A Norwegian mountaineer is defending her actions in the face of backlash surrounding drone footage that appears to show her team climbing over a dying sherpa to reach the summit of K2 in Pakistan.
Kristin Harila, 37, set a world record when she completed the K2 climb on July 27, becoming the fastest person to scale all 14 of the world’s tallest mountains with an elevation over 8,000 metres.
She completed the feat, alongside her Nepali sherpa Tenjen (Lama) Sherpa, in just three months and one day, breaking the previous record held by Nepali-British mountaineer Nirmal Purja, who took six months and six days.
But Harila’s critics are saying she will be remembered not for her record-breaking accomplishment, but for her inhumanity, after her team failed to save 27-year-old Mohammed Hassan from dying on K2. Meanwhile, the Norwegian climber says the dangerous conditions that day forced her team to split up.
The footage that sparked the scandal was released by Austrian climbing duo Wilhelm Steindl and Philip Flämig, who were also on K2 that day. They were recording drone footage when they captured video of multiple climbers walking over Hassan’s body to continue their summit.
Flämig described what they captured to Austria’s Standard newspaper: “He is being treated by one person while everyone else is pushing towards the summit. The fact is that there was no organized rescue operation, although there were sherpas and mountain guides on site who could have taken action.”
Flämig and Steindl were far below “the bottleneck” of K2, where Hassan died, when they filmed the drone footage.
“If he had been a Westerner, he would have been rescued immediately,” Steindl said. “No one felt responsible for him. What happened there is a disgrace. A living human was left lying so that records could be set.”
“He was treated like a second-class human being,” he added.
According to Steindl, who spoke with Hassan’s family after descending K2, Hassan took the job of rope fixer to pay for his diabetic mother’s medical expenses, despite his lack of mountaineering experience. Rope fixers, or fixing teams, climb ahead to fix bolted ropes in place to assist climbers. The practice is quite dangerous, but makes climbing easier and safer for the mountaineers below.
Hassan, who leaves behind a wife and three children, was climbing with the group just in front of Harila’s team when the accident happened, according to a post on Harila’s website. In the statement, the Norwegian climber insists she and her team did everything they could to save the sherpa, but were unable to rescue him because of the dangerous conditions.
“I did not see exactly what took place, but suddenly Hassan had fallen and was hanging on the rope between 2 ice anchors,” Harila wrote.
“At first, nobody moved, probably out of shock and fear, then we realised that he was hanging upside down and was not able to climb up by himself. He must have fallen almost 5 meters and his harness was all the way down around his knees,” Harila said, noting that Hassan didn’t even have a down jacket or gloves on for the cold and treacherous climb up K2.
When they managed to reach Hassan, she says they gave him oxygen from their tanks and hot water to warm him up.
“As we were trying to move Hassan up closer to the path, an avalanche went off around the corner where the fixing team was,” Harila said. “Worried for the safety of the fixing team, Lama and myself went forward to see how we could help them.”
Meanwhile, the cameraman in Harila’s team stayed behind to help Hassan.
When Harila and Lama reached the fixing team, they asked the sherpas if they were going to head back down the mountain.
“They said yes, and as we understood it, that meant there was more help going to Hassan. We decided to continue forward as too many people in the bottleneck would make it more dangerous for a rescue,” Harila writes.
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“Considering the amount of people that stayed behind and that had turned around, I believed Hassan would be getting all the help he could, and that he would be able to get down. We did not fully understand the gravity of everything that happened until later.”
Eventually, Harila’s cameraman left Hassan’s side because he had run out of oxygen himself.
After Harila’s team summited K2 and were climbing back down, they found Hassan dead. She said it would have been too dangerous for her team to bring Hassan’s body safely down the mountain.
“You need 6 people to carry a person down, especially in dangerous areas. However, the bottleneck is so narrow that you can only fit one person in front and one behind the person being helped. In this case, it was impossible to safely carry Hassan down,” she writes.
She described Hassan’s death as a “tragic accident,” and writes that she is angry that people are being blamed for his death.
“This was no one’s fault, you cannot comment when you do not understand the situation.”
She added that Hassan was unprepared for the dangerous trek.
“Everyone that goes up a summit needs proper training, proper equipment and proper guidance. From what I understood, Hassan was not properly equipped to take on an 8000m summit. What happened is in no way his fault, but it shows the importance of taking all of the possible precautions so that we can help ourselves and others,” she stated.
A GoFundMe for Hassan’s family was started by Austrian climber Steindl, who wrote that the family now has no source of income in the wake of Hassan’s death. The campaign has raised over 100,000 euros on Friday, just shy of the target of 110,000 euros.
The money will go directly to Hassan’s family, the message on the donation page states, ensuring his children have access to education.
In an update posted Wednesday, Steindl thanked donors for their money and wrote: “Together we save the livelihood of a family abandoned by western mountaineers. Let’s show them we’re better than that!”
K2 is widely considered one of the most difficult mountains to summit in the world, even harder than Everest, where more of the mountain flattens off, giving respite to climbers.
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