Climbs 8K Peaks
The Climbers Recount the Tragedy
Hello Mountain Zone, this is Andrew McLean calling from ABC on Shishapangma. We've had a rough couple of days. Roughly 30 hours ago on October 5, 1999, at about 9:20 am Nepal time, tragedy struck our expedition. Alex Lowe, David Bridges and Conrad Anker got caught in the middle of an exposed slope by a massive avalanche that started about 6000 feet above them. Conrad survived with head and torso injuries, but after 20 hours of searching through one to 20 feet of debris we've given up on Alex and Dave as dead. It's been a very sobering experience for all of us, punctuated by the avalanche [transmission fails]...our friends...[transmission fails]...we sit around Base Camp, kind of picking up after ourselves.
The slide started as a really clean fracture, probably due to windtop, ridgetop wind loading. From 6,000 feet away, the ground was clearly visible so I estimate it was probably five to eight feet deep. The slide progressed; it propagated laterally while stepping down into deeper, pre-monsoon layers. By the time it struck the three climbers, it was probably 500 feet wide and traveling well over 100 miles per hour. As I looked across the valley, I could see Conrad, Alex and David running and realized I was about to get hit as well. So I ran down a little knoll and jumped into a small rock alcove. And although I was heavily pummeled, Conrad, who's right here next to me, took a much bigger beating and here he is to tell you about it. Bye.
This lasted for close to 30 seconds in which I thought my number was up. I was able to pull myself out from a foot of avalanche debris and instantly, upon realizing I was okay, began searching for David and Alex. The best chance of locating our friends would be instantly, right after the avalanche, looking for evidence of them, a glove, a ski pole, something that you could dig out, but the enormity and the size of this avalanche precluded that.
In the half hour I spent immediately searching there, I realized the enormity of the situation. Andrew relieved me. I came down to Advanced Base Camp, having suffered a broken rib, a torn shoulder muscle, and several lacerations on my head and Andrew [transmission fails]...back up with searchers and [transmission fails]...through evening...October 5th. Searchers came back about an hour-and-a-half after dark and we resumed the search today, Oct. 6 in less than ideal conditions: snowfall and low visibility.
All of us here on the Shishapangma Expedition are deeply at a loss; two great people, people that we've become friends with, people that we've known over many years, people that we've shared adventures with, are gone. And we don't quite know yet why, or the whole timing of things. That's a question bigger than us here right now, but we are thinking always of the families of both David and Alex and, from my own standpoint, Alex is my closest friend...[transmission fails] and the sympathy we extend to Jennifer, his wife, and his three sons, Max, Sam and Isaac at the loss of their father and husband.
I wish I wasn't making this phone call [transmission fails]...it's not what climbing's all about but it happened and we have to accept it. Thank You.
Conrad showed up, having just built the john, and headed off without changing into his plastics. Mark, Kris and I decided to take a leisurely stroll to the col in order to take a look of our own at the route.
We worked our way along the dry glacier, choosing the protection of the boulders and ice penetentes. We noticed that Andrew was in front of us about 10 minutes and assumed that the rest were ahead of him and around the corner in safety. After climbing an easy rock headwall, we caught a glimpse of the upper glacier. Kris and I headed onto the glacier proper and suddenly heard a crack. Six thousand feet above we noticed a white plume as a slab avalanche released. Immediately I knew that the slide was going to hit us and headed for a refrigerator sized rock. Mark and Kris snapped photos fast and furious, then realized too that the slide was headed our way. Kris ran up a scree slope and Mark joined me behind the rock. I sat in nervous silence waiting for the avalanche to hit. The scope of the slide was beyond my comprehension; I didn't know if the force of so much snow could move the rock that sheltered us.
The avalanche blasted over our heads, roaring like a train. Snow blew up my shirt and down my pants, and packed my mouth with the fine crystals. I could not hold my breath any more and inhaled snow. After 30 seconds or so the slide subsided and I let out a howl of relief and excitement. Kris's voice became audible shortly after. Mark and I were relieved that everyone had survived such a blast. Or at least that is what we thought.
Kris and I headed up onto a scree ridge while Mark wandered onto the glacier in search of Andrew. 'What in the world is he doing?' I thought. Conrad was wandering around in the deposit zone, looking for us, I thought. Kris and I waved our ski poles and yelled for him to get out of the way and that we were alright. Then Conrad and Andrew were hugging. And Conrad was working his way down towards us. Something was wrong.
As Kris and I made our way down, we saw that Conrad was covered in blood. 'Is everyone all right?' 'No,' moaned Conrad. Dave and Alex are dead.' Kris knelt down and put his head between his hands and I fell to one knee. Conrad's appearance was unnatural. He was holding his shoulder and dried blood coated his head and neck. A quick head to toe check and, other than a shoulder injury and lacerations on his head, he seemed to be okay.
Kris walked him down to the tent where Mark and I joined him in helping Conrad. Conrad kept muttering 'Alex, Alex, no.' After an hour I headed back up to see if Andrew needed help. As I left the camp two goraks, Tibetan ravens, landed in the middle of our tents. They just sat there looking at me and it reminded me of my two friends who had just left me to live another life.
I wasn't any closer to being able to answer the question than he was. Two great people are now in a higher place; their souls have entered a greater existence.
An hour after Hans and Mark left to go up the mountain, three Sherpas arrived with loads for the day. Conrad and I knew we needed to tell them of our experience. I choked back any feelings I had that minute and conveyed as best I could what had happened. They sank to their knees, it was obvious any international language barrier that might have been there in the past was gone. Two of them instantly left camp in the direction I had indicated the others had went. I continued cleaning Conrad's head, cutting the hair around the gash on the back of his head. Mike and Kent arrived in camp and the news was expressed in a wave of emotions. Another search was leaving to go up the mountain; there was only three more hours of daylight. An hour after dark the last person dropped into the tent and we all felt the silence creep in. It had been a day none of us would forget. David and Alex were gone.
I kept looking over the edge at the blast getting closer, finally realizing that it was going to engulf us. We sank down tight against the rock and each other. It lasted only briefly, and I felt a sense of relief and excitement. Next came the reality that there were people out on the glacier and they needed our help. Kris' calls set me off in motion up the slope to assist Andrew and Conrad. What I found will affect me and the direction of my soul for a long time.
Today my search for Alex and David, and the time I spent at the site, helped me to understand Shishapangma as a mountain and the forces that are a natural part of its life. It also helped me to collect my thoughts for my friends and understand some of their forces.
Andrew McLean, Conrad Anker, Hans Saari, Kristoffer Erickson, Mark Holbrook, MountainZone.com Correspondents
Memorial Fund Established: A fund has been established for Alex Lowe's three children. Those interested in making a donation can send to: Fund for the Children of Alex Lowe, Care of Norene Bancroft, US Bank, 104 East Main Street, Bozeman, Montana 59715
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