On the evening of January 25, 2018, Elisabeth Revol and Tomasz “Tomek” Mackiewicz reached the summit of Pakistan’s Nanga Parbat (8125m). Once they were together at the top, Revol’s happiness exploded into the Himalayan air. “Tomek! Yessssss!” she shouted as she moved to embrace him. The pair had completed the second winter ascent of Nanga Parbat, and Revol became the first woman to summit the mountain in winter.
As she leaned in and hugged Mackiewicz, Revol noticed that ice crystals had partly concealed his blue eyes. Mackiewicz exclaimed, “Eli, what’s happening with my eyes? Eli, I can’t see your head torch any more; you’re a blur!”
Revol’s excitement quickly turned into fear. As despair overcame her, she fought to make sense of the moment. She was with Mackiewicz, yet simultaneously alone. Realizing the gravity of the situation, Revol forced herself to concentrate, entering a survival mode that came with years of experience in the high mountains. With a sharp focus on the present moment, Revol placed Mackiewicz’s left hand on her right shoulder, and they began their descent.
What follows in Revol’s To Live: Fighting for Life on the Killer Mountain, translated into English by Natalie Berry, is a deeply human account of the nightmare Revol endured on Nanga Parbat that night and in the days and nights that followed. It is a detailed exploration of that January 2018 expedition interwoven with fragments of Revol’s childhood in France; her introduction to and career in mountaineering; and her climbing partnership with Mackiewicz. She frames the story of the 2018 Nanga Parbat expedition with flashbacks to her Everest (Chomolungma)-Lhotse traverse in May 2019.
As it unfolded and in the months that followed, Revol and Mackiewicz’s story received international press coverage. In an altogether striking and mesmerizing memoir, Revol shares a heartfelt, thoughtful and thorough attempt to set the story straight. Early on, she speaks of reality versus speculation in the high mountains. Who gets to say what was real: Those who were there or those who weren’t? In the book’s opening pages, she writes, “The gap between what one lives and suffers up there and the instantaneous interpretations; the analysts who each give their version, their view; the insults and defamations which fly around on social networks, plunging the family into a twofold chaos; and the rumours, too, which form the basis of hateful judgements. But who knows the circumstances? Who was actually there?”
The constant dance between Revol’s internal dialogue and external movement on Nanga Parbat makes To Live a powerful read. There’s a raw honesty to the flurry of emotion she details alongside her pragmatic thoughts and actions. Revol’s writing is urgent and immediate yet also fluid and descriptive. The evening of January 26, 2018, after learning the helicopters will not arrive that day and that she’ll have to spend another night on the mountain, this time at 6793 meters, Revol writes, “The cold is polar, the wind bitterly cold. I don’t know what to think any more. I scream my distress into the wind. I pray that my voice will reach Tom [Mackiewicz], that this sound will follow the cloudy swirls and intertwined lines which separate me from him…. I’m lost, washed up in an ice desert, deluged by forty-eight hours of pure madness.”
Just after 11 p.m. on January 25, Revol had sent a message to her husband, Jean-Christophe Revol, and Ludovic Giambiasi, Revol’s friend who managed the logistics of their expedition from his home in France, using her inReach: “Tomek need rescu [sic] soon frostbite and he didn’t see nothing pleas manage something with ali sonner [Ali Saltoro, whom Revol refers to as their “agent” with Alpine Adventure Guides Pakistan] as you can. Altitude: 7522m.”
Giambiasi responded immediately. He helped coordinate the rescue operation, which was ultimately global in reach and involved many individuals and organizations. While Revol was unaware of the extent of the operation at the time, she provides asides throughout To Live that, presented in a different font and written from a present-day perspective, underscore her current understanding of what was happening off the mountain in January 2018: “I will only learn of the rescue organisation, the crowdfunding launched by Masha Gordon to fund it, the scale of the operation, the complexity of the negotiations, etc., long after my return. In the months that followed, I met many people who were involved, in one way or another, in the rescue organisation in France, Poland, Pakistan and Italy.”
In January 2018, as Revol and Mackiewicz were in trouble on Nanga Parbat, an elite Polish team was attempting a winter ascent of K2 (8611m), fewer than 200 kilometers away. Already acclimatized to the elevation of Nanga Parbat and consisting of some of the best high-altitude climbers in the world, that team was in a unique position to play a major role in the rescue operation.
On January 27, Pakistan Army helicopter pilots deposited climbers Denis Urubko, Adam Bielecki, Piotr Tomala and Jarek Botor, all members of the Polish team on K2, just below Camp I (roughly 4800 meters) on Nanga Parbat. The helicopter pilots themselves took a great risk, as no helicopter had previously landed so close to Camp I. Revol later acknowledges that the pilots’ skill is “probably what made the rescue possible: Adam and Denis had less distance to climb.”
As Urubko and Bielecki began climbing the Kinshofer Route the evening of January 27, Revol started descending the mountain via the same route. She’d had to leave Mackiewicz in a crevasse at 7280 meters where they had sheltered since the night of January 25 because Mackiewicz was unable to see or walk. As she prepared to go, she reflected, “I’m afraid to move away, to leave Tom. How I wish that things had turned out differently; the situation is too complicated. Only the hope of the rescue helicopters gives me the energy to move, to fight for Tomek.” Of that evening, she writes, “Everything seems improbable, unreal. I’m descending at night, without a head torch, on a route I don’t know, without any equipment: no ice axe or belay device, no French prusik, no ice screws or dynamic rope. Without having had a drink for fifty-five hours at least. Almost sleepless for eighty hours apart from my daydreams and last night’s hallucinated torments.”
At every turn, To Live demonstrates that Revol’s will to live came from deep within herself as well as from Mackiewicz, her husband and those arranging and supporting her rescue. On the mountain, Revol’s thoughts and actions are guided by a desire to help and comfort Mackiewicz and aid in his rescue. She thinks of him constantly throughout her descent, sending energy and hope his way, working to save both of their lives. She is also encouraged and motivated by communication via her inReach with her husband, Giambiasi and Mackiewicz’s wife, Anna Antonina Solska. Their short messages carry her, and while there are many unknowns, Revol also knows that help is on its way.
Of her decision to continue descending via the Kinshofer Route, Revol says, “Enduring another night outside without moving is out of the question. I sense that it would be fatal. I have to fight to survive, fight to get back to my husband…. I have to fight and get down from this mountain alive.”
Early in the morning on January 28, Revol and the team of Urubko and Bielecki finally crossed paths at around 6000 meters. Urubko examined Revol’s hands and gave her his gloves. Bielecki asked her if Mackiewicz could walk, and Revol said he could not. Mackiewicz was nearly 1300 meters higher on the mountain. “Eli, I’m sorry, but we can’t do anything,” he said. “It would take six people and oxygen cylinders to get him down. I’m sorry, Eli.” Urubko and Bielecki found a level platform on which the trio could rest. They talked, ate and drank and then made space, as best they could, for Revol to doze in and out of sleep.
Urubko and Bielecki guided Revol down the mountain. She was then flown to a hospital in Skardu and then Islamabad before flying home to France on January 30. In Islamabad and then in France, Revol began working through the physical, mental and emotional toll of January 2018. “My brain refused to accept that Tomek had stopped living!” she says. A short while later, she continues, “But he was dead and I was alive. And even this life was a nagging torture. I was drowning in the bottomless depths of remorse, of guilt. I was torn apart. The suffering caused by the frostbite on my toes and hands remained trivial compared to what I felt: a pierced heart, a wounded heart, a heart smashed to pieces.”
Revol’s journey in the days, weeks and months that followed was not linear. “In the year that followed, even when I thought I was better and was trying to regain a social, professional and sporting life, the smallest thing was enough to push me back down into the depths of 25-27 January 2018 for days on end,” she writes.
While To Live is centered on a harrowing life-and-death journey, Revol also recalls moments of hope. On January 26, as the nightmare unfolds, she writes, “It’s 5:30 a.m. I turn off the inReach. I can see the dawn looming. Nanga’s shadow takes shape on Ganalo Peak. The horizon is painted with pink powder; the peaks light up one by one while the stars vanish. It’s spectacular. The dawn revives my frozen, numb body. I slap my thighs and rub my muscles vigorously.”
Revol’s description of life outside the mountains, for her and Mackiewicz, paints a picture of the lives they led and all that’s at stake. In her final moments with Mackiewicz, Revol dives into their partnership, describing it as an “attraction of opposites.” She chooses her words seemingly carefully to honor Mackiewicz as climbing partner and a friend. During the duo’s ascent on January 25, Revol notes, “We are two solitary people on this huge mountain, but we are not afraid of it–quite the contrary. We love it, this limitless freedom! We came in search of it.”