NEWSLETTERS - Manaslu 2012

Newsletter #725 September 2012

How situations can change in such a short period.

Sorry for this delayed newsletter, however I have been a bit busy over the last couple of days, and it is only now that our camp is back to normal. As most of you will know there was a large avalanche on Manaslu and many people were caught in this and several have died. So most of this news letter is about these circumstances.

However, to start, the Himalayan Experience team were all at BC so all members, guides and Sherpas are safe.

The morning of 23rd started with a radio message from another team at 05.10 to say that their camp 3 had been avalanched and that two of their members were missing and one was left with very little equipment standing in the open. For the first time on this expedition the sky was clear so I was able to see through our telescope that there had been a massive serac collapse that had propagated a large slab avalanche that had travelled down part of the climbing route. I could see many head lamps already on the avalanche debris so figured that rescue teams were already on site.

It appears that the avalanche occurred at about 04.45 and started from an altitude of about 7,400m and swept down the mountain to an altitude of 6,300m.  The day before had been cloudy so I had no idea as to how many teams might have been camped in this avalanche path. Although we have endeavoured to compile a list of radio frequencies from all the teams that are on the mountain, many teams had not supplied this information, or are not using radios with a set frequency so others are not able to contact them. My first response was to call all the radio frequencies that I had listed. I was able to make contact with just a few of the expedition groups, some were involved in the avalanche and had lost their radios, others were busy helping and others were still not awake. By 05.30 I had called our office in Kathmandu to explain the situation and requested that we have 2 helicopters put on standby to come to help with the rescue here at Manaslu.

I have heard that there is critisisum of how long it took for helicopters to arrive, but I need to explain just a little about this process. Although I notified my agency, and they in turn notified the helicopter companies, it is not for me or my agency to actually call the helicopters as we did not require rescue. Firstly the representatives of the companies that required help at BC needed to call their agents in Kathmandu, then those agents needed to contact the various insurance companies of clients to get authorisation for a helicopter rescue and then the agents needed to contact the helicopter companies of their preference to organise a rescue. Of course all this takes time and must deal with different time zones and the like. To complicate matters more we did not have names or numbers of victims, so this makes it very difficult to progress. In the event, the helicopter companies agreed that a rescue was more important and that paperwork would have to be sorted out later. A further complication was that this was the first fine weather day in Kathmandu for many days, so some of the helicopters had already been dispatched on other work, and some of the helicopters had not been able to return to Kathmandu from previous missions due to bad weather. But in the end we did get the Simrik B3e helicopter (the most powerful and best machine to conduct high altitude rescues in Nepal) here to do the high altitude section of the rescue, and we also had a B3 helicopter from Mountain Helicopters doing the ferry from BC to Samagon. Captain Saddarth from Simrik Air arrived at 09.45 and started the evacuation of injured climbers.

In the mean while by default I had become rescue co-ordinator here at BC. During this time I had to send my Sherpas to various camps who we figured were involved in the avalanche but the staff had not woken up at BC. Sometime I had to send many runners in order to stress the urgency for these staff members to come to my camp. Often they had to return to collect name lists from their tents. Some of the expedition leaders had locked their name lists away along with money and the like, so we had to stress to staff members that they had to break into these security boxes so as we could get name lists. This all takes time. Then I had to convince these staff members to call their agencies in Kathmandu to ask them for help. In typical Nepal style there is much talking, and total confusion, which takes considerable time.

By now I was receiving much more news from off the mountain. This requires monitering several radio frequencies at one time, and trying to decipher what is new and what is old information. And of course I was receiving many calls asking why a helicopter had still not arrived. But at BC the various teams were also busy, many Sherpas were put on standby dressed in their boots and climbing equipment so as they could be flown up to the rescue site. A collection of shovels, probes, drinks and extra food for rescuers, and boots for those who had lost theirs, and the like was assembled. An immediate reaction first aid post was set up beside the helipad and my normal medical / communications tent was readied for an influx of casualties.

As more information became available we realised that there was in excess of 30 people involved.

When the first helicopter arrived it flew directly to the scene and returned to Samagon, but during this flight I was able to speak to the pilot and suggested that he just do short flights from BC to C2 and shuttle victims here where our Doctor's Nima and Susumu plus a French doctor were waiting to deal with casualties. So we started the shuttle of victims to BC, all these people were carried to the Himex camp where they were able to be checked and received medical attention. The first 5 people requiring medical attention were flown off, but as the avalanche had come when most people were still in their sleeping bags, it became apparent that most people had lost their boots and climbing equipment and therefore also needed rescue.

During the day there were 18 flights to the rescue site. It was not until late in the evening that we were able to get more clear details, but it transpired that there had been 31 people caught in the avalanche, that 14 had been evacuated alive, 8 bodies had been recovered and that there were still 3 missing. On the first flight up from BC I sent a mountain guide who was able to photograph all of the bodies, so as we could positively identify them. This was tiresome and gruesome work for all concerned, but by the end of the day we were sure we had accounted for everyone.

Confirmed deaths:

  • 1 x German
  • 3 x French
  • 1 x Canadian
  • 1 x Italian
  • 1 x Spanish
  • 1 x Nepalese

Still missing:

  • 3 x French

Of course these details are only from my own records as the rescue co-ordinator, but they are probably the most accurate from BC.

By the time that cloud came in and made flying impossible we had been successful in evacuating all victims and rescue personal, however 6 bodies remained.

Yesterday we again had the helicopters come to recover the remaining bodies. The first two flights took Nepalese guides to assist loading the bodies, the 3rd flight took a French guide to do an aerial search of the entire avalanche zone to see if there was any visible sign of the missing people, however by this time it had become too difficult for the pilots to land with a passenger aboard, so he had to return to BC. However the pilots from Simrik and Fishtail Air were able to remove all the bodies and rescue staff. Which really concludes our involvement in this rescue, now we need to concentrate on our own expedition again.

All of the Himalayan Experience team share their condolences to all those who are bereaved, and of course some of us have lost personal friends, some of who are still missing. We will continue to look for these missing as we progress on the mountain.

This is the story from our end at BC, but we must not forget all those from the various teams who put themselves in danger to assist with the rescue efforts at C2 / C3. Without these efforts the death toll would have been much higher. And it is only in recent years that we have been able to conduct helicopter rescues at this sort of altitude, so also thanks to the pilots.