Dr. Will Duffin – Joint Medical Director & GP
Will is a jobbing Devon based GP, educator and adventure addict. He has provided medical cover for dozens of very different expeditions and projects; including commercial high-altitude treks in The Himalayas and The Andes, a luxury Trans-Siberian private train, a reality TV show in the South Pacific and he has worked with UNICEF out in forgotten corners of Myanmar.
Drone footage has emerged which appears to show around fifty mountaineers stepping over the body of a stricken, dying porter on their way to summiting the Savage Mountain. The casualty, Muhammad Hussan, can be seen suspended upside down on his harness just beneath the infamous ‘Bottleneck’ section, a mere 150 metres from the 8611 metre summit. According to reports, he was still alive when the footage was taken, but died a few hours later.
We all love tales of dramatic rescues against the odds, but this story was strangely newsworthy because of what didn’t happen: no-one seemingly came to this man’s aid.
It’s a very difficult situation with a tragic outcome that must be appreciated from both sides, but one thing that must not be underestimated is the technical difficulty of mounting a rescue in such an extreme environment. The bottleneck is a narrow, steep couloir just below the summit which is overhung by massive seracs (blocks of glacial ice). It doesn’t pay to linger, as the ever-present threat of ice avalanche looms above. This is exactly what happened in the 2008 K2 disaster, when an avalanche stripped away the fixed ropes leaving climbers stranded. 11 climbers died in less than 24 hours.
It’s a desperately critical and risky place to be. It would take at least 6 rescuers to slowly edge a casualty down along the fixed ropes, exposing themselves to risks of frostbite, hypothermia, falls, avalanches and hypoxia. To medivac a sick or injured climber out via helicopter to definitive care would require descent all the way to camp 1 at 6,065 metres. Higher elevations are extremely risky territory for aircraft due to turbulent weather and the thin air that supports only the most meagre of payloads.
Modern-day high-altitude evacuations are also now complicated by crowds, as climbers jostles to hit the same narrow weather windows. Nirmal Purja’s iconic photograph of the dense queues leading to the Hiliary Step in May 2019 galvanised the world’s media on this issue. Norwegian Climber Kristin Harila told the BBC that her team did attempt a rescue of Muhammad Hussan, but they couldn’t get him back down the narrow route due to it being too crowded with climbers ascending.
There is a lot more still to ponder, but I hope events like this prompt us to grapple with the thorny ethical and practical dilemmas of retrieving casualties from extreme environments. Hopefully, lessons can be learned that will improve safety for everyone.