Canadian survivor recalls harrowing avalanche rescue in Nepal
Published Wednesday, September 26, 2012 10:55AM EDT
The Canadian survivor of a deadly high-altitude avalanche in Nepal said there seemed to be no rhyme or reason why some were spared and others swept away in the powerful slide, including a Canadian cardiologist who is still missing.
Speaking from Kathmandu, Nepal in one of his first Canadian interviews, extreme skier Greg Hill said he was lying in his tent at around 4:45 a.m. Sunday morning when he and his climbing partner heard what they thought was a rising wind, which had been forecast.
Due to the high elevation of their camp, at 6,400 metres on the precarious side of Mount Manaslu, the climbers were awake despite the early hour.
“We heard something and thought it was the increased winds we were expecting, and then soon enough it kept going and it was more consistent than wind and we realized it was the force of an avalanche going past us and the winds ahead of it. And right away at that point we realized something was amiss,” Hill told CTV News Channel via Skype on Wednesday.
“We got dressed and stepped outside and right away we could see headlamps up the mountain searching around and desperate voices yelling for each other.”
The skier from Revelstoke, B.C. and his team quickly gathered their gear and made their way up the mountain to where the slide had hit a cluster of tents, including that of American freestyle skier Glen Plake and his French expedition partner Greg Costa.
The rescuers used avalanche shovels and their hands to dig out the survivors, treating their injuries.
“Some were cold and somewhat injured but others were buried up to their neck and in a desperate situation of need, so right away we started digging out those who were above the snow or somewhat above the snow and digging them out as best we could,” Hill said.
Initially, Hill said he assumed Plake and his team had camped outside the slide path and escaped the carnage.
But that hope came crashing down when Plake stumbled down the mountain from where his tent had been hit by the avalanche at around 7,000 metres above sea level.
“I gave him a big hug and we cried together as we realized his two partners had been swept away,” Hill said, adding that Plake and Costa had been lying awake in their tent talking as the avalanche struck, carrying them down the mountain.
“Somehow Glen was somewhat OK and as he zipped himself out of his sleeping bag buried in snow, he couldn’t find his partner. It was heart-wrenching. He had been lucky whereas the person inches beside him had not.”
It isn’t yet clear exactly how many climbers perished in the avalanche. So far nine have been confirmed dead, and six are still missing, including Quebec physician Dr. Dominique Ouimet.
Ouimet, a cardiologist based out of Quebec’s Saint-Jerome regional hospital, was 7,000 metres up his 8,000 metre climb when the avalanche struck, said hospital spokesperson Chantale Fortin.
Fortin said Ouimet was an experienced mountaineer who was scaling Mount Manaslu to raise money for cardiology equipment for the hospital.
This was his ninth major climb and Ouimet was hoping to achieve a personal best.
According to some reports, Manaslu was more crowded than usual when the avalanche struck, due to heightened tensions between Chinese and Tibetan authorities.
China had rejected a number of permit applications for expeditions to Tibet, forcing groups to head to Nepal instead, according to some expedition outfitters. As a result there were 30 teams on Mount Manaslu when the avalanche struck on the weekend, a 50 per cent increase from last year, The Associated Press reports.
As a result, it’s possible that campsites in avalanche-safe areas were in limited supply.
“It’s a very dangerous mountain and I think it has the nickname ‘Death Mountain.’ But there’s not a lot of really safe places to camp and you’ve got to really analyze the mountain and decide where to camp and hopefully choose a great spot, but these people were definitely unlucky,” Hill said.