Kayakers found alive in Tajikistan after three-day search

Ben Luck, Nate Klema and Matt Klema, before leaving on their expedition. The three kayakers were triggered their emergency signal while travelling in Tajikistan. Courtesy Julia Klema

An American kayaker has been airlifted out of the central Asian wilderness after a life-threatening illness triggered his rescue.

Ben Luck, 24, was struck down with high-altitude sickness as he prepared to cross the descended to the Muksu River in the remote Badakhshan National Park in Tajikistan, with brothers, Matt and Nate Klema, Cooper Lambla and Charles King.

As the group reached a plateau at 14,000 feet, Luck was struck down with the respiratory disease, Thomas Klema, father of two of the kayakers, told NBC News.

“He had high-altitude sickness, which entailed the onset of fluid in his lungs, and that’s a pretty serious thing. People can die from that,” he said.

Fearing for their friend the group of experienced kayakers triggered an emergency signal on their SPOT beacon Monday through GEOS Alliance, an emergency response service.

“It was the first time we have ever had an emergency signal from them on this trip or any trip, so it was quite worrying,” Klema said, adding that the friends had run rapids in Peru, Bolivia, Chile, New Zealand and India.

Luck and the Klema brothers were featured as Outside magazine’s Adventurers of the Year for 2011 after they kayaked Peru's Huallaga River, a 300-mile tributary that drops 7,000 feet as it runs through the Andes. 

After spotting the signal, the emergency response company combed the area for a search and rescue helicopter, eventually finding a Russian MI8 helicopter flown by the private contractor KAM Air.

Scouring the area Tuesday, the helicopter managed to locate some equipment, but none of the group was sighted. With daylight fading, the craft had been forced to turn round, at which point they received another SPOT signal from the group six miles downstream. 

“What they were doing is backtracking because they were figuring that the signal was not getting out,” Klema said, adding that the group was very well prepared and experienced expedition kayakers. 

The helicopter did not go up Wednesday, but found the group Thursday and airlifted Luck back to Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe.

“He’s been on supplemental oxygen and his father has joked that he is eating prime rib and drinking Russian Vodka,” Klema said, adding that the remainder of the group, including his sons, had remained in the park and planned to continue their adventure.

“I have not spoken to them,” he added. “But we’re all proud of the way they acquitted themselves.”