Monday, May 13, 2013

Fun With Avalanches

If there is such a thing, I had it.
On Monday,  the mid-point of our trek, we were supposed to reach Annapurna Base Camp (ABC)  (13,500 feet) which would have put us right at the base of the Annapurnas. We never got there. 

While hiking on Saturday it got a bit rainy and foggy as we got higher. We stayed that night, as planned, at Deurali (10,500 ft.)

When my roommate and I woke up at about three in the morning, which wasn’t unusual, and she when came back into our little room from her trip to the loo, I asked “Is it still raining?” Answer: “No. But it’s snowing”.  Yikes. We weren’t expecting that. So much for going back to sleep. We huddled in our sleeping bags hoping for the best. However,  as we emerged into the weak morning light, there were about three inches of snow on the ground and it was slowly still coming down. It must have been about 30 degrees, so it was that big, wet-flaked stuff. Unseasonable snow fall.

It was still coming down after breakfast.  Half rain. Half snow. As we took off for Machapuchare Base Camp (MBC), our next destination, none of us said anything even though we were all wondering what we were in for.  At that point I knew that reaching ABC the next day was in question because, if nothing else, if this kept up, we wouldn’t see anything. But in big mountains, you never know what is going to happen. Weather can change very quickly. So, we just … went. Following our experienced and enthusiastic guides. Up another 1600+ feet. More stone steps and muddy, rooty, rocky trail.

Hours later, when the buildings at MBC (12,140 feet) appeared from the behind the curtain of falling snow and clouds, there was more snow on the ground.  
 Arriving at MBC

When we woke up the next day - “summit “day - there was more snow. And it was still coming down. And was predicted to continue for three days. 
What we woke up to at MBC

We ate breakfast wondering what the plan was going to be. Stay here an extra day, people had been stuck at MBC before? Go down in poor visibility and conditions? The thing is, the trek crosses one small and one large avalanche chute. Spring, when things freeze at night and then thaw in the day time, is prime avalanche time.  That morning we could hear small avalanches happening at a distance, higher up. Like every 15 minutes. A rumbley rocky thundery sound. Yet I’m thinking: We’re fine. We have food, shelter, warmth (well, Himalayan-style warmth), competent guides, as well as contact with the outside world – there was Wi-Fi (what a world). Plus DK (our lead guide) carried a satellite phone. We were never out of contact with Active Adventures HQ.
Eventually DK tells us that we we're not going to ABC  - “too risky”. We’re going down – and that if it looks too dangerous when we get to the avalanche area, we’d come back to MBC. So we start out. The porters hiked with us, instead of bounding ahead as they usually did, for their safety and ours, and we all stuck together more closely. I felt calm and in-the-moment. I’d been in avalanche conditions before when I did some mountaineering in the early 90’s and I know that knowledgeable people can look at conditions and take a decent read on the risks. Gokul, our Nepalese guide, had been through that corridor dozens of times, including in snow conditions. I trusted his judgment.  I knew that he and DK wouldn’t be taking unnecessary risks.  So it was fun, despite the fact that it was very slip-slidey-slushy and everyone took at least one plop in the snow and me once in the mud.

As we’re hiking we can see small, brief avalanches happening at a distance, high up and on the other side of the ravine. Think of long, narrow waterfalls you have seen - it was like that - only it was snow. It didn’t feel threatening. Just surreal. Other-worldly. Indeed the guides and the porters all said they had never experienced avalanches happening so often. I have no pictures to show you. We were all focused on the conditions and maintaining our footing.

To add to the drama, as we’re about 15 minutes or so away from the main avalanche chute, other, faster hikers coming up from behind us (they must have left MBC a bit after we did) tell DK that there is a woman by herself struggling on the trail a ways back. I guess he looked like someone who could help because, of course, he was. The code of the mountains and guides being what it is, he goes back to check. The rest of us keep going. We get to the avalanche chute. Gokul and the porters are talking back and forth – in Nepalese, so we don’t understand a word. We get the signal that it’s a go. Standard procedure is to walk as briskly, but safely, as possible and not stop. That’s what we did. One does not dally in an avalanche chute.
All safely across, we go a bit more till we’re out of the avalanche area. Still no DK.

As we’re taking a break, DK emerges out of the fog, holding the hand of a Japanese woman who seemed dazed. She had become separated from her hiking companion, a major no-no, even under good conditions. And she was totally ill-equipped to be out there – her shoes were so slippery she had been sliding along the trail on her butt. DK had her put her socks on the outside of her shoes for some traction. See, experienced guides know these things. He said she could have so easily slipped over the edge. He pulled out some chocolate from his pack just as we all needed a boost and she hiked on with us.

As we were moving on, the most spectacular avalanche across the ravine stopped us all. We were spell-bound watching it.  It was coming over the top of a small high saddle and looked like a liquid snow fall. There are high lakes on the other side, so it could have been a combo of water, ice, and snow breaking through. I’ve never seen anything like it. We all just stood there mesmerized. It went on for so long we just had to move on.

As we moved lower and reached the tea house for our morning break, I wondered whether the rescued hiker realized that she could have died that day. By contrast, we had experienced something truly unique and exhilarating.  We were fully alive and engaged for a fleeting magical morning.




  2. "One does not dally in an avalanche chute." There's a great life lesson! In the northern Rockies, the avalanche chutes are where the grizzlies hang out during the summer. Another reason not to dally in an avalanche chute.