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

By:  / Posted on October 10, 2013
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.

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