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Table of Contents "On the road to Kabul and other short stories of treks"

"Sudden White-outs possible". How four climbers got lost.

(Daulaghiri Round, Day 12, 31 October)

Just past Damphus Pass, 5200 m, with Anapurna Range in the far distance. Clouds are rolling in from the warm Phokara valley .

The map indicates "Sudden White-outs possible" at the Damphus Pass at 5258 m. These are clouds rolling up from the warm main valley leading up from the warm Phokara valley that turn to mist or blinding snow storms between 4000-5000 m.

We spent two nights in hidden valley, between the French Pass (5360 m) and the Damphus Pass (5258 m). Our camp was at 5100 m and I was expecting a night temperature of –10. The cold wind coming down from the Daulaghiri Range which is over 8000 m high, caused a night temperature of around minus 18 to 20, with minus 10 to 12 inside the tent. This is very cold. Most group members develop a cold and the porters are complaining, they want to go down as soon as possible.

High altitude sickness is now hitting us, also because we came up very fast. We did spend two nights in the Italian Base Camp at 3660 m and had an acclimatization day on a nearby mountain overlooking the camp but stayed only one night in the Dhaulagiri Base camp at 4600 m. The next day we already moved to the camp at Hidden Valley, some 3-4 days earlier than a normal trekking schedule but typical for experienced climbers. The trip from the Italian Base Camp to Dhaulagiri Base Camp was already a long 9 hour day across a rocky glacier and crossing the French Pass [1] the next day took 8 hours for the last arrivals, two hours later than the first ones.

The entire area is now covered in snow [1] which is unusual as this is a dry area being at the border of the dessert region of Dolpo and Mustang, at the border with Tibet. There seems to be a shortcut here to Dolpo and Mustang. I see a dry rocky valley going down to the NorthWest without snow. Dolpo is has been closed for trekking due to political unrest for the past 3 years.

Eight of us insist of going up to Damphus Peak [1], a non-technical climb to 6030 m, but Jacco, Willem and myself feel there is no point to waste energy considering how fast we moved up. This would affect our strength. Jacco and Willem want to focus at the prime target Tilicho Peak, 7100 m.

The three girls are sick, a combination of high altitude sickness and colds and we decide to make a camp somewhere between Elevation Camp at 4900 m and Yak Kharka at 3800 m. The map indicates a spot along the main trail but the Sherpa’s look at us in disbelieve. To them a map has no meaning, especially not the elevation contour lines.

Bram askes me how long it will take and I tell him 8 hours based on a the time it took us to climb Island Peak in the Everest Region. "Good plan to leave at 2 AM in the morning, you will be there at 10 AM, down at midday and have sufficient time to reach the new camp". Bram agrees, it took him a similar time to climb Island Peak. The second group leaves at 4 AM and think they will only need 4 hours as indicated by Dawa and Santa Sherpa.

I also suggest to arrange for hot juice at Elevation Camp after the summit and a porter with a duffelbag with drinks, food and equipment, e.g. to change from climbing to walking boots and drop redundant equipment like crampons and ice axes. Summit days are notorious for taking a too high toll on the strength and good logistics should be used to make the going as easy as possibly. Walking on climbing boots can kill you when you need several more hours to reach a camp.

The Sherpas insists on having a camp at Yak Kharka, indicated on the map at 3800 m, but we ignore them. Later on, it turns out that not only myself but also Jacco has the feeling we will end up there.

The next morning is cold, -12 Celsius in the tent but at 7.30 AM the sun hits our tents and within 5 minutes the tents heat up to –2 Celsius. Now we get up. The 8 climbers are already gone, but none are near the top. The youngest girl is very sick and can barely walk. Ramsay, our Sherpa Sirdar, and I assist here to the pass which takes forever, Ramsay carrying her packsack.

At midday we finally reach Damphus Pass and everyone is happy and takes pictures [1]. The Annapurna Range is visible in the distance. Now we go down. Some climbers are near the top of Damphus Peak. They are late. Later on we find out that the first were there at 11.30 Am as they did not leave till 2.45 AM.

The trail keeps on skirting along snow fields and shale talus around 5100 m [1] and although the map indicates a trail going down the altimeter of Willems GSM doesn’t go down. After one hour we reach Elevation Camp and Ramsay asks us if we should camp here but the girls shout "no way, that was not the deal, we go down". The men including myself confirm this and we quickly carry on. We keep on going for two hours and the clouds start rolling in [1]. I forget the time but as we are still high, think we will hit the 4500 m camp soon. Wrong. The camp is suppose to be another 40-50 minutes according to the map but we did not follow the lower trail but a higher one not indicated on the map and we were already walking for two hours.

It starts snowing and more and more the visibility goes down. Finally we are descending but now we hit the full snow storm as we go down in the clouds. Luckily there is a clear path and the snow doesn’t settle due to the strong wind. A few hundreds meters down I ask the group to stop behind a big rock at around 4700 m hoping to make a camp. The ground looks a bit level and I hope this is the 4500 m camp. We are waiting in the howling wind, now a gail force, and when finally the last two girls come in with Ramsay I ask him if we can make a camp here feeling this spot is already very far from Damphus peak and not easy for the climbers to reach before dark. One of the girls starts crying on arriving. Ramsay shouts that this is a bad camp site and some porters already went down, especially the fast ones with our tents that always go first to arrive early. Sending them back up is possible but there is no point camping here as Yak Kharka is nearby. I put on my ski-coat as too much snow settles on my fleece jacket and the strong wind blows straight through the fleece. This avoiding to get wet and cold.

The clouds break open and we can see some porters a few hundred meters down but there is a lot of snow. We carry on, some porters go straight down and make it but others, with their heavy loads, are tumbling down the steep hill in the soft snow. This is not serious as the snow is soft but we all stop looking for an easier route. Choc Lal Raj, our second cook, Willem and I go forward breaking a safe route through less steep areas. Jacco stays behind with the girls. In places there is 30 cm of snow. Our two ski poles are very useful going down and I even have fun skiing down on my boots but of course loose my footing a few times on the slippery slopes. As some of the porters with heavy loads keep on sliding we give them our ski poles for support.

Finally we are on a small level spot near a few big rocks and through the open clouds we see yak huts some 400 meters down. This is the camp, Yak Kharka, a big bowl of yak meadows between 4200 and 3800 m. I stop here and wait for the group members and the camp is near. The girls are exhausted and Jacco, Willem and I assist them going down. I ask Willem about Isur and he tells me that Isur was sent back to find the climbers and guide them to the camp. Indeed I saw Dorje carrying two rucksacks. We follow the porters that make some sort of path but it is slippery. It still takes one hour and finally at 4.30 PM we are at the camp, greeted by Bhupat Raj, our cook, and Pasang Sherpa, a new climbing Sherpa. Pasang has been on the top of Mount Everest twice and Kangchenjunga once.

We quickly set up the tents and see Annapurna through holes in the clouds. I mention that the snow storm is just a single cloud rolling up the mountain on our side but one of the girls gets upset about this remark. "This is not a cloud", she answers and nearly starts crying. We arrange our tents and it gets dark. Where are the 8 climbers that went up Dhampus Peak?

I walk around and to my surprise none of the Sherpas are up the hill to guide the climers to the camp. Ramsay tells me they are too tired, climbers will come, not to worry. At 6.45 PM, 1 hour after darkness, the first four climbers arrive, Bram, Henny, Ronnie and Ralph with Santa Sherpa. They were at the top at 11.30 AM which is late and had real trouble finding us. They met Isur, the guide that was sent back in the snow storm to guide them to the camp as their climbing Sherpa guide Dawa and Santa have never been here before and had only a vague idea where the camp was. Isur carried on to the other group who was behind them. On their way they met a porter in the snow that dropped his kitchen equipment load and was hiding in a blanket. He had the second burner of cooky. Henny wonders if the porter would have survived the night if they hadn’t found him.

They were already a bit down when they heard voices on the side hill and finally saw lights. The visibility was just a few hundred meters. If they had missed us they would have gone down to the snow free yak meadows at 3800 m and find a hut for shelter. They now missed a cosy night on hay in a yak hut with a near empty stomach, a unique experience.

The second group was only 15 minutes behind, at some stage, possibly 30 minutes now. At 7.30 PM we get worried and send up Pasang with a brigh head light. He keeps on flashing the lamp until 9 PM but no one appears. The snow keeps on coming down and the visibility is poor and the lamp will not be visible for more than maybe a kilometer.


Where are the other 4 climbers, Luc, Jeroen, Meinhard and Reinhard? For 98% I assume they are down, little change they want to spend the night up. Climbers always have the strength to go down, I assume.

At 9 PM we call Tendy Sherpa with the satellite phone. Ramsay is worried about Isur, he has no warm clothes as he left his rucksack with us. Tendy recommends not to go searching after the snowstorm stops probably around midnight, but to wait till early morning. I assume the climbers are down and the search in the morning will concentrated on downhill side, the uphill search being a formality. Tendy reckons that if they are uphill they will be fine as they all have proper boots and warm clothing.

The next morning I get woken up at 6.30 AM, at sunrise, by one of the girls in a panic. Nothing is happening she tells me but I assure here we have a plan. Cooky only has one burner and making hots drinks and food for Pasang and Santa that will go up to find the climbers is slow. At 7.15 AM they are about to go up but suddenly Isur and Dawa appear from down the hill. They spent the night in a yak hut and left the climbers up as the climbers were exhausted and couldn’t follow them. Everyone is surprised the climbers are up and not down. Within seconds Pasang and Santa go running up, with hot juice, power bars and sleeping bags in case someone is undercooled and needs to be lifted out by helicopter. Kitchen boys follow quickly with more hot drinks, also to recover the second burner left by the porter found by the first climbers group.

It still takes two hours for the climbers to come down, they are slow. Pasang hiphops through the snow, but the climbers seem to stumble and are very slow. At 10 AM they are finally down and tell us Isur and Dawa were going around in circles and that there was no point following them down. Isur and Dawa would go down to find the camp but did not come back as they missed our camp. It was only one hour down to our camp, the warm yak huts without snow only 1.5 hour. Dawa did not have sufficient warm clothing, neither Isur as he left his rucksack with us, but Dawa should not never have left them there, a climbing Sherpa should always stay with the clients, Tendy tells me later. The four were okay, hiding behind a big rock giving sufficient shelter for the strong wind, all equipped with warm insulated plastic boots, down coats and emergency blankets. Only Luc was missing a down coat, he had ice inside his coats in the morning and was shivering for most of the night. Reinhard had very mild frost bite on the fingers. They seem to be just tired, sleepy and hungry [1][2][3].

The truth on the why and what happened may never be known, quoting Meinhard. Every climber in Nepal should know that unlike the Alps there is no need to hide in the snowholes as below 4000 m there are warm yak huts for shelter everywhere. The biggest mistake is probably underestimating the effort required to go up Damphus Peak and to go down to the new camp, not realizing the reserves needed when the weather turns ugly. The schedule should have been such that everyone got in one hour before dark. The second 4 left to late, not until 4 AM. Finding a camp in a snow storm at dark is not easy, even when you know where to go.

"Sudden White-outs possible" the map said and everyone was reminded the day before in Hidden Valley what this meant: clouds with mist with little visibility or a true snowstorm. Luckily everyone had sufficient warm clothing but this is more luck than thought. It would have been wise to meet at Elevation Camp at 1 PM and move down together. Adhering to a strict schedule, most persons would not have reached the top of Damphus Peak. Alternatively, they should have left much earlier, also at 2 AM.