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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

The Outdoor Journal

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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Mountain

Nov 12, 2018

Crag Caucus: Veterans and Politicians Rock Climb Together with American Alpine Club

The “Hill to Crag” event series connects veterans and legislators on rock climbing excursions to advocate for public lands. AAC Chairman and active-duty US Army Major Byron Harvison serves the beta.

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WRITTEN BY

Kela Fetters

Since its creation in 1902, climbing advocacy non-profit the American Alpine Club (AAC) has championed protection for the public lands that serve as unrivaled outdoor venues for climbers and other recreators. Their latest outreach program, the “Hill to Crag” initiative, offers lawmakers and their staff a chance to experience these public lands at iconic climbing spots across the nation. The excursions provision local elected officials with a fun day in a harness, a few sore muscles, and a heightened appreciation for public lands to parlay into protective legislature.

Golden, CO. Photo: Chad Vaughn

After the inaugural event in spring 2018, AAC’s Salt Lake Chapter Chair Byron Harvison saw the potential for veterans to contribute. Harvison, an Army Major and experienced climber, felt that veteran involvement could engender open dialogue. Conversations regarding public lands management can be polarizing; Harvison thinks politicians will respond positively to the testimonial of veterans. “Elected officials may be more inclined to hear what veterans have to say,” he says. Likewise, “discharged veterans oftentimes have a desire to continue to serve and this is a great opportunity.”

Golden, CO. Photo: Chad Vaughn

Harvison explains the Hill to Crag stratagem. “First, we talk about outdoor recreation as a way to deal with veteran-specific issues like PTSD, addiction, and depression following deployment,” he extolls. These dialogues are personal and poignant. Harvison focused on rock climbing after an intense deployment in Afghanistan, and he isn’t the only veteran to credit outdoor recreation with healing. “A lot of guys can say ‘Hey, getting outside saved my life’, and they are able to share those raw stories with these legislators,” he adds.

Harvison knows politicians are beholden to monetary interests and thus explicates the value of outdoor recreation on the local and national economy: “Nationally, outdoor recreation has surpassed the oil and gas industry in economic terms.” A recent government report estimates that outdoor recreation contributes $412 billion annually to the US GDP, and Harvison recognizes the potential for the industry to throw its weight around. “We are finding our voice and coming to realize how loud that voice can be,” he explains.

The crux of Harvison’s discourse is the indispensability of public lands protection. “All of these things—the mental health benefits and thriving outdoor economy—hinge on the availability of public lands to recreate on,” he summarizes.

Photo by Byron Harvison from the Golden, CO Hill to Crag event on October 12, 2018.

Chalk it up to smart strategy, productive dialogue, or a bit of crag magic, but the Hill to Crag events have already made an impact. The inaugural excursion in May of 2018 was testimony to the power of storytelling as pedagogy. Members of the AAC and climbing advocacy group the Access Fund brought Utah Congressman John Curtis to rock climbing mecca Joe’s Valley Boulders in Emery County, UT. Harvison explained to the lawmaker that “each climber contributes around $58 per night to the local economy of nearby Castle Dale.” Castle Dale, a tiny town of 3,500, hosts 19,000-25,000 climbers annually from around the world who are drawn to the area’s intricate sandstone boulders. Emery County faces the economic stagnation typical of a declining coal-mining community, but recreational tourism has considerable potential. “Climbing is a sustainable resource,” Harvison enthuses. “We were able to show Curtis the national and international appeal of our public lands.” In July of this year, Curtis proposed the Emery County Public Land Management Act, which would create a National Conservation Area out of the San Rafael Swell, designating over a half-million acres of the redrock desert parcel federally protected wilderness. The proposal juxtaposes nearly every piece of land-grab legislation to emerge from Utah in the past year and wagers on the economic potential of recreational tourism. Curtis’s proposition, on the heels of a Hill to Crag event, is radical in its embrace of public access instead of for-profit enterprise.

Photo by Dillon Parker from the Vedauwoo Recreation Area, WY Hill to Crag event on October 19, 2018.

Perhaps the AAC recognized the aptitude of rock climbing as a metaphor for public lands access when they launched the Hill to Crag program. Central to both climbing and public lands advocacy is an ethos of respect for natural resources and the responsible placing of protections, be them nuts and crams or legislature. The AAC will hold their final adventure of 2018 on November 16 in Chimney Rock State Park, North Carolina (pictured in cover photo). Harvison says that the program will launch spring events in Oregon and Montana and has plans for a route bolting clinic in Wyoming after a successful Hill to Crag climb in the state’s Vedauwoo Recreation Area last month. In concert with the Hill to Crag series, the American Alpine Club is also expanding veteran and active-duty military outreach with new discounted club membership options and targeted events.

Special thanks to US Army Major Byron Harvison, who was interviewed for this piece.

Cover photo by dconvertini via Flickr,

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