A violent gust of wind stirred Greg Hill awake as he lay in his sleeping bag Sunday, his tent staked in the snow on one of the tallest mountains in the world.
It was 4:45 a.m. The Canadian extreme skier and his group had set up camp at 6,400 metres above sea level on Nepal’s Mount Manaslu, just above Camp 2 and off to the right to avoid the path of a potential snow slide. It took only a moment for them to realize that an avalanche had indeed hit.
“Right away, we started hearing voices and people shouting and so we got out of our tents and looked up the hill and we could see headlamps in the dark,” Mr. Hill said from Kathmandu in his first interview about the deadly snow slide.
The six of them gathered their gear and hiked up. It took them about 30 minutes to reach the disaster. They were the first rescuers to arrive. Tents and bodies, some alive and some dead, were everywhere.
The rescuers first focused on helping the people they could see atop the snow, providing oxygen bottles, laying people on mats and wrapping them in sleeping bags to keep them warm from the bitter cold.
Mr. Hill and his group dug with their hands and shovels to free those who were partially buried, including one man who was enveloped by snow to his shoulders and stuck in his tent. Among the climbers caught in the avalanche was American freestyle skier Glen Plake, who escaped with a black eye, broken teeth and sore arm. His expedition partner, French skier Greg Costa, is among the missing.
After a frantic hour, other climbers began to arrive to help.
“For about five hours, we basically rescued those that we could and dug up those that we couldn’t rescue,” recounted Mr. Hill, who lives in Revelstoke, B.C. with his wife, Tracey, and their two young children.
“It was extremely tragic,” he said. “I have never witnessed death first-hand before.”
Sunday’s avalanche on Mount Manaslu, the eighth-highest mountain in the world, is one of the deadliest slides in mountaineering history. The precise death toll isn’t yet certain: At least nine climbers were killed and six are still missing, including Quebec cardiologist Dominique Ouimet. An experienced mountaineer, Mr. Ouimet had conquered the highest peaks in North and South America.
There are questions being raised about whether too many people were on Manaslu. As a result of heightened tensions between Chinese authorities and Tibetans, China rejected climbing permits for mountaineers hoping to scale peaks in the Tibetan Himalayas, forcing many onto mountains in Nepal, said several alpine companies.
There were 30 teams registered to climb Manaslu, a 50 per cent increase from the previous year, Nepalese outfitter Ang Tshering told the Associated Press.
Mr. Hill and his group had initially planned to climb Cho Oyu in the Tibetan region, but changed their destination when they couldn’t secure a permit. Mr. Hill was serving as a videographer for an expedition accompanying German climbers Benedikt Bohm and Sebastian Haag. The German pair was attempting to set a speed-climbing record to Manaslu’s 8,156-metre summit.
Avalanches are always a threat on Manaslu, but the risk appeared to be diminishing after a weeklong storm. Climbers waited three to four days to gauge the stability of the slopes, Mr. Hill said.
On Saturday night, though, the temperature dipped and wicked winds formed. As about two dozen people slept in their tents high on the mountain, a large piece of ice broke loose and struck the snow, triggering a massive avalanche.
Mr. Hill hopes to return to Revelstoke this week and be back in time to celebrate his fourth wedding anniversary. The Manaslu tragedy has shaken him to tears. However, he’s not certain whether it should prompt changes to how Himalayan climbing expeditions are handled, although the number of people on the mountain and the inexperience of some climbers concerned him.
Similar concerns surfaced during this year’s crowded spring climbing season on Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world. Ten people died on Everest in the spring, including Canadian Shriya-Shah Klorfine.
The day before Sunday’s avalanche, Mr. Hill remembers seeing more than 100 people working their way up a rope line. This was his first expedition in the Himalayas. Normally, when he’s high up in the mountains of North America, he said there are only a few handful of people climbing.
“Looking up seeing all these people there, no doubt made me wonder if it is in fact a safe thing to have that many people on a mountain,” Mr. Hill said. “But at same time, I can understand everybody’s desire to try to climb one of the highest mountains in the world.”