By Don Bowie
Picture this: It’s nighttime. You’re caught in a whiteout blizzard, perched high on a ledge in the Himalayan mountains. Avalanches are coming down all around, destroying and burying tents. The way up or down is too dangerous- there’s nowhere to go. People are huddling in the dark, while others run back and forth to dig out buried tents to get survival gear. There is panic in the air- people asking what they should do and where they should go. The scene is electric with chaos. And, in the middle of it all, one man is on his hands and knees, in the darkness and without a light, carefully sifting through the snow with his index finger, inch by inch, meticulously searching for something.
(Click on all images to enlarge)
Around 9am on April 18th, I arrived at a pair of empty tents perched on a small serac at 6300 meters. It was nice to finally climb on the German Ridge proper, and leave the insecurity of the Crosshair Couloir below me. Since there was no more room on the ledge, I began kicking out a small place for my tent on a narrow finger of snow that jutted out left of the platform, but as I tried to flatten out the narrow ridge the snow kept collapsing beneath me. As I worked, it became apparent to me that if the entire perch were for some reason to disintegrate in the night, I would endure an expedited ride (complete with all my gear) right back down the face. I decided to shoulder my pack and climb higher to scout another spot.
After climbing a few vertical steps, I discovered a reasonably flat place about 100 meters higher. At first glance, deadly seracs virtually surrounded the place, but after I traced each of the avalanche debris paths they all seemed safely out of reach. I was now near the very top of the Crosshair Couloir, and the teetering seracs that had been such a threat earlier in the day (and, for some, near demise) were now to be my neighbors- the largest was only a hundred feet up and to the right.
A deep crevasse split the campsite in two, and since the slope on the upside of the crevasse was lower-angled, I decided to kick out a platform there, and within the hour I was brewing tea and enjoying the sun warming the tent. About 30 minutes later I heard footsteps outside and peered out to find a heavily-laden Sherpa arriving, followed shortly by Carlos Soria and his climbing team. They unloaded their packs just upslope of my tent and began to kick out their own tent spots. The Sherpa looked up at the slope above, then turned to me and said, “Maybe avalanche danger?”. “Naw”, I responded, “not unless it snows half a meter.”
By 4pm the last of the climbers had arrived at the camp, and eventually set up no less than 10 tents crowded on the shallow slope around mine. It was a tight spot, but we all worked together, managing to fit everyone in. Then it began to snow. By 7pm, more than 40cm of snow had accumulated, and it seemed that with every hour the snowfall became more intense. In my lightweight BD Firstlight tent, the snow pushed in easily from all sides, reducing my already tiny living quarters drastically. From inside the tent, I kept pushing the snow off the downhill tent wall, but as my neighbors above me cleared snow from their tent it began to pile up in the gap I had cut between the snow slope and the upper tent wall. Despite how many times I got out and cleared it, the pile kept growing bigger and bigger, edging my whole tent downhill. I became frustrated with the whole situation, especially because I had not drank enough or eaten much since arriving at camp, occupied with helping others make tent platforms and clearing the rapidly accumulating snow. I decided to invest an hour brewing tea and making some noodle soup, trying to ignore the un-ignorable uphill tent wall that was progressively bulging grossly inward. By the time the tea and soup was ready, the bulge had rudely surpassed the middle axis of the tent, and was coldly nudging against my right shoulder- mocking me like my brother used to do in the backseat on long road trips. My frustration reached its limit. I started to put my boots on to go outside and excavate the snow tumor.
Just then I then heard a weird sweeping noise, and then muffled voices calling my name- then loud yelling…so I quickly escaped the tent- just in time to see the two Iranian climbers, Azim and Farrah, pulling themselves out from a completely destroyed (and nearly buried) tent. I took a few steps toward them, and just then heard the same sound behind me. I turned quickly, and through the darkness and blowing snow caught a glimpse of a dust cloud- a small avalanche- coming down the slope toward the tents on the right. I yelled “Go! Go!” and ran to the left, watching Oscar also bolt from his open tent door and follow me.
Needless to say, things were a little chaotic for a while. In the darkness and blowing snow it’s hard to see anything, so it was very confusing to know where the slides had come from. At first, everyone rushed to the downhill side of the crevasse, seeking some protection from other avalanches. I went with the group, but had no gloves, nor boot liners, no jacket, no crampons, no ice tools- and worse- no headlamp. I needed stuff to survive, so I immediately hurried back from the downhill side of the crevasse to the location of my tent to get some survival essentials- but my tent was…well…no longer a tent. It was more like a nylon taco, buried in snow. Since the aforementioned annoying snow tumor had already semi-collapsed the tent, the avalanche simply finished the job, bowling the whole lot over and perfectly folding it under a few feet of powder. (Insert appropriate silver-lining cliche’.) I grabbed a shovel and dug down carefully, excavating as best I could in the darkness. “Relax. Go slow. Just get the basic stuff, the I need to survive stuff”, I thought.
As I dug, I sensed a few others in my periphery also digging out tents, but many people had relocated downslope to the other side of the crevasse for safety, and I could see in the headlamp light that some people were visibly upset. Knowing that things could be very desperate without essential gear, I continued to dig… focused. I got most of the snow off the fabric then found the door- by now with very cold hands. As I opened it, a remarkable odor of gas wafted out. Damn, the stove was on. Right. I fumbled around and found it, finally tuning it off, only to further discover my hands covered in semi-frozen soupy noodles. At least it distinguished itself under the snow and somehow didn’t manage to burn up all my gear. I grabbed some essentials, as best as I could find, then sprinted back to the safe huddle downslope of the crevasse.
Then, the chaos in my mind began to subside. I began to gather my thoughts, and it occurred to me that the slope above camp shouldn’t really slide again- unless it snows a lot more, but the snow was subsiding- and I also noticed stars above. I also thought that the avalanches we just endured must certainly have been smaller sluffs coming off the seracs just above camp; if they had come from any higher they would have certainly done more damage than simply wreck a few tents. I decided that things were safe across the crevasse and headed back to get ALL my stuff. However, I desperately needed my headlamp. I asked Oscar to hold my mitts and my inner boots, and I put on my down jacket. I then took out the headlamp bag from my top pack- which I had fortunately found during the first excavation- and emptied the small, cloth headlamp bag- and felt a few items bounce off my frozen palm and fall into the powdery snow. I then remembered that I took the batteries out of my headlamp that morning to prevent it from turning on in my pack while I was climbing- and had put the batteries in the bag. Drag!
There, in the darkness, in the middle of it all, I got down on my hands and knees, and started sifting, very carefully with my index finger, through the snow…extra batteries are hard to come by on the slopes of Annapurna. Eventually I found them- all three batteries. I’m not sure how, but I finally got my headlamp fired up, dug out the rest of my tent, and set it up on a new platform- this time on the downhill side of the crevasse- just in case. I then shivered the whole night; my sleeping bag lost all insolating properties after it was doused in frozen noodle soup.
The next day I decided to stay another night at Camp 3 to acclimatize while most of the others retreated down the mountain. About midway through the afternoon I heard the thunderous roar of a massive avalanche. The next day, as I climbed down and back to base camp, I discovered on the flat upper basin between Camp 1 and Camp 2 a huge amount of broken ice and avalanche debris. The avalanche I had heard the day before had absolutely hammered the entire basin, sending Carlos Soria and his team running for cover and nearly taking them all out. You can see their amazing video and images of the slide aftermath, and read about their close call here: www.facebook.com/yosuboconcarlossoria
Now I’m back in base camp, waiting for the next good weather window to go for the summit. It looks like next week may work, so be sure to tune for more (hopefully less dramatic) updates.