You are upside down, wedged in a deep crevasse at 19,000 feet in the Khumbu icefall. Your teammate is on top of you. You think another is nearby. Everyone knew the serac would give way, they just didn’t know when.
Walter Laserer found out, up close and personal. He not only lived to tell the story but went on to summit Everest on an extremely harsh day in the spring of 2009.
The 49 year old, runs one of the largest guide services in central Europe, Laserer-alpin, from his office near Salzburg, Austria. Walter has been a UIAGM guide for over 20 years.
His climbing achievements are quite impressive: the north face of the Eiger during winter, a ski descent of Eiger’s west face, El Cap nose, the west face of Husacaran, Cerro Torre, a winter ascent of Denali plus multiple summer climbs, Vinson, Carstensz Pyramid, Aconcagua, Elbrus. Oh, and he loves to ski when not climbing!
He is quite experienced on Everest with four expeditions and another planned this spring. He knows both the victory and disappointment of Everest with three successful summits and one aborted attempt in 2005 when they were forced back at the Balcony by high winds on their summit bid.
I wanted to discuss his amazing crevasse incident of last year and introduce him to readers since often the U.S. guides seem to get so much press. I also wanted his views on guiding in general and any differences with the US style. He was kind enough to take some time off his beloved ski slopes to share his thoughts.
Q: Many readers may not be familiar with Laserer-alpin. Tell us a bit about yourself and your company.
A: I founded Laserer-alpin 20 years ago in Graz, Austria.Laserer-alpin has around 1000 clients each year and operates dozens oftrips every year. During the main season there are about 20 guidesworking in our company, all of them fully IVBV certified. Our mainbusiness is guided mountaineering holidays in the alps. The expedition– product line is the “Seven Summits”. I personally am working asprofessional and fully certified IVBV Mountain guide since 1984, so for25 years now. For the first time in 1995, I climbed Carstensz Pyramidwith clients and started to guide all the seven summits.
Q: You see many different climbers while guiding the 7 Summits. How has climbing changed since you started?
A: The Internet has changed our whole world, also climbing. In thebeginning we got clients through classic advertising and everything wasmuch slower. Now people sign in for a trip via internet and you have tobe very careful that they are mountaineers. I mean about 15 years ago,they were mountaineers, cyclist, climbers, canoeist, or marathonrunners. Each of them did just his own single sport.
Now it is usual, that everybody outdoors does everything. I mean nomore such specializing. Many clients run marathons and train for it,many of them go also outside and bike a lot, and one part of their gameis climbing/mountaineering. And therefore they are, of course, not asexperienced as clients who go just in the mountains. This is a bigdanger for us as guides (to take too unexperienced clients to seriousgoals), but also a very big chance, because those clients need andusually book a lot of professional preparations and special trainings.
Q: Some readers may know you from the crevasse rescue in theKhumbu icefall in 2009 that was shown on the TV show Everest: Beyondthe Limit. I was amazed to see you not only survive but to go on andsummit. Tell us a little about that experience.
First of all I want to thank once more all the persons, sherpas,guides, doctors who worked so great together to help us. For me it wasa sign of the “Spirit of the south side on Everest”. All theprofessionals work well together on the mountain, although the teams ineconomic competition. This is how working professionals on a mountainis different from all other businesses, we have to work together, wehave to help each other once we are out in the wilderness. And whenyou help others it may come back to your own team.
The 2009 season on Everest was a very warm winter with very littlesnow (the previous year ‘08 it has snowed nearly nothing in the SoluKhumbu) and in ’09 it was very hot during the “rotations” to the highcamps. The daily avalanche patterns from Pumo Ri, Lo La pass, westshoulder and Nuptse were more frequent and larger avalanches than inother years. Especially the hanging glacier high up on the westshoulder had created big avalanches prior to our accident. There was abig serac, which looked like it would fall down immediately, but nobodycould know when that would happen. Everybody – especially all theguides – were very concerned when the next big one would come.
I had successfully finished the 2nd rotation with my team and wewere on our final way down from camp 2 to base camp. We made the usualstart at 6 in the morning reaching the icefall around 7 when the sunreached us. We could feel that it was very hot that day. I told my teamto hurry and go as fast as they could.
The avalanche hit us at one of the last ladders on the way down, Icould hear the noise, looked back and realized immediately, that thiswas the big one that everybody had been afraid of.
We had about 5 seconds for reaction. We unclipped from the fixedline and hurried about 5 meters over and into the shadow of a serac,the only one reachable in the short time. Unfortunately there was avery small crevasse at the base. We stepped with our feet at one side,and leaned our backs with the rucksacks on, against the ice wall on theother side. Bernice Notenboom was right of me and Lapka Nuru was on myleft side.
When the avalanche finally hit us, it was the same feeling likesomebody would empty a truckload of head-sized blue ice cubes over us.Our heads and upper body were protected from the serac, butunfortunately our legs were right in the line. It was impossible towithstand the enormous pressure. I fell upside down into the crevassewith lots of snow and ice spraying into my face.
Bernice fell on top of me. Lapka - I couldn’t see what happened tohim. I fell about 15 meters down and became lodged with my rucksackagainst the walls, head down feet up, but could move my hands and feet.It was possible for me to press Bernice up, and help her to freeherself.
But as I pressed her, my own body slid deeper down and stuck evenmore. I could feel slightly that my body went down more and more,melting into the ice from my body heat. I could breath less from minuteto minute, as the ice walls narrowed more and more the lower I sliddown. Bernice was able to climb up the crevasse and she immediatelystarted to shout for help.
I knew, that from base camp it was about one hour up for help. Iasked myself how long is it possible to stay alive upside down? I triedto free myself again and again. No chance, I was stuck with myrucksack. Finally I could turn my legs a bit sidewards, that eased mysituation a bit, but now the cold came through my totally wet clothes.I knew I am dead, alive but dead. The only thing I could do was waitfor the end.
It was not possible even to easily turn my head due to the narrowcrevasse, but I could see a big red spot of blood down in the snow atthe base. I started to push me up mentally, I had no idea how, but Iknew I would find a solution! Again and again I tried to move – stillno change. Finally I tried to open the strings of my rucksack, butmeanwhile my hands were so frozen, that this was also impossible. Ibecame unconscious.
When I awoke, I could see a knife hanging directly into my face froma miraculous appearing rope. I tried to take the knife with both myfrozen hands but my fingers were not useable anymore. With giganticeffort I tried to cut the rucksack string – again in vain. Hopeless Isunk back and became unconscious again.
When I awoke next, shivering from the cold and meanwhile soaked withwater, I realized, that somebody was next to me. “Please don´t go,don´t leave me alone”, are the words I remember mumbling to the man. Hetried to reach me from the side, as from above this was not possible.He clipped me into a rope and was able to cut my rucksack strings. Andupwards I went with enormous energy and speed; I crashed with my helmetagainst a blue ice spot and lost consciousness.
Next what I remember is laying in the sun with a very strong ache inmy arm. Felix Stockenhuber our expedition doc, who could luckilysurvive the avalanche, stuck a needle into my veins. I again lostconsciousness but realized that I was being carried. My whole body wasaching, every bone and every move ached like crazy.
Finally I awoke fully and wanted to move. I tried to stand up, to doa couple steps and with help of others it worked. My Sherpa friendPhunuru carried a large oxygen bottle and we went slowly down tobasecamp. Our basecamp Sirdar Pertemba informed me that a helicopter ison its way.
I canceled the helicopter immediately, as I felt better and better.I wanted to have more time to make any decision. Bernice, Felix andTomsky from of my team were alive, but tragically our so nice andfriendly Sherpa Lapka Nuru was still missing under the enormous massesof ice.
There are several important details that allowed us to survive.First of all, the excellent and very professional “work together” frommore than half a dozen teams. The Indian Neru Military expedition,which came behind us first to the place of the accident. Our own Sherpateam coordinated from Pertemba, the great communication done from AngJang Pu, the fact that Danuru had a rope in his pack and is also ableto work with it, the Benegas brothers with their unbelievable energy,Dave Hahn, who ran up with the life saving fluid for my blood, RussellBrice for helping also with his team and many others who I don’t knowby name.
My fingers were a little frozen and I had many blue dots on my legsand lower body, also several cuts in my face. It took me about one weekto suffer a bit, think a lot, and finally making the right decision.After a big discussion we all agreed, that it was in Lapkas honor tofinish the climb in his memory.
The only thing left for me was: how to motivate myself to climbagain through the dangerous Icefall. I had already been on threeEverest expeditions and summited twice with clients.
The main fact in successfully guiding clients on such big anddifficult mountains is “trust”. My clients have all spent a lot of timeand money to reach their personal goal of a lifetime, and they trustme, to make it possible. “Life is passion” I thought, and after a goodweather forecast we started for our summit bid. Twelve days after theaccident I could successfully summit with clients for my 3rd time.
It was really interesting, that on our summit day, we would rescue astranded American at 8300 m. He was alone, running out of oxygen, andhad fallen in the dark before we found him around midnight, nearlyfrozen to death. After putting him on his down parka again, given himsomething hot to drink, heat packs for his hands and a lot of ouroxygen I radioed to other teams. The guy could stay alive but lost acouple fingers and toes, I think also his nose.
Q: Your 2009 Everest was in very harsh and windy conditions. Where would it rank in your history of difficult summits?
My history of difficult summits is long during more than 20 year ofprofessional guiding. The most challenging climb was a winter ascent onDenali in February 1989. We nearly died in a furious winter storm whichhit us above Denali pass (around 6000 m). After descending down to highcamp in very stormy and dark conditions we nearly couldn’t find oursnow cave in the intense storm. Tragically three Japanese died, but ourteam could stay alive with even no frostbite!
The second difficult climb was a terrible storm on Mt. Vinson,Antarctica. After the storm had destroyed many tents, we were climbingdown from the new high camp, when we suddenly stumbled over twostranded Americans, one was even not able to go without help. Our verywell trained and prepared group went down the 1200 m fixed lines withthe assistant guides, while I rappelled the two Americans down to camp1, where – once more Dave Hahn - did a great job in helping andrescuing. A couple days later we all could summit without any moretroubles.
Q: Everest is known to be quite crowded these days. How does Laserer-alpin manage your schedule with all the crowds?
Compare to international big mountains, I don´t think that Everestis really crowded. On Aconcagua you have about 8000 climbers everyyear, on Denali around 1500 and on Everest about 300 on the south sidewith another 300 Sherpas helping. I mean it is the highest mountain inthe world, and really beautiful. Of course people from all over theworld come and want to climb.
On Mt. Blanc we have about 350 people every day during the season!And of course there are a lot of differences in the ability of theclimbers. I am also thinking, that the amount of accidents is not big.For example in the Mt. Blanc area every season there will be about 50people killed in accidents, alone on the Matterhorn 47 on an averageyear, but of course out of thousands of mountaineers and most of themnot professional guided.
Here I think it is very important for us as guides and guideservices to learn to say “no”, if a client is too weak. Or to go at alater date and prepare the clients in an other year of training beforewe take them on such big climbs.
The work as guide out on the mountain has to be once more networkingwith other groups. During the last seasons it was usual, that theprofessional teams at south col deal out a schedule for their groups.So that about every hour the next group is leaving. This avoid biggercrowds on the climb. I never had an awful experience with many peopleon Everest. But of course I am getting used to dealing with otherguides from my long time experience of guiding in the Alps and southAmerica. And of course it is much easier to deal with other guides ifyou know each other.
Q: With German as your native tongue, do your Sherpas also speak German?
There are many Sherpas working in the Alps during European mainseason, when they have monsoon in Nepal, there are some who even areable to speak German. But in Europe the school system is different tothat in the states. My daughters, for example have learned their firstEnglish words in Kindergarden at age 5! They are now 16 years old andlearn in the public school English, French, Spanish and Latin besidetheir native tongue German.
Q: As a European company, do you have a favorite gear company?
Not really, in Europe we have Mammut and Salewa as the two bigplayers in gear, but also some American companies like The North Faceare well established on the market.
For me as professional guide my expenses in gear are not big compareto the money we run through our company. Usually I get equipment forfree from different companies for personal use.
Q: What are your thoughts on climbing ethics, in other wordsclimbers being honest about their achievements and potential rulesgoverning climbing?
In Europe right now a big mountain ethic discussion is starting.Maybe some of the readers have already heard about the “TryolDeclaration”. My personal thought about this is, that the main goal inmountaineering and climbing is freedom. If we start to establish rulesfor mountaineering we kill our own sport. Everybody should have thefreedom to find his personal felicity in the mountains in the way hewants to. The border of freedom of course is, where you constrainsomebody else.
The most important thing for me is honesty. For example if you useoxygen on a high mountain, you have to tell it. If you don´t useoxygen, you should treat others, who do, with respect. An other bigdiscussion is about doping in mountaineering. Every season not only oneclimber fails, because of unprofessional use of pills/drugs.
Q: Do you see a difference between American and European guiding?
If you hire a guide, you should be sure, that he is well known andexperienced, or has the AMGA /IVBV (American Mountain GuidesAssociation, Internationaler Verband der nationalen BergführerVerbände) education and is member of the International GuidingAssociation.
This is the highest level worldwide for guides. In Europe it isunthinkable to work as guide without adequate education and being amember. This is forbidden in the Alps and also all the insurancecoverage is not given. Members of this IVBV are also allowed to work inall other member countries legal! Currently, I think about, 70countries!
The beginning of mountain guiding in the alps has been the firstascent of Mt. Blanc 1786, with Balmat and Saussure. In this nearly 250years, mountain holiday with a guide has a big tradition and a veryspecial self under standing. European clients know usually, that theyneed to have a personal history of mountaineering before signing in fora big or difficult trip. I also think, that serious guiding means toconsult potential clients about their goal, and to prepare them well inadvance of the climb.
European clients want usually also to work on a trip and acting aswhole team. For example it is usual, that European clients also cook ona trip themselves and on the other side the guide is mainly in duty forsafety and making the decisions, tracking and the choice of a camp siteetc .
Thanks Walter for an inspiring and educational interview. Best of luck with your Everest season this spring. You can follow Walter on his website
Arnette is a speaker, Mountaineer and Alzheimer's Advocate. You can read more on his site.