Part of the
route with huge ice seracs and crevasses on the way to Camp 2.
ASLEEP ON THE SUMMIT.
We are very shocked and
saddened to have to tell this tale. Alex Chen and Phurba Tamang were very kind
people, good friends, and they will be sorely missed. We send our most sincere
condolences to your families.
On the sunny, warm and calm
morning of Friday the 25th of March, Alex unzipped his tent and popped out,
nearly ready to go. He had put his boots and crampons on in the tent. We left
camp at 6:40 am on a sunny, warm, wind-free morning, and Jangbu Sherpa,
Tenzing Sherpa, Tunc Findik, and Mark Merwin rapidly pulled ahead.
By the time of the 9am radio
call, they were well out in the distance, and had become the “lead team”, and
in the back were Dan, Liga, Alex, and Phurba, the “final four”. The group
moved slowly and steadily upward, following the lead team who were finding the
way. Phuri Sherpa climbed all the way up from camp 1 to join the lead team
around mid-day, as well.
By about two pm. The last
four were cresting onto the summit itself. They watched the lead team coming
down off the summit pyramid, and the two groups passed in front of a small
crevasse-field just under the pyramid. Pleasantries were exchanged. The
weather was sunny with light winds. It was not very cold. Jangbu asked Dan if
it was allright if he went down with the lead team, or should he stay and
help? Everything seemed to be working smoothly, and the weather looked stable
and even warm, so it seemed best if the teams went their separate ways.
On the Summit: In a few
minutes, the final four crossed the last little crevasse field and were on the
summit. It was thrilling and exciting to be there. Alex was wearing a huge
grin and his yellow down suit, laughing with joy and holding up a metre-wide
Panamanian flag while Liga photographed it. The group stood three across, Liga
– Dan – Alex, with Everest in the background. The sun shone on the scene, and
the wind blew lightly. It was pleasant.
After a few minutes, our
photos were taken and it was time to go down. Alex finished packing away a few
items into his day sack, and Phurba was sorting out the ropes. Dan and Liga
were ready and began to head down.
They retraced their steps,
following the trail back down. They re-crossed the little crevasse field, and
made their way down the steepening slopes. Just before they crossed the brow
of the mountain, Dan looked over his shoulder and saw that Phurba and Alex had
made it through the small crevasse-field, and were coming down. Dan noticed
that Alex was sitting on the snow, apparently resting.
The snow was approximately
ankle deep and the slope was about 45 degrees (not icy). Liga was going down
first, with Dan behind (upslope). Liga lost her step and slipped. She was able
to catch herself. Dan slipped a few times too on the un-consolidated snow, but
these were small stumbles, not major falls, easily stopped by putting one’s
ice-axe and/or hand into the snow. They continued on down, slowly making their
way down the trail.
As they were going down, Dan
looked up the slope and saw the two helmets of Phurba Tamang and Alex Chen
bobbing up and down through the increasing ground blizzard. Dan recalls
thinking that everything was going well; Alex and Phurba were steadily coming
Satisfied that the other rope
team was coming down, Dan looked downhill and focused on watching Liga place
one foot in front of another and descend. She was stepping precisely and
seemed to be managing the task well.
A minute or so elapsed and
the team were still descending, around the 7100 metre mark. It was becoming
more windy, and a small ground blizzard was scouring this part of the
mountain. The wind was making a scratching noise as it tore along the ground.
The Accident: Over this
consistent blanket of background noise, Dan heard a “shooshing” sound seeming
to emanate from a point somewhere behind them, uphill. Before he had a chance
to spin around to see where the noise was originating from, a very unexpected
spectacle came shooting down alongside of him, perhaps 15 metres distant, out
to his right.
The other rope team of Alex
and Phurba were sliding quickly down the powdery-sugary 45 metre slope. Alex
was in the lead, laying down on his stomach, arms at his side, face turned
toward Dan and Liga. His red helmeted face wore the beatific expression of
sleep (Dan recalls thinking that it looked as if Alex was accepting his fate,
or snoozing calmly like a baby). In retrospect, it seems that Alex was indeed
Phurba Tamang was a different
story how ever. He was roaring down the hilltied behind Alex on his back in a
sitting position on his backside, feet downhill, one hand pulling on the rope,
the other arm flailing against the snow wildly, clawing it and kicking it,
trying to slow their speed, to no avail. Now on his back, legs down; now on
his side, legs kicking like scissors. Phurba was almost crying, his face in a
horrible grimace of fear, looking directly at Dan and shouting and screaming:
“Help Me! , Help Me!” Dan instantly recognized the situation and shouted to
Phurba to “Put in your ice axe!”
Phurba struggled and kicked
to no avail, but unable to slow them, he and Alex accelerated through the
steep powder, quickly passing Dan and Liga, who stood and watched in shock. In
a split second, they rocketed down the slope and over the edge of the steeply
tilted plateau, suddenly disappearing from view. And then they were gone, and
there was only silence. Dan noticed an ice axe laying in the snow where Alex
and Phurba had passed. He was not sure whose axe this was, Alex’ or Phurbas.
The Search: Dan radioed the
Sherpas from the first rope team, who were already back in the high camp,
having quickly descended, and asked them to return to the scene of the
accident for a rescue, bringing ropes, snow bars, and ice screws.
Dan and Liga tried to search
the area as they descended, but they were limited by their short rope. After
about an hour, the Sherpas arrived and one of them, Lakpa Kongle, took Liga
down to camp 2, very slowly and carefully. Dan remained while the other two
Sherpas climbed back up the mountain to see if they could find anything. After
another hour or so, it was nearly dark and the Sherpas radioed down to Dan
that they had not seen anything but steep cliffs and jagged seracs, and were
Upon their return to where
Dan had been waiting and listening on the radio, they announced that Alex and
Phurba were dead. It was very cold and windy and dark at that point. Then the
three of them, Dan and the two Sherpas, dejectedly climbed back down slowly
and carefully to the high camp, saddened at the loss of their two friends. The
following day, the entire team climbed back down the mountain and cleaned up
all of the camps as they came down. The government authorities and family
members were notified.
In conclusion, it seems Alex
suddenly “fell-asleep”, coming down from the summit (this is why he looked so
peaceful and sleepy as he and Phurba slid past). Alex had surely collapsed
with no warning and Phurba could not hold him in the steep soft snow. Alex
suddenly went unconscious and collapsed, and came rocketing down the slope
catching Phurba by surprise, and knocking Phurba off of his feet. What a
horrible feeling it must have been for Phurba to have been tied to the
sleeping Alex. Phurba would have been like Alex’ captive victim. Unable to
quickly unclip himself from the rope, Phurba was dragged kicking and screaming
over the precipice.
Alex and Phurba’s fall ended
in broken up ice fields below, and they died a quick and rapid death. This is
especially true for Alex, who would have been asleep.
Dan has asked to mention a
bit more about Alex and Phurba:
Alex Chen visited Dan in his
home for a week in 2004, and they climbed one of the local big-glaciated
volcanoes together. It was a tough 5-day climb and Alex did well. Dan says he
really enjoyed Alex’ sense of humour and adventure and enthusiasm. Jay Reilly,
Pumori co-leader, says he is not surprised by the news of Alex falling asleep
on the summit. He says Alex was seen sleeping several times during day, whist
on the trek in, when the group would stop for tea or lunch, and the group
would be actively engaged in conversation. It seems that Alex was accustomed
to nodding off at a moment’s notice during the course of a busy day.
Phurba Tamang was like a
brother to Dan, and they climbed on many expeditions together, including
previous expeditions to the summit of Pumori and Ama Dablam. Phurba had become
one of the kindest and most technically experienced and helpful Sherpas Dan
knew, a perfect Sherpa to assist someone like Alex down from the summit of
Alex Chen, and Phurba Tamang
will be sorely missed. We are extremely sad.
Our condolences to their
At this juncture, we would
like to present this poem provided by Pumori team member Philip Ling:
I can see you still, in my
dreams and strangers faces, In some expression of my morning mirror, But I
cannot reach you in your solitude, Nor breathe the same thin air that laid you
down. You grow not old, as I am left to grow old, I age, wane weary, condemned
by years, While you remain eternal, frozen in the beauty of your youth.
I will never again hold back
on love, Loves object may not stay to share tomorrow, Life, like a welcome
guest too soon departing. I would give all my world to bring you back, To
remember you not in a photograph, but in your smiling eyes and wild ideal, But
I would not pay a price too high, I would not think of asking you to change.
And although your rope is cut
and worlds have fallen, And pain will grip me through the years, If you were
with me now, I would still help, Encourage you to reach for mountain tops,
Would watch you strive for places you should not go, And you would go again,
and die again, And I would cry. But cry how much more, Should you ever cease
to be yourself.
with Ms. Liga Hartmane:
Liga Hartmane was on the
summit at the same time as Alex, on Dan’s rope team, and she has this to say:
Liga Hartmane – “ [On the way
up] I didn’t notice any difference about Alex. He always had an expression of
pain, but was always in a good mood. I was moving much slower than usual but
Alex was moving at his usual pace. He was behind us together with Phurba, but
not too far. Each time we stopped, he caught up. When the fixed line finished,
Phurba Sherpa appeared with a rope and cut it in two and Dan said we should
rope up. Me with Dan, and Alex with Phurba. We reached the summit together. I
think it was 15.10 when we were on the summit, because I checked my watch. Dan
said no more than 15 minutes on the summit, because it was already so late. We
took a lot of photos and Alex looked all the same. He was very happy and
making a lot of photos with his flag. He didn’t really want to go down it
seemed, but I was cold and wanted to go down as fast as possible. We started
to descend. I was going first and Dan behind me and after a while, Dan said we
should stop and see how Alex is doing. They were not very far away – about
200m behind and were descending much slower than us. We had stopped for about
3 minutes and then kept descending. I think we were maybe half way back to the
fixed lines which finished about 100m distance meters away from the crevasse
at 6900m, when I heard Dan screaming “ Phurba ice axe!” I stopped and looked
and saw them falling about 100 meteres away from us. Alex was falling first
and doing nothing that I saw to try to stop himself. He seemed to be rolling.
He didn’ t act as a normal person should act on a snow slope. It was like he
was unconscious. Phurba was trying to do something to stop them. I only saw
them for about 5 seconds before they disappeared over an edge. I didn’t hear
anything except Dan yelling “ Phurba ice axe!” Dan then called on the radio
that we needed 3 Sherpas up because Alex has fallen down. We then moved down
slowly looking for any signs. At some point below we saw an ice axe, probably
Phurba’s. We continued to move down slowly trying to find any traces of them.
We found a place that was sheltered from the wind and waited for the Sherpas
to come. I was so cold, I could barely move because we waited for such a long
time, so when the Sherpas arrived, I went down to Camp 2 with one of them.”
Goodbye Alex and Phurba. We
are so sad and will miss you. We send our most respectful condolences to your
Editorial Note: All other members of the Pumori SummitClimb
Expedition are back in KTM and are fine. We send our condolences to the
families of Alex Chen and Phurba Tamang. Many of the climbers are headed
home... Any rumors of other deaths on this team are FALSE. Any rumors that
this team had people still on Pumori the last few days are FALSE.
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