How I dealt with an avalanche that took away my climbing friend
On 29th September 2019, an avalanche hit Camp 2 (5800m) at around 11 45am on Mt Trishul (7120m). A team of 6 from Singapore was on the mountain at that time doing their second climb cycle. 29th September was supposed to be the team's rest day. However, the weather was good in the morning and four of them (Nick, Xieheng, Osh and Teshil) decided to ferry load some equipment to camp 3 (6400m) so that the following day's move to Camp 3 is lighter. Peter and Samie decided to rest at camp 2. Peter went missing on that day after the avalanche hit Camp 2.
Teshil decided to share what went through his mind as the minutes passed.
Disclaimer from Teshil
It is an accident that I wish nobody ever goes through. Nobody is prepared to face such circumstance where a closed one suddenly disappears. I believe that we have managed all the risk we could (albeit not camping at the spot- first avalanche accident on that climbing route) and had all our backup safety measures in place. This is not about pointing fingers. This is a sharing of what went through my mind when I realised what happened and it can hopefully prepare anybody when fatigue sets in and one needs to survive, perform a rescue and make critical decisions at the most unexpected timing.
Walking back to Camp
It was close to 4pm, the white out has been around since 12pm and we were almost back to Camp 2. We were very happy and proud to have not only stashed our gears at 6100m but also to find the start of the fixed rope set by the Indian team two weeks ago. Finding that rope meant that we did not have to carry our own 600m of fixed rope, which weighs roughly 21kg. At that altitude, reducing the weight to carry by 21kg is substantial and we were eager to share the good news with Peter and Samie.
As we were trying to find our way back in the white out, we suddenly heard Samie shouting in the distance. We could not make out what she was saying, and it was too far for us to reply. We thought that she might be shouting to direct us to the campsite. We could trace back our path and we had the GPS track saved on our devices. Little did we know that an avalanche hit camp 2 more than 4 hours ago and that Peter has been missing since. We shouted to Samie to get Peter to man the walkie talkie so we could talk instead of shout, but we just could not hear each other.
Moments later, Osh (who was leading the four of us- we have all been roped up on the same rope throughout) told us that he could not see our knee-deep trail from the morning anymore. I thought that our trail was impossible to miss, and I watched as he took the steeper path towards the direction we came from. We gathered at the bottom of the steep section trying to figure out where we were. I looked around and something was just not right.
Confusion setting in
I looked back up to the path that Osh brought us through, and it was the general direction that we were supposed to descend. So, where were we? By that time, Nick took out his GPS and said that we went too far down, and our campsite was higher up. I had a feeling that the GPS was wrong and told him to wait up. I looked at the crevasse and it looked oddly familiar, like the one behind our campsite when we left this morning, but our tents were not there. There was a flag marker that was missing together with the 1 metre deep toilet hole I dug this morning. All these could not have disappeared just like that. Or could it be that this crevasse looks oddly similar to the one at our camp. It never occurred to me that our campsite was hit by an avalanche.
I couldn't finish processing all the information that Nick mentioned to follow the GPS track up. At that time, I heard Samie's voice and could see a silhouette some 200 metres down as the white out momentarily became thinner. I told Nick that Samie (hence our campsite) is down there. As we started to walk down towards the silhouette, the ground was no longer even. There were clumps of snow. I tried to probe it through as I walked down wondering whether it was some crevasse field. Moments later I realised it could be an avalanche, Samie was too far down for it to be our campsite, and the crevasse that looked familiar was our campsite!
As I realised that and told the rest of my suspicion, I noticed that they were quiet, presumably also trying to comprehend what happened. Nick shouted out loud to Samie asking her what she was doing some 200 metres below us. The few words I remembered from her distant reply was 'avalanche' and 'where is Peter!'. Oh my god, what the hell happened?
Trying to make sense of all the information we had
I want to say that time froze at that moment, but it did not. There were so many things going on in my mind and not enough time to process them all. I was trying to think of possible scenarios of what could possibly have happened as well as our next set of actions. In all the medical and rescue training I attended, we always give our best in training in the hope that we will not have to use those skills in real case scenario. There I was, at 5800m, in a remote mountain at least three days walk to advance care and a climbing friend was missing and another one has fallen 200m vertically with no information of the injury sustained.
The one thing we knew for sure was that there was an avalanche. We could not see any trace of either Peter or our three tents (presumably buried). Samie can talk but she has not moved from her spot. We do not know whether she was injured. As I looked at the horizon, the sun was two fingers over the ridge line. This gave us roughly half an hour of direct sunlight, after which we would have another hour of daylight. I had my headlamp in my bag, but I doubt all of us had one available. It seemed that all our food, gas (hence water), warm clothes and shelter had been buried under the avalanche. Even though the four of us were physically fit, the lack of resources would make us go into survival mode. My feet were all wet from the snow melting in my boots from the knee-deep snow path we came from. If I did not have a dry/warm place for my feet, I could get a frost bite. Our nearest shelter (a 2-man tent) was at Camp 1.5 but that was a 2 hours journey down and 5 hours back up. Base camp was an 8 hours journey down.
The direct path to Samie was not on the climbing route. I pulled out my map to see the contours and figure out what the terrain is like as well as whether there might be chances of falling into crevasses. I do not know whether it was because of the white out, but I could not get any GPS signal. Murphy's law was hitting us hard! We could also not tell how the terrain looked like, the ground and air were one, just plain white. We could not tell whether it was a steep or gentle drop. The video gives you an idea how the white out was at its best.
White out condition walking from C2 to C1 at 5200m
Deciding on how best to survive
Nick was worried about his wife Samie and tried to make a direct path to Samie. This was risky because of possible crevasses. I kept his rope tight as he was descending, ready to arrest any fall. Soon enough, he slipped over a crevasse and I quickly got into my self-arrest position. We manage to hold his fall, but it was not a time to risk any incident on top on what already happened. I requested for the team to take the longer but safer path down to Samie.
As we were traversing back to the main climbing path, I was wondering whether we should split up. Half of us could go back to the campsite to scan for Peter while the rest would go and find Samie. We discussed as a group and figured out that it was best to all go down to check on Samie. The knee-deep snow, crevasse field, poor visibility and high altitude does not allow us to move fast. We also had only one walkie talkie with us; the other two were buried somewhere. If we split up, we would not be able to communicate, and the sun was setting down soon. Samie might also be needing immediate evacuation and in such instances, whatever life can be saved, should be saved.
However painful it was to say it, it was way more unbearable to execute it. The dilemma about whether we could find and save Peter if we split up was always there. Every step we took towards Samie, I kept thinking of the what ifs. What if we split up, what if we started digging? However, I knew there will always be the what if, and the best we could do was to make an informed decision based on all the information we had. From what we could see, the avalanche debris field was at least 200m by 100m and we had no clue on where to start searching and it has been almost 30minutes since Samie first shouted something to us (Avalanche should have happened before that). People cannot survive for long under an avalanche, roughly 18minutes only. Peter was our friend and having to make the decision not to search for him at that point in time was a very painful and hard one.
Finding out what happened
As we reached Samie, Nick jumped into her arms and hold her tight, knowing that his wife was very lucky to have survived. We were all very grateful to see that Samie was safe. We didn't have much time to comfort each other, so we jumped straight to the fact finding. Avalanche hit Samie and Peter (while both were in their tents) roughly 4 hours ago. She miraculously survived with one side of her boots missing. When the avalanche finally stopped, she jumped out of her damaged tent. She could not find Peter and shouting for him yield no responses. She managed to keep herself warm and had one walkie that was linked to the liaison officer at base camp. The latter was informed of the incident.
4 hours!! The moment we heard that, all our hope shrank. Chances were very slim, but I still wanted to find Peter. Realistically, we also had to survive. We dig out the remaining of Samie's 2-man tent. It was torn, tent poles were bent but we figured out it was the best shelter we could get. If we went down to camp 1.5, we will not have any supplies to allow us to come back up to search. We moved away from the avalanche zone (another avalanche came down in the middle of the night) and pitched the tent. Nick and Osh tried to do some last-minute search before dark, but they did not find anything.
Surviving the night
All five of us squeezed in the damaged 2-man tent. The space between the floor and the roof of the tent was just enough to fit our body in. The cold snow was getting to our back as we did not have any mattresses. We shared one mars bar and a couple of jelly sweets as dinner among the five of us. I chose not to eat as we did not know how long we needed to last till we get down to base camp. I had half a wrap from lunch that I decided to keep for last minute use. We had roughly 2.5litres of water among the five of us. Everything was being rationed.
I was on the down slope side of the tent and I could feel the rest lying on me. I was worried another avalanche would hit us and I would be buried under my friend's butt. That thought alone made me decide to shuffle out into the colder vestibule.
During that whole ordeal, I was praying that somehow; we got an enlightenment of where we should search for Peter. We kept talking in the walkie talkie in the hope that Peter would reply. We were desperate.
When the first glimpse of light appeared, we got off our emergency shelter and put on our frozen boots. We tried to search for Peter again but could only find one shovel. It was a helpless moment searching as I did not know whether digging a bit deeper, a bit more to the left or right of where I was digging, would give results. The debris field stretched roughly 400m long and 100m wide. I have never felt so helpless in my life. I wish I had supplies and equipment up there to keep searching. I knew that I could not keep searching and the team had to head down to base camp and could not afford spending another night out if we were to survive. We were however hopeful knowing that a search team was on its way up.
At base camp, we linked up with the search team and provided them with all the GPS coordinates and pictures we had. However, it kept snowing and the wind was strong, which made the rescue operation tricky. The rescue team did not manage to find anything on their initial search and the snow has been piling on since. It has been more than a month now (at the time of writing) since the avalanche happened and Peter has yet to be found.
As I said earlier, I do not wish this to happen to anybody, but I do hope this account helps some teams to better prepare for unforeseen circumstances that might arise. The team and I appreciate all the kind words that all of you have shown and we do hope that we can find Peter for the family to be able to have a proper closure.