Annapurna, Attempt and Tragedy. On December 2, Anatoli Boukreev and I, accompanied by the alpinist and videographer Dimitri Sobolev, flew by helicopter from the last lodge to a base camp at 4095 meters. A long glacier separated us from the beginning of Annapurna’s south face and the traditional Base Camp, where, due to the abundant snow in which the helicopter would have “sunk,” it had not been possible to land. We were forced to break trail along the glacier to get to the base of the face, an exhausting task compounded by much new and abundant snows.
Our stay on the mountain continued to be christened by snowfall that accumulated to four meters. This forced us to change our climbing itinerary (though we kept the summit of Annapurna I as our final objective). The new line of ascent we picked wound its way up the steep east face of Annapurna Fang (7847m) to the line of notches situated between this summit and that of Annapurna II. Once we reached this col we would be able to make a long traverse along the ridge that would bring us to the summit of Annapurna Fang (which is avoidable) and then on to that of Annapurna I. A new itinerary, possibly more difficult, surely longer than an ascent via the Bonington route but, in our minds, much safer given the conditions.
We grew accustomed to proceeding with snow up to our bellies and with packs weighing as much as 34 kilos. On December 25, we began a constant advance in piolet traction on fine mixed terrain to reach the ridge. As we had agreed, I led and equipped the most technically demanding pitches. Thus, after an hour’s climb, Anatoli made a small stance for himself on the slope to deal with the unspooling and joining of the rope coils as I slowly dragged them toward the ridge.
After a couple of hours, I was about 50 to 70 meters from the exit onto the ridge at 6300 meters, but a yell from Anatoli announced the end of the last coil of rope. He suggested I set up an anchor to fix the long umbilical cord that connected us. I carried out the task and, given the high difficulty of the last section remaining to be climbed, I decided to wait for him, who now had been joined by Dimitri.
I spent the first few minutes filming and photographing my two friends, then concerned myself with putting the video camera away in my pack so I could get my gloves back on. In the time it took to think of doing this, but before I actually could begin, I realized the moment of my death was silently approaching.
Blocks of ice and rock in a cloud of snow were falling down on me. In a state of animated “peaceful resignation,” I thought only of yelling out the danger to Anatoli and Dimitri. I remember seeing them make a rapid lateral move in an attempt to get out of the way of the avalanche while I crouched and leaned against the wall, gripping with my bare hands the rope that had just been fixed.
I wasn’t able to resist the fury of this mass for even a second, and I fell rapidly, grasping the rope between my hands as it burned and lacerated my fingers almost through to the bone. The series of flights, slides and ricochets seemed like they would never end. All I could do was go along with the movement of the avalanche, often tumbling at break-neck speed and losing orientation.
It was 12:37 when I stopped, half-buried in the snow, at 5500 meters. I could not see out of one eye, my hands were stripped to the bone, my clothes were in shreds, and I had lost all my equipment except for my crampons. I immediately called Anatoli and Dimitri many times but no one answered. I staggered about in the avalanche for about 15 minutes without seeing or hearing anything from them.
I was alive, but unsure of my survival given the conditions and the 1500 meters of wall yet to descend before getting to Base Camp. There, I would be able to organize the rescue that I knew would arrive within a few days’ wait.
Good fortune willed that only 50 meters from the avalanche stood our Camp I tent, inside which I had a supply of clothing. After exhaustingly redressing, I started the long, dramatic descent without use of my hands and able to see out of only one eye. After six hours, I arrived exhausted at the 4095-meter Base Camp where my Nepalese cook attended to me, ignorant of what had just happened. Thanks to his nocturnal walk of more than ten hours to a village, and the subsequent radio contact with a friend, Nima, from Cho Oyu, who was trekking in Kathmandu, I was able to take advantage of the help of a helicopter that came and got me on December 26 at Base Camp.
Three days later, I was once again in a helicopter trying to fly over the avalanche and possibly see my friends still alive. Unfortunately, there still is no trace of them today, apart from what remains of Anatoli in the pages of the history of alpinism.
Simone Moro, Italy