Alex Gavan meets the children of Askole in 2019 during a visit to the school after making a donation of cash and much needed stationery. Photo courtesy Alex Gavan.

“K2 is not some malevolent being, lurking there above the Baltoro, waiting to get us. It’s just there. It’s indifferent. It’s an inanimate mountain made of rock, ice, and snow. The “savageness” is what we project onto it, as if we blame the peak for our own misadventures on it.”
― Ed Viesturs, mountaineer, corporate speaker, author

Alex Gavan was straight and to the point.

“For me it is not about climbing at any cost.”

I had asked him why he had abandoned his winter climb of K2 with teammate Tamara Lunger, after the tragic death of his friend, Sergi Mingote.

The experienced Catalan climber had fallen approximately 600 metres, and sustained serious injuries.

Gavan and Lunger were the first to reach Mingote, offering as much basic care as they could, and calling for help from Base Camp.

They were joined by fellow climbers Oswaldo Pereira, Magda Gorzkowska and a bit later by Juan Pablo Mohr, Sergi’s climbing partner.

It was Mohr in front who saw someone tumbling, and instinctively yelled out: “Try to stop yourself, try to stop!”

“We can only speculate about what happened,” Mohr said. “He might have been hit by a rock or slipped while transitioning from one rope to the next, but the actual reason is unknown.”

“We did on the spot all that was humanely possible, we also co-ordinated with the base camp and one team with a doctor was sent up as well,” said Gavan, who has climbed seven 8000ers in the Himalayas and the Karakoram without supplementary oxygen.

“The proper calls for a rescue helicopter were also given. Sergi stayed with us about one hour and a half, and in this period that for myself felt as a whole lifetime.

“I had the deep realization that more than anything that mattered in those moments, more than any concrete efforts that we were pursuing for the rescue, the real meaningful thing was that we all were there together with him, comforting him, speaking with him.

“While he could not speak, we knew that he was hearing us … sending him our prayers for a soft passage. I am grateful to have met such a noble and beautiful soul as Sergi.”

The death cast a gloom on the success of the Sherpa team, led by Nimral “Nims” Purja — he and nine others reached the top of K2, as a team. It was the first time anyone stood on the peak of K2 in winter.

Romanian climber and conservationist Alex Gaven with the principal of the school in the remote village of Askole, Muhammad Ali. Credit: Alex Gavan.

Lunger decided to stay at K2, along with several other climbers who are still waiting for a good weather window to attempt a successful winter climb.

The ropes laid down by the Sherpas still line the famed Abruzzi Spur, so named because it was partially climbed in 1909 by Luigi Amedeo di Savoia, Duke of the Abruzzi.

Alpine purists, who openly slammed the use of 02 by some K2 climbers, also took umbrage with the teams that did not “clean the mountain” of their ropes. Alas, they are too busy celebrating their triumph.

“It has been a very turbulent time for me, full of worries, tears, and dark moments,” Lunger said. “But I decided to stay because I always try to find in every bad thing something to discover, to understand, to overcome, and thus become stronger.”

Mohr and Lunger have decided to partner up on a no-O2 attempt, as a “tribute to Sergi.”

“I believe he would have liked us to go on,” said Mohr. “He will be our new guardian angel, accompanying us in spirit on our climb.”

Gavan, who was speaking from Islamabad via WhatsApp, where he was waiting for his climbing gear to arrive, confided, “For me, I just felt it was only natural and normal to back off … I just did not feel it was the case, to continue the climb.

“I cherished and I am grateful, for every second while on the steep slopes of the mighty K2 in winter,” he had posted on Facebook. “Returning now with priceless gifts as personal insights and lessons from above. What a blessing and a privilege indeed.”

But the Romanian climber and avid conservationist bristled, when I asked him, if his active benevolence with a remote Baltistan school offered him some solace, from the tragedy involving his good friend, Mangote.

“They are different things,” he insisted. “I am not doing charity work to make me feel better … that would be selfish.

“They are totally different subjects.”

Catalan climber Sergi Mingote, 49, was killed during a winter climb on K2, after suffering injuries after a 600-meter fall on the mountain. Credit: Handout.

Gavan paints the scene … it was 2007, and he had just arrived in the village of Askole, in the Baltistan region of Northern Pakistan.

One of the most remote places in the world, deep into the mountains and well above 3,000 meters. The middle of nowhere, as they say.

A tiny oasis of green surrounded by sharp peaks of rock and ice, expeditions use this place as a gateway to their base camps, by trekking along the Baltoro, the third longest glacier outside the polar regions.

To Gavan, it is a great memory, and an emotional one.

“The moment our off-road car came to a stop and we went out, a dozen barefoot half-naked runny-nose children came cheerfully to greet us. ‘Mister, mister, pen, pen’ they said repeatedly.

“It took me some time to get this unusual new form of salute and when I finally got enlightened with its meaning this got me very humble as well. It was not quite saying hello but asking for pens. Not for chocolate or money but asking for pens, asking for something to write with. 

“Imagine this village with a middle ages appeal, where many houses were half buried into the ground, plenty of which with no glass to the windows, cattle living on the ground floor and people upstairs to get their warmth from down below.

“Most of the men made their cash by portering for the trekking parties or the expeditions. Women were working the fields and as customary they covered their faces while encountering outsiders, even if they passed by a considerable distance.

“And those apricot trees that are so well taken care of everywhere in this part of Asia … when I close my eyes and think Baltistan, I see apricots,” Gavan said.

Fast forward to December 2020.

The region has been hit hard by Covid. Because no expeditions were organized, three teachers at the school were left without payment, because parents could not earn the money to pay them.

There are now 312 pupils there, from kindergarten to grade 9. They’re coming from Askole and four other villages.

But thanks to the Alex Gavan Foundation and with the co-ordination of school principal Muhammad Ali, the three volunteer teachers, Kathija Fatima, Muhammad Iqbal and Qurban Ali will, have their full salaries covered over the entire 12 months of the incoming new school year.

Says Gavan, “Compassion knows nothing of borders, nationality, race, color or gender. These are deceiving mind concepts. 

“Compassion acknowledges everyone, everywhere.”

If only the world, had a little more compassion.

Editor’s note: Alex Gavan is a WWF ambassador and is fighting to save the rarest fish species in Europe, the Asprete, in a small valley in Romania’s Fagaras Mountains.

Dave Makichuk is a veteran writer and copy-editor with 35 years’ media experience who lives in Calgary and freelances for Asia Times. A dedicated Detroit Red Wings, Tigers and Lions fan, Makichuk relishes his chosen role as enemy of the state, and defender of the oppressed and downtrodden.