Mountaineer who rose to Himalayan peak brought down by Taliban bullets

  • 2013-06-26
  • By Linas Jegelevicius

CARRYING THE FLAG: Ernestas Marksaitis boldly followed his passion to the furthest reaches of the planet.

KLAIPEDA - Sauntering along Gediminas Avenue, or through Cathedral Square in Vilnius’ center can be more precarious than mountaineering in the Himalayas, says a convinced and prominent Lithuanian mountaineer Vladas Vitkauskas after news broke out that Ernestas Marksaitis, also a famous Lithuanian mountaineer, was killed on June 23 by a Taliban fighter in Pakistan. The slain Lithuanian had just started ascending Nangar Parbat mountain, which in Sanskrit means ‘naked mountain’.

The mountains are indeed treacherous
“Walking down Gediminas Avenue is more dangerous than mountaineering in the Himalaya, I really believe this... I’ve never, ever heard of a murder in a mountaineers’ camp,” said Vitkauskas. “The insurgents usually do not care about foreign mountaineers, but wage their furor against what they deem infidels… But the bottom line is this: it is not the mountains and wild animals that pose the danger, but people themselves...”
Vitkauskas’ son was killed while mountaineering in the Tatra Mountains, in a snow avalanche, in 2010. The mountains can indeed be a very treacherous place to be.

Located in Baltistan, in the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan, Nanga Parbat is one of the 8,000ers, with a summit elevation of 8,126 meters. An immense, dramatic peak rising far above its surrounding terrain, Nanga Parbat is also a notoriously difficult climb. Numerous mountaineering deaths in the early- and mid-20th century lent it the nickname ‘killer mountain.’
But ironically, for Marksaitis, the 44-year-old mountaineer and nine other climbers who have conquered hundreds of peaks, it is not the mountain, but the humans hiding in the caves and ravines that have turned out to be the most insidious.

“Gunmen came and opened fire on them. It is confirmed that they have been killed,” police official Mohammed Naveed told an international new agency. Though the Taliban attack was called as an unprecedented attack in a normally peaceful Himalayan region, the ambush has spotlighted violence just weeks after a new civilian Pakistani government took office, vowing to quell the militancy.

Marksaitis was not a dare-devil, one snubbing life and safety
A couple of years ago, Marksaitis was acknowledged as the best Lithuanian mountaineer.
The late Marksaitis, contrary to misconceptions about mountaineering, was not a dare-devil, one who snubbed life and safety. On the contrary, he had always taken precautions before setting foot on a mountain.
“There are many dangers everywhere. Therefore it is important to properly manage them and, importantly, to foresee them. But sometimes one does everything to make sure about safety, but to envision everything is hard,” he said before the Pakistan-bound journey.

Now these words sound like a premonition. An omen had perhaps rung up at the beginning of the year when he barely escaped death in a heavy blizzard in the Alps.
But the biggest warning from the Himalaya itself also came last year, when in a terrorist ambush 25 people, including mountaineers, were killed. Marksaitis was then descending from the world’s second-highest peak, known as K2, and wasn’t in the wrong place at the time.

But now the mountain-killers have made up for this in a twisted way. Few would suspect that a serene, tranquil and eternity-exuding mountain was, after many crackdowns by officials, still teeming with Taliban fighters. Marksaitis, the seasoned mountaineer, perhaps didn’t weigh this even as a remote possibility either.
But, undoubtedly, he was well aware that the 8,126-meter mountain-killer claims every sixth climber’s life. And there were warning signposts at the foot of the mountain: “Look to your left to the mountain-killer.”
When Marksaitis, along with other mountaineers, had made the first four kilometers up the mountain, to the first camp site, there was as yet no premonition of the looming tragedy. On the contrary, the weather was crisp and the panorama was - they said - mesmerizing.

Solace has been insidious
On Saturday evening, some 20 semi-automatic gun-brandishing killers were prowling up the slope, towards the camp. When the ambush occurred, some of the camping mountaineers managed to flee. Marksaitis was among nine other trekkers to have been killed.
Beside him, there were three Ukrainians, two Slovaks, two Chinese, a Nepalese and an American of Chinese descent on the victims’ list.

Another group of the Nangar Parbat peak conquerors had already climbed to a higher camp. No need to say, this saved their lives. Saulius Damulevicius, another Lithuanian, was in this group.
After the news of the bloody strike broke out, Marksaitis’ family and friends comforted each other that the mountains had been again merciful to Marksaitis. “Daddy, I hope that you are Ok. Do write me, please, when you will be able to,” Laura, his daughter, pleaded in Facebook on Sunday afternoon.
Neither she, nor her daughter Karina, have received a reply. The last time they heard from the father was June 4 when the mountaineers could still access the Internet.

“We are about to set out for Chila, and thereafter, to Nanga Parbat,” he tersely wrote. Later, he posted online a picture of himself and a fellow climber, Damulevicius, with their heads shaved.
“New Islamabad haircuts,” they said, cracking a joke.
To get a last-minute update on the mountain, Marksaitis called up a Pakistani mountaineer, who over the years had become a friend. “I couldn’t dream in my worst nightmare that it would be his last call. Forgive me, Erni, for not being able to save you,” the Pakistani wrote in Facebook.

Now some say Marksaitis was obsessed with the idea of conquering the ruthless Pakistani peak. To better prepare for the journey, he even learnt the Urdu language that is spoken where the ascent was set to begin. Ironically, to use the climber’s skills, he had been of late working as a high-climber.

Life is too short, so enjoy it to the fullest…
Lithuanian daily Lietuvos Rytas reported that Marksaitis was expecting to reach the top of the mountain and scramble down by mid-July. But instead of heading back to Lithuania, his mind was set on another mountainous trek, in an international expedition, to the treacherous K2. Until now, no other Lithuanian mountaineer has ever gotten to the top of it.
In fact, Marksaitis tried to conquer it last year, but having trekked seven kilometers upward, had to abandon the plan after realizing that the tent that they expected to find had disappeared.
And then the Alpine accident at the beginning of year followed. This was again an escape from death.
“We were simply hanging on a cliff. I was trying to inch forward, but a strong gust of wind was slamming me against the rocks… It was extremely hard, but we remained calm,” said Marksaitis to the Lithuanian media after his near kiss-of-death.

But neither this nor previous close encounters with death deterred the brave climber from the desire to test out the limits of human flesh and spirit, perhaps sometimes snubbing the inborn-sense of survival.
His passion for the mountains can be attributed to his mother, a geologist, who has explored Siberia, the Arctic and other far-flung spots, limited from human access. While a student of mathematics at Mickail Lomonosov University in Moscow, he would always spend his summer breaks together with his friend in Crimea, where Marksaitis developed his zest for mountaineering.

“We live just once, so let’s take the maximum out of this short life,” he had posted quite recently on Facebook.