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Khumbu Himal, Nepal. Ama Dablam (6814m) from the west approximately one week before the tragic accident on November 14, showing (A) the Northwest Ridge (Cartwright-Cross, 2000). (B) The Dablam. (C) The site of Camp 3 on the shoulder of the normal route on (D) the Southwest Ridge (Bishop-Gill-Romanes-Ward, 1961). [Photo] Steve Gandy

Early in the morning of November 14, Steve Gandy from the UK and Perba Sherpa, members of a commercially organized expedition to the normal route up the southwest ridge of 6814-meter Ama Dablam, often referred to as the Matterhorn of the Khumbu, were awoken at Camp 2 by the sound of a large avalanche. Unbeknownst to them, higher up the mountain fellow team member and British climber Duncan Williams and his Sherpa Mingma Nuru, together with two Swedish mountaineers, Daniel Carlsson and Mikael Forsberg, plus their two Sherpas, Danurbu and Tashi Dorje, had just been killed when a large avalanche hit the normally safe haven of Camp 3 on the ridge. Several more avalanches followed and a 7.30 a.m. radio call to Camp 3 produced no answer. Not realizing that anything was amiss, Gandy and Perba set off for the higher camp, witnessing a fourth avalanche sweep the area of Camp 3 just before they arrived at 1.30 p.m. The site, which lies on top a small shoulder, was completely covered with large blocks of snow and ice: the only visible remains were a spoon to the right of the ascent route and two old ropes above steep ground.

The southwest ridge is now one of the most popular routes in the Himalaya: commercial operators who run trips to Everest during the spring, usually reserve autumn for Ama Dablam, when there can be as many as 40 teams on the route, though not necessarily all at the same time. Above Camp 3 a steep section of ridge leads past a large serac barrier, the Dablam, which is situated out left on the west face. Gandy and Perba, who were the only persons to reach the site in the immediate aftermath of the accident, believe that the initial avalanche was caused by part of the Dablam collapsing. This changed its structure, and subsequent snow avalanches from the slopes above were directed rightwards onto the camp. Why the initial serac fall from the Dablam hit Camp 3 instead of following its presumably normal channel down the west face is still unclear. The camp area is around 30 meters square and the 10 meters closest to the Dablam were indistinguishable from the slope above. In initial reports critics noted that this site has, on occasions, become too cramped, with many expeditions operating together on the mountain, forcing some teams to pitch away from the shoulder. However, Gandy confirms that the site was definitely not overcrowded, nor were tents situated too far to the left. In the 10 days prior to the accident there had been intermittent but certainly not heavy snowfall on the mountain, and during his ascent to Camp 3 Gandy found the ridge to be firm. Subsequent helicopter survey revealed no sign of life, though some debris was seen through binoculars, spread out approximately 500 meters below the camp. A spokesperson from the Himalayan Rescue Association concluded that there were unlikely to be any survivors and that any effective search would require Sherpas who had been recently operating on 8000 meter peaks. He recommended that the search wait until spring.

This incident has raised the number of deaths on Ama Dablam from 11 to 17 but well over 3,000 climbers have been on the mountain since its historic first ascent during the calendar winter of 1961, when it was climbed–an unauthorized ascent–by four members of Ed Hillary’s Scientific and Mountaineering expedition. Before this autumn only one death had resulted from avalanche: in 1979 Ken Hyslop was killed, when part of the Dablam broke while he was attempting the first ascent of the west face with fellow New Zealanders, Merv English, Geoff Gabites and Peter Hillary. The latter was quite badly injured.

At much the same time as the incident on Ama Dablam, a rescue team was homing in on the northern flanks of Paldor, a 5903-meter, designated trekking peak in the Ganesh Himal. When an entire French expedition, comprising Grenoble mountaineers Stefan Ciesler, Jean Baptiste Moreau, Raphael Perrissin and Vincent Villedieu, failed to turn up in Kathmandu on November 5th, having set off in October to climb the peak, the authorities were notified. A full rescue was organized with the help of top French mountaineers, Aymeric Clouet and Christian Trommsdorff, who were in Kathmandu ready to leave for home after an unsuccessful expedition to Manaslu. In mid November the team discovered the remains of a base camp and a diary suggesting the four climbers were about to set off in late October for an attempt on the north face. Moving up the mountain the rescuers found another tent at around 5500 meters in an area covered with avalanche debris. However, conditions were far too dangerous to allow a search for the bodies. Ciesler and Moreau were, respectively, full and aspirant Alpine guides.