Kristin Harila, record-setting K2 climber, defends ascent as porter lay dying


In the drone footage, a grisly scene unfolds.

On the sheer upper slopes of one of the world’s most unforgiving peaks, mountaineers, determined to reach the world’s second-highest summit in a record-breaking string of ascents, appear to step over the prostrate body of Muhammad Hassan — a Pakistani porter who later died.

The video, released by other climbers, ignited a fierce debate over the facts of the case, and beyond that, the behavior and relationships with local guides and porters of foreign mountaineers who attempt Himalayan peaks.

In a late July accident, Hassan, a married Pakistani father of three, took his last breath, joining the more than 300 climbers who have perished on K2. Second only to Everest in height, the mountain, which spans territory administered by China and Pakistan, looms 8,611 meters (28,251 feet) in altitude, more than 5 miles.

Hassan was working as a porter, hired to carry gear and otherwise assist those attempting the summit. During his climb, he fell and was injured.

When to climb, think twice or stay away from a mountain

Hundreds of people were attempting to summit, crowding the mountain during a narrow weather window. Among them was record-seeking Norwegian mountaineer Kristin Harila, whose team, sponsored by the outdoor company Osprey, was trying to summit the world’s 14 tallest peaks in the shortest-ever span of time.

“We have reached summit number 14,” Harila said, in footage taken at the K2 summit on July 27, standing beside her guide, Tenjin “Lama” Sherpa, who climbed all of the peaks together, celebrated reaching the top of K2 in three months and one day. The previous record was held by Nirmal Purja, who took just over six months to summit the tallest 14 peaks in 2019.

Harila’s celebration was short-lived. As the drone footage of the incident earlier in the day spread online, many people expressed outrage at the cost of the accomplishment following the horrific incident hours earlier, saying her record paled in comparison to the loss of life.

In a lengthy blog post on her website, Harila said she had received death threats over the incident.

In statements to media and on her website, Harila lamented Hassan’s death, but denied critics’ accusations that she and her team had left him to die, arguing that the footage could not capture the nuance of the situation or the difficult, life-or-death decisions that must be made in environments that only a small fraction of people could ever imagine traversing.

“It is simply not true to say that we did nothing to help him,” Harila told the Telegraph. “We tried to lift him back up for an hour and a half and my cameraman stayed on for another hour to look after him. At no point was he left alone.”

“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,” she wrote on her website. “We did not fully understand the gravity of everything that happened until later.”

Ultimately, Harila said, scrutiny needed to be directed at those who sent Hassan up the mountain. She said Hassan was not “properly equipped” to make the trek, pointing to his lack of a down suit, oxygen mask and gloves.

When Hassan fell, Harila wrote, “his stomach was exposed to snow, wind and low temperature.” In response to a request for comment, Harila said she might have time to talk over the weekend.

Wilhelm Steindl, one of the climbers who released the damning footage, told an Austrian newspaper that Hassan “was treated like a second-class human being” on the mountain. “What happened there is a disgrace. A living person is left behind so that records can be set,” he said.

According to Stiendl, Hassan took a dangerous job to fund his children’s education. Hassan’s family said it was his first time on the mountain.

Steindl set up a GoFundMe campaign for Hassan’s family, which has so far raised more than $121,000.

The relationships, tensions and power dynamics among foreign mountaineers, adventure tourists, highly sought Sherpa guides and other porters in the high Himalayas has long been a subject of debate in the mountaineering community, and had been a subject of controversy earlier in Harila’s efforts, amid reports of pay disputes between her and Sherpa team members.


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