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Avalanche Education and the Big Mountains

Two mountaineers navigating a glacier on a Gasherbrum II Expedition
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On Cho Oyu last month I helped with the rescue of two badly injured Sherpa caught in an avalanche fixing rope between Camps 1 and  2. Last week three Sherpa were killed by an avalanche while rope-fixing on the relatively easy 7000-meter peak, Himlung, in Nepal. And this past summer I assisted in the body recovery of two Peruvian high altitude workers killed in an avalanche on Alpamayo while rope-fixing.

These are the latest in a series of accidents and near misses involving high altitude workers while rope-fixing on heavily guided peaks. Of course there has always been a history of accidents, especially involving avalanches, on these huge mountains. Sherpa and high altitude workers are often the first up high on mountains after big storms, and therefore at the highest risk. And of course there will always be accidents. 

But a major part of the problem is also lack of education in snow safety and an almost complete lack of avalanche equipment (especially beacon, shovel, probe) amongst this crew of climbers taking the highest risks. This lack of education and equipment must change, and it is the responsibility of the Western and local companies, with support of local educators and guide’s organizations (like the Khumbu Climbing Center, Nepal National Mountain Guides Association, Guias de Montana del Peru, etc) to change the current standard.

For years I have heard the argument that avalanches in the big mountains are caused by serac falls and are therefore so destructive that avalanche equipment would not help. This is simply not true. We regularly deal with fresh snowfalls and wind transport of fresh snow, and therefore slab avalanches. The avalanches are often not of a size to cause fatal trauma, and therefore avalanche safety equipment would sometimes lead to rescue. In addition, avalanche safety equipment will aid in body recovery, important for all cultures. On Himlung one body is still missing. Long searches without modern equipment leads to additional risk for the rescuers, and often fails.

The only reason for not carrying the equipment is cost. And this is in no case a valid reason for not having and providing the equipment. It should be standard for all guides, clients, and high-altitude workers, as it is in all winter-guiding in the developed world.

The educational component is even more crucial. On Cho Oyu (the world’s sixth tallest peak) last month I watched the lack of avalanche education among Sherpa lead both to an avoidable accident, and then to an irrational fear that froze all upward progress on the hill for more than a week. The accident occurred when rope-fixers triggered a small wind loaded pocket on an unsupported convex slope, and were carried 150 meters over broken terrain and ice cliffs. After that, many Sherpa were convinced that the entire mountain was unstable, and even after almost a week of sunny windless weather had stabilized any potential weakness, they refused to work higher on the mountain. In the end I along with a Nepali guide, Lhakpa Rita, took over the rope-fixing duties and fixed the entire peak from Camp 2 (just above the site of the accident) to the summit. It was not arrogance or stupidity that allowed us to go up. It was the framework and experience we have for decision-making in avalanche conditions. This only comes from years of education, and years of practice in varied avalanche terrain across the world. 

We must begin to share this education with local high-altitude workers. And, as part of this process, we must re-embrace the partnership between IFMGA mountain guides and local high altitude workers (including Sherpa). After the well-publicized fight on Everest this past spring (read article) I noticed a distinct tendency by Westerners on Cho Oyu to not want to get involved in the Sherpa’s rope-fixing decisions. I heard this again and again from team leaders on the mountain. This is the absolute worst possible outcome from the Everest events. IFMGA mountain guides still bring an incredible amount of experience and ability to the big mountains, and must be a part of the difficult and dangerous work of rope-fixing and decision making. And we must actively promote education amongst local climbers wherever we travel and climb in the world! This education (and the necessary gear that goes along with it) must be promoted and provided by all of the companies working on big mountains. Together, we can make these routes safer for our groups and for our co-workers!

Fixing ropes to the summit of Cho Oyu this season (and in past years to the summits of Everest, Manaslu, and Ama Dablam) is consistently one of my favorite parts of my job. Working with the Sherpa is an incredible honor, and I am constantly blown away by their strength and ability. I know that other guides (Kenton Cool, Willie Benegas, Simone Moro, Russell Brice, and others) feel the same way. And I also know how much each of these guides has added to the process, safety, and experience of the Sherpa they share a rope with. I hope that more IFMGA guides (and their companies) will add their expertise to the process. Together we will be safer and more successful on the world’s tallest mountains.

-Adrian Ballinger, Alpenglow Expeditions