After Manaslu - We are the enemy

The tragic avalanche on Mount Manaslu has been rehashed ad nauseum by the press and TV but so far media reports have favored sensationalism at the expense of analysis. According to sports journalist Nathalie Lamoureux “we crossed the rubicon of stupidity with the classification of the 8000 most dangerous summits. Let’s be clear, all the 8000ers are dangerous. Above 7700 climbers are in the death zone. Some peaks are steeper than others, more technical, more exposed to the wind, but all are dangerous.”

Manaslu is the most accessible 8000 meter summit in Nepal and due to regular closures in Pakistan and Tibet is very popular himalayists. Lamoureux continues “As always, after any such accident, the family of guides shows its sadness and fatalism. ‘This is the mountain.’ ‘All professionals know the risks.’ Case closed. In short, this is not the time to fan the flames.”

Marc Batard doesn’t share this opinion. In an interview for Le Figaro on September 25 followed by a TV appearance for Canal+ he criticised the “omerta surrounding the world of guides and ski instructors, who hold themselves out as experts but rest on their laurels” Outspoken and uncompromising, Batard has been a high mountain guide for 30 years and holds the record for climbing Everest without oxygen in just 22 hours. He told Delphine de Mallevoüe of le Figaro that in the 40 years since he’s been climbing he has not seen any evolution in the procedures used on expeditions.

“I don’t know the precise details of the Manaslu avalanche but what I do know is that if we took stock of accidents, asked questions we could better anticipate the risk and avoid many disasters. In 1988, on Makalu, I was forced to bivouac in a camp due to fatigue. It was badly placed, if it had snowed heavily during the night I could have been killed. I was on the normal route in a camp established by major expeditions. I was shocked. Yet we still fall into the same ruts as our predecessors. A camp has been there forever, don’t move it. But habit kills.”

Marc Batard’s reaction has shocked the French mountaineering community, including the French Guides Syndicate but he has raised a number of issues concerning the anticipation of risk, timing, logistics, the placement of camps, as well as the strategy of acclimatisation. To back his argument, Batard talks about the the phenomenon of the tail-end of the Himalayan monsoon that, every 6-7 years, brings heavy snowfall and leads to terrible avalanches. Following the monsoon of 2005 an avalanche buried in Nepalese Base Camp of Daniel Stolzenberg, instructor with the ENSA, killing 18 people, seven French and 11 Nepalese. “Knowing this climatic phenomenon, we have a more accurate idea of where to place this camp, says Marc Batard. And just because nothing happened in late October, this does not mean that we won’t see the tail in early November.”

Is this what happened in Manaslu. Unusually heavy snow that accumulated on the seracs dominating camp 3 at 6800 meters causing a massive collapse that devastated the camp? Didier Court at Terre Adventures said he has been following the weather very closely as they have a commercial venture heading to Manaslu. “We know that in recent years the Monsoon has installed smoothly then finished stronger than usual, snowing heavily in early September with increased avalanche risk. We’ve changed our departure date 3 times since July finally opting for a later date. We’ll install base camp on the 5th of October when it is cooler and there should be less snow with four camps to the summit.”

Canadian guide Greg Hill, who was planning to ski Manaslu with a team from Dynafit, had been on the mountain in the weeks prior to the avalanche. He recalls that “We were moving up to around 7000m on Mt-Manaslu. As our group toured higher they encountered loud whummfing sounds . Which is a settling of the snowpack that indicates a weak bottom layer. We turned around and skied down. For 10 days we weathered rain and snow, the upper mountain was getting loaded with the weight of new snow and had gone through many avalanche cycles.” Hill goes on to question the placing of the camps under the imposing face of Manaslu, “When I first saw the traditional Camp 2 there was no way I would camp there. I would never be able to sleep knowing how much avalanche terrain was above me. We searched and finally placed our Camp 2 off to the side. Perched on an ice shelf. I looked up and saw many tents camped at 6800m directly in the center of the slope. I worried about this but could not do anything about it.” Greg Plake, Rémy Lécluse and Grégory Costa were concerned enough to sleep with their avalanche beacons switched on.

The next morning Hill and his team heard the avalanche and cries for help and climbed to camp 3 to assist victims as best they could. Clearly in shock himself, he described many of the survivors he encountered as inexperienced and wonders if they understood the risk they were taking, their vision clouded by the goal of reaching an 8000 meter summit and “perceiving the risk they wanted rather than the reality around them.”

Is Camp 3 a camp too many? The longer you spend at altitude the greater the risks. Camp 3 in particular can be risky. Didier Court doesn’t entirely agree “if it snows the danger is general, ideally you’d want to climb from base to the summit in a day but it takes 4 hours to climb from camp 2 (6300m) to camp 3 (6800m) and then 5 hours on to camp 4 (7200m), the last stop before the summit. That’s asking a lot of both climbers and the support team”.

With any large accident such as Manaslu we must be careful about survivor bias in our analysis. Hill was concerned about the location of camps but three of the victims were very experienced high mountain guides. Had they shared Hill’s concerns? Ludovic Challéat had a lot of experience leading groups in the region. He was careful and had previously turned around close to the summit of Everest due to timing after he got stuck behind traffic jams on the climb. We know from Glen Plake that his team were concerned enough about the risk of an avalanche to wear beacons while they camped.  Did any of the guides or other climbers anticipate such a massive avalanche? Or did they accept the possibility as just one of the many risks encountered on an 8000 meter peak?

There is the question about the slide being triggered by a serac. “Serac collapses are unpredictable therefore the avalanche was unpredictable”, nothing to see here, move along. But the very unpredictability of Serac collapses means that alpinists spend as little time beneath them as possible. Could the chain of serac collapse on a loaded and unstable snow slope have been anticipated by the guides? There are also suggestions that the return to very cold, stable conditions as well as a considerable load of fresh snow on top of the seracs made their collapse more likely.

Marc Batard rejects fatalism and accepted practices and remains categoric that “The enemy is not the mountain, it is us.”

Further Information

Nathalie Lamoureux - le Point
Delphine de Mallevoüe - le Figaro
Additional Reporting - David George,

Posted by davidof on Saturday, 29 September, 2012 at 11:30 AM

Thanks for this David, one of the better articles on the subject.

Posted by  on  Friday, 26 October, 2012  at 10:29 AM
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