On 13 November, at about half-past-five in the morning, three Sherpas, one Briton, and two Swedes would have been preparing for the final assault of Ama Dablam's summit. They were placed at Camp Three (dot on Before photo), at 6,300m, on a narrow ledge on top of a near-vertical ice slope of nearly 1,000m.
The ledge is located just below the huge and distinctive overhang that juts out like a chin of Ama Dablam (circle on both photos). This \'chin\' is perhaps why the mountain is called \'mother's necklace\'. Besides the amazing leftward tilt of the entire massif as seen in postcards, it is this overhang that, according to many, makes Ama Dablam the most beautiful peak of the Nepal Himalaya.
On that tragic morning, a part of that overhang gave way (circle on After photo). A block of ice removed itself from the rest of the mountain, and crashed through Camp Three, careening on down the main western face of the mountain (dotted line on Before photo). The climbers obviously had no possibility of survival. The villagers of Pangboche, in the sprawling valley of the Imja Khola in Upper Khumbu, would have heard the avalanche early that morning. At least one of the Sherpas in the accident was from Pangboche.
The crest and logo of the Himalayan Rescue Association sports an image of Ama Dablam, and it was as the Association's coordinator for mountain rescue that I flew with a team over the crash site in a helicopter to make an investigation.
Of the British expedition, the two who were lost were Mingma Nuru Sherpa of Pangboche, and Duncan Williams. Two other climbers, still down at Base Camp, abandoned the expedition and returned to Kathmandu. Tashi Dorje Sherpa and Da Nurbu Sherpa perished with Swedes Mikael Forsberg and Daniel Carlsson. They were climbing without a regular trekking or mountaineering agency, who would have provided support and information.
Inspecting Ama Dablam from the base camp as well as upon flying around the west and south face, we ascertained that this was an accident from which there was no escape, possibly even if the climbers had been at Camp Two (dot on After photo). There were pieces of what looked like tent fabric visible on the western flank, about 500m below the Camp Three site, where the slope converts itself into a high altitude glacier.
The most well-known accident on Ama Dablam before this was when Peter Hillary found himself dangling from a rope on an exposed slope while attempting the unconventional West Face, back in 1979. Reinhold Messner, who was on the south of the mountain (not the usual south-west ridge route), made a detour to rescue Hillary. The last fatal accident on Ama Dablam, one of the most climbed expedition peaks, was in 2003, when a German climber lost his life.
This time around, there was no possibility of rescue, and with the danger of falling debris and the extreme cold of an early winter, it is difficult to conceive of a salvage operation.
The 13 November tragedy occurred in one of the most widely-photographed ice faces of the Nepal Himalaya, visible as a sentinel to all who trek the upper Khumbu fork of the Imja Khola on the way past Pangboche, Pheriche, and Lobuche to the Everest Base Camp. The climbers knew the risks involved in the endeavour, and would have been careful about avalanche danger. But they would not have expected an entire block of ice to peel off the Ama Dablam-the 'chin' which has been there for as long as photographic memory can remember.
At the time of this writing, an American team is still up on the mountain, expecting to make an attempt on the summit. Perhaps they will glean more information on the two ill-fated teams. But winter is closing in, and the area of the accident site is dangerous, so it is more than likely that we will have to wait till spring before any effort can be made to go up to find the remains.
BEFORE AND AFTER
(PICS: PADAM GHALE)