Paddy Cave / Expedition Leader
Manaslu is 8156m and is the 8th highest peak in the world. The ‘Mountain of the Spirit’ is located in the Mansiri Himal in the Nepalese Himalayas. Whilst this is not the most technical 8000m peak, it is increasingly gaining a reputation as being one of the more hazardous. Paddy Cave was an expedition leader on the mountain this year and gives us his account of the 2012 Manaslu disaster where a massive avalanche killed 13 people and injured many others. For Nepal this was the worst mountaineering disaster since 1995.
I sat in the porch of my tent, already the sun was up – the weather was clear and still. As my eyes adjusted to the light I gazed at the mountain and the area where Camp 3 lay at about 6800m. The massive wall of seracs (hanging glacial ice cliffs) on the skyline of the summit ridge had changed, there was a section missing that was so big it was hard to comprehend and the crown wall of the slab avalanche it had triggered below was easy to pick out in the slanting early morning light. It was massive, perhaps the width of six football fields, the track could clearly be seen and through my binoculars I could see figures moving about and the track of debris stretching down to the area of Camp 2. Looking up to where Camp 3 should be, there was nothing.
I sat looking at the mountain. It was not clear exactly how many people were at Camp 3, reports were coming down, English, French, German and Nepali, I couldn’t catch or understand everything that was being said, but the tone said enough… These snippets coming from the radio painted a picture of devastation at Camp 3.
The scene of the accident was probably only a few kilometres away and was in clear view, however it was easy to let the distance and radio relayed correspondence create the feeling of separation, that this was not happening right in front of us. The journey to the scene of the incident could be completed in a day by the well acclimatised and fit, but might take 3 for some. At Camp 3 it was different. People were struggling for life, some had already died and there were many injured, for the people up there it was real, it was happening. Probably for those at the scene the reality was equally surreal, but in a very different way.
As the day progressed the picture was becoming clearer but the number of those involved was unclear. The helicopters arrived from the valley and the casualties were evacuated to BC while the more seriously injured were flown straight to the valley base at Samagaon ready for transfer to Kathmandu. At BC a makeshift treatment area had been created, many of the larger expeditions, including ourselves, had brought down stretchers, oxygen and medical supplies to the heli pad.
Thinking back to the heli pad it is interesting to see how different people react to such events. There is no Mountain Rescue present, no one is ‘in charge’, so its very much a case of people stepping forward and getting stuck in. Whilst some will naturally step forward, there is always others who will wait until directed, and others again who will feel they are going to be in the way, or perhaps don’t want to go to the site as they feel it is inappropriate when there are casualties and worse. However it panned out , I must say it seemed to work. To me it was an example of strangers with a mutual interest pulling together and using their common sense in what is a confusing situation.
At the heli pad I met Pasang, a Nepali Mountain Guide, he was taking a central role in coordinating a Sherpa rescue party and after a brief chat I picked up my mountain kit and put on my high altitude boots. It wasn’t clear whether anyone was going to need to be flown up as extra help but I figured that if I was ready it could be a help. My team had been to Camp 2 and higher so I felt I was acclimatised to the height of the incident and could be useful, most others who had been to that height already were involved in the incident.
It was whilst waiting at the heli pad that the reality of the situation struck me more deeply. Whilst I recognised many of the faces of injured climbers coming off the helicopters from the 10 day approach walk and evenings spent in various tea houses along the way, it was the arrival of the body of a Sherpa that struck deeper. I had heard that 1 Sherpa had been killed, but it was only now that it was confirmed as Dawa Sherpa from Pangboche in the Solukhumbu. Dawa was a friend of mine and had spent 5 weeks with me the previous year working on Mera Peak and Baruntse. Dawa had visited only days before and was full of life and enthusiasm, it was hard to connect that person with the body wrapped up in the sleeping bag. His brother was also there, his agony is only a clue of what it must feel like to lose a sibling and in many ways it leaves you, as an observer, shocked, ‘what can I do or say?’
One thing was clear, we were very lucky… and that’s all it was…‘luck’. This was not the kind of avalanche that could be easily predicted, there had been a lot of snow on our arrival but it had generally stabilised. The avalanche was caused by the serac collapse. Historically this serac barrier had not been an issue as far as I know – it clearly threatened the route but had never proved unstable and was simply accepted as one of the many objective dangers on the mountain. Previous accidents had occurred on the long exposed traverse between Camps 1 and 2 and it was this area that had a particular reputation for being accident-prone.
So when we arrived at Camp 2, on one of our load carries we felt relieved to be temporarily out of the very exposed section below. The day had been hard with equipment being carried up to leave on the mountain for our later summit attempt. The team were tired and feeling the effects of the altitude. Plan A was to move to Camp 3 the following day and sleep, then return to BC for a good rest.
On waking though one team member was not feeling good, an overnight headache had worsened and was causing an issue. A headache at altitude must be taken seriously, it can be a symptom of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) and can’t be ignored. The Sherpa team were keen to continue with the load carry to Camp 3, and since they were well this was a good idea to put us in the best position for the future summit attempt. One team member who felt OK was keen to accompany them for her own acclimatisation.
So we agreed that they would do the load carry and I would stay with the other unwell member. The plan was to get some fluids into the unwell member and get up and about and see if there was any change to how he felt. Fairly quickly it was clear we needed to descend, he felt no better. At this stage I was concerned about High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) and was keen to move down with the member in time to descend all the way to BC. Some medication was taken but descent was the best cure for possible AMS so it was decision made. I radioed the rest of the team, after a short discussion the decision was made that once the load carry was complete to Camp 3 that they would all descend back to BC also.
Back at BC, the headache was improving. The others arrived later in the evening and we all went off to get some sleep after a reasonable day. I drifted off to sleep hoping that the lost night sleep at Camp 3, where we should be now, wouldn’t effect our acclimatisation too much but was happy to see the member looking better. It was 4am the following morning that the avalanche struck.
Where there is light, there is always shadow
Looking back on Manaslu one thing comes to mind over anything else, my team and myself were very fortunate. We were ‘meant’ to be at Camp 3. The fact that a headache changed the course of things for me and my team will always be something that is hard to fully comprehend. Its hard to take in that such a small thing could have altered the course of events so significantly for our team, our families and friends.
Another thing that comes to mind is the slight irony of the situation, all year there had been no one there at all, that day people arrived. The next day on the other hand, there could easily have been twice that number there. Tibet had closed for expeditions this year and many trips had diverted to other options, Manaslu being a logical substitute for Cho Oyu (8201m) was very busy with 34 expeditions on the mountain.
A quote I remember says, ‘where there is light, there is always shadow’. It often comes to mind when I’m in the mountains and reminds me that many of my most memorable experiences are the ones that ventured close to the ‘shadow’. Sometimes it will be our own error that will push us too close to that division, but other times, as with Manaslu, its out of our hands.