There is an inherent danger that comes with climbing the planet’s highest mountains, a balance between risk and reward that more and more people are having to confront as they vie for a chance to stand on the roof of the world. However, a fortnight of storms, avalanches and tragic deaths in the Himalayas has left mountain guides, climbers and operators in turmoil. Never has it been more poignant for budding adventurers to ask: is it really worth the risk?
In Nepal, the epicentre of the world’s most spectacular trekking and climbing route, mountaineers have reported “the most challenging climbing conditions in a decade”.
On Manaslu, the world’s eighth highest peak, an “unimaginable” series of events has unfolded – there have been last-minute rescue efforts and abandoned expeditions on a mountain that many thought (wrongly) to be tame. In the space of seven days, the mountaineering world lost one of its greatest stars, US climber Hilaree Nelson, in an avalanche. Within hours a local Sherpa was killed in a high-altitude slide and this week another Sherpa guide died on the mountain. The tragedies have left even the world’s bravest adventurers aghast.
“I’m utterly speechless,” British mountain guide and Everest record holder Kenton Cool, told The Telegraph. “The mountains are open to everybody. Everybody has their own reasons to go to the mountains and that’s to be celebrated,” he said. “The mountains are fairly unforgivable places though – no 8,000m peak is easy. Nobody is bullet-proof.”
A month after footage of snaking queues on the notorious Bottleneck route on K2, the planet’s second tallest peak, made headlines, crowds of eager mountaineers have arrived in Nepal. An estimated 400-plus permits, a new record, have been granted to climb Manaslu during the autumn season, which runs from September through November. Following the events of the last two weeks, many of those permit holders – some of whom have never before attempted an 8,000m-peak – have now been sent home without reaching the summit.
A timeline of tragedy
Alarms were raised on Manaslu when Norwegian climber Kristin Harila, who is currently on a mission to break the world record for the fastest ascent of the world’s 14 highest peaks, described her experience on the mountain as “the hardest summit push I ever had”.
On September 26, American ski mountaineer Hilaree Nelson was reported missing on the mountain. She’d reached the true summit with her partner Jim Morrison, but, after clipping into her skis to begin the descent, was taken by an avalanche. Two days later, after the bad weather cleared, Morrison was part of a rescue team that found her body, which has since been cremated in a traditional Sherpa ceremony in Katmandu.
The shockwaves continued at high altitude. On the same day as Nelson's tragic accident, a large avalanche hit between Manaslu’s Camps 3 and 4, killing Nepali climber Anup Rai and injuring a dozen others who were later rescued.
Almost a week later, teams once again advanced up the mountain, including 21-year-old British climber Adriana Brownlee, who has reached the top of 10 of the 14 highest peaks in the world. “I don’t how I feel to be honest, I can’t put it in concrete words, but all I know is I have unfinished business on this mountain and I pray that we have our angels looking over us as we make a push,” she wrote on Instagram before she ascended.
Reports had begun to arrive of some summit successes during the short weather window, when an avalanche was videoed sweeping over the mountain’s base camp. Sherpas can be seen running for their lives as the cloud of white engulfs the camp.
Further up the mountain, between Camp 1 and Camp 2, another slide killed Dawa Chhiring Sherpa, an experienced guide who had summited the mountain five times before – his death was the third casualty in less than seven days. Brownlee wrote on Instagram: “This expedition has taught me how dangerous this mountaineering world really is. Pro mountaineers and Sherpa have passed away this season on a mountain many of us came to thinking it would be a nice climb. It’s been unimaginable… I pray that I will never have to come face to face with an expedition like this again in the future.”
Around 240km away on Mount Everest, Polish adventurous Andrzej Bargiel, who in 2018 became the first person to climb and then ski from the summit of K2, has been preparing to replicate his success on the world’s tallest mountain. His expedition has now been shelved as the mountain is battered by life-threatening weather. “Due to the high risk and the tough, unpredictable conditions in the Himalayas this year, I felt that this was the only right decision,” he said in a video on social media.
The climbing season on Dhaulagiri, the seventh highest mountain in the world, has also ended early, with no climbers making it beyond Camp 3.
“This season delivered the most challenging climbing conditions in a decade,” said Tomi Ceppi, leader from Climbing the Seven Summits. The decision has been taken by operators to call off expeditions and retreat to the safety of Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu. “We looked at every single little door of possibility to go and climb up, but every door was closed, except one door that was open, and that was to go home safely,” said Tendi Sherpa, a Nepalese mountain guide for Climbing the Seven Summits on Manaslu.
Nimsdai Purja, world record holder and founder of Elite Exped, whose team was part of the rescue effort for Nelson, wrote in a post: “This year has been tough on the mountain. Following multiple big avalanches and the loss of our dear friends on the mountain, as well as the current weather conditions and future forecasts – we have taken the decision to call off this year’s @eliteexped Manaslu expedition.”
The decisions leave hundreds of hopefuls without their coveted summit certificate. It costs from £18,000 to climb Manaslu with the likes of Elite Exped. Their one crumb of comfort, as Nimsdai said, is that “the mountain isn’t going anywhere and ultimately nothing is more important than human life”.
I am forced to decide to end the expedition. The weather forecast for the next days and weeks is getting worse. Heavy snowfall and strong wind, will make it impossible to reach our goal.
🎥Carlos Llerandi@totalizator_sp @GrupaMurapol @redbullpolska @MBPolska @SalomonSports pic.twitter.com/N14FMvPAbE
— Andrzej Bargiel (@JedrekBargiel) October 3, 2022
Lessons to be learned
While the unpredictable nature of the world’s highest, most extreme environments is the root of the disasters, there are human lessons to be learned. “As humbling and difficult as it is to walk away from a peak without a summit, especially one as big and beautiful as Manaslu, when the mountains speak, you have to listen,” said Ceppi.
“It has woken us up to how dangerous any mountain is,” said Brownlee, who describes her expeditions as “a rollercoaster of emotions, and mostly bad”.
“We need to realise, 8,000m climbing is not a joke,” she said.
Kenton Cool, who completed his 16th successful summit of Everest in April, thinks lessons need to be learnt. “I’m not influenced by money or by fear of failure, I’m looking at it as an impartial observer and I struggle to see how the decisions were made to go onto the mountain,” he said. “It snowed something like 15 consequence days – if that was the European Alps there would be a category five avalanche warning; you wouldn’t even think about venturing into the mountains.
“I get the pressures on the decision-makers, there’s money and pride at stake, even lawsuits being thrown around. A lot of climbers we see these days have massive followings on social media – it’s not hard for individuals to take companies down.
“There are pressures to get people to the summit – but that doesn’t make it the right thing to do.”
“We need to really take a second and remember why we are doing this.. is it just for the Instagram picture?,” asks Brownlee, who has over 21,000 followers herself. “Or are you actually enjoying the moment? Mountaineering isn’t about getting a summit photo and boasting to your friends and family, it’s much more than that and I think we are losing this spirit in mountaineering.”
A search for #Manaslu on Instagram delivers a stream of posts. One user @victoriabonya, who was part of Elite Exped’s group this season, has 9.1million followers. Recent stories on her feed liken the experience to a “horror movie”.
Cool is glad the season has been cut short: “I think we’ve seen a lack of a deeper experience in terms of snow craft and decision making.”
“So many factors have played into this exponential growth in mountaineering. The biggest being the Netflix documentary – 14 Peaks,” said Brownlee. “I think it’s fabulous that people are so interested and excited to climb. It’s such a great sport, but we also need to set some boundaries when it comes to approaching an 8,000er.”
Boundaries or not, when asked if the recent turmoil might dampen the appetite for high-altitude pursuits Cool is blunt in his outlook. “Not all….if anything it will do the opposite,” he said. And so the thirst for life-threatening risk continues.