THE DAY THE MOUNTAIN FELL …PART I
BY Don Bowie
In just 24 hours, the international group of climbers attempting Annapurna endured 3 separate avalanche events, and somehow survived them all.
I left Camp 2 on the crisp, early morning of April 18th to ascend the German ridge and set up Camp 3. I was the first to leave camp that morning, and began the arduous task of breaking trail over the blunted knoll above camp, slowly making my way through fresh snow toward the bottom of the north face. As I crested the hill I was once again shocked by the immensity of the face above; a complex maze of hanging seracs, avalanche gullies, and broken cliff-bands. Before reaching the face I would have to negotiate the long, low-angled cone of avalanche debris that accumulates below the face- the last obstacle before the real climbing begins. As I started up the debris cone, I noticed that all angles above seemed to point to this one section, as if the mountain was architected to focus all of its threatening energy here, in this spot. I had Annapurna’s crosshairs trained directly on me, and therefore dubbed the dangerous chute that bisects the face, the Crosshair Couloir.
In the middle of the debris field I somehow lost the faint trail and began wandering back and forth, indecisively roaming from left to right, and back again. I felt panic rise in my chest as fumbled around directly below the throat of the Crosshair. I was breathing heavily, climbing up, searching for the best way, laboring in the thin air, and now feeling the heaviness of my pack. Fortunately, before long I had a self-realized moment and abruptly ceased my waffling and firmly directed myself (uttering a creative expletive) to make a decision. I then began a direct line trending up and right toward the bottom right hand corner of the Crosshair. A few minutes later I stood only a few meters from the face, hiding under the safety of the rocks at the bottom of the Dutch Rib, panting like I just ran the 400 yard dash. (Actually, in a way I did.)
(Click on all pictures to enlarge. Scroll down to exit)
As I peered up to my left I saw a small, dark rope hanging over an ice step at the opposite corner of the Crosshair. I was astonished that this could be the beginning of the route up the face, and I was certain that it was just some old piece of rope brought down by avalanche debris- but it looked intact. There was only one way to find out. I caught my breath and made a quick climb up the ice cliff, traversing the entire width of the chute to the hanging rope. I recognized the pattern on the rope sheath from base camp, quickly clipped in and front-pointed a few steps up the cliff and into the bottom of the gully…and I was immediately horrified: The Crosshair Couloir is around 50 feet wide at the very bottom, then abruptly opens to twice that width above the mouth. The base of the entire chute is sculpted into a perfect half-pipe, scoured clean down to rock and blue ice, polished smooth by countless ice avalanches rampaging down the slope. At the top of the couloir, nearly 2000ft above, teeters a series of overhanging, broken seracs- some more than 200 feet high- all being shoved from behind by millions of tons of glacial ice waiting for the ride into oblivion.
I immediately climbed up and left to get as far out of the fall-line as possible, but for some unknown reason the rope went straight up. I wondered why anyone in their right mind would set a rope going straight up here and not traverse far left to get out of the way? I removed my single ice tool from my harness, unclipped from the rope, and started climbing up and left. I soon reached a section of bullet hard ice, but because I only had one ice tool with me, the climbing was a bit too dicey, so I reluctantly traversed back right toward the rope.
After 20 minutes of hard climbing I finally felt that I was in a secure place (um, relatively), and stopped for the first time since leaving my safe stance near the Dutch Rib. Looking below, I noticed that the angle at the bottom of the chute narrowed so quickly that there was really no safe place at either side of the mouth. The best way to clear the danger was to gain elevation quickly- hence the route going straight up- however ridiculous it seemed.
Above my stance, the climbing became enjoyable as the steep line of the German Ridge sported solid ice mixed with rock and sections of unconsolidated snow. And with the broad ridge rising above, the route is actually very safe, so I periodically stopped to take pictures and video of the incredible views. After 2 more hours of climbing I reached a small ledge, took out my camera again, and looked below me and could not believe what I saw! Almost two dozen people were following my tracks- and I mean FOLLOWING MY TRACKS- waffling around in the debris field exactly as I had, directly below the Crosshair Couloir. Some people had even stopped a few meters short of the chute- in the center of the fall line- and had taken off their packs, and were doing something- I don’t know what- but I imagine if anyone were to actually stop in that place it would be to confirm that they purchased the Death by Avalancheclause on their life insurance policy.
I then felt a bit guilty for laying down such a wandering track up to the couloir. Of course, it was certainly not my fault that people were in such a place at that time of day. Everyone knows that the most stable time (mostly) for negotiating such terrain is early in the morning before things warm up a bit, and it was now pushing 10am. As I viewed from above, I took mental notes and memorized exactly where I should go the next time (and, God willing, last time) I would approach the face, and could see clearly that I could make the route much safer. By staying far right and circumventing the debris field, I could (theoretically) stay out of harms way to the bottom right hand corner of the Crosshair under the rocks, then quickly climb and traverse the mouth of the chute, racing up the first ropes. I figured my new route would cut the real exposure time down to a few (rather terrifying) minutes.
I put my camera away and continued climbing, cresting a short, low angled snow ramp. Suddenly, I heard a massive roar in the Crosshair Couloir. Looking to my right, I saw a huge dust cloud rising… and, well… I think I’ll let Tunc Findik’s photos tell the story from here:
Apparently, from the vantage point of Camp 2, the avalanche was so overwhelming that it rendered the climbers there absolutely silent. They stood completely still, watching in absolute horror as their team mates were engulfed in the billowing cloud. Swiss climber Guntis Brands, whose verbal response was clearly recorded on a Camp 2 video track, managed to perfectly sum up the event by expressing a single, broken word: “Cojones!”
You may not believe this, not only did all the climbers survive this avalanche, but not one was hurt. Not even a little. As a matter of fact, they all continued climbing, meeting up later that day at Camp 3. The climbers seen in the photos at the very base of the Crosshair Couloir managed to duck under the ice overhang just as the avalanche literally passed overhead. Those four climbers seen in the photos are: Mexican climbing couple Maurizio Lopez and Badia Bonilla, Ang Kami Sherpa, and Lakpa Norbu Sherpa.
In my estimation, this is one of the very rare occasions when the avalanche PF surpassed its upper limit of 10, officially rating this particular monster a PF of 11. (See my prior dispatch “The Pucker Factor” for explanation.)
The last of the group finally arrived at Camp 3 by 6 pm that evening. A few hours later, after an unforecasted dump of snow, our tents would be smashed by another set of avalanches…but you’ll have to check back later for that story.