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Five bodies found in avalanche debris on the flanks of Nanda Devi East / Sunanda Devi; three others presumed dead

Posted on: June 5, 2019


Pete Takeda is pictured here on a 2005 expedition to Nanda Kot with the east face of Nanda Devi East / Sunanda Devi in the background, which is just in front of the main peak of Nanda Devi in the Indian Himalaya. Takeda authored a two-part Mountain Profile about the area in Alpinist issues 62 and 63 (Summer and Autumn 2018). [Photo] Pete Takeda collectionPete Takeda is pictured here on a 2005 expedition to Nanda Kot with the east face of Nanda Devi East / Sunanda Devi in the background. The latter is just in front of the main peak of Nanda Devi. Takeda authored a two-part Mountain Profile about the area in Alpinist issues 62 and 63 (Summer and Autumn 2018). [Photo] Pete Takeda collection

Eight climbers are presumed to have been killed in a large avalanche on the flanks of Nanda Devi East / Sunanda Devi in the Indian Himalaya while attempting an unclimbed satellite peak referred to by its elevation as Peak 6477, which is to the south and connected by a ridge to Nanda Devi East / Sunanda Devi (7434m).

The Indian Mountaineering Foundation reported that photos from a helicopter search conducted by the Indian military on June 3 showed evidence of five bodies in the avalanche debris, which was near their last known camp at around 5400 meters. The other three members of the group are presumed dead. Rock and Ice reported the names of the eight climbers: Martin Moran (UK), Anthony Sudekum and Ronald Beimel (US), John McLaren, Richard Payne and Rupert Whewell (UK), Ruth McCance (Australia), and Chetan Pandey (India). The Times of India reports that "plans are now being made to retrieve the bodies." [The spelling of some of these names has been corrected from the inital report mentioned above.—Ed.]

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Four other climbers from the expedition were also evacuated by helicopter from a lower, advanced base camp because of avalanche risk.

A June 3 story by the New York Times reports:

According to the British Association of Mountain Guides, the original team of 12 split into two groups after reaching their base camp on May 18. One group of eight, led by Martin Moran, left for an acclimatization climb on an unnamed, unclimbed summit known as Peak 6477m. The other four climbers, led by Mark Thomas, went to prepare the route to Nanda Devi East, the lower of two adjacent peaks on the mountain. They were rescued on Sunday by Indian forces.

This photo shows a view of Peak 6477 from the South Ridge of Nanda Devi East / Sunanda Devi. [Photo] Pete TakedaThis photo shows a view of Peak 6477 from the South Ridge of Nanda Devi East / Sunanda Devi. [Photo] Pete Takeda

Moran's family posted an official statement on the Moran Mountain Facebook page on June 2:

We are deeply saddened by the tragic events unfolding in the Nanda Devi region of the Indian Himalaya.

As a family, we share the same emotions that all next of kin are experiencing in not knowing the whereabouts or wellbeing of those closest to us.

We are grateful to the Indian Mountaineering Foundation who is coordinating search and rescue efforts on the ground and in the air under extremely difficult conditions in a very remote area of the Himalaya.

The climbing group had set out to attempt an unclimbed, unnamed summit, Peak 6477m, and the last contact intimated that all was well and a summit bid would be made from a camp at around 5400m.

It is not entirely clear what happened from this point onwards or indeed the timeline of events. We do know that a British Mountain Guide who was in the area leading a trekking group, as part of the same expedition, was informed that the climbing group had not returned to basecamp as expected. He immediately went on the mountain to search for the missing climbers. There was clear evidence that a sizeable avalanche had occurred on the mountain and it seemed to be on or very near the route that would be taken by the climbing group. The Mountain Guide gave instructions to base camp to alert rescue authorities. The alarm was raised early on Friday morning 31st May....

We are grateful for all the support that has been offered to us and we will be sure to release any information as and when we receive it. In the meantime please respect the privacy that the next of kin of the climbers need as they seek solace at this harrowing time.

Moran is well known for leading many exploratory expeditions in the Himalaya and other Indian ranges since 1992, and Thomas was with him on an attempt to climb a new route on Nanda Devi East / Sunanda Devi in September 2015, via the northeast ridge. They reached a high point of 6865 meters on a ridge where they were stopped by dangerous snow conditions. Moran's report in the 2016 American Alpine Journal reads:

Our hopes were high, but 100 meters higher the ridge narrowed into a sensational knife-edge of unconsolidated snow. Faced with a 500-meter horizontal section with 65-degree powder-snow flutes to the north and overhanging mushrooms on the south, the decision to retreat was obvious and immediate. Our high point was at 6865 meters. Through the night we descended 1300 meters to the bottom of the ridge, with 14 abseils from ice threads and much down climbing. With more stable snow conditions and careful assessment of the state of the summit seracs, the alternative line up a broad couloir to bypass the fluted section of ridge could be feasible.

The east face of Nanda Devi East / Sunanda Devi (right) and Peak 6477. [Photo] Pete TakedaThe east face of Nanda Devi East / Sunanda Devi (right) and Peak 6477. [Photo] Pete Takeda

Moran wrote an essay titled "That Subtle Thrill" for Part II of the Nanda Devi Mountain Profile in Alpinist 63 (Autumn 2018), in which he recalled his time in the Sanctuary:

Away from pilgrim trails and honeypot peaks, the solitude of the Indian Himalaya draws me back every year, and I find genuine adventure in guiding groups to these places....

Seventy-five years after the Polish team climbed the South Ridge, no other team had established a new route on Nanda Devi East.... In September 2015, Mark Thomas and I found an easy way from the Lawan Valley to the starting col at 5334 meters. We spent a week unraveling the mysteries of that ridge in alpine style, sitting out blizzards each afternoon. At 6600 meters, we had to choose between a long ridge traverse or a direct couloir to gain the summit pyramid. With nearly a meter of fresh snow underfoot, we dared not risk the couloir, so we took to the crest with bivy gear and two days' worth of supplies. Nowhere could I spot the sliver of a ledge or the chink of a crack-line. This must be one of the greatest untouched walls in the world, I thought, and we're the first to see it close up....

We modern explorers are aware that we follow in the footsteps of others. Yet my experiences in the ranges of Nanda Devi East and Nanda Kot have made me think of Eric Shipton's words upon reaching the Inner Sanctuary in 1934: "At each step I experienced that subtle thrill which anyone of imagination must feel when treading hitherto unexplored country...."

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