expedition operator Furtenbach Adventures that turned back below the Bottleneck because of too much avalanche danger. Steindl and German cameraman Philip Flämig later viewed video footage Flämig had shot with a drone. They saw on it that Hassan was apparently still alive hours after his accident, while numerous climbers walked past or climbed over him.
Steindl and Flämig visited Hassan’s family after the end of the expedition and delivered money they had collected to the surviving dependents. Steindl has since launched a crowdfunding campaign on the Internet (click here) to help the family of the deceased porter financially in the future as well.
Steindl runs a hotel in Kirchberg in the Austrian state of Tyrol. He raced cars until he was 18. “Then my racing career failed because there were no sponsors,” Willi tells me. I talked to the Austrian climber, who turns 31 this Saturday, about the summit day on K2.
Willi, how did you personally experience the situation in the summit zone of K2 on 27 July?
In my opinion, the situation was simply too dangerous. It had snowed unexpectedly in the days before. And the weather was worse than predicted. The problem was also that there were too many people out because it was channeled to this one summit day. When we got below the Bottleneck, we saw that it was jamming up in the traverse. Then, when an avalanche went off right in front of us and narrowly missed many climbers, it was way too dangerous to climb up there from our point of view.
There was not much missing to a big catastrophe.
At the first moment I feared that about 30 people would have died. The avalanche, which went down during the night, kicked up so much dust that for a minute we could no longer see the climbers’ headlamps. I thought the avalanche had carried the people away. When the snow dust had settled, I saw that an estimated 30 people were descending. The others continued unperturbed.
Your group from Furtenbach Adventures descended. How did you learn of the death of Pakistani High Altitude Porter Muhammad Hassan?
On the descent, at Camp 2 (at 6,700 meters), a Sherpa who had a radio told us that someone had died in the traverse above the Bottleneck. It explained a lot for us, because at first we didn’t understand the traffic jam in the traverse. After the avalanche, no one had gone even a meter there for an hour and a half. After returning to base camp, we viewed Philip Flämig’s drone footage and actually discovered by accident that there was a person lying there who was still alive, and people were climbing over him or past him.
The Bottleneck is considered the most dangerous part of the route. Some say it is so dangerous that rescue is not possible there. How do you assess it?
Of course, a rescue is possible there – just like on the summit ridge of Mount Everest. You just have to want it and have the manpower and strength to pull someone down from there. It takes three, four or five people. And everyone following behind has to turn around and clear the way. Then you could at least get an injured person down to Camp 4 (at 7,600 meters) and give him bottled oxygen and warm him up in a tent there. No idea if he (Muhammad Hassan) would have survived, but no rescue operation was even attempted.
Around 100 people were at the summit that day and must have passed at least once the Pakistani climber. Wasn’t that an issue at base camp?
Well, people were busy celebrating the summit victory. They didn’t talk about it with us. We worked it all out on the way back to civilization from base camp to Askole (village at the entrance to the Baltoro Glacier Valley). And as we did, more and more information popped up.
Kristin Harila, who, led by Tenjen Sherpa, scaled all 14 eight-thousanders in 92 days, has spoken out about the death after days of silence. She and her team had done everything possible to save Hassan, wrote the Norwegian, and that no one was to blame for his death. How do you see it?
I don’t want to condemn Kristin Harila. But on the ground, there was apparently not so much empathy. While we were driving to Hassan’s family, she flew over our heads by helicopter. When you know that such a flight costs around 10,000 dollars, I find that a bit macabre. But Harila has to settle that with herself.
She wrote that Hassan was en route without a down suit and without a breathing mask. That must have been noticed before. Doesn’t anybody say anything?
There are also different statements on this point. Everyone says something different. Allegedly, he had a breathing mask with him, which broke when he fell. But we were not so close to judge these details. I can only confirm that he was still alive, that people stepped over him and did not initiate a rescue operation.
You summited Mount Everest last year. There were hundreds of climbers there as well. Was the same or a different spirit there as now on K2?
On Everest it is completely different, much more professional. There are own rescue teams, which are placed in Camp 4 (at just below 8,000 meters) for emergencies. On Everest, something like that would never happen. It would produce far too many negative headlines. In Pakistan, something like this can happen because the Pakistani High Altitude Porters, even though there are some very good ones, are sometimes poorly trained and poorly equipped. They get involved in this dangerous work in the hope that they will earn a lot of money.
But even on Everest, it happens that people walk past climbers in distress who are squatting next to the route.
Yes, that may happen. But on Everest, rescue operations are initiated no matter who has an accident.
You collected money for Hassan’s family at base camp after the accident and visited the surviving dependants in the mountain village of Tissar in the Shigar Valley near the town of Skardu. What did his widow tell you about Muhammad’s mountaineering training?
She told us that he was a regular porter. Porters work between Askole and K2 base camp, carrying expedition luggage, food and everything else needed on expeditions. It was his first time on K2 as a High Altitude Porter in order to save money for his children so they could get an education and have a better life.
Normally, High Altitude Porters in Pakistan are insured for around $1500 in case of death. Was that the case with Hassan?
According to the widow, Muhammad was not insured, and they do not get any money.
Accordingly, she was probably desperate.
She was very desperate. Two cameramen were with me at the family: Martin Stoni and Philip Flämig. I sat with the family and watched them. The two of them cried through almost two hours. The sight of the family was so heartbreaking, and what the widow told was even more so.
What goes through your mind when you see on social media how those who were at the summit on 27 July are celebrated without Hassan’s death even being mentioned?
I don’t care about it completely. I am focused on helping the family and that we educate and create better conditions in the Karakoram in the future.
Are you fed up with eight-thousanders after your experiences on K2?
I love the nature there, I love this mountain world. Hiking on the Baltoro Glacier was one of the most impressive and beautiful things I have experienced so far. I was super prepared, conscientiously decided to turn back up there. I booked an expedition that was really responsible with the carbon footprint, with waste disposal, with insurance and payment of the Sherpas and High Altitude Porters. I can honestly say I have relatively little to reproach myself for. Whether I will tackle another eight-thousander, I don’t know yet. But I will remain faithful to the mountains because it is my great passion to climb them.
But what you experienced on K2 will certainly keep you busy for a long time.
Yes, especially the pictures. The mental processing starts now and will probably take several months. That was also the case after Everest and will certainly be worse now.