After a life lived outdoors, Dr Kate Baecher thought she had the skills and adventure nous to handle most eventualities. But a three-week calamity in Pakistan’s rugged Baltoro Region left her humbled, broken and questioning everything she’d ever thought about safety in austere environments. In this extremely personal re-telling of the expedition, Dr Kate delves deep into everything that went wrong…and everything that could have been done to avoid it.
In late September 2018, I decided – along with a couple of outdoor buddies – to sign onto a 25-day trek into the Baltoro Glacier region of Pakistan. We didn’t plan to do anything too hardcore (no summits, no climbing), just a good, old-fashion walk into some remote, harsh environments. Our ‘goals’ were pretty loose; a circle around Snow Lake. A meander onto Hunza. A traverse of the 5151m Hispar Pass. As it turned out, two separate, serious incidents book-ended our adventure. Both were easily preventable and both highlighted a number of missed red-flags, poor preparation and a general lack of planning on our behalf.
I sit here and write this as a reasonably ‘experienced’ outdoors adventurer. I’ve served in the ADF, travelled fairly extensively, climbed more than a few mountains and volunteered with medical deployments in some downright disgusting places.
However, I also sit writing this red-faced in shame, thinking of the very simple – and stupidly preventable – actions we should have taken but didn’t.
I wonder, a lot.
I wonder if part of the issue was that we had become complacent; that after years and years of self-travel through remote and volatile regions, the idea of being ‘on a trip’ with guides, led to a false sense of security and complacency.
I wonder if (as the sole female of the group), I was just pleased to have two burly alpha-males with me; perhaps I felt that I could step back a bit and let them make the decisions and initiate the necessary interactions.
I wonder if we were all just plain tired and that the trip came at a time when each of us needed different things from the expedition. From life.
I wonder if any of our goals really, ever, aligned.
What I know for certain, however, is that our trip was what is affectionately known as a ‘major clusterfuck’. A team of military veterans, so-called adventurers, ‘outdoor survival experts’, mountaineers, climbers. And yet we failed to conduct the most basic of safety precautions. Instead, we handed responsibility for our care and safety to a local operator, whose knowledge and capability we blindly – and mistakenly – trusted.
Pakistan is a country blessed with rugged, dangerous and alluring terrain. Its isolation, constant socio-political instability and geographic challenges appealed to each of us in different ways. I hoped for three weeks of wild untamed and isolated trekking – raw peaks, burning lungs, a simple existence away from the hectic pace of urban suburban life. Team-mate 2 (TM2) was seeking adventure – his first time at altitude – and TM3 was hoping to use it as a channel back into fitness and wellbeing after a long stint away.
We knew that we needed to trek with an organisation due to visa requirements and local permissions. We spent a long time researching different operators who would take us to the region we hoped to explore but (surprise, surprise!), Google wasn’t as forthcoming as we would have liked about the true difficulties of the journey, nor the true capabilities of providers. There were lots of promises but little information.
Now – to be fair – I was not particularly concerned about the poor communications between the operators and ourselves in the lead-up months. I was accustomed to travelling through countries with a limited grasp of English and practices completely foreign to the outside world.
TM2, on the other hand, was concerned. He was concerned before we left, when we arrived and at every juncture. However, in good faith, he had agreed to come along anyway. Our third team-mate decided to join our trip just a couple of weeks out and therefore didn’t have a chance to do much pre-trip training.
Two days into the fairly arduous overland travel, we were exhausted. We hadn’t even begun trekking and I was already vomiting. As only the best of friends do, I duly passed the bug onto TM3. As we approached an altitude of around 3000m, his lack of physical preparation and discomfort at being in such an austere environment made his illness far worse than it might have otherwise been. It was Trek Day 1 when we started discussing whether TM3 should be evacuated. Our guiding team was of the opinion that having had 3 nights at altitude, his symptoms should be slowly improving. Perhaps they were, but his physical condition and willingness to continue was missing.
We discussed various options, from delaying the start of the walk, to having one guide dedicated solely to TM3’s progress, to driving him back to the closest hospital (about 4 hours drive away). We had fortuitously been introduced to the Pakistani military on our way from Skardu to the start of our trek. They treated us with hospitality, curiosity and made a general offer of assistance, should we need it. Little did we realise how much we would come to rely on both this hospitality and the contacts that we made in Skardu.
So: Trek Day 1 and we’re already considering evac. Not the best of starts, but a mere hurdle if handled correctly. Except we quickly realised that our tour organiser had no capacity to safely split the group properly and that sending TM3 to the hospital meant finishing our trip before it had begun. Either that or leaving him alone, sick and navigating his own way to the hospital.
In remote Pakistan.
With altitude sickness.
We watched as, over the next couple of days, he determinedly carried on in complete and utter misery. We watched his humour fail, his motivation lapse, his body aches, and the gremlins get into his mind. We watched as he vomited, coughed, ran endlessly to the toilet, stopped eating, hardly drank, and changed his mind about continuing on almost every hour. We watched him miss his kids, and regret coming on the trip. We watched as his spirit sagged to lows that few ever reach. We watched him cry. And we watched as the local operators became not just disparaging about him, but downright rude, aggressive and – ultimately – useless. They had no first-aid plan. They had no evacuation plan. They had no medical training, nor medical gear. We had been giving TM3 some basic pain relief over the preceding few days, but even that had started to run out.
It all came to a head on the morning of Day 4 as we were starting to pack up after breakfast. Suddenly, I heard TM2 shout “Kate! Get Kate!”. I ran over to the tents to find TM3 lying in the recovery position, having passed out then been rolled over by TM2. When he came to it was clear there was fluid in his lungs, he was ghostly pale and incoherent. We fed him warm sweet tea, sat him up, and kept him warm. After an hour or so, we made the decision – he had to go to the hospital. The trek was only going to become harder and more isolated, and his current physical capability was shy of where it needed to be. He needed medical attention and he needed to be safe. The Baltoro mountains were not the right place for him.
So we came up with a rough plan. We had had mules trekking with us for the beginning of the trip, and it was decided that, since it would take 4-5 days for TM3 to get back down the mountain, he must be carried on a mule, with a porter on either side to keep him upright and awake. TM3 was sick, very, very sick.
TM2 and I continued our trek. The glacial lake was unlike anything I have experienced before. It was a literal maze – a dirty, ugly crisscrossing scar-faced expanse of natural beauty and horror. There were hundreds – thousands – of crevasses that we jumped across, stepped around, or skirted past. It became par for the course to wander around this treacherous landscape without a second thought. Again, we let our guard down and let the ‘guides’ do the guiding. Until one morning we stopped and had “that moment”. You know the one – the second thought. The burst of realisation. The pinch of reality.
In fact, it was TM2 who first asked the question.
“What happens if we need to be evacuated? If we’re too injured to walk for a week to get back to the hospital? We have a satellite phone, right?”
“Yes,” said our guide, “we must organise helicopter”.
Excellent, we think. We’re covered.
“So we just contact the helicopter and it comes out to pick us up?” replied TM2.
“Yes” said the guide. “But we have not paid the helicopter fee so we cannot get helicopter without the fee of $12,000 USD”.
“So, can we pay for it when we call them?”.
“Yes” said the guide. “But you must provide cash. And you are here so you cannot provide cash”.
WHAT?! We suddenly, forlornly realised just how far up the proverbial creek we were. “Ummmmm,” says TM2. “I thought that’s what you guys were for. To sort out that side of things. Then we pay back through insurance”.
“Yes,” replies the guide, “But we did not do that. I have guided 20 years and needed no rescue. We did not want to pay for nothing”.
Right about this moment we realise that every time he says ‘yes’, he actually means ‘no’. And that there riddle anywhere near as confusing as a Pakistani man trying to cover up incompetence.
Shit. Shit. Shit.
The conversation continued.
“Sooooooo, if we can organise payment for evacuation once we are back in town, then they’ll come and pick us up if needed, yes?”
“Great,” said TM2, “So we can just call them and it will be OK”.
“Yes,” replied the guide. “But we cannot call them. There is no reception.”
“But you brought a satellite phone, right?”.
“Yes. I did not”.
At this stage, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. So I laugh. TM2 cries (almost). A particularly heated exchange unfolds and we end the conversation with no uncertainty about our feelings. But we continue the trek and, in due course, a French team ends up nearby, walking the same route at the same time. Luckily, they are fully equipped with safety gear and medical gear. And a damn fine guiding team.
At this point, there’s probably something else I should add: the fact that – on this trip – I felt particularly vulnerable as a female. Generally, this has never been a big deal for me. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve traveled extensively to remote places, and often I’ve been in male-dominated environments as one of only a few – or the solo – female. I’ve never felt uncomfortable about this – occasionally I feel tired of it and would enjoy the company of another female to laugh at the boys with – but there’s only been one trip in my life (prior to Pakistan) that unnerved me, and that was to Mongolia with a close female friend. Both Mongolia and Pakistan have very rigid gender-roles, which in essence make traveling as a female quite taxing. It’s the little things that wear you down: different prices for females, deference to the male for every response or answer, refused service. By the time we were mid-Baltor trek, I was the sole female in approximately 30 men. Toileting became tricky. Changing clothes became tricky. Being the nurturing and friendly one also became tricky. When the guides and porters started approaching me (but not TM2), to ask for spare batteries, spare socks, spare clothes, my patience quickly waned. I felt helpless in a way I never have before.
On day 12 of the trip, we awoke early, knowing that we had to begin before sunrise for our ascent over Baltoro Pass (5100m). Before the sun became too strong and permeated the glaciers making them unstable for us to climb. We packed up, put on head-torches, and trudged…and trudged… and trudged. We crossed Snow Lake in record time (apparently), much to the relief of our guides. We then looked up to see the dirty great mountain that remained to be climbed.
Oddly enough, it was now The Cook who took the lead. Clearly, he had hidden talents, our cook. Not only did he feed us amazing food – and mangoes – in the middle of snow-desert fields, he navigated the most effective route up to the top and tested every step along the way. I must admit, the going was very, very rough. I only realised how rough it was when TM2 – one of the fittest people I know – asked for breaks as regularly as I did. I was grateful for every moment of breath that we caught, every slower step, every moment of non-movement that we had.
But we made it. As I turned around to look below I spotted the French team and our porters still on their way up. I silently and breathlessly thanked The Cook for being amazing (and patient) and knowing where to go. Despite the views, despite the fulfillment, there was still an inkling, a gremlin in the back of my mind. Why are we not wearing our crampons? Why are we not in our harnesses? The competitive part of me was happy that we beat everyone else to the top. But the wise old owl in the back of my mind was asking questions about our safety.
My mind flashed with questions: Surely the guides know this like the back of their hands? Surely they know we are safe or else we would have been mandated to be in harnesses and crampons? Maybe it’s the French who are being over-cautious? We made it up, so we must be OK, right? Our guides must be OK, right? But here’s the thing: when you know something is wrong, you know it is wrong. I knew – in my heart, my head, and my gut that we were lacking in safety protocol. ALL the signs were there, and I’d ignored them.
Every. Single. One.
Why…? Because I’d wanted to feel Safe-Without-Work. I’d wanted to have a break. I’d wanted for others to take charge, and for me just to sit back. In hindsight, it was simple: I was deeply emotionally tired, burnt-out. I sought to relinquish emotional – and therefore physical – responsibility.
It was about 30 minutes after we set off the next morning that it happened. TM2 and I had spent the night at 5000m, relishing being at the highest point of the trip. He was teaching me all about snow-camping, and I was teaching him how to play chess at altitude. And sunbake. We were walking single file with The Cook leading. I was next in line, then TM2, then a couple of our porters, then our guide. We walked, closely following each others’ steps. Suddenly I heard a scream.
I felt a pull.
I turned around.
All I saw was a circular hole in the ground where TM2 should have been. I was momentarily confused in the silence, especially because I saw a rope between myself and the guy behind TM2.
My stomach sank when I saw a carabiner where TM2 should have been.
I remember the silence, and I remember shouting. I remember everyone trying to ascertain what had happened. I remember The Cook took charge of the situation. I remember shouting over and over to TM2. I remember our ‘guide’ falling whilst trying to climb down the hole into the crevasse. I remember the French team appearing and setting up a crevasse rescue as best as they were able.
Most of all, I remember the French team’s guide, a beautiful Pakistani man who took charge of the whole process and probed with his trekking pole at the edge of the crevasse. He was the lifeline when there were no others. He was paid no extra for this – he did it because (in his words), “This is what we do”. He saved my friend. He gave me hope. And for that, I will be eternally grateful.
It turns out that the crevasse was approximately 40m deep. We only know this from the length of rope that was sent down to TM2 to pull him out. TM2 had his helmet attached to his pack. His harness was inside his pack. Eventually we pulled him out. One of the strongest of humans I know, was slowly, limply pulled over the edge and placed on an improvised stretcher. The French team cut his hair to dress the cut on his forehead. We used everything that we – from both teams – to keep him warm.
TM2 will tell you that he doesn’t remember the next few hours. But I do. I remember it in detail. Later, in Islamabad, as TM2’s memory was returning, he and I spent hours, talking through what happened. Perhaps it is lucky that he didn’t remember a thing. To this day, he still has some symptoms of Traumatic Brain Injury. But I remember what it was like to see the hole that your friend had fallen into because I hadn’t done what I knew needed to be done for safety. He was a butterfly’s breath away from dying a very preventable death.
The photos and videos in this blog are enough to show you what happened during the rescue. Once we pulled TM2 out of the crevasse (major clusterf*@!ck that it was), we had to hope for the best with regards to the helicopter. We dragged TM2 back up the mountain to a place where the helicopter could safely land. At my demand, the team erected the catering tent, and put TM2 inside. We plied him with tea. He and I sat together for the hours it took for the hypothetical helicopter to arrive. I warmed him, talked to him, kept him awake, and changed his clothes. Anything that would help.
There should be no surprise in the knowledge that if it wasn’t for the French team, we wouldn’t have been able to organise the helicopter evacuation. It turns out the weather was so bad that if the helo didn’t arrive when it did, it would have been another 5 days until the weather-window allowed it to land.
The French team allowed us to use their satellite phone to call the military. Our own operators were not happy, but I had found TM2’s insurance details in his pack so that we could pass on whatever numbers were appropriate and needed. Additionally, I had verbally promised both our operators and the rescue team that we would find the money as soon as TM2 was in hospital.
Money doesn’t matter when it comes to life.
Five hours later, the helicopter arrived. Two of them, in fact. We got in, our guide jumped in the second helo, and we flew to a hospital in Skardu. The team was wonderful, and by the time we made it to the military hospital, we were finally feeling safe.
TM2 had CT scans, blood tests, physicals, and was eventually admitted into ICU for a few days (still wearing my thermals, I might add). TM3 was in the same hospital and I managed to drop into the ward to visit TM3 and see how his recovery was going. Turns out, it was going wonderfully. He had been allocated an individual PAK nurse who was keeping him company, watching cricket, and ensuring he had everything he needed.
I can’t talk much about the next few days, except to say that traveling with high quality and safe local operators is worth its weight in gold. We didn’t do that, and we learned our lesson. Our next few weeks consisted of physical and verbal threats to our safety from the tour organisers about the payment of helicopter fees (including assurances that they would come to Australia to track us down). We were left to find our own way back to Islamabad with the fear that our local operator had some less-than-orthodox-ways of making international visitors ‘pay’. We snuck our way back to Australia in the dead of night and sought government assistance. There was lots of pretending that everything was OK. There were lots of realisations that we should have listened to ourselves.
There were lots of lessons learned.
As I sit here now and ask myself about the key learning points from this incident, there is one, simple thing that stands out: trust your instincts when it comes to safety and preparation. If something feels wrong, it probably is wrong. I know it sounds overly simple and – given all we went through – almost a throwaway comment, but it’s the truth. There is simply no substitute for your instinct.
In practical terms, the list of learning points is extensive…
- Make sure you don’t solely rely on an operators’ knowledge of the terrain and on their preparations for safety contingencies – do your own research and seek out their plans in detail.
- Ensure that you speak with them openly before embarking on the trip about safety, evacuation, and rescue procedures.
- Regardless of whether you are trekking or climbing if you are crossing crevasse fields at any stage, ensure that you are trained in crevasse rescue.
- Be assertive.
- Know your rights.
- Wear your safety gear.
- Always keep your insurance documents handy.
- NEVER take your hands off the wheel!
This misadventure has been an incredible wake-up call for me. I’m lucky enough to have survived this unscathed and, so, am almost grateful for the experience now. It quite obviously hammered home lessons I will never forget. Things like the fact that precautions are there for a reason, that safety and planning are paramount and that safety should never rest. I learned that risk is real, that danger is genuine and that the team needs to account for these. I learned that being female, on occasion, is a pain in the arse. I learned that traveling with a team who you trust is everything. That having back-up when you need it, is everything. That carrying a satellite phone is everything!
Most importantly, though I learned a lesson that will guide me for the remainder of my days: trust my own gut feelings.