Closure for mountaineer as remains of friends lost in Himalayas 30 years ago found

A Kirk official who spent weeks searching for two friends who disappeared in the Himalayas more than 30 years ago has spoken of his relief after their bodies were finally found.

Steve Aisthorpe, 55, was part of an expedition to Pumori on the Nepal-Tibet border with Kristinn Rúnarsson and Thorsteinn Gudjonsson who were last seen alive at a height of 21,650ft on October 18, 1988.

Their remains were discovered last month by an American mountaineer at the snout of the glacier below the climb route which suggests they fell down the face, into the crevasse at its base.

Thorsteinn Gudjonsson.
Nepali tea break - L-R - Kristinn Rúnarsson and Thorsteinn Gudjonsson.

Mr Aisthorpe, a mission development worker for the Church of Scotland, said the positioning of the ropes implied that his friends, who were both 27, had either reached, or almost reached, the ridge at the top of the face when disaster struck.

He said it is likely that the remains were slowly carried down the mountain by a retreating glacier over the last 30 years.

The bodies were brought back to Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, by a group of local climbers and a cremation service was attended by relatives of the men who took their ashes home to Iceland.

Faith

Mr Aisthorpe of Kincraig in the Highlands said: “The discovery of the remains of Thorsteinn and Kristinn after so many years have inevitably brought many emotions to the surface for all who knew and loved these wonderful guys.

“But it has also brought people together and I pray will help with greater closure and, in time, 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.

“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.”

Steve Aisthorpe
Kristinn Rúnarsson by a lone red tent at an Pumori expedition camp.

Mr Aisthorpe said further clues about what exactly happened to the men could emerge because two camera films were found in a pocket of a jacket and have been sent to a specialist in Australia for development.

He became friends with Thorsteinn in 1987 after they were introduced by a mutual friend who was also a mountaineering enthusiast.

Pumori, which is nearly 23,500ft high, is one of Mount Everest’s more challenging neighbours.

The four man expedition, which included Jon Geirsson, established a base camp, 17,388ft below a glacial lake west of Kala Patthar.

Over a 12 day period, the group moved on to set up a high camp on the upper Changri Shar glacier and it was during this time that Mr Geirsson fell ill and decided to return home.

Mr Aisthorpe had also begun to suffer from a gastric flu and on October 16, 1988, he descended to the village of Pheriche to consult the doctor there.

He was told that it would take a week for him to recover so he sent a message back to the high camp suggesting that Thorsteinn and Kristinn “should feel free” to make a summit attempt without him.

They set off and were never seen again.

Pumori.
Kristinn Rúnarsson on the lower part of West face of Pumori. Steve Aisthorpe.

Recalling the tragic episode, Mr Aisthorpe, authorof The Invisible Church, said: “I’ve never felt as alone as the day I arrived back at our high camp.

“As I worked my way upwards, I desperately hoped that Kristinn and Torsteinn had descended safely and were now lying in their sleeping bags in the tiny red tent camp.

“As it came into view, I called out at the top of my voice - my calls echoed from the rocks and ice before fading.

“But the silence was palpable.

“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.

“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.”

Steve Aisthorpe Nepal
Steve Aisthorpe.

Mr Aisthorpe said he summoned help and a helicopter search was finally launched five days after the men were last seen.

“In 1988, there were very few helicopters in Nepal and those that existed were not capable of the kinds of searches and rescues that take place in the Himalayas these days,” he added.

“I was onboard and we soared above the site of our high camp and began to scrutinise the lower part of our route.

“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.

“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.”

West face of Pumori
West face of Pumori taken from helicopter during search in October, 1988.

Described by their friends as a breath of fresh air, Thorsteinn and Kristinn were considered to be Iceland's leading exponents of Himalayan climbing at the time and well known for their open, easy-going personalities.

Kristinn's girlfriend was four months pregnant when he died.

His son, also called Kristinn, is the spitting image of his father and was part of the party that went to Kathmandu for the cremation service.

The tragedy did not put Mr Aisthorpe off Nepal or mountaineering and over the following few years he returned to the country each spring and autumn to guide on some of the smaller peaks.

He became increasingly interested in the country and its people and moved there with his wife Liz and two sons, John and Scott, in 1995 and stayed for 12 years.

The couple worked with the International Nepal Fellowship (INF), a Christian charity involved in health and community development.

Steve Aisthorpe Afghanistan
Steve Aisthorpe has also spent time in Afghanistan.

The Church of Scotland is one of the founding partners of the United Mission to Nepal (UMN) charity which was established in 1954.

Generous Kirk members have raised nearly £476,000 to help rebuild shattered communities in the Dhading region following a devastating earthquake in 2015.

UMN director Joel Hafvenstein said it would have been “impossible” for the charity and its local partners to help thousands of people if it wasn’t for the Kirk’s Let Us Build a House campaign.

He said the money had made a “tremendous, transformational difference”.

It has enabled UMN and its partners to build 35 earthquake resistant schools with 48 blocks, bio-gas plants, eight community water taps, 350 household toilets, toilet blocks for schools and health centres, repair vital water irrigation systems and mini-hydro plants, reinstate 33 miles of roads and paths and kit out schools with computer suites.

The Kathmandu headquartered organisation has built five earthquake resistant demonstration houses across the Dhading region to inspire people to use the same building techniques and materials in their own reconstruction projects.

Nearly 600 masons have been specially trained to assist them.

All still images supplied by Steve Aisthorpe.