American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Asia, Tibet, Shishapangma, Southwest Face, Attempt and Tragedy

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2000

Shishapangma, Southwest Face, Attempt and Tragedy. The idea behind this trip was to go over to the Himalaya with a group of friends and ski an 8000-meter peak. About half of the 14 8000ers have been skied by various lines, with the world-wide total being roughly ten to 20 individual descents off of the summits. Shishapangma has been skied via the regular route, but never by the steeper southwest side. The line that we were attempting, the Swiss/Polish Route, seemed to be a perfect candidate for a ski descent. It is a direct, continuously steep line with the hardest technical section being near the bottom. Our plan was to take our time getting up to a high advanced base camp, then do successively higher day skiing trips until we were acclimatized enough to climb and ski the route in a one-day push. If this didn’t look like it was going to work out, plan B was to put a camp in somewhere on the route and do it as a two- to three-day outing.

Right from the start, this was an expensive trip and we were very fortunate that The North Face and became major sponsors. We were also awarded a $6,000 grant through the Polartech Challenge, which helped defray many of the incidental costs along the way. As part of The North Face sponsorship, we agreed to make a film out of the outing through American Adventure Productions that was to be shown on NBC as part of a five-part series. This necessitated three more people on the trip: Kent Harvey, Michael Brown and David Bridges, who were not only excellent at their jobs but very experienced mountaineers and a great asset to the team.

Team members Andrew McLean (leader), Mark Holbrook, Alex Lowe, Kris Erickson, Hans Saari, Conrad Anker, David Bridges, Michael Brown and Kent Harvey arrived in Kathmandu on September 14 and spent four days there adjusting and doing last-minute provisioning before setting out to the north to cross into Tibet. After spending a night at the filthy border town of Kodari (where we picked up a few stomach bugs), we crossed into Tibet the next morning and were met by our CMA Liaison Officer and interpreter. The next stop was the outpost town of Nyalam, where we spent another day or so coordinating loads and yaks before finally setting out on the 15-mile approach to Base Camp at roughly 16,000 feet. As none of us had ever been there, we made the strategic error of letting the yak herders set the pace. The first day we did a placid three to five miles with about a 500-foot elevation gain. The next day, with all of our bivy gear loaded onto the yaks, they busted out ten miles and 4,000 feet of gain, which left some of us reeling with altitude sickness soon after arriving at BC. I hung in there for a few hours before recognizing the early signs of pulmonary edema and heading down with Alex and Michael in the middle of the night to spend four days recouping in Nyalam.

By the time I was able to return, the rest of the team had cleaned up BC, built a beautiful chorten and done a few short ski outings. With the snowline at above 18,000 feet, it required a major effort to do skiing day trips from BC. On one occasion, we were able to climb and ski a formation known as The Ice Tooth. A few days later, we split up and skied some of the stunning higher flanks surrounding Shishapanmga but only made it to about the 21,000-foot level before turning around due to poor weather.

Advanced Base Camp, which required a grueling effort to get to from BC, was a plush haven of soft, flat sand located right at the base of the south face. On October 4, after two tofour trips apiece, we were finally established at the snowline, well acclimatized, completely provisioned and ready to start doing some skiing. On October 5, all of that changed. After spending our first night at ABC, we awoke the next morning to a clear, sunny day with a variety of nebulous plans. Alex, Conrad and David wanted to take a long loop over to check out a potential climb, then circle back to the base of the Swiss/Polish route. I was mainly interested in looking at our route, so I headed straight up toward it, with Mark, Hans and Kris about 20 minutes behind. After about an hour’s climb straight up a gully, I reached a plateau and immediately spotted Alex, David and Conrad about half a mile off to my right. We were separated by a crevasse field and as I stood there wondering how to connect with them, we all noticed a small avalanche start far above. At first, it didn’t seem to be a cause for alarm; it looked like it would probably stop on the first of three benches that it would come to. Instead, it did something far worse: it triggered a bigger slide, which in turn triggered an even bigger one. In a matter of seconds, the whole mountainside was in motion with Alex, David and Conrad directly below it. Conrad ran to the left while Alex and David ran downhill, perhaps to try and dive into a crevasse, still not realizing how large the slide was. From my view on a small knoll off to the side, my thoughts quickly turned from mild concern to blind panic as I realized they weren’t going to make it.

The slide was huge. As it hit the apron above them, I saw the last of my friends before realizing that I was in the line of destruction. With five seconds to find a place to hide, I jumped into a small corner, covered my head and tried not to panic. The windblast flattened me, then filled every crevice with snow. When I dug myself out and climbed to the top of the knoll again, I was amazed to see a lone figure walking around on the debris pile. It was Conrad. “They’re gone. Alex and David are gone.”

We searched that day and again the next, but never found any trace of them. The debris pile was roughly 400 feet wide by 1,200 feet long and in places had filled in 30-foot crevasses.

A big part of this trip was the fact that we had all been good friends for years beforehand. With Alex and David gone, it completely took the wind out of our sails. The trip was over. Conrad was injured, our friends had died and the mountains seemed cold and inhospitable. We decided to head down.

Andrew McLean, unaffiliated

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