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  SummitClimb Pumori 2005: Our Sincere Condolences


Part of the route with huge ice seracs and crevasses on the way to Camp 2.

Copyright©Ryan Waters

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 down.

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 asleep.

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 coming down.

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 Pumori.

Alex Chen, and Phurba Tamang will be sorely missed. We are extremely sad.

Our condolences to their families.

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.

An interview 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 families.

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.

Dispatches

 

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