UPDATED Sunday August 16, 11.00 a.m ET
For more than a week now, Spaniard Oscar Pérez has been alone on the wall of ice and rock that is Latok II. The 33-year-old mountaineer fell while attempting to summit the notoriously difficult peak in northeast Pakistan's Karakorum range, breaking his leg and possibly his wrist. Unable to get him down unassisted, his climbing partner, Alvaro Novellón, left Pérez with supplies and went for help. But a combination of bureaucracy, complicated logistics and poor weather impeded search efforts, and it wasn't until Aug. 14, a full six days after the pair's climbing club first received word of the accident, that a rescue operation began. Two days later, the rescue attempt was called off due to bad weather and the difficulties involved in climbing an almost unclimbable mountain in the hopes of finding Pérez alive.
Pérez and Novellón, both experienced alpinists from Spain's mountainous province of Huesca, began their first attempt of Latok on July 27. A collection of four rocky peaks renowned for their extreme technical difficulty, the mountain group is considered one of the most challenging in the world some alpinists believe it is even more difficult than the more famous Himalayan peak K2. When bad weather forced them to abandon their attempt to summit Latok I, the two retreated to their base camp.
Then, on Aug. 1, they made the daunting decision to try to summit Latok II. There had been 25 previous attempts to scale the 23,300-ft. (7,100 m) mountain, all of them unsuccessful. "They were doing the purest kind of climbing," says Alfonso Hernández, a reporter for the Períodico de Aragon, Pérez and Novallón's local newspaper. "No ropes, and totally alone up there."
The pair was at 20,600 ft. (6,300 m) when Pérez fell. Novallón left him bivouacked with food, a gas stove and a sleeping bag, as well as a realistic assessment of how long it might take for help to come. "Oscar knew it would take six or seven days for a rescue team to reach him," says Alfonso Uriel, spokesman for Peña Guara, the Huesca climbing club that has been organizing the effort. "So psychologically, he's prepared. He knows not to give up hope after just a couple of days."
But it took more than a couple of days before a rescue effort could even be organized. For one thing, there were few experienced climbers in the area who were acclimated enough to the altitude to begin a rescue. Bad weather and difficult terrain forced several helicopters sent out to locate Pérez to return unsuccessful. By Aug. 11, it had become clear that a rescue by land was going to be necessary.
Organizing the diplomatic effort wasn't easy either. Pakistani authorities, like those in other countries, require alpinists to pay for their rescue up front, and it took several days to pull the money together. Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero called his Pakistani counterpart to ask for assistance with the rescue, but it took some time before the wheels were in motion. On Aug. 11, Peña Guara released a press statement saying the efforts were slow and complicated, and calling the situation desperate. "The Pakistanis were working on it, but there's a lot of bureaucracy there," says Uriel. "Everything goes at its own pace."
That pace finally accelerated on Aug. 13, when two Pakistani military helicopters dropped a 16-person rescue team at base camp. According to a diplomatic source at Spain's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, half the team is made up of alpinists from around the world, and half are Pakistani porters. Three of the climbers left base camp the morning of Aug. 14, moving as quickly as possible to ascend to Pérez's location.
Among the three is a renowned American alpinist who might have been Pérez's greatest hope. Fabrizio Zangrilli, 36, was in the area because he recently finished guiding a climb of K2. "Fabrizio is so acclimatized, and his skill set is so high, that he's probably the only guy situated to pull this off," says Jordan Campbell, spokesman for Marmot Mountain Works, an outdoor-equipment company that sponsors Zangrilli. "He's going to have to climb light and fast and maybe carry Pérez over his shoulder to get him down. But he's done it before. He's led a few world-class rescues."
Even so, owing to the inhospitable terrain and the altitude, the risks remain high. And with the advance team not expected to have potentially reached him before Saturday, there were no guarantees that Pérez whom no one has had any contact with since Novallón descended is still alive.
Campbell, who himself has climbed four Himalayan peaks, says he's worried for everyone involved: "Fabrizio is putting himself at great risk. Pérez, if he's a strong young climber, might survive. But someone who has been trapped at 6,000 meters for five or six nights is probably slowly dying."
The story has gripped the Spanish. Over the past few days, it has been the front page of most of the national papers, and headlines Thursday announced that Secretary of State for Sports Jaime Lissavetsky was "optimistic" that Pérez would be saved within 48 hours. But everyone remains tense. "If we pull this rescue off," says Peña Guara's Uriel, "it'll be a milestone in the history of climbing." Sadly for all concerned, it doesn't look as if that milestone will be attained.