Mountain climbers face deadly conditions like avalanches, falling rocks, unpredictable and extreme weather, hypothermia, and altitude sickness. In spite of the risks, climbers are compelled to try to defy both nature and death.
In 2013, a group of climbers thought they had prepared themselves for every deadly threat that they were practically guaranteed to face on the ‘killer mountain’. But before they even left base camp, they found themselves in a deadly situation they never saw coming…
On the night of June 22, 2013, about 50 mountain climbers belonging to several different climbing groups were camped at varying altitudes on Nanga Parbat, a 26,660-foot-tall mountain located in northern Pakistan’s remote Gilgit-Baltistan province.
The Killer Mountain
The Nanga Parbat is the western anchor of the Himalayas and is the 9th highest mountain in the world at 26,660-feet-tall. The first ascent took place in 1953, and since then there have been only a few hundred successful summits. The climbers knew that what they were about to attempt was deadly even in the best conditions, but they thought they were prepared…
Hoping For Success
Since June is just the start of the 3-month climbing season in the region, the climbers were hopeful that their ascent to the top of the mountain using the Diamir face, the most popular route up the mountain, would be successful. They also hoped nobody would add to the long list of 69 climbers who have died while attempting the same feat.
By around midnight on June 22, most of the climbers were camped above base camp and were preparing to climb to the summit. A dozen of the 50 climbers, however, were still camped for the night at base camp, which was located at 13,000 feet…
Resting Up For The Journey
The climbers, a Chinese-American, 3 Ukrainians, 3 Chinese, 2 Slovaks, a Nepali, a Lithuanian, and 1 Pakistani, and a Pakistani cook were all asleep in their tents by midnight. However, they were woken up and pulled from their tents by 16 men in military-style uniforms.
An Unexpected Threat
The men forced all 12 climbers and the 1 cook to kneel on the hard, frozen ground and tied their wrists with rope. The men carried knives and Russian automatic rifles. That night, the climbers learned that altitude sickness, hypothermia, and avalanches weren’t the only deadly things on the ‘killer mountain’…
At first, the climbers hoped they were just being robbed by the men who were yelling in broken English. “Taliban! Al Qaeda! Surrender!” the men screamed. After finding the Pakistani climber, they forced him to translate their commands to the rest of the group.
A Bad Sign
The men wanted to know if the hikers had money with them or in the tents and threatened violence if the discovered someone was lying. “If we find money you are hiding, we will shoot you,” they said. But when Zhang Jingchuan, 1 of the Chinese climbers, saw what the men were doing with valuables like phones and computers, he knew the group was in serious danger…
A Veteran Soldier
Zhang Jingchuan, then 42 years old, was an experienced climber and a 4-year veteran soldier in the Chinese Army. With his hands bound, he watched as the men took passports and took photos of them. But when he saw the men smashing their laptops and phones with rocks, it became clear they weren’t there to just rob them.
When the attackers led the group to a meadow near base camp, Zhang knew his only chance of survival was to escape. Zhang watched as the attackers separated the only Pakistani climber, and knew his only chance to escape had come when he heard gunfire…
As his fellow climbers were shot in the head, Zhang dropped to the ground and worked his wrists free from the rope. After a bullet grazed his head, Zhang jumped up and knocked over the man who was about to shoot him again and ran away barefoot.
Some of the men chased after Zhang and watched as he jumped off the edge of a cliff. “I didn’t know how high the cliff was,” Zhang said, “but I preferred to jump to my death.” In the darkness, the attackers couldn’t see how far the cliff dropped and assumed Zhang was dead. But Zhang had miraculously survived…
Fighting For Survival
After jumping off the cliff, Zhang landed on a gradual slope. He then rolled into the shadows of a ravine and looked up at his attackers who were shouting, “Allahu Akbar!” “Osama bin Laden Zindabad!” Once they left, Zhang hid behind a block of ice and worked to keep himself from getting hypothermia since he was completely barefoot and was wearing only a layer of thermal underwear.
Returning To Base Camp
After an hour, Zhang knew he needed to get back to camp and get shoes and heavier clothing if he was going to make it through the night and back home to his wife and 11-year-old son in Yunnan Province, China. After climbing back up the cliff, Zhang saw a light near there tents. The attackers were still there…
Risking It All
Zhang carefully and quietly crawled back to his tent. Once inside, he put on his clothes and boots and grabbed a satellite phone that the men hadn’t found and destroyed. Without being detected, he crawled out of base camp and started hiking up the mountain.
Once he was a safe enough distance away, Zhang called an emergency line and waited for help to arrive. By the time the sun started to rise, the attackers had left base camp. When Zhang got there, a Pakistani military helicopter was waiting for him…
4 Days Later…
Once Zhang was flown to safety, he boarded a flight out of Pakistan and back to China as soon as he was allowed. Four days after the attack, Zhang landed in Urumqi, China and hugged his wife and son after stepping off the plane. “My dad is a hero,” Zhang’s son said.
The Attack Is Condemned
After the attack, the Pakistani government opened an investigation and suspended the chief secretary and inspector general of Gilgit-Baltistan. Police started identifying suspects and making arrests in early July. “It was an attack on Pakistan, not just on our foreign guests,” said Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, the Interior Minister…
Extremist Groups Claim Responsibility
In the weeks after the attacks, 2 extremist groups, the Jundallah and the Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility for the murders. According to the groups, the attack was revenge for the death of their deputy commander who was killed in an American drone strike. The Pakistani climber who was the only other survivor also claimed the men said they were avenging Osama bin Laden’s death during the attack.
The Damage Was Done
The government and the local villages condemned the attack, but the damage had been done and it was a huge blow to Pakistan’s tourism industry. “The conventional opinion has always been, once you get out of the big cities and into the mountains, you’re safe,” says Doug Chabot, a veteran climber. But with the added threat of terrorist attacks, the thought of climbing the already deadly mountain has become too much for most climbers to even consider.