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Latok II, Northwest Ridge, First Integral Ascent and Tragedy

In early August, Spanish climbers Álvaro Novellón and Óscar Pérez did the first complete ascent of the northwest ridge of Latok II (7,108m). This remarkable climb ended in tragedy, however, when a fall during the descent severely injured Pérez. With his partner unable to move, Novellón descended alone and called for help; an international rescue mobilized, but rescuers were unable to reach Pérez's position.

The pair first attempted the north ridge of Latok I, reaching only about 5,800m in very poor snow conditions. After switching objectives to Latok II, on August 2 they began climbing on the northeast side of the ridge. They bivied that night on the 5,600m col between Latok II and Ogre II (Peak 6,950m). Climbing alpine-style directly up the ridge, they bivied again at 6,000m and 6,500m, where they left their tent and sleeping bags. Slow going forced an open bivy at 7,000m, before they reached the top on August 6.

The accident occurred as they descended toward their Camp 3. To avoid a complicated passage on the ridgecrest, they deviated onto the southwest face. While traversing unstable snow, Pérez fell and pulled them both off. The rope snagged on a ridge of snow and caught them, but Pérez could not move. After lowering his partner to a ledge, Novellón climbed to Camp 3 to recover their sleeping bags, food, and fuel; however, a storm forced him to spend the night there before returning to his partner. Unable to lower Pérez any farther, Novellón descended alone, using a cut rope to make dozens of 30m rappels down more than 1,600m of complicated terrain. This took a day and a half.

When Novellón reached base camp on August 8, he called his climbing club in Spain, El Pena Guara de Huesca, which began organizing a rescue. By August 14 a group of experienced climbers, including Spanish ace Jordi Corominas and American Fabrizio Zangrilli, plus a number of high-altitude porters, had set up a base camp on the Biafo Glacier, on the opposite side of the mountain from Novellón’s camp. By the 15th the rescuers had fixed ropes to the col from the south, hoping to continue up the northwest ridge and reach Pérez. However, the weather turned bad on the 16th, making climbing and helicopter flights too dangerous. Given the length of time Pérez had been alone on the mountain, the rescue was called off.

Starting in the mid-1970s, several British teams had attempted the northwest ridge, approaching it from the south, and in 1987 a party led by Joe Brown reached a high point of about 6,800m. In 1997 Germans Franz Fendt and Christian Schlesener climbed the west face to 6,000m and then diagonaled left up a snow and ice couloir to reach the northwest ridge at 6,600m. From here, they continued to the summit, completing the third ascent of Latok II. However, no team had climbed the full ridge nor attempted the ridge from the north. Novellón said the northwest ridge was 2,400m high, with about 3,000m of climbing distance; the difficulties were VI 6a M6.

Dougald MacDonald, from information compiled by Desnivel

Editor’s Note: An interview with Álvaro Novellón about this climb, the accident, and his difficult descent is reproduced below:

An Interview with Álvaro Novellón

How was the ascent of Latok II?

Plenty difficult. More than anything because, the higher we got, the harder it became. It was on the last day—really it was two days because we finished by bivouacking near the summit—that we encountered the greatest difficulties. It was a technical climb, well suited for an alpine-style ascent because it had good bivouac sites that were secure from objective hazards—there were neither avalanche risks nor rockfall. We had to really fight for the summit. We were at the point of descending more than once, but the weather wasn’t bad enough and we weren’t so spent as to turn around.

Why did you detour from the ascent route on your way down?

In order to avoid reclimbing a difficult stretch of horizontal ridge, we rappelled off the opposite (south) side to reach some snowfields that we could traverse and then ascend slightly to regain the ridge. The idea wasn’t bad; it would have saved us time. But the accident caught us there, in one of the worst sites possible, because we were around 300 meters from the descent route in a rising traverse. It was a complicated position.

When Oscar fell you were hanging from practically nothing…?

Yes, more or less. The rope stuck on a ridge of snow on the slope, and there we hung. I imagine there was a rock or something underneath, because the ridge itself was too unstable to support us.

And Oscar fell around 50 meters?

He fell the whole length of the rope apart from the little bit that I had.

And you were also left hanging?

Yes, what happened was that I remained on the snow slope and Oscar fell much further, onto a wall of rock.

What happened next?

I began clearing away snow and was able to stick in an ice screw halfway that wasn’t worth much. Oscar was hanging from one rope; the other rope was not under tension, and I used it to make a kind of rappel. The [snow] ridge kept holding us; the screw was “just in case,” but it was worthless. I rappelled down, and when I reached the rock I was able to get some gear for better protection, and I kept descending to him.

Oscar was hanging in space when you found him?

Yes, he was beneath the overhang and he was hanging. First I tried to climb up with him, but I couldn’t. So I cut his rope and lowered him with the other one. For precaution, I tied him to the spare piece of rope that remained, with which I had rappelled. With this I lowered him to the ledge.

Was Oscar aware of his condition?

Yes, when I reached him he was conscious. At first, he was a bit disoriented because he didn’t know exactly where he was, or what had happened, but he did know how he was physically. Little by little, he calmed down, and he knew exactly what had occurred.

I left him there and went for the bivouac to look for our things, because we had nothing. We had been descending from the summit, and we had not brought along sleeping bags or food. All we had was a stove to melt snow. I climbed up to retrieve the equipment and bring it back, but that night I could not return. I arrived late to the bivouac. There was a lot of wind, and it had begun to snow. I waited all night for it to stop snowing. To get back to Oscar, I had to cross several snowfields and a stretch of rock, all alone and without a rope. Under these conditions, and in the state I was in, I didn’t want to mess around, so I waited until it stopped snowing at dawn. Then I grabbed everything we had at the bivouac and went back to him with it.

How badly hurt was Oscar?

He had a broken leg and hand, bruises on his face and a split lip, and frostbite on his hands and feet. This was all he described to me and all that I saw. I don’t know if there was more than this. He couldn’t take care of himself or do anything.

You couldn’t move him?

No, maybe down a slope, with everything perfect, maybe then. As it was I couldn’t even lower him to where he could make a belay—with a broken hand—so that I could then descend. Even now, going over it again, I can’t think of anything else that we could have done.

So you left him with everything you had?

Yes, I left the food that we had, two and a half gas cartridges for the stove, two sleeping bags, a bivy sack. That was it; that was all we had. The only thing that I didn’t bring to him was the tent, but it couldn’t be pitched on the ledge anyway.

Was the descent complicated or dangerous?

Dangerous, no. The only thing was that I had to be very cautious about using the limited material that I had for installing rappels, as it had to get me all the way down. If normally there had been 50 rappels, I had to make 100, because I was only carrying a 30-meter rope. I had the rope that I had cut to lower Oscar as well as a thinner cord that we had left at the bivouac—I rappelled on the rope and used the cord to retrieve the line. I had to be very meticulous in everything I was doing: placing various carabiners to avoid friction, using the prusik, finding good sites to install the next rappel. I tried to take full advantage of the ice to make Abalokovs and thereby conserve material. It was difficult because the descent was long and I had frost-nipped hands and I was tired.

My idea was to descend in one shot, without stopping, because I didn’t have any food or water or a sleeping bag. But when I arrived at the col, I was too tired and it was already night. The beginning of the descent from the col is complicated, and I decided to wait until dawn. I stopped for three or four hours, resting, and when it began to get light I continued descending.

Interview by José Luis Mendieta and Darío Rodriguez, courtesy of Desnivel

Translated from the Spanish by Adam French