AAC Publications - http://publications.americanalpineclub.org

Asia, Nepal, Annapurna Himal, Peri Himal, Kang Guru, Avalanche Tragedy to French Expedition

Kang Guru, avalanche tragedy to French expedition. The worst disaster ever to befall an expedition in the Nepalese Himalaya struck a seven-member French team trying to climb 6,981m Kang Guru. The only previous death on the mountain was that of a West German named Bernd Arenz, who died in a fall on October 24, 1985. On October 20, 2005, all the French and 11 of their Nepalese employees, who were inside their base camp tents after the members’ late-afternoon tea, were swept by a giant avalanche into a deep gorge below All 18 perished. These included 60-year old leader Daniel Stolzenberg, his wife, three high-altitude climbers, base camp cook and kitchen boys, and low-altitude load-carrying porters. Several other porters were outside their tents at the time and managed to survive. They trekked to the nearest village, Meta, where they met a French-Israeli expedition planning to climb another mountain in the area, Ratna Chuli. This team immediately informed the French embassy in Kathmandu of the disaster. (Because of snow conditions, the Ratna Chuli team made no attempt to continue to their peak).

During early attempts to retrieve the bodies, only one, that of Bruno Chardin, a ski resort manager, was found before the search was suspended due to more avalanches. In the meantime specialists in avalanche searches arrived from France with special equipment and two sniffer dogs. By mid-November, when they called off their work until early the next year, they had discovered only the bodies of another French member, Jean-Francois Jube, an advisor to the French Ministry of Youth and Sports, and a low-altitude porter, Manilal Gurung.

The previous record death toll by avalanche to a single expedition in Nepal occurred in April 1972 and involved a Korean team on Manaslu. Ten Nepalese, four Koreans, and one Japanese cameraman were killed when an avalanche struck their tents at 3:15 a.m. But most of the Koreans were inexperienced in the Nepalese Himalaya, whereas at least two of the Frenchmen had been to Nepalese or Pakistani 8,000m mountains, and all of them lived in mountainous parts of France. Stolzenberg, for example, came from Chamonix, was a professional guide and a professor at the prestigious ENSA (National School of Skiing and Alpinism), where he had worked for over 30 years. The leader of the Nepalese staff was an experienced Sirdar, Iman Gurung, who had summited Everest twice, most recently in May this year, as well as Cho Oyu twice.

It is easy to be wise after the event, and some people questioned the wisdom of the base camp’s location, as it was surrounded by 35-40° slopes. One porter reportedly suggested that the camp be moved to what he considered a safer location downhill, but his proposal was not acted upon.

A noted French climbing instructor, Jean Coudray, who came to Kathmandu after he had discussed this subject with previous Kang Guru leaders, noted that the team had placed its base camp at the normal site. “In this area there is no place for base camp that is completely safe; there is no safer site than the one everyone has used.” Furthermore, he pointed out, there had been continuous heavy snowfall for many hours. The result was a powder-snow avalanche, which is the worst kind, because it can travel at 200+ km/hour down a slope of 30° or more, and its target is impossible to predict: it can often shift direction.

Kang Guru is situated in the Manang region northeast of Annapurna. It lies east of Pisang Peak, which is favored by climbers preferring a lower mountain and less bureaucratic red tape for a permit. In recent years Kang Guru has been a favorite of some French commercial expedition organizers. The approach route goes through colorful mountain villages. It apparently was considered safe; as mentioned above, only one climber had died on the 27 previous expeditions, and that occurred two decades ago.

Elizabeth Hawley, AAC Honorary Member, Nepal.