The Tajik Evacuation

When five Americans sent an SOS in Tajikistan, the paddling community sprang into action

The green dot marks the coordinates where the kayakers issued their first SOS signal. Google Maps

The green dot marks the coordinates where the kayakers issued their first SOS signal. Google Maps

Last week, a call for help swept across social media and onto the websites of national magazines and hometown newspapers. On Sept. 30, five American kayakers had activated a satellite-beacon distress signal in a remote part of eastern Tajikistan. Other than the team’s geographic coordinates, the message contained no information. Expedition kayaker Fred Norquist summed up the general feeling in his Facebook feed on Oct. 1: “This does not sound good,” he wrote. “Please share.”

The paddlers, Nate and Matthew Klema, Ben Luck, Charles King and Cooper Lambla, had been hiking over the 16,800-foot Takhtakorum Pass to reach the Musku River, a sliver of whitewater that cuts through the heart of the Pamirs, the third-highest mountain range in the world. The region’s extreme remoteness would have felt familiar to the kayakers, all experienced expedition paddlers who had spent the previous two months paddling in Siberia and Kyrgyzstan.

During the hike, Luck began to show symptoms of pulmonary edema, a potentially fatal condition in which the lungs fill up with excess fluid from the high altitude. The team desperately needed to get him to lower ground. They left their kayaks and gear and began to descend. Using Nate Klema’s SPOT GPS device, the paddlers issued their distress signal. It went to GEOS Alliance, an emergency response service based in Houston.

GEOS Alliance received the SOS signal in the early hours of Monday, Sept. 30, and immediately tried to contact Tajik emergency authorities. When that failed, the officials connected with the U.S. State Department. They had contacted the Klema family, who were the emergency contacts for the team. Klema’s father took the call at 5:30 a.m. It was 4:30 p.m. in Tajikistan.

GEOS officials coordinated with a private firm, KAM Air, which dispatched a helicopter the following day, Oct. 1, to search for the kayakers. It had no success, and was forced to turn back as night fell in the Pamirs. (The families say a report that the helicopter crew had spotted a broken kayak and abandoned backpack on this first rescue attempt was erroneous.)

Meanwhile, the families of the five paddlers coordinated their efforts to collect information and send help. The Klemas were the liaison with GEOS; the Luck family attempted to contact private rescue operators in Tajikistan without success; and the Lamblas were charged with activating the kayaking community.

On Oct. 1, some 24 hours into the crisis, Cooper Lambla’s father Ken Lambla posted a Hail Mary to Facebook and kayaking message boards. Boaters quickly began circulating the appeal:

“Cooper’s family (at the recommendation of the state department) has requested this to be posted to social media in the hopes that someone may be in the area that can provide any sort of assistance (kayaker, hiker, or anyone that has any pull locally). My understanding is that a helicopter was promised today and it didn’t happen. It’s also been promised for tomorrow, but at least one family is afraid it won’t happen.

“Can you help to send a tweet for any assistance in finding 5 kayakers (Ben Luck, Cooper Lambla, Matt Klema, Nate Klema, Charles King) in Eastern Tajikistan. Coordinates of emergency beacon are 38.83227 N, 72.860240 E

Please post to social media or share with anyone who may be in the Tajikistan region.”

 

Nate Klema and Ben Luck during shuttle while on their paddling trip in Peru. Photo courtesy CKS blog and Matthew Klema

Nate Klema and Ben Luck during shuttle while on their paddling trip in Peru. Photo courtesy CKS blog and Matthew Klema

At this point, the crew members had sent a second distress signal, updating their position. They had moved only six miles in the previous 24 hours, slowly retracing their steps back through the pass. The pace, slow for such a fit and experienced team, suggested at least one of the members was injured or ill. In fact, the kayakers were carrying Luck down the mountain, though the families had no way of knowing that. They knew only that their sons were in danger, and that they were running out of options.

“This whole incident has been fraught with confusion,” said Ken Lambla. “As an architect, I live in an arts and design world; I am perfectly comfortable living with ambiguity until it affects a life.”

Lambla received scores of emails and phone calls as paddlers, adventurers and would-be Samaritans offered help regarding rescue options, geographical information and government contacts. Any information that Lambla thought was useful he forwarded on to GEOS.

“Using social media to spread information like this is tricky,” said the GEOS official handling the case, who asked not to be identified. “There’s so much widespread false information, and one has to be real careful in what they choose to use for a rescue situation.”

One of those who did help is Middy Tilghman, an expedition kayaker who also helped found an adventure camp for Tajik youth. Tilghman didn’t see the appeal on Facebook, but others who did began calling him soon after the post went viral. He was familiar with the geography of the region and felt the five kayakers had only one logical escape route. He placed a call to GEOS.

“He just called me and said ‘Get on Google Earth. I’m going to walk you through the terrain,’” said the GEOS official. The kayakers had only two viable options to get out of the valley: Kayak the river or retrace their steps through the pass. With an injured member, which at this point everyone involved assumed was the case, kayaking was not an option.

Once over the pass, the kayakers could head west through a tight valley. That route, however, would make the team more difficult to spot from the air. Tilghman thought the men were too experienced and knowledgeable to do that.

“Tilghman said their only remaining option was to go east,” the GEOS official said. “He was dead on.”

The situation was a unique example of how engaging an entire community through social networks worked. “When it comes down to it, any information is better than none,” said the GEOS official.

On Thursday, Oct. 2, a Russian-built MI-8 helicopter located the kayakers and carried Luck to a hospital in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. Even after Luck’s successful evacuation, confusion continued to reign. The Russian news agency Ria Novosty reported on its English-language site that “one of the kayakers had a broken leg,” and that all five had returned to Dushanbe. This information was quickly repeated on the websites of magazines and newspapers in the United States.

In fact, Luck had no injuries other than pulmonary edema. And the others didn’t take a helicopter ride back to Dushanbe; they climbed back over the pass, retrieved their boats and began running the Musku. They expect to arrive in Dushanbe before the weekend. From there, they plan to fly to Nepal to begin the next leg of their journey. “They have their adventures, that’s for sure,” said Ken Lambla. The team expects to finish their Asian expedition sometime in early December.

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