Around 10:30 p.m. on June 22, 16 mountaineers on a mountain in the Himalayas woke to shouts of “Taliban! Al Qaeda! Surrender!” They were camped at 13,800 feet on Nanga Parbat, the world’s ninth-highest peak, known as Killer Mountain for its fierce challenges. Unlike K2 and other giants of the Karakoram Range, which lie 100 miles to the northeast, Nanga Parbat in Pakistan is a lonely outpost. It takes a three-day trek up the remote Diamir Valley to reach the base camp on Nanga Parbat’s western flank. Unlike the region around K2, a mountaineering hub patrolled by the Pakistan Army, the region around Nanga Parbat is comparatively isolated and plagued by sectarian violence.
Still, no one at base camp expected it to happen. Flushed from their tents at gunpoint, expedition cooks and mountaineers from China, Lithuania, Nepal, Pakistan, Slovakia, and the Ukraine were herded across a meadow. Some hadn’t had time to dress. A Chinese mountaineer held a green raincoat over his waist like an apron, covering his nakedness. In the meadow, the snow had thawed, replaced by a shag carpet of grass and edelweiss. Sher Khan, a Pakistani mountaineer, sunk to his knees, shivering. A full moon frosted the mountain in silver filigree. “I was looking at the Diamir Face in the moonlight,” he recalls. “It’s crazy but the mountain still seemed beautiful. I must have felt that way because I didn't want to die.”
For the next hour, the gunmen looted the tents, searching for cash, radios, satellite phones, and Americans. Finally, around midnight, they strung 16 captives in a line, two by two, arms lashed behind their backs. A nylon rope bound Sher’s wrists so tightly he could feel his pulse throb. He was tied to a Ukrainian mountaineer whose name he’d forgotten but whose body heat reassured him that they were both still alive. From roaring avalanches to rock falls and rotten ice, Sher had already imagined a dozen ways to die on Nanga Parbat. But not this way.
He felt the rope linking him to the Ukrainian slacken. A gunman in camouflage shoved them apart and dragged the Ukrainian away. A terrible winnowing began: Sunni Muslims to the right, everyone else to the left. Sher stumbled to the right. He was Ismaili, a Shia sect, but this was no time for accuracy. On the left side, 11 men kneeled in a snaking row, among them Ali Hussein, a Muslim cook whose terrified silence seemed suspicious enough to label him a Shia. “I wondered where the bullets would enter my body,” Sher recalled thinking. “Would it be my arm? My heart? My head?”
The first shot entered the skull of the Ukrainian who had shared his warmth with Sher. The man toppled forward, and a surreal silence followed as though reality had to recalibrate. Sher lapsed into prayer, imploring Allah to make the executions stop.
They didn't. A prolonged brrrrrrrrrrr from Kalashnikovs drowned out the gasps and thuds as bullets strafed across the line. Bits of down from the mountaineers' jackets flicked into the air like a snow flurry. Ten feet away, Sher scrunched into a quivering ball and began to cry.
“Today, these people are revenge for Osama bin Laden,” Sher heard a voice bark over the dead and dying. Another gunman straddled the crumpled bodies and, with 11 blasts, delivered a final bullet into each victim's brain. The carnage complete, the killers shouldered their Kalashnikovs, extinguished their headlamps, and receded into the moonlight. Sher counted about 16, some only teenagers.
For the next five minutes, he stayed frozen, fearing his salvation had been an oversight. Beside him crouched a cook, Issa Khan, who was no stranger to survival. Three years earlier, a colossal flash flood had washed away Issa’s village of Attabad. But natural disaster hadn’t prepared him for manmade ones, and, like Sher, Issa lay shaking and retching on the ground. Other survivors—two Baltis and a Hunza named Afsar Jan—could barely stand from shock, but, slowly, the men rose. In the distance, they could make out a tail of lights. Sher sucked in his breath, ready to run for his life, but the lights were too far upslope to be the gunmen returning. These headlamps, Sher realized, belonged to a team of Sherpa descending to base camp. Practically every satellite phone and radio had been stomped, shot, or stoned during the attack, but the Sherpas might carry one. Hopeful, Issa sprinted ahead to intercept them.
Meanwhile, Sher rummaged in the tents and discovered a radio. He tried his team’s frequency again and again. No use. The mountaineers above weren’t listening. Distraught, his chest as heavy as a cinderblock, Sher decided to get away from base camp. Weaving through glacial debris, he ascended a thousand feet into the snowline, followed by two Hunzas. When he could go no further without crampons, Sher wedged himself inside a crack between two boulders and waited for the sun.
Sleep was impossible, so his thoughts circled and paced, lingering on the memory of an encounter he wished to forget. In late May, during his trek to base camp, Sher had pitched his tent outside the village of Diamiroi. Mountaineering expeditions often employed men from the Diamir Valley as porters but, to Sher's surprise, the locals didn’t welcome him. Instead, anxious men surrounded his tent and demanded to know what he was. Sunni? Shia? Sher recited the first kalima in sterling Arabic and the crowd dispersed. Later, a local man pulled him aside. “Osama bin Laden stayed in our valley five years ago,” he told Sher. It wasn’t a boast. The man said it almost sadly. “You're crazy!” Sher replied. Now he was more convinced.
Dawn broke, and, at last, a familiar voice crackled on radio. Sher blurted out everything to his climbing partner, Karim Hayat, trying to explain what Karim already knew.
Karim tried to console Sher. A Chinese mountaineer, Sher learned, had miraculously survived. Zhang Jingchuan, a former policeman, had relied on his training. “[T]he bullet flew over my head,” he’d later recall at a news conference in Kunming, China. “After a second, I ran as quickly as possible and jumped into a trench 30 meters away.” Zhang eventually crept back to camp and found a satellite phone to summon help. Thanks to Zhang, military helicopters were on their way. Relieved, Sher straggled back to camp. Catching sight of Zhang, he ran to hug him, but the Chinese mountaineer brandished his ice axe with an almost feral menace and lunged. Sher backed away, understanding how Zhang could distrust a Pakistani face.
Who had done this? As news of the massacre spread online, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, claimed responsibility. TTP is a motley affiliation of terrorists in Pakistan. They thrive on media splash and their previous attacks include the shooting of 18 Muslim commuters on a bus and the attempted assassination of 14-year-old girls’ education activist Malala Yousafzai. Whether TTP had actually engineered the massacre was unclear, but they reveled in the fear and publicity it generated.
The actual gunmen had cited Osama bin Laden as their motive, but TTP was eager to bootstrap. “One of our factions, Junood ul Hifsa, did it,” TTP spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan told the AFP news agency. “It is to avenge the killing of Maulvi Wali ur-Rehman,” their deputy commander, killed on May 29 in a U.S. drone strike of a compound in North Waziristan. “We want to convey to the world that this is our reply to U.S. drone attacks.” The announcement had its intended effect. Pakistan’s freshly elected government was made to look impotent, locked in a sovereignty battle over U.S. military intervention on Pakistani soil.
Unmoved by these political concerns, the families in the Diamir Valley braced for a future without mountaineering. Some 400 to 500 villagers take seasonal work as low-altitude porters, carrying loads for expeditions and relying on the relatively high wage to buy supplies for the harsh winters. “The people of my village in Diamir were very sad, even crying, when they heard about the killings,” said Shawal Faquir, a local mountain guide. “How will we survive now? We need the mountaineers to come back. We need jobs. We want tourism not terrorism.”
Meanwhile, in air-conditioned ambulances, 11 pine coffins sped through Islamabad for their final flights home.
Amanda Padoan is a co-author of Buried in the Sky: The Extraordinary Story of the Sherpa Climbers on K2's Deadliest Day.