Two Icelandic mountain climbers missing for 30 years in the Himalayan mountains are now home after an American hiker found their remains last month.
Kristinn Rúnarsson and Thorsteinn Gudjonsson, both 27, were last seen alive Oct. 18, 1988, at a height of 21,650 feet on Pumori, a mountain about 5 miles from Mount Everest on the Nepal-Tibet border. Rúnarsson’s father, Rúnar Guðbjartsson, told the Iceland Monitor last month that the discovery of his son’s body brings the family some closure.
“When people were hugging me and giving their condolences I said, ‘Congratulate me instead, he’s been found,’” Guðbjartsson told the newspaper.
Guðbjartsson described his son and Gudjonsson as childhood friends who lived for mountain climbing. They had climbed South America’s highest peak, as well as several North American mountains, before heading to Nepal to tackle Pumori.
The long-grieving father remembers the day his oldest son flagged him down as he drove by and told him word had come that the pair was lost on the mountain.
“It's impossible to describe. It was so painful,” Guðbjartsson told the Monitor.
Rúnarsson’s girlfriend was pregnant when he vanished.
“Five months after he was declared deceased, we sort of got him back; he's the spitting image of his father," Guðbjartsson said of his grandson, Kristinn Steinar.
Steve Aisthorpe, a Scottish climber who was part of Rúnarsson and Gudjonsson’s expedition, searched for his friends for weeks before abandoning hope of finding them alive.
Aisthorpe, now a 55-year-old mission development worker for the Church of Scotland, said in a story on the church’s website that the positioning of ropes where the bodies were found suggests his friends either had reached or had almost reached the ridge atop Pumori’s face when they fell into a crevasse. Pumori is one of the more challenging of Mount Everest’s neighboring peaks in the Himalayan range.
The pair ventured up the mountain alone when, 12 days into their expedition, Aisthorpe and a fourth member of their crew, Jon Geirsson, both fell ill, Aisthorpe said. Geirsson cancelled the remainder of his trip and went home, while Aisthorpe descended to a nearby village to see a doctor.
He sent a message back to the expedition’s base camp, set up on the upper Changri Shar glacier, telling Rúnarsson and Gudjonsson to “feel free” while he recovered to make an attempt to summit the mountain without him.
He never saw them alive again.
“I’ve never felt as alone as the day I arrived back at our high camp,” Aisthorpe recalled.
He said he climbed back up to the camp, hoping desperately to find his friends safe there. When he called out to them, his voice was met only by echoes as it bounced on the ice and rocks.
“Even as I finally reached and then unzipped the tent, I still nurtured a hope that the boys would be lying there, comatose, sleeping off the climb of their lives,” Aisthorpe said. “But it was empty and I scanned our route up the steep face above, but nothing moved.
“It was then that my guts started to twist and a cold sweat began.”
Aisthorpe called for help, which consisted in part of a helicopter search launched five days after Rúnarsson and Gudjonsson were last seen. He said helicopters in Nepal were few in 1988 and they could not conduct the types of searches that take place in the Himalayas today.
“Looking down into the deep crevasse that guarded the base of the west face, I expected to see a flash of red or yellow Goretex but there was nothing,” Aisthorpe said. “A couple of weeks later, I left the area, convinced that Kristinn and Torsteinn must have fallen somewhere high on the face and their remains swallowed by the cavernous crevasse below.
“This was what I explained to their families and friends on a visit to Reykjavík shortly after my return from Nepal.”
The Monitor reported that at least one person who saw the pair on Pumori saw them reach the summit before they disappeared. Guðbjartsson told the newspaper that his son told him, in his last postcard, that he could see the peak of the mountain.
Guðbjartsson said last month that he was unsure if the bodies would be able to be recovered, but that it didn’t matter. His grandson, Steinar, agreed.
“He told me that Kristinn and Thorsteinn had told people that if something happened to them, the mountain could keep them,” Guðbjartsson told the Monitor. “They didn’t want to put people in danger to save them. The mountain would take what it was going to take.”
Conditions on the mountain have since allowed the pair’s bodies to be recovered. According to Aisthorpe, a group of local climbers brought their remains to Kathmandu, where they were cremated.
Relatives were able to bring their ashes home to Iceland.
Aisthorpe said the discovery of his long-ago friends’ bodies has brought many emotions to the surface. He said he hopes that, with time, it will also bring those who loved them peace.
“My diary of the expedition reminds me of how, as someone who had only recently embraced the Christian faith, I found comfort and guidance as I turned to God in prayer,” Aisthorpe said. “In the midst of the desperate tasks of searching and then leaving the mountain alone, the words of a Psalm were a personal reality -- ‘God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.’
“I plan to go to Reykjavík in Iceland to meet their families soon and pay my respects.”
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