Thursday, September 27, 2012

Manaslu Avalanche & Expedition Recap

Today I took a helicopter with the team from Samagoan, just below Manaslu base camp and arrived in Kathmandu.  It is always a big contrast going from weeks at high altitude on an expedition to the busy city of Kathmandu. 

At this time I know 1 or 2 teams are still on the mountain going for their summit “rotation” and pushing to summit between September 29-October 1.  We decided to end our expedition as many teams did after the massive avalanche that claimed the lives of 12 climbers on Sunday, September 23rd.  With these unstable conditions present we cannot justify staying to climb the peak.

Our expedition was successful in that we were able to climb to Camp 2 on our acclimatization rotation and also practice mountaineering techniques in the icefall section between camps 1 & 2 which is similar to terrain on Everest, as this is also a training climb for Everest.  Also, all members are well & uninjured after the avalanche and excited to return to the Himalaya to climb again.

Most of us were probably asleep on Sunday, September 23rd at 4:30 AM when the avalanche hit.  I recall hearing the sound of a very distant icefall and then some rumbling but it sounded far off and I wasn’t concerned.  Camp 2 is at about 20,000’ and above us were several very large crevasses that filled up with the debris from the avalanche, and then we were hit by the wind blast and some snow & ice that shredded my tent.  Everyone was OK but shaken.  Another team camped next to us reported one member had a slight concussion from being hit by a piece of ice.  There were some boots & other gear items in our camp that had been blown down from the group camped just above us.

I exited our tent and surveyed the scene and asked if everyone was OK.  I then climbed up just 50’ to the “upper” camp 2 where another team was located above us.  When I reached them many members were without tents as theirs had been destroyed by the wind blast and snow/ice.  We brought some of the boots up hoping that would help these climbers.  While I was speaking with the leader from this team we saw a lone figure coming down in the dark towards us.  He could see our headlamps on in the dark and was walking down quickly, almost running, with his sleeping bag hanging loosely in one hand.  When he got to us we saw that he was a Sherpa and was barefoot, only with his long underwear on.  I knew then that Camp 3 had been badly hit by the avalanche and that someone had to go up and start helping those who had survived.  I quickly went back down to our camp, saw that everyone was OK, then asked my friend and lead guide from the IMG group Mike Hamill if he wanted to go up with me and my co guide Lakpa Rita Sherpa and see if we could provide assistance.  The three of us began climbing up toward Camp 3.

Lakpa raced ahead and got to the uppermost tent site at Camp 3 and found Glen Plake, who had been with 2 other French climbers in a tent when the avalanche hit.  Glen miracously survived and ended up in a large crevasse on top of the debris with his belongings, but his climbing partners disappeared.  Lakpa radioed Glen’s base camp (Himalayan Guides) and began searching for the missing climbers then met up with myself & Mike lower down where the German team (Amical) and another French (Expes) group had ended up.

These two groups, along with an Italian team, had been camped side by side and had been swept downward about 500’ by the avalanche.  When we found them the sun was up, and some of the injured were being tended to by a few in their group, as well as some skiers (Greg Hill & team) who were camped nearby but not affected by the slide.  We began asking if they knew how many were accounted for and how many were missing and then started working on an evacuation plan.  The weather at that time in the morning was perfect, no wind or clouds, and would be perfect for a helicopter evacuation.  The helicopter company had already been notified, and I knew we needed a helipad built quickly.  I took it upon myself to pick out a spot close to where the injured climbers were located and started shoveling snow, one activity I've gained a lot of practice with at high altitude.  The debris from the avalanche was easy to shovel and with a few other volunteers we had a suitable landing pad flattened out in about an hour.  We then marked an “H” in the center of the pad with water mixed with orange powder.

We had a plan to fly out the seriously injured climbers first, then start flying out people that were OK but without the proper gear to descend (most gear had been swept away so people were left without boots, harnesses, crampons, etc).  When the B 3 (helicopter) landed we loaded up a German man into the back seat, the next flight was a French man.  The pilot only wanted to fly off one person at a time until we got the injured climbers off who would require laying on the back seat, then we could load two at a time for those who were OK but without gear to walk down.  The pilot would shuttle these climbers down to base camp or Samagoan where there were at least some medical facilities, then return to our site at 20,500 feet to pick up more climbers, and then a few of the bodies.  When all climbers in need of evacuation were flown off it was about noon, and we prepared to descend back to our Camp 2.    We left a few bodies there because the weather had changed and it was no longer safe for the helicopter to fly given the conditions (the helicopter would return the following morning to fly off these bodies, & as I write now there is talk of a plan to look for the missing climbers still buried by the debris).

I took a few photos of the avalanche path and the ice cliff above that likely broke and triggered the massive slab avalanche.   The German team thought they were in a safe location given the slope but this slide was on such a large scale that it pushed over to their camp.   We were very lucky that the debris filled in several large crevasses and came to a stop before reaching our camp.  We had planned to put our Camp 3 at the Col where hopefully we would be safe in the event of a large avalanche initiated by icefall from the ridgeline. 

We descended to our Camp 2 and packed up our belongings and began the descent to base camp.  We had an uneventful climb down to base camp, and were very thankful that we returned to base unscathed.  As we reflected on the situation we considered ourselves lucky, and given the conditions on Manaslu that produced this massive avalanche, we felt it unsafe to continue the climb, venturing up again on what would have been our summit rotation.  Many other teams also decided to leave the mountain and climb another day.

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