Peter Wittek, a University of Toronto professor, quantum computing expert and mountaineer has gone missing in an avalanche in the Himalayas.
Prof. Wittek, 37, is the academic director of the quantum program at U of T’s Creative Destruction Lab and an affiliate of the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence.
He was part of a group scaling the mountain peaks of Trishul in Northern India when an avalanche hit on Sunday. The other five members of his group made it back to base camp. A search is under way led by an Indian disaster-response team, but the terrain is forbidding and it could take some time to reach his last known location.
The avalanche hit when the group was at an altitude of 5,700 metres.
Gergo Oberfrank, Prof. Wittek’s brother, said from Budapest that his family holds out hope that he has survived and is awaiting rescue. At this point, everything depends on the weather, he said. He has been assured that Indian authorities are sending an experienced team to the area to attempt to find Prof. Wittek. But the weather changes constantly and he couldn’t say when there might be more news of the search.
“I’ve heard that if the weather is clear, the Indian authorities are sending helicopters,” Mr. Oberfrank said.
He said he was told that the avalanche hit in the early evening Sunday as Prof. Wittek was resting in his tent and he was swept away by the rush of snow. It’s not clear whether his brother was carrying any sort of device that could help pinpoint his location.
“He is a really experienced person to handle pressure, but he has never been in this situation before,” Mr. Oberfrank said. “Mentally, emotionally, physically he’s extremely capable.”
He said Prof. Wittek is in strong physical condition, runs marathons and has visited more than 100 countries. He began mountain climbing a little more than a decade ago, his brother said, and has climbed a number of peaks.
“He told me he needs always an achievement to accomplish and mountain climbing provides infinite challenges,” his brother said.
Originally from Hungary, Prof. Wittek is a graduate of the National University of Singapore and, in addition to his academic work, acts as an adviser to startup companies.
The University of Toronto said in a statement that it is offering support to faculty and to Prof. Wittek’s students.
“We are in touch with his family and continue to monitor the situation actively. We are working with our university contacts in India,” said a spokesman for the Rotman School of Management.
Katya Kudashkina is a PhD candidate in machine learning at U of T. She got to know Prof. Wittek when her company went through Creative Destruction Lab at the university a few years ago. She described him as a brilliant thinker and leading academic in the field of quantum machine learning. “He just loves science. He works with startups not [because he wants to build big companies] but because he truly loves science. The academic world needs him, the business world needs him, startups need him.”
Prof. Wittek’s brother and mother are doing their best to co-ordinate information in Budapest as it arrives from India. Mr. Oberfrank said the outpouring of support is a testament to the many lives his brother has touched.
“I am desperate and sad and many times I’ve cried,” he said. “Hope gives us strength.”