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Expeditions

Oct 17, 2018

Update: Nine Climbers Die at Gurja Base Camp. What Really Happened? The Experts’ Opinion

Many media outlets from around the world have offered explanations. But there has been confusion, and a serious lack of understanding on what happened to the nine climbers on Friday morning.

WRITTEN BY

Sean Verity

In the early hours of Friday morning, five South Koreans and four Nepali guides died during a violent snowstorm. It was the deadliest accident in Nepal’s climbing community since 2015, and those that passed away included decorated Korean team leader Kim Chang-ho. Whilst everyone agreed on the scene of total destruction, there has been much disparity and confusion with regards to an explanation. Media outlets offered varied and often conflicting hypotheses, as presented in our article: 9 Climbers Die at Gurja Base Camp: What We Know So Far.

The Outdoor Journal has since reached out to Global Rescue (the first on the scene) the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), The National Avalanche Center, the climbing community within Nepal, and many local avalanche or safety bodies from around the world. Our goal was to establish exactly what might have caused the devastation at Gurja Base Camp.

THE TIMELINE

The below information is courtesy of Global Rescue, a US-based emergency assistance group and the first on the scene at Gurja Base Camp. They spoke to The Outdoor Journal to offer a first hand account.

On Friday 12 Oct 2018  at 0555hours, Global Rescue was notified by Trekking Camp Nepal of an accident involving Global Rescue members on Gurja in Nepal.

It appeared that an avalanche during a high wind snow storm swept the entire climbing party and staff down the mountain from its basecamp. A helicopter flyover later located the mortal remains of missing climbers and expedition staff by air.  Total: 5 Koreans (4 had Global Rescue coverage) and 4 Nepalese. The mortal remains of climbers and expedition staff were reported to be scattered in a 400-500m radius.  There was significant debris in base camp area.

Global Rescue deployed personnel to Kathmandu on Saturday, 13 Oct 2018 to coordinate logistics with Nepal and South Korean governments, embassies and families of the Global Rescue members. On Sunday, Oct 14 2018, helicopters using longline rescues retrieved the remains of all nine, transporting them first to Pokhara then to Kathmandu. The remains of the South Korean climbers departed Kathmandu for Seoul the evening of 16 Oct 2018.  The Minister of Tourism conducted a ceremony at which Global Rescue was present prior to departure.

THE SCENE AT BASE CAMP

All eye witnesses were in agreement. Helicopter pilot Siddartha Gurung told AFP: “Everything is gone, all the tents are blown apart”. Dan Richards, the CEO of Global Rescue, said that “Base camp looks like a bomb went off” and “at this point we don’t understand how this happened. You don’t usually get those sorts of extreme winds at that altitude and base camps are normally chosen because they are safe places”.

It’s at this point that many stories that can be found online deviate from one another.

CAN WE DISCOUNT A LANDSLIDE?

When the news of this tragedy first broke, The Himalayan Times were the first to report “at least nine climbers including five Korean nationals were killed when a massive landslide buried the base camp of Mt Gurja (7,193 metres) on the lap of the south face of Mt Dhaulagiri in western Nepal”.

However, Bruce Raup a Senior Associate Scientist Senior Associate Scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) told The Outdoor Journal that a “landslide (a large displacement if rock and soil) seems unlikely to me because it was likely frozen in place” and his colleague Richard Armstrong, a Senior Research Scientist at the (NSIDC), explained that “the evidence would be there at the site, rock and other debris mixed in with the camp destruction”.

CAN WE DISCOUNT AN AVALANCHE?

The Kathmandu Post reported that upon arriving at the camp, Nepali climbing guide Lakma Sherpa said “When a team of locals reached the site, it was clear immediately that the camp was hit by snowstorm” and that “officials suspect that a massive avalanche on the mountain may have triggered the snowstorm.” Meanwhile, Shailesh Thapa Kshetri, a police spokesman in Nepal, told the New York Times that it was unlikely that an avalanche had struck the team, because the bodies were not buried.

However, when The Outdoor Journal reached out to the NSIDC for comment, Richard Armstrong couldn’t discount an avalanche. Whilst Shailesh Thapa Kshetri pointed out that the bodies had not been buried, “that would still be the case with a dry snow powder avalanche. Not that much mass of snow collecting along the path of the avalanche, but significant destruction due to the air blast resulting from air being displaced by the powder cloud, which would have a density greater than “clean” air”.

AN ‘AIR BLAST’?

Of all the many accounts that have been suggested until now, Suraj Paudyal, a member of the rescue team is believed was closest to the truth. When talking to CNN, Surjah said that “It seems that a serac [a piece of glacial ice broke] and barreled down the couloir [a gully on a mountainside] from the top ridge of the mountain and the gust created the turbulence washing the climbers and staff from their tented camp at the base camp”.

Bruce Raup, a Senior Associate Scientist at the NSIDC, hypothesised that “A snowstorm might have loaded the slopes above them with unstable snow, which then fell catastrophically in an avalanche. Dry snow and ice avalanches are known to push air ahead of them in a sort of shock wave that can pack hurricane force — enough to scatter a camp. Thus, the “air blast” explanation rings true to me, with the understanding that the air blast was caused by a snow avalanche.”

Bruce’s colleague, Richard Armstrong, a Senior Research Scientist, backed this possibility. “In the case of an air blast there would be no such debris (ice and snow), and in many cases like this, very little avalanche debris, actual avalanche snow that is, just the debris of the camp as damaged by the air blast,” he said.

Speaking on behalf of the National Avalanche Center , Simon Trautman, an Avalanche Specialist, explained that “Air blasts are a pressure wave of air that runs beyond the obvious avalanche front (or deposited debris). This phenomenon is associated with avalanche motion, but is only occasionally observed. One theory is that air blasts are generated when free falling avalanche debris compresses air close to the ground, subsequently propelling the air ahead of the debris. While this may, or may not be the physics behind air blasts, we do know that they can be very powerful and destructive.” Simon’s colleague, Dr. Karl Birkeland, Director of the Forest Service National Avalanche Center added “that while air blasts with smaller avalanches are rare, air blasts associated with large avalanches in big mountains are fairly common. A few years ago the base camp at Mount Everest was severely affected by an air blast associated with a large avalanche that was trigged by an earthquake”. The Outdoor Journal reported on this earthquake at the time.

The Colorado Geological Survey clarifies on their website, that “The air blast zone is usually in the vicinity of, but not necessarily continuous with, the lower track or runout zone. In some cases it may even run part way up the slope across the valley from the avalanche path.”

HOW POWERFUL IS AN AIR BLAST?

Bruce Raup of the NSIDC explained that an air Blast could have hurricane force, but could it have caused the devastation found at Gurja base camp? The Colorado Geological Survey explains, “Air blasts from powder avalanches commonly exert a pressure of 100 lb/ft (2) of force (Martinelli, speech November 8, 1973). Pressures of only 20-50 lb/ft (2) are capable of knocking out most windows and doors.“

The Outdoor Journal would like to thank all of those who contributed to this article.

Cover Photo: Charles Ng, Jalja La Pass. Views of Dhaulagiri (8167 m) & Gurja Himal (7193 m)

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Expeditions

Jul 01, 2019

Trans Himalaya 2019: First Contact

In his first contact since embarking on a 2,500 km self-supported journey last month, Peter Van Geit ventures deeper into the most remote corners of the Himalaya.

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WRITTEN BY

Peter Van Geit

Last month, The Outdoor Journal introduced an alpine-style journey for the ages in which wilderness explorer Peter Van Geit, along with filmmaker Neil D’Souza, embarked on a 2,500 km self-supported journey across 100+ Himalayan high passes in Himachal, Ladakh, and Uttarakhand. Now more than one month into their journey, Peter shares the first field notes update from their psychedelic experience amidst the mountains.

After exactly one month since the start, I completed the first section of my journey, the state of Uttarakhand East to West starting from the border of Nepal until entering the neighbouring state of Himachal today. Uttarakhand has been mesmerizing – lush green forests, countless small hamlets, virgin valleys, beautiful paths and trails connecting villages, overwhelming hospitality.

As 3330m we pitched up camp at the last flat space next to a large snow bridge before a steep 600m climb to Balsi Khal.
Peter and Neil’s journey is self-supported, which means they carry all of their own gear and navigate using offline maps.

In total, I crossed 127 hamlets in the state, some very remote hidden deep inside the mountains, climbed across 27 passes touching the snowline near to 4000m, hiked through 27 valleys in between the passes, some with many hamlets and farmlands, some uninhabited virgin jungles, crossed several wild streams, saw various wildlife including a black bear, monkeys and deer.

Read next on TOJ: Field Notes: Solo Ultra-Running the High Himalaya

Another steep climb follows above Pana till the path crosses a major ridge at 3100m. To my surprise I find a kind shepherd camping at the same spot inviting me over for tea and night stay.
These routes are rarely used, if at all, by local shepherds.

Aside the stunning natural beauty, what touched me most was the remote hospitality of Uttarakhand. Especially while passing through remote tribal settlements where very few or no travelers would have ever crossed, people were extremely friendly and warm, inviting me in for food and a night’s stay without expectations. In many homes, I was treated as if I was their own son, as they showed concern about my well-being and guiding me to the next pass.

On the way from Joshimath to Mondal, we descended and crossed a side valley on the way to Dumak (2400m) where the village kids playfully welcomed us.

The most memorable night stays were those with the “Bakris” or shepherds who roam the entire summer in remote sections of the high mountains grazing the “bugyals” or meadows with hundreds of their sheep. They are truly your best friends in the remotest corners of the Himalaya. Staying with them around a warm campfire in the cold high altitude nights, sharing yummy rottis (flat breads) with “sabji”, fresh goat milk, lying on your back and watching the night skies lit up with millions of stars, listening to a 20 year old Philips radio playing Hindi songs from All India AM radio. That experience is out of this world.

After a full-day journey traveling in 3 share taxis from Mondal to Sonprayag through madening pilgrim traffic and dusty under construction ghat roads we finally settled down at Trijugi Nārāyan 2200m, a peaceful hamlet above the pilgrim madness at Sonprayag 1700m.
The snow clad peaks above Kedarnath span across the horizon. The other side of the pass follows a long gradual descent along a ridge. At 3300m there is the small hamlet of Panwali Kantha.

The most challenging parts of the journey have been those where we lost the path or where the trail fades out in the jungle. You then have to scramble across steep valley slopes, sometimes dense thorny vegetation, cross wild streams, hang on to trees and roots climbing across landslide sections, rely on contour maps to navigate your way around vertical cliffs, etc. The intensity of the effort and calories burned multiplies manifold once you go “off trail” finding your way through the jungle towards the next hamlet or pass.

On the way from Bhatwari to Hanuman Chatti, we reached the Darwa pass within 1.5 hours. From there it was a quick descend back down to Doti Taal where I gobbled up yummy rottis with spinach veggie. Met a nice Colombian who was doing a 6 month Yatra, or religious pilgrimage in the North.

Towards Western Uttarakhand near to the neighbouring state of Himachal Pradesh we came across remote fairytale villages built from beautiful natural stone and wood. We discovered ancient wooden temples beautifully handcrafted by previous generations. Homes have several vertical levels with beautifully crafted terraces, animals staying below and people on top.

Beautiful wooden temple in Phari village, at 1500 m elevation.

Most hiking groups usually select 1 pass and take a week to acclimatize and cross the pass over several campsites. Doing 27 passes in one month, or nearly one each day requires a lot of endurance and speed. Going minimalist and lightweight is the key to go faster, with less food and less night stays in between. Proper nutrition and night rest is key to keep up the daily momentum of some 30-40km with an average elevation gain of 3,000 meters. You easily burn 5,000 calories for each pass crossing which needs to be refueled in the villages in between.

I found a nice path leading up Northwest along the ridge leading towards Kedarkanta. After a 30min walk a hidden settlement of Darsaun 2400m revealed itself. Here I lost the path and asking the locals for directions did not help either. At the last home I met an old friendly lady who invited me over for some hot “dude” (milk). Soon after that a sumptuous breakfast followed with thick rottis, curd, cheese, spinach. Best home made food I had in my entire journey.

The entire trip so far went alpine style using offline contour maps, pre-planned trails and some local guidance here and there. 85% was on proper trails and paths between the villages and passes, 15% was “off trail” scrambling through jungles and valley slopes. Most of the night stays are near villages and in people’s homes, a lesser number in the wild and near the passes with the shepherds. We usually cross passes in between valleys in 1-2 days and carry only enough food ration with us. Each day usually starts at 5 am and goes till sunrise targetting the first village out of the forest in the next valley. No rest days so far with approximately 800 km covered and 70 thousand meters elevation gain.

According to Peter, his only objective is to inspire others to explore these beautiful locations. You can read more about Peter’s experiences and motivations in his interview here – Alpine-Style, Ultra-Challenge in the Himalayan High Passes. Stay tuned on The Outdoor Journal for Peter’s next update along his 2,500 km journey.

To follow Peter’s expedition, visit his blog.
Facebook: @PeterVanGeit
Instagram: @petervangeit
Chennai Trekking Club

For more Neil Productions, visit: http://neil.dj/
Facebook: @neilb4me

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