In all mountain travel there is an assumed risk, one that we take since we are searching for adventure. The perception of this risk usually changes with the objective, quite often becoming clouded as the objectives get personally more important.
I am not really even sure where to start. I will begin part way through our expedition,,
We were getting acclimatized and moving quickly up to around 7000m on Mt-Manaslu. As our group toured higher they encountered loud whummfing sounds . Which is a settling of the snowpack that indicates a weak bottom layer. At this point it was simply an indication of weakness that would get worse with a heavier load…. We turned around and skied down, experiencing amazing skiing at the highest elevation I have ever skied.
For 10 days we weathered rain and snow, day after day of it. So the upper mountain was getting loaded with the weight of new snow. When it finally cleared it was obvious that most of the mountain had gone through many avalanche cycles. There were crown lines, and avalanche debris everywhere. Though the slopes that we needed to climb had not slid. We waited a few more days for the snow to stabilize some more before venturing onto them.
A bit of a backstory is needed… Tibet’s borders are closed to expeditions this year and most expeditions have re located to Mt-Manaslu., that’s why we ended up here. Our plans for Cho-Oyu were canceled and our ski objective became the eighth highest mountain in the world. We arrived on Sept 6th and watched basecamp grow into over 300 climbers and 200 sherpa. More climbers than this place has ever seen in a season. It seemed ripe for a catastrophe of sorts.
On our way up on Sept 22nd, we could see a line up of climbers on the fixed ropes, a traffic jam moving slowly through the seracs. Easily over a hundred people on their way up to Camp 2. We were coming late so we could avoid this and get up to our Camp 2.
When I first saw the traditional Camp 2 placement I knew that there was no way I would camp there. Sitting under the imposing face of Manaslu, I would never be able to sleep knowing how much avalanche terrain was above me. It was a campsite that has proven to be safe over the years, but given the right conditions it could get hit by a large avalanche. We searched and finally placed our Camp 2 off to the side. Perched on an ice shelf, it was as “safe” as we could find, a small elevated bit of terrain away from the main flow from the face.
On Sept 22nd, we arrived at our camp 2, I looked up and saw many tents camped at 6800m directly in the center of the slope, Camp 3. I worried about this but could not do anything about it
We went to bed thinking we may try for the summit the next day, depending on how the snow had stabilized. Which is information we would get ascending the slope the next day. The stability could go either way, the new snow could have compressed the weak layer and bridged any weakness, allowing for safe travel. Or the new snow, combined with the wind could have created a slab of snow sitting precariously on this weak basal layer…..
It turned out to be exactly that. At 4:45 am the cold temperatures created some brittle seracs, which broke off from the glacier at 7400m and landed on the wind slabbed snow, giving it enough of a trigger to crack approximately 300m across the slope. This avalanche swept through Camp 3 catching everyone sleeping in their tents and wrapped in their bags. At least 16 tents were swept off their platforms and sent careening down the mountainside.
The blast of wind from the avalanche sent our tents flapping and soon enough we could hear people yelling for each other. Lights from headlamps accompanied many voices and we knew that disaster had struck.
Skinning up, our headlamps lit up a down boot, and we knew that the tents had been hit. Tents, clothes, sleeping bags, lone boots, everything lay partially buried everywhere. Within minutes we were helping people get warm and digging others out of the snow. It was hard to tell how many people where involved so we focused on those that where above the snow. Knowing that those who were buried had very little chance of surviving.
The variety of injuries was astounding, some people were “OK” from their 1000 foot tumble, others were so full of internal injuries that life escaped them quickly. Some had arrived sitting on top of the debris while the tent beside them was completely buried in hard suffocating avalanche debris. There were injured people stuck in their tents with the dead body of their tent mate wrapped around them. The line between life and death was inches. Some people were talking to their tent mates as it happened, and when the avalanche stopped their partners were nowhere to be seen.
Immediately our group started helping out, digging out those that we could. Providing oxygen, warm clothing and any care we could. Stabilizing and helping out everywhere. The cold temperatures and high elevation made it essential that we get people warm. There were people partially buried with broken ribs and dislocated arms that we dug out and helped get warm. Others that were so injured we provided the as much care as we could but still watched them fade away. Through some miracle there were lots that simply needed sleeping bags and warmth. We spent 5 hours helping people, mourning with people as they watched their friends pass away beside them, digging a helicopter platform and moving the injured people close enough to fly them away once the helicopters got there. While also digging out the deceased and trying to locate any other missing people.
At one point I sat and openly cried for those that had died.
The line was so thin today, many survived by pure luck,while their friends passed away. With adventure comes risk. But I wonder how many people who died yesterday fully understood the personal risk they were taking. Obsessed with the possibility of climbing one of the world’s highest mountains, our vision becomes clouded and we perceive the risk we want instead of the reality of what is around us.
My heart goes out to all those that passed away today.
So far this has been an adventure unlike any I have been on in the past. I have come to the Himalayas for my first time and am being blown away by the culture, the people, the mountains and the altitude.
I managed to convince Beni Bohm that he should “hire” me to film his next 8000 m speed ascent. So now 10 months later I am in Nepal and just finishing up our first part of the trip. Instead of acclimatizing on Manaslu and spending 40 days on the same mountain it was decided that we would go and climb Mera peak a 6470m mountain. This turned into a huge trip where 17 of us attempted to ski off the summit. About a month before I found out that Eric Hjorleifson was on the trip.
Eric and I have always talked about skiing together but somehow it has never happened, so it was ironic that we would finally ski together on a mountain that was higher than either of us had ever climbed.
We arrived in Kathmandu and I realized that this was the most third world place I have ever been. Everything is dirty, they burn their trash in the street, or leave it in huge rotting piles for the dogs to eat from. Electricity is random, all the things we take for granted are non existent. The roads are chaotic, but since there are no rules everyone has to pay absolute attention and no accidents seem to happen.The first real challenge was to stay healthy and not get sick. Which involves not eating uncooked vegetables, drinking only bottled water, frequently cleaning your hands and basically being a germaphobe.
Eric and I were lucky that Jim had lived here before and he showed us a few of the temples and cool places in Kathmandu. Very beautiful and interesting things were seen.
Eventually the rest of the group joined us, who were all german, and we flew up to Lukla and started our trek into Mera peak.
I have never used porters and for this trip we had 40 nepalese helping us be successful on our trip. It felt very odd to give them our large lugguage, up to 30kg, while we hiked with a lot less. I carried all my camera gear but still the discrepancy was huge. Any success on our trip would be solely due to their help. They are the true heros of any expedition through these mountains.
We began by hiking up to 3500m to a super cool little village of five rock buildings hiden up in the mountains. Our initial challenge was two river crossings, and the altitude. Eric and I both had small headaches but that was all.
Its still monsoon season and we decided on bringing umbrellas, which turned out to be the best decision of the trip. The rain was a constant companion and thanks to the umbrellas we had a small zone of comfort.
On our second day we hiked over a 4600m pass and I began to feel a strong headache. Living at 400m it wa a huge shock for my system. Soon enough I was hunched over and loosing my lunch. There was little that I could do but accept it and continue hiking down to our next little house. The night went well, mostly since I don’t have do do anything. Our porters carry everything, the cooks cook great meals for us and all we do is hike and enjoy. Enjoy the monsoon rain,,,
The next day was spent mostly hiking down and through a jungle, very moist and beautiful. No real views of the huge mountains just fog and river.. We worked our way through tiny hamlets, rock buildings; all handbuilt, watched the Nepalese saw planks of wood, dry yak poop and basically survive in their harsh environment. It felt like walking through a museum and witnessing first hand how hard life can be, yet how happy they all are for their simplicity.
But their simplicity also leads to garbage everywhere, toilets built beside the river upstream of the town, things we assume would be well thought out are not.
Working our way up to our highcamp at 5400m took some time but along the way I got to film some cool timelapses and wild scenery.
So far it had rained at least half of everyday, yet seemed to clear up briefly at night. This trip is typically done in 21 days and we were doing it in 11, so we had one day scheduled for the summit..arriving at highcamp it was raining hard and my psyche was drowned out by my headache. So I napped all afternoon and at 4pm Hoji and I headed up to 5800m to get more acclimatized. The weather cleared and we saw Makalu and some other badass mountain.
we had to get so lucky the next day but with optimistic hearts and headachey minds we went to bed.
At 2 am we woke and started touring up in the dark, the weather started off poorly and improved as we rest stepped our way up to 6470m. As with all things, each step was followed by another and eventually we stood on the summit of Mera peak….boooyah….Hoji and I on the highest summits of our lives about to shred some mellow glacial run…. This was to be my first summit earned on Salomon skis and here I was on my highest summit about to ski off. pretty cool start… (that’s Everest in the background)
And then I did a bunch of filming and we skied off and back to our loyal porters. Then it was followed by two days of intense rain and long hiking days. On our second to last day we crested a col and met up with three of our porters who were shivering in their cotton shirts, we lent them a jacket each so that they wouldn’t get too cold..
Through deeper rivers, monsoon rains we made it back to Lukla and flew down to Kathmandu… where I have been working my butt off editing, packing, skyping and finally blogging. Sorry this was a little lame and poorly written, but it was rushed its midnight and I am waking in 5 hours to ride a heli into the middle of nowhere…the next post will hopefully be a after a successful ski of Manaslu… so excited to see how hard it is to climb an 8000m peak… suffer fest guaranteed.
thanks to eric for some photos, I would expect that we will end up doing more trips in the future, probably more powder than suffering at altitude though..