Family members and friends of three Durango men missing in the Central Asia nation of Tajikistan were working the phones Wednesday, calm but anxious, as they awaited word about the trio and two other men.
Brothers Matthew and Nathan Klema, Ben Luck, Charles King and Cooper Lambla sent an SOS through GEOS Alliance, an emergency response service, that the Klema family received about 5 a.m. Monday, Julia Klema said Wednesday.
“It was a prepared message indicating they needed help,” said Klema, the sister of Nathan and Matthew. “There’s no text in those messages, but it gives the geographical coordinates.”
The men, who are on an international kayaking expedition, were in eastern Tajikistan to run the Muksu River. They already had spent a month in Siberia and a month in Tajikistan’s neighboring country, Kyrgyzstan, exploring rivers.
“I talked to Matt on Sept. 24,” said Julia Klema, contacted in person at her parents’ Durango house, where the family was busy on phones and waiting for calls. “They planned to spend about two weeks in Tajikistan, then go on to Katmandu (Nepal).”
The men also wanted to visit India and China, and perhaps other places, Klema said. Their planned return is not until December at the earliest, she said.
Matt Klema, 29, Nathan Klema, 24, and Luck, 24, all students at Fort Lewis College, took a year off for the kayaking expedition, Klema said.
The men arrived in Badakhshan National Park on Sunday in preparation for crossing 16,800-foot Takhtakorum Pass then descending to the Muksu River, Klema said.
An initial attempt by Luck’s father, Matt, to get a private rescue firm to send a helicopter to the area proved unsuccessful, Klema said. There was too much bureaucracy and the chopper never got into the air.
The Klemas, through friends of friends, were able to hire another helicopter, which located a broken kayak but no people at a spot on the Muksu River. That was about 6 a.m. Tuesday in Durango (about 5 p.m. in Tajikistan).
A short time later, the family learned through GEOS Alliance that a second signal had been received from the missing men.
“The GPS coordinates indicated that they had moved only six miles,” Klema said. “Since they are all tough and familiar with wilderness conditions, we think someone has been injured. Otherwise, they would have hiked out.”
The GPS coordinates indicate the men are retracing their path, Klema said.
As of late Wednesday (Thursday in Tajikistan) another helicopter was scheduled to make a reconnaissance flight in the vicinity of Takhtakorum Pass to locate the men, Klema said.
Kayaking hasn’t taken all the men’s time, Klema said. They have done some hiking in remote areas.
Klema said her father, Tom, has been on the phone hours at a time trying to find solid information about the missing men. The 11-hour time difference doesn’t make things easy, she said.
Klema doesn’t know Charles King or Cooper Lambla.
Nathan Klema has been in tight corners before. He escaped injury in February when an avalanche near Silverton Mountain ski area killed a Durango friend, Peter Carver, and injured another member of the party, John Duncan Rothwell.
In trying to locate the missing men, the family has worked with the U.S. State Department in Washington and Dushanbe, the Tajik capital, Klema said. Vasily Porsev, the men’s driver and guide in Siberia, and a man she knows only as Middy, have provided information, too, Klema said.
Middy lives in San Francisco but spent time in Tajikistan and knows the area well, she said.
“We’re waiting and hoping for the best,” Klema said.
All the men are experienced international kayakers and travelers, Klema said. They have run rapids in Peru, Bolivia, Chile, New Zealand and India. The Klema brothers are Colorado River guides in the Grand Canyon.
Tajikistan is slightly smaller than Wisconsin with a population of 6.5 million. Tajiks share Persian language, culture and history with Afghanistan and Iran.