American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

American Dhaulagiri Expedition—1969

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  • Publication Year: 1970

American Dhaulagiri Expedition—1969

William A. Read, James D. Morrissey, and Louis F. Reichardt

The ablation has been performed but not the sacrifice. – The I Ching of James Janney after the collapse of Read but before the Death of the Seven. April 22, 1969.

The Approach

(Al Read tells of the beginnings of the expedition.)

Death is not uncommon in mountaineering. Its cold fingers follow you into the rotton couloir. You see it above as you traverse below the cornice. And there it is below your line of shifting pins. Most certainly it stalks in the incessant animation of an active Himalayan glacier. But is this not part of the satisfaction and ultimate splendor of the climber, perched on the abyss, daring the early intrusion of the inevitable, while denying the Black Caress through cunning, skill and often incredible luck? And all this in the most beautiful surroundings. This is adventure – life. But what of annihilation? A climber seldom contemplates this realistically. Even more rarely does it actually occur. He calculates the risk in pursuit of the essence of being.

A cliff of blue ice thrust forward by the East Dhaulagiri Glacier fell just as five skilled mountaineers and two Nepali Sherpas, on a carefully judged schedule, stood below it. The wall collapsed, sending a thunder of tumbling death into half the American Dhaulagiri Expedition, crushing and burying, wrenching off to bare ice the deep snow from the glacier, plunging over a five-hundred-foot cliff and, far below, finally resting and refreezing.

This was annihilation.

* * * *

But tragedy was on nobody’s mind during the winter of 1969. The phenomenal organizational abilities of Boyd Everett had been at work for several years planning a Himalayan expedition. Permission for K2 was impossible. Malubiting was promised by Pakistan, but internal difficulties delayed final approval. At the last minute, with the Malubiting permission dragging on hopelessly, Boyd turned to Nepal with its newly-lifted climbing ban. Only three weeks after submission of the application, Nepal granted him permission for Dhaulagiri I by the southeast ridge.

Through a huge effort, plans were shifted from the Karakoram to Nepal, additional money was raised, equipment obtained and personnel confirmed. A well-staffed and equipped expedition left the United States during the first days of April. Although we had only wild hopes for the summit, an extremely strong reconnaissance would lay the ground work for a big push in 1970.

The final personnel consisted of Boyd Everett, leader, A1 Read, deputy leader, Jeff Duenwald, Paul Gerhard, Vin Hoeman, Jim Janney, Jim Morrissey, M.D., Lou Reichardt, Bill Ross, M.D., and Dave Seidman. Terry Bech, a Fulbright Scholar in Nepal, agreed to serve as transportation officer, and Nepal assigned extraordinarily capable Hari Das Rai as our liaison officer. Both of these exceptional people quickly became very much a part of the expedition. The German expedition to Annapurna had already taken the majority of available Sherpas, but with one exception we were able to secure fine men: Panboche Tensing, Pemba Phutar, Mingma Norbu (porters), Phu Tare and Pemba Norbu (cooks), Ang Pasang (runner) and Phu Dorje II (sirdar).

In spite of Pan American Airways’ taking two weeks to get our equipment to Delhi, and through Lou Reichardt’s ability to secure oxygen in India, we left Kathmandu in two stages on a chartered DC-3 to Pokhara on April 15. Phu Dorje had arranged for 60 Tibetan and 30 Nepali porters. All were waiting for us at the airport. Within hours the advance team, Hoeman, Bech, Tensing and I, were on our way, while the main party with 90 porters followed us north from Pokhara toward the Kali Gandaki and Dhaulagiri.

The trek to the mountain defies description. The environs of Kathmandu with its temples, smells and meshing of cultures were fascinating beyond all expectations. But the back country filled us with a sense of awesome fantasy – Machapuchare breaking from the torrid jungle to its stark and frozen summit 20,000 feet above, the beautiful Nepali people, laughing, curious and delightfully friendly, the damp mist of the rain forest with waterfalls spraying into thickets of rhododendrons, and finally Dhaulagiri itself, huge, isolated, a distorted pyramid of immense magnitude rising out of the 3000-foot Kali Gandaki gorge to its 26,811-foot summit. The first sight of this peak, which is perhaps the most difficult of all those that rise to over 8000 meters, was staggering. We had considered ourselves mentally prepared for such a mountain. But this was bigger, more savage and forbidding than anything our imaginations had conceived. But why should it be otherwise? These are the Himalaya.

With intense excitement we approached the flanks of the southeast ridge. The porters’ cry of “Very hot, sahib; very hot” gave way to a worried chill as the conifers and grassy highlands vanished and the expedition touched the first licks of snow. The advance team established a Base Camp at 15,000 feet on the snout of the East Dhaulagiri Glacier. The main party began its approach from the valley 6000 feet below.

Then began the ablation.

Acute Mountain Sickness in a Member of the American Dhaulagiri Expedition

(This section was written by James D. Morrissey, M.D.)

At seven P.M. on April 21 Vin Hoeman radioed from the newly established Base Camp at 15,000 feet that everyone was fine. Because of snow and dense cloud cover, the advance party had spent most of that day in the tents. A1 Read ate poorly, confining himself to his sleeping bag, where he slept fitfully. The previous night, his first at 15,000 feet, he had talked in his sleep, awakening the other men in the tent. He had a persistent headache and took several Darvon Compound tablets. For several days he had been coughing, and now it was more frequent and harder. The last thing he remembered was taking Darvon on the night of the 21st. For the next 32 hours he was unconscious.

At three A.M. on the 22nd Vin Hoeman was awakened by a loud groaning from Al, who could not be roused. Vin took his pulse – it was 160 per minute. His respiratory rate was 60 per minute. Suspecting pulmonary edema, Vin and others prepared to evacuate him by wrapping him in a tent that could be guided down the newly-covered steep slopes below camp, where they feared avalanche danger.

At seven A.M. Vin reported by radio that Al was unconscious with pulmonary edema. He was instructed to start down immediately. Meanwhile those engaged in meeting the medical needs of the village of Kalipani started up-river to intercept the porters and collect the things needed to help. At eight A.M. Mingma Norbu and a porter left the valley floor at 7800 feet with oxygen and medical supplies; two hours later they arrived at 13,000 feet and oxygen was administered at a very high flow rate. At eleven A.M. Lou Reichardt and I reached A1. In the excitement the oxygen had been administered at a wasteful rate and the tank was empty. Therefore he was carried down another 500 feet. His bladder was full and so we inserted a catheter and gave intravenous Decadron to decrease swelling in the brain. We also gave intravenous ethycrinic acid, a rapid- acting diuretic agent to dry out the lungs. Within minutes his urine output increased. The catheter was left in place.

It was obvious that A1 was gravely ill: his color was ashen and his eyes bulged, causing the lids to retract. His conjunctivae were suffused, his pupils unequal (the right larger than the left). He assumed a decorticate posture, which suggested serious brain damage. His pulse was still 160 and respirations 60 per minute. He did not respond to painful stimuli. The neck veins were distended and a gurgling sound was audible in the chest when he inspired. Examination of the lungs showed typical findings of pulmonary edema. Neurological examination confirmed the suspicion that there was swelling and increased pressure in the brain.

After another dose of Decadron and ethycrinic acid we dragged and carried him down to 12,400 feet where he was given oxygen by mask at 6 liters per minute for two hours. His severe cerebral condition appeared to improve somewhat, and so at four P.M. the decision was made to evacuate him to the lowest possible altitude before dark. Nearly a foot of snow had fallen during the afternoon, making the attempt more hazardous, but three exhausting and treacherous hours later we pitched the tent in which he had been wrapped at 10,300 feet. I gave him oxygen all night. At two A.M. he was again given Decadron (2cc) and ethycrinic acid (25 mgm) because his pulse and respirations, which had dropped considerably in the previous eight hours, rose again to 160 and 60 respectively.

By five A.M. on April 23 he could answer questions with some accuracy, though briefly. He could repeat his name and move both upper extremities on demand. He could not move his legs and neurological examination still suggested a conduction defect between brain and lower spinal cord. By 6:30 A.M. he could swallow sips of water. His pulse was now 145 and respiration 40 per minute. At eight A.M. he was dragged into the open and shown a yak which was grazing nearby. This was the first thing in 33 hours which he remembers today. By nine A.M. he could sit up without assistance and said that vision was obscured in the right eye by what he described as a large irregular brown blotch near the center of his visual field. At eleven A.M. the Foley catheter was removed and he was started on oral Polycillin (250 mgm every 6 hours).

At noon we started the long trip down to Kalipani, the nearest village, still 2500 vertical feet below. A1 could barely support himself and had very little control of his legs. With the assistance of several local people the evacuation was completed in six hours. That evening his pulse was 130 and the respiratory rate 30 per minute. His lungs sounded about the same as the night before despite his marked clinical improvement. Neurologic examination revealed return of normal thought processes with improvement in coordination of his upper extremities, but a significant loss of strength and coordination in his legs was still present. He still had a positive Babinski reflex which suggests a conduction defect between brain and lower spinal cord. He could not identify articles by touch with eyes closed; for example, he could not tell the difference between a pencil and a coin. This phenomenon persisted through April 25. Starting on the evening of April 23 he was given Furosamide (lasix; 40 mgm twice daily) for three days.

By April 25 his lungs were clear, and his pulse and respiratory rate were within normal limits. With gradually increasing exercise his coordination returned. He continued to complain of profound weakness and decreased vision in his right eye, even though the spot obscuring his vision decreased in size. On April 27 he set out for Jomosom 15 miles up the Kali Ganaki valley, where he arrived the next day. A week later he was in Kathmandu where a thorough ophthalmologic examination revealed a pale area in the retina of the right eye. The finding was thought to be secondary to retinal hemorrhage.

The fact that A1 Read developed pulmonary edema in the first place is remarkable for a host of reasons.* He had climbed to 20,000 feet previously and experienced little difficulty. He had lived at 6000 feet and worked at 8000 feet during the months prior to our departure for Nepal. In the ascent to 15,000 feet he had not gained altitude exceptionally rapidly and had packed in over a 9000-foot pass enroute to the glacier. Admittedly they had been pushing it to get an acclimatization or base camp established, but not at high altitude. When they did get to 15,000 feet, he spent the first 24 hours at rest.

In summing up, the following points might be made: First and foremost, all members of a party must be aware of the early signs of pulmonary edema and be quick to bring suspicious symptoms to the attention of the entire group. The it-couldn’t-be-happening-to-me philosophy is dangerous not only to the individual afflicted but to the rest of the party as well. Also, this is the first time that ethycrinic acid has been reported in the treatment of pulmonary and cerebral edema at high altitude. Though this patient was treated with many other things (decadron, oxygen and descent), ethycrinic acid seemed to be helpful and is worthy of further attention.

The reader may be interested to know that A1 Read returned to his post with the Exum Guide Service in the Tetons last June and spent a productive summer instructing neophyte mountaineers. Aside from a slight visual deficit in one eye, he has no residual from his grave illness.

The Avalanche

(Louis F. Reichardt describes the tragedy.)

Vin Hoeman and I both felt that we were finally in our element. The unfamiliar world of Nepal – temples, customs and intestinal ailments — lay eight thousand feet below. While we enjoyed the land and its hospitable people, it was the mountains which had lured us halfway around the world. Then, just as we reached them, A1 had to be evacuated. Those tense moments were finally behind us. Vin and I were alone in a tent at 15,000 feet on the ice of the East Dhaulagiri Glacier, trading tales of endurance and privation from past expeditions. A few hours before, the whole expedition had carried loads to this camp in a gentle snow storm and had left us with a monstrous cache. In the morning, we were to climb higher to explore a route to the top of Dhaulagiri’s East Ridge. This afternoon and evening, though, we had time to talk, monitor our pulses as indexes of our acclimatization, and read.

The following day proved to be a hard one for me. Vin had brought a pair of snowshoes, while I had only crampons. We spent several hours in an unequal battle against the snow on the lower part of the glacier, Vin walking easily while I thrashed along behind. Finally, the terrain steepened, and the snowshoes had to be abandoned. The battle became a shared one, as we climbed to 17,000 feet encountering few technical difficulties. We returned to camp convinced that “easy” altitude could be gained on the glacier before attacking the ridge. The next morning, joined by Paul Gerhard, we went five hundred feet higher to the elevation at which we intended to leave the glacier. To our left was a rare break in the bank of rock created by the glacier’s attack on the ridge. A spur of rock and snow led from above this chute to 20,000 feet, technically a moderately-easy route. A large crevasse cleft our path on the glacier at the lower rim of a huge basin that we would have to cross to reach the chute, but we could see there were no obstacles in the basin. To forge a route which could be followed easily, we sent down a request for logs to Boyd and spent another evening at 15,000 feet monitoring pulses and expectations.

Joined in the morning by Pemba Phutar and Tensing, we carried a small tent, food, and climbing equipment to the edge of the crevasse. Vin and I had intended to remain there that evening and to explore further in the morning, but when we descended in the afternoon to collect the logs, we learned that they would not arrive that day. Boyd Everett, Dave Seidman and Bill Ross were occupying our old camp. They had been working hard with the others carrying loads to this height. Now they wanted to see the route. Boyd thought it might be easier to leave the glacier immediately and gain our elevation on the ridge. We decided to spend the night together — an evening transformed by the many taped symphonies Boyd had brought with him. Our camp became “base camp”, a psychological change that seemed destined to be repeated as we moved up the mountain.

Bill Ross and I had to wait in the morning for Mingma to bring the logs from below. Then, with them balanced on top of my Kelty, we set out after the others. Sunshine and companionship conspired to make a relaxing morning. The pace was slow, and friendships were being renewed in this first large sortie on alpine terrain. Still, the twelve-foot logs made a strange load, frequently threatening my balance, on what already seemed a curious day, one in which we were carrying loads up a route that might be abandoned. I, at least, knew that the logs could be abandoned with the route. After mentioning this to Bill, he replied, “I think we are committed to something up here.”

“Quick! Let’s get the logs across so Boyd can cross without taking off his pack.” Bill and I reached the crevasse a few minutes before the others, but it took time to rig the ropes properly. Everyone had time to arrive and unload. They stayed to inspect the proposed route. Encouraged, they remained to kibbitz. Then an afternoon fog descended upon us. A few minutes later, just as Bill and Vin were finishing the delicate pivoting of the timbers to the crevasse’s far rim, a roar entered our consciousnesses. Neutral for a moment, it quickly posed a threat. We had only an instant to seek shelter before it consumed our world.

I found only a change of slope in the glacier for shelter and was repeatedly struck on my back with debris – all glancing blows which did not dislodge my hands. When it was finally over, assuming that it was snow that had been unable to bury us, I stood up fully expecting to be surrounded by the same seven companions. Instead, everything that was familiar – friends, equipment, even the snow on which we had been standing – was gone. There was only dirty, hard glacial ice with dozens of fresh gouges and scattered huge ice blocks, the grit of the avalanche. It was a scene of indescribable violence, reminiscent of the first eons of creation, when a still molten earth was forged; and at the same time it was uncannily silent and peaceful on a warm, misty afternoon. A triangular cliff of ice, thrust out of the glacier by some invisible band of rock, had collapsed and the resulting debris had cut a 100-foot-wide swath across the broad basin, filled the crevasse, and overwhelmed us.

Yells of reassurance became expressions of my disbelief. A systematic search down the slopes revealed little above a high cliff and convinced me that everything had been carried over it. I spent an hour in this search and in a less thorough one of the debris below – a period of time allotted as a compromise between the conflicting demands for immediate rescue and for summoning people and equipment to help. Then I made the loneliest of trips down the glacier and rock to the 12,000-foot acclimatization camp, shedding crampons, overboots, and finally even disbelief on the way. I returned with equipment and people to make a more thorough search of debris, but with no success. Probes were useless; even ice axes could not penetrate the huge ice mass, roughly the size of a football field and twenty feet deep. We had no rational basis for hope. The avalanche was ice, not snow. The few items of equipment found were completely shredded. No man could have survived a ride in such debris.

We spent another week on the mountain retrieving equipment, not so much for its value but because of our reluctance to sever bonds with the past. Much in each of us died that day, and time spent alone with memories of past hopes, exertions and companionship seemed necessary then and appropriate later. I remember them now as my closest climbing companions – men who believed in testing their own limits and who enriched the lives of their friends by sharing their experiences and motives, men who died enjoying their avocation in a place they might have chosen.

*One of the most important aspects of pulmonary edema is its relationship to speed of ascent and acclimatization or the lack of it. It is always important to consider how fast a patient has climbed and to what altitude. In our experience the rate of ascent is more important than the actual altitude reached. The lessons from this accident should be hammered home: (1) speed of ascent and degree of acclimatization are crucial in pulmonary edema; (2) treatment must be early and energetic, and descent plus oxygen are the most important; the entire party should be briefed on use of decadron, morphine, digitalis and diuretics. – Charles S. Houston, M.D.

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