There were several hours of mayhem on Everest yesterday when the tracking device of German climber Jurgen Kobblers showed that he had strayed off route into dangerous territory. Rescue parties sprung into action and for a short period it looked like the climber might not survive, but in the end it turned out to be a false alarm.
Kobblers was attempting a new route solo on Everest’s East South Shoulder. He had reached a notorious section known as the Forward Quick Step when he got into a spot of difficulty and had to turn around.
Kobblers is being sponsored by the outdoor gear manufacturer Mountain Hardcore, and thousands of mountaineering enthusiasts worldwide have been following his progress via a GPS tracking device that beams his location to a website where fans can track his every move.
Concerned followers were on tenterhooks as he inched his way down an unstable ice wall that had been discharging avalanche debris on a regular basis throughout the expedition. Then, without warning, the tracker stopped providing a signal. For several hours nobody knew if the German was dead or alive. There was considerable relief when the signal resumed and Kobblers appeared to have descended the ice wall and arrived safely back in camp.
But then a new worry emerged.
Mountaineering blogger Drew Peacock takes up the story.
‘I had been worrying about Jurgen all morning as I followed his progress from my basement in Seattle. I breathed a sigh of relief when it looked like he had reached camp, but when I studied his precise location in more detail, I realised to my horror that he was in great peril. I’d been tracking him throughout the expedition, and I noticed that whenever he stayed at Camp 2, there was a particular place on the glacier that he visited several times a day for short periods before returning to his tent. This time he didn’t return to his tent, but stayed in the place for over an hour. It slowly dawned on me what must have happened and I raised the alarm.’
Drew realised that Kobblers’ GPS tracking device was placing him inside his toilet tent. He appeared to have been trapped there for over an hour. But there was worse news to come. Had the device been locating him at the level of the glacier then it was conceivable that he was just sleeping after an exhausting descent. But the coordinates suggested that Kobblers was several metres beneath the ice. It could mean only one thing.
‘I realised that Jurgen had fallen in,’ Drew said, ‘and if that was the case then he was in dire need of an immediate evacuation.’
Experts estimate that around two million tonnes of human excrement are encased beneath the ice of Everest’s Khumbu Glacier. It is known as the world’s highest lavatory. If the tracking device proved to be accurate then it meant Kobblers had fallen around 20m into the toilet and was drowning in a sea of faeces.
Spanish climber Alec Ganja was at Camp 3 on the East Col route when he received a call on his satellite phone from Kobblers’ cook down in base camp. He immediately sprung into action.
‘I rappelled down the East Face to Camp 2 on the Khumbu Glacier and flashed my head torch down the toilet, hoping Jurgen would flash back a response, but there was nothing.’
Meanwhile a team of Sherpas known as ‘Icefall Surgeons’ had climbed all night through the Khumbu Icefall. Nepali extreme swimmer Avhilaj Bhotti was helicoptered in from Kathmandu to join the response. Bhotti trains regularly in the Bagmati River and it was believed that he would take to the conditions underneath Kobblers’ toilet tent like a duck to water. By the time he was lowered down the toilet on a rope there were around 20 people engaged in the rescue and the events were being live-streamed via a portable webcam on Ganja’s climbing helmet.
The rescue operation lasted for most of the night and it only came to end as dawn was breaking and one of the participants realised that Kobblers himself had joined in the rescue.
‘I staggered into Camp 2 around midnight and found a group of people crowded round the toilet tent,’ Kobblers said in an interview to the cable channel WTF. ‘I walked up behind them to see what was going on, and they told me someone had fallen down the pit. I offered to help out, but when they told me Avhilaj was down there I realised I wasn’t needed. I grabbed a few hours’ sleep in my tent and rejoined them at dawn.’
The incident has highlighted the dangers of trusting too much in GPS tracking technology. Harry Añus, CEO of Mountain Hardcore said the devices were designed to be carried outside the wearer’s clothing, but at high altitudes climbers often wear them inside their down clothing to keep them muffled from the cold. This sometimes obstructs the signal to satellites and can lead to inaccurate readings.
Kobblers had actually been carrying his device down his trousers, where it had overheated and malfunctioned.
‘It’s a part of my body that’s prone to frostbite,’ Kobblers told reporters. ‘I always carry the device there and find it provides a pleasant sensation that counters the hardships of a tough climb.’
Kobblers will continue his climb on Thursday, when he intends to fix a rope up Hillary’s Passage and shuffle up with jumars.