Personal reflection on the Manaslu Avalanche Disaster

Photo rights Greg Hill

“I personally have never conquered a mountain, I have merely done my best to sneak up and down without the mountain actually knowing that I had ever been there.”

Myself, Dominic (upper right) and team in Talkeetna, Alaska 2008

It has been a couple of weeks since the unfortunate disaster on Manaslu and as a mountaineer and guide there is a deep connection that I have with this tragedy. One connection, is that many of my colleagues were leading trips on Manaslu for their respective guiding companies. Another is that missing and deceased French-Canadian mountaineer Dominique Ouimet was at one time a past client of mine.

The reality that I could have been directly involved in this event is a haunting reminder of the indifference that the mountains hold over us.  A large portion of what I do in  mountaineering is balancing inherent and calculated risk with reaching the summit or turning around. As a mountaineering guide, I am placed into a leadership role with my participants and with this responsibility; I do my very best with making a decision with the information that is available to me at that point in time.

Forecasting avalanches on a 8000m Himalayan peak is a balance of patience and timing.  One supreme understanding, is that the principles and dynamics of snow science can be very inexact. It is practically impossible to accurately isolate and monitor a slopes aspect for proper snow science to be conducted at this level and scale of mountaineering.  When avalanches release in the Himalayas or Alaska, they go big.

From the reports and blogs that I have read online, there was a significant amount of snowfall that preceded this event.  Conditions then seem to had stabilized in the upper snow pack for the high altitude Sherpa guides to preform their duties and therefore pave the way for the western independent climbers, guides and their participants.  From my understanding, the catastrophic avalanche that happened on Manaslu was a result of a collapsed serac that penetrated into the lower depths of the snow pack and then released the slope above camps 3 and 2 respectively.  Seracs toppling over in the mountains are a common occurrence since they are a result of the slow, yet dynamic principle of glaciation.  They can release at anytime due to the fact that glaciers are literally moving “rivers” of ice and therefore you are never 100% safe from their aftermath if you are within their path.  Seracs can also naturally release as a result of the expansion and contraction that takes place within the ice.  This occurs either from the daytime heat through solar radiation or the cold temperatures deepening throughout the night.

Photo rights Greg Hill

This serac was released and the avalanche ensued in the early predawn hours while the mountaineers were still in their tents and asleep. This situation mixed with overcrowding on the upper mountain was most likely a contributing factor to why so many people were left exposed to the avalanche at camp 3.  From my perspective after looking at these photos, there is very little ground to hide at this camp and makes me wonder if Manaslu is an 8000m peak that can handle the numbers of commercial guiding. The exponential increase of climbers attempting Manaslu this season was also a direct result of the access closures to Shishapangma and Cho Oyu.  These two Himalayan giants are often the objectives of choice during the post monsoon climbing season and have been continually tested each season as corridors of more predictable passage for higher numbers.

As climbers we often have to hedge our bets in the mountains by climbing at night or camping momentarily in exposed terrain.  Our uncertainty and vulnerability by surrendering unto the moment allows the razors edge of existence to bring us face to face with our own temporary mortality. What we often deem as opportune moments for treading vertically up and down these trigger prone slopes could at any moment be our downfall.

My prayers go out to the families of those that were killed in this event.  May we all continue to embrace our inherent need for adventure and communion with Nature as a human being whose soul purpose on this Earth is to play with reckless abandonment.  Keep climbing!

Summit of Denali with team in 2008. (Dominic is in the back center)

For an personal account of this disaster please check out Greg Hill’s eyewitness account of the Manaslu disaster.

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