Amar Chandra
Draupadi Ka Danda II (Photo: Amar Chandra)

29 People Died in One of the Worst Mountaineering Accidents in History. What Happened?

The story of the deadly avalanche in October 2022 on India’s Draupadi Ka Danda II

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At 1 A.M. on October 4, 2022, Ankush Sharma woke for tea. He was high on India’s Draupadi Ka Danda II, an 18,600-foot peak in the Gangotri range of the Garhwal Himalayas, near the Chinese border. The mountain, often called DKD2, is surrounded by intimidating 6,000-meter giants like Thalay Sagar, Shivling, and Meru—the latter home to the Shark’s Fin, a wall of granite that was first climbed in 2011 by Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk and chronicled in the popular 2015 documentary Meru. DKD2, while 3,200 feet shorter and far less severe in comparison, is still glaciated and crevassed, and it harbors some of the same deadly hazards as the range’s fabled peaks.

Sharma, then 23, was on a 28-day advanced mountaineering course run by the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM), one of India’s top climbing schools. Around him the other students were waking up, too. It was summit day. Outside it was breezy and snowing lightly—“slittering” some of the students called it.

Sunil Lalwani, a 28 year-old from Mumbai with short brown hair, slept for an extra hour instead of getting up for tea. Lalwani once had a busy marketing job with little free time, but he quit after discovering hiking in 2015. The outdoors changed the course of his life. Another 28-year-old, Deep Thakkar, a part-time fund manager who wore a close-cropped beard and glasses, wanted to climb iconic mountains, like Nepal’s Ama Dablam, so he moved from the coastal Indian city of Gujarat north to the mountains in the state of Himachal Pradesh to train. DKD2 would be his first 5,000-meter peak.

By 3:30 A.M. the sky was clear. From Camp 1 at 15,800 feet, seven instructors led 34 students, three porters, and one nursing assistant who worked for NIM out into darkness. A solo climber unaffiliated with the group who planned to ski off the top set out after them. He was the only other person on the mountain. It was NIM’s first trip to the summit since the pre-monsoon climbing season in the spring. When the group reached their first landmark, Rambo Rock, at about 16,800 feet, they clipped into a fixed line—the first of many that day—and used ice axes and crampons to navigate the brief rocky section. Lalwani was in the middle of the long, tightly packed row, their headlamp beams bobbing up and down upon the snow as they traversed right and weaved upward, carefully skirting small cracks in the glacier. Soon the sky started to brighten with the first hints of morning. Those at the front of the pack broke trail through shin-deep snow. As they ascended the final stretch, they passed just uphill of a deep, narrow crevasse.

Yes! This is going to happen, Thakkar thought when the summit came into view. A few instructors and strong students had nearly reached it already and were fixing ropes that would make the final 500 feet easier for the others still en route. All 46 climbers were together on the slope, and almost everyone was attached to the fixed line with a carabiner, waiting to move up. They wore standard-issue orange helmets, and jackets in reds and blues with a NIM patch on the chest.

As they climbed, a small amount of snow slid down from above. “Hey, it was a mini avalanche,” Lalwani said. Though it wasn’t enough to knock anyone off their feet, the slide alarmed Lalwani. He calmed himself with the knowledge that NIM had been taking climbers to DKD2 since 1981; he’d never heard of an accident.

“Over the past few years,” says Indian mountain guide Karn Kowshik, “we’ve had more accidents in India than we’ve ever had before.”

Just after 8:30 A.M., Sharma reached the summit snowfield at the end of the fixed line, unclipped himself, and walked toward one of his instructors who was already on the top. Behind him, a crack shot silently across the slope and released a large slab avalanche. Everything below the fracture line began to move as the entire slope broke into chunks of snow and ice that flowed like water. A few hundred feet below, Thakkar watched in horror. There was no time to react. The slide toppled climbers, gaining momentum as it churned downhill. The man uphill from Lalwani fell on top of him. Lalwani plunged his ice ax into the snow, hoping to arrest their movement, but they were swept down the mountain. As they slid, he tried to keep his head above the mass of snow, but he felt like he was drowning.

Sharma, nearing the summit, glanced over his shoulder. The fixed rope was gone. His friends had all vanished. And yet he’d heard nothing: no screams, no commotion. “Everything happened in the blink of an eye,” he says. “And everything happened in silence.”

Climbers camping on Draupadi Ka Danda
Survivor Sunil Lalwani has shared his photographs from the tragic climb on DKD2. Here, he and other climbers set up tents in one of the high camps. (Sunil Lalwani)

In 1953, Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary became the first people to reach the top of Mount Everest. Tenzing was raised in Nepal but moved to Darjeeling, India, in 1933, at age 19, two decades before the famous feat, in search of better work opportunities. At the time, Nepal’s borders were closed to foreign climbers, and Darjeeling—not Kathmandu—was the center of Himalayan mountaineering. All of the early reconnaissance and attempts at the world’s highest peak in the 1920s and ’30s started in Darjeeling, where 28,169-foot Kanchenjunga can be seen from town.

Tenzing’s legendary ascent of Everest supercharged India’s national interest in mountaineering, and the following 12 years saw the birth of many of the country’s most storied climbing organizations, including NIM, which was founded in 1965 in honor of the prime minister.

In India, mountaineering is closely aligned with national defense, largely because the country has waged a high-altitude border dispute with Pakistan since 1947. That year the end of the British Raj left an undecided demarcation line between the two countries across the mountainous region of Kashmir. Pakistan, a primarily Muslim country, and India, primarily Hindu, have been intermittently at war ever since. (And both are nuclear powers.) Despite a 2003 ceasefire, the enduring tensions and skirmishes along the contested border, known as the Line of Control, make mountaineering and high-altitude warfare essential for India’s armed forces.

India’s mountaineering institutes, while run by its Ministry of Defense, are intended to promote the sport and spirit of adventure. Though the institutes often have instructors and students from the army, most participants are recreationists. To encourage participation, the cost of training programs are heavily subsidized by the government.

NIM is located in Uttarkashi, an adventure town on the banks of the Bhagirathi River, a headstream of the sacred Ganges. At NIM, as with the other three institutes recognized by the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, students can take monthlong basic and advanced mountaineering courses. The programs function almost identically at each of India’s institutes, with students learning about things like rock and ice climbing, navigation, and other important alpine skills. If they do well, they can earn the certifications necessary for participating in future expeditions. Students must earn an A to pass, and a successful advanced course is required for expedition leaders when they apply for private climbing permits for the Indian Himalayas.

“This has always been the path to get into mountaineering in India,” says Karn Kowshik, an Indian mountain guide who helped create the Piti-Dharr International Ice Climbing Festival in 2019, the country’s first. Kowshik completed his basic course at NIM over a decade ago on DKD2 and is now pursuing professional guiding certifications in Nepal. NIM’s graduates also include well-known Indian climbers like Arjun Vajpai, the youngest person to climb six of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks, and Prakriti Varshney, a popular mountaineer who achieved an unusual first in 2022, becoming the first female vegan from India to climb Everest.

In September 2022, nearly 60 trainees showed up for AMC 172, the monthlong advanced mountaineering course, which cost students less than $300 (tuition is higher for foreign students). The bulk of their training would take place on the Dokriani Bamak glacier and DKD2. There they would learn how to lead their own expeditions on big mountains.

Many NIM instructors had once been in the same position as the trainees. Shahid Khan, an instructor on the advanced course, got into mountaineering in 2013, inspired by a meaningful experience on a trek the year before. After passing his basic and advanced courses, he completed the two training programs required to become an instructor. Now 33, Khan has climbed a dozen peaks in the Himalayas and served as a liaison officer for foreign expeditions, including American alpinist Colin Haley’s 2016 attempt on Kun, a 23,218-foot peak in the Ladakh district. “I was inspired by my surroundings,” Khan says. “And if I could inspire a few more people, maybe the chain would continue.”

When Kowshik took his basic course, it had about 25 participants. These days, however, courses often reach capacity. Currently there is a two-and-a-half-year waitlist to get in, and Kowshik says the demand increased even more when Indians flocked to mountaineering schools during the pandemic. Simultaneously, climbing walls have popped up in major cities like Mumbai and Delhi, as well as in smaller towns like Nainital, where he lives.

There’s a drawback to so many people heading into the mountains. “Over the past few years,” Kowshik says, “we’ve had more accidents in India than we’ve ever had before.” This trend isn’t unique to India. From the Himalayas to the Rockies, search and rescue calls skyrocketed during the pandemic as more people sought recreation and refuge outdoors.

When the snow finally settled that October morning on DKD2, people were screaming. Some called out for their parents. Others repeated prayers. Then, one by one, the voices went quiet. Sunil Lalwani thought of a Hindu mantra used to call for protection and recited it silently in his head: Om Namah Shivaya. Om Namah Shivaya. If this was the place he’d take his last breath, he thought, maybe repeating holy names would make death easier.

Those who survived guessed that the avalanche carried them for between 15 and 30 seconds. Some climbers came to a stop on the slope, but 34 of them were funneled over the lip of a deep, narrow crevasse located at approximately 18,000 feet and sent into a free fall. When they hit the bottom, approximately 80 feet below, the snow that piled up around them hardened into concrete, entombing them alive.

When he tumbled into the crevasse, Deep Thakkar first thought he’d been launched off the side of the mountain. He landed on his stomach, but luckily part of his nose and his mouth were still above the debris, so he could breathe. He prayed for the snow to stop falling. Then another trainee fell on top of him. A steel crampon scraped against Thakkar’s lips, drawing blood. The foot was twitching, and Thakkar realized that whoever it was attached to was suffocating. When the person stopped moving, Thakkar started screaming for help.

Lalwani, also inside the crevasse, twisted his head from side to side to make an air pocket. His body was fully buried, but only a thin layer of snow covered his face; he could breathe. Another trainee, 26-year-old Suraj Singh Gusain, lost consciousness in the fall but began to revive. Terrified and disoriented, he opened his eyes and saw light. His head was above the snow, but his body was buried. He thought only of his daughter: How will she survive after me? Who will care for her?

News of the slide was radioed to a NIM leader who was stationed at Camp 1, about 2,000 feet below, and then down to base camp, where a large-scale rescue effort was swiftly mobilized.

“DKD2 is a safe zone and an avalanche-free area,” a NIM trainee told the media in 2019. “It is the reason why DKD2 is a perfect place for training.”

The dozen instructors and students who weren’t carried into the crevasse rushed to its edge. One trainee yelled out for his friends. When he got no response, he burst into tears. Anil Kumar, an instructor, could see a handful of heads sticking out above the snow, but no one else was visible. A 28-year-old student from Uttarakhand named Kanchan Singh shouted into the void: “Brothers! We are coming to save you. Don’t worry!” The group quickly hammered pickets into the snow, built anchors, and many of them rappelled some 50 feet into the icy cavern to the top of the debris pile to look for survivors. Ankush Sharma stayed on the edge with a few others to help set up a pulley system to haul victims out. He knew another avalanche could come down on them at any time.

Almost fully buried beneath the snow, Lalwani couldn’t move. He was so cold it felt like his left hand was made of wood. After what he estimates was at least half an hour, one of his instructors uncovered his head and wiped the snow from his glasses. “Don’t worry, Sunil,” the instructor told him. “You are alive. We will make it out.” The team moved on to search for other survivors inside the crevasse.

One of the first to be freed was the solo skier, Jerry (who did not want his last name used in this story). He’d caught up with the NIM group as he ascended the mountain. Jerry began helping the others, keeping an eye out for a pair of fluorescent green plastic boots worn by the instructor Naumi Rawat. The climbers didn’t have avalanche shovels, so they used their hands, helmets, and Jerry’s skis to dig. Rescuers moved the deceased climber atop Deep Thakkar, confirmed that Thakkar was alive, and then continued searching for other potential survivors. The green boots turned out to be easy to spot, but Rawat wasn’t breathing. The nursing assistant administered CPR, but the instructor couldn’t be revived. Savita Kanswal, an instructor who had just set a national record by climbing Everest and Makalu in 16 days, was found with her hands cupped around her mouth in an attempt to create an air pocket. She didn’t survive.

Standing on the edge of the crevasse, Sharma was so exhausted that he felt like he might vomit, but he continued to help haul people up and out. About three hours after the slide, Thakkar was pulled from the crevasse. After the avalanche, it had begun snowing heavily, and Thakkar was wet, shivering violently, and so cold he couldn’t feel his body.“I don’t have my leg! I don’t have my leg! I can’t stand!” he shouted when he got to the surface, his lips smeared with blood. One of the instructors gave him a jacket and laid him on the snow next to four others. When Thakkar turned his head to look at them, he saw that they were all dead.

Climbers lined up on Draupadi Ka Danda
Survivor Sunil Lalwani has shared his photographs from the tragic climb on DKD2. The NIM trainees climb in a queue on the slopes of the peak prior to the slide. (Sunil Lalwani)

Of the 34 people who fell into the crevasse, only five survived: Deep Thakkar, Sunil Lalwani, Suraj Singh Gusain, Ankit Kandiyal, and Jerry.

The avalanche on DKD2 killed 29 climbers. The victims ranged in age from 18 to 47 and included promising young mountaineers, members of the military, a yoga instructor, a boxing enthusiast, fathers, and sole breadwinners. Among the dead were the course’s only two female instructors—the 27-year-old Kanswal and 24-year-old Rawat.

After the slide, some local media focused on how unusual the disaster was, running headlines like: “Avalanche site considered safest peak for training by NIM.” In an email to Outside, a top NIM official spoke of the institute’s long-standing safety record on the mountain. A NIM trainee who completed his advanced course in 2019 told the Indian Express that “DKD2 is a safe zone and an avalanche-free area. It is the reason why DKD2 is a perfect place for training.”

But avalanches do occur on DKD2, and the nature of the terrain—steep, snowy slopes with crevasses—raises the danger level for anyone unlucky enough to be caught in a slide. No avalanche in mountaineering history has ever killed as many people while they were climbing, however. Only a 1990 earthquake-triggered avalanche on Lenin Peak, which straddles Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, produced more fatalities; but that slide, which buried climbers in their tents shortly after dinnertime, killing 43, didn’t happen while the climbers were actively making their way up the mountain.

Certain disasters reinforce what veteran mountaineers and backcountry adventurers know all too well: sometimes in the mountains, you can do everything right and still end up in trouble. A few examples come to mind when thinking of these unavoidable “acts of God.” The Lenin Peak disaster is one. Another is the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that hit Nepal in 2015, causing an avalanche that killed 18 people at Everest Base Camp. But a human-triggered avalanche, like the one on DKD2, is more difficult to place in that category. The slide was unlucky and unintentional but not necessarily entirely unpredictable.

Mass-casualty incidents in the outdoor-recreation world are rare, but avalanches happen all the time, and they happen to people with more and less experience than the group on DKD2. After any kind of disaster, the public inevitably wants to know what occurred and why. I spoke with many climbers who were on the mountain that day, yet few were willing to speculate on what, exactly, went wrong. One student suggested that the new snow must not have bonded with the old, resulting in a weak surface. What we do know is that in 90 percent of avalanche deaths, a slide is triggered by the weight of the victim or someone in their party. This suggests that fatal days often start with a bad decision, or a series of them, that are often easier to see in hindsight.

In the U.S., where about 15,000 students pass recreational-level avalanche courses each year, slide fatalities are thoroughly investigated by local forecast centers that publish reports. On average, 27 people die in avalanches in the States every year, and each incident report is published with the goal of helping people avoid repeating missteps. This exercise of reflection isn’t always easy, especially when it suggests that deaths may have been prevented. Take, for example, the Level 2 avalanche course in 2019 taught by the Silverton Avalanche School that resulted in a fatality in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains: Outside’s reporting showed that an early draft of a press release noted that the school would “learn from this incident to help others,” but that line was ultimately deleted.

In the Alps, where approximately 100 people die in avalanches annually, authorities take a severer approach. While legal consequences are relatively rare, after fatal accidents in the mountains, an investigation by law enforcement is required to determine whether criminal negligence contributed to the deaths. In 2010, a French man was skiing in Austria with his wife, who was less experienced in the backcountry than he was, when he triggered an avalanche that caught and killed his spouse. Although they carried avalanche beacons, the devices were off and stored in their packs. A year and a half later, he was found guilty of manslaughter by an Austrian judge. There have been a handful of cases where European mountain guides and ski instructors were prosecuted for deaths on their watch.

“Today, whenever I think of those moments, I get terrified and feel a rush of emotions. I didn’t feel like talking to anyone, because it was painful,” says Kanchan Singh, who survived the DKD2 avalanche. “After, there was a lot of controversy, people were not understanding our emotions. There was a lot of blame game. There was a lot of negativity, rumors, and wrong information being printed and circulated.”

In the case of DKD2, Indian authorities have yet to publish any kind of official incident report for the public, nor have they promised one. In January, a NIM official said that an investigation was ongoing, but no details were provided on who was conducting the inquiry or whether it had revealed anything. The official added that the avalanche was declared a natural disaster by the government of Uttarakhand, the Indian state where DKD2 and NIM are located. Another NIM official said the climbing school is enhancing training standards and safety, but did not elaborate. Professor Harshwanti Bisht, president of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation and an accomplished mountaineer herself, would only offer that officials are “taking the relevant actions,” adding that the foundation doesn’t have the power to impose new protocols on the institutes. India’s Ministry of Defense did not return a request for comment.

Prolific Indian mountaineer Mandip Singh Soin, who made the first Indian ascent of Meru North in 1986, hopes that the climbing community and its governing bodies will take steps to ensure that mountaineers and instructors learn from this accident. “We as a collective in India do not have a system of assessing accidents, of getting the learnings,” says Soin, who once sat on the governing council for NIM. He pointed to the American Alpine Club’s annual publication Accidents in North American Climbing as an example of a climbing community trying to hold itself accountable. This reflection and analysis is less about pointing fingers and more about trying to gain something from loss. Soin hopes that India might one day adopt a similar method. “I think that is obviously a big Achilles’ heel, which is now being exposed,” he says, “and with such a large amount of people having to suffer the consequences.”

A few minutes after the avalanche, Shahid Khan, an instructor on the advanced course who had taken a student back down to base camp prior to the disaster, saw a porter run by with a stretcher. It was the first sign that something had gone wrong. When he learned about the accident, he raced up the peak with a few others. Khan got on the radio and addressed his colleagues. “Sir, we are coming, keep your spirits high. Don’t lose hope!” he urged. From base camp, they would need to ascend a few thousand vertical feet. As they got closer, radio messages from their colleagues at the crevasse chirped with updates: the first confirmed death, then another, and another. “How silly of me or maybe naive that I was actually hoping or clinging to 1 percent hope of a helicopter arriving,” he wrote later in a blog post. “The way it must arrive, and the way it does arrive, in Nepal and European countries for mountain rescue.”

Instead, the instructors and students did what they could while the Indian Air Force, Indian Army, Indo-Tibetan Border Police, State Disaster Response Force, National Disaster Response Force, and a rescue team from the High Altitude Warfare School tried to reach them. But outside help wouldn’t show up until it was too late, and the bad weather that started soon after the avalanche thwarted any hopes of helicopter landing. Long before aid arrived, the rescue transitioned to a body recovery. Kanchan Singh, the 28-year-old student, threw his helmet in anger. He felt that he should’ve died with them, he later said. Over the next few days, a multi-agency team removed 27 bodies from the crevasse—25 trainees and two instructors. They were unable to locate the bodies of two students: a 47-year-old army colonel, Deepak Vashisht, and a 29-year-old naval sailor, Vinay Panwar, who was supposed to get married this year. Their bodies remain on the mountain.

Immediately after the slide, the Nehru Institute faced criticism at home and abroad from both the mountaineering community and the families of victims. “This isn’t a natural disaster, it’s negligence,” an Indian mountaineer commented on social media. After a tragedy, it’s common for the media and others to seek someone, or something, to blame. Singh says that some Indian media reported that NIM climbers unwisely pushed through dangerous weather, when in truth, the climbers ascended under clear skies. It was only after the slide that it began to snow heavily.

“Today, whenever I think of those moments, I get terrified and feel a rush of emotions. I didn’t feel like talking to anyone, because it was painful,” says Singh. “After, there was a lot of controversy, people were not understanding our emotions. There was a lot of blame game. There was a lot of negativity, rumors, and wrong information being printed and circulated.”

I spoke with most of the surviving students, and with the help of a local reporter hired by Outside, Nutan Shinde, was able to speak with others on the mountain that day. Most of the instructors who were on scene were not willing to be interviewed, and those who did spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing fear of repercussions for publicly talking about what happened. While officials have not released a report on the avalanche, we do know why it was so deadly: the large group of climbers were ascending the dangerous slope together, lined up like dominoes.

Climbers lined up on Draupadi Ka Danda
Survivor Sunil Lalwani has shared his photographs from the tragic climb on DKD2. In this image, the line of climbers can be seen snaking down the glacier. (Sunil Lalwani)

The instructors on DKD2 made a few crucial choices that increased the potential for disaster. Even though they hadn’t been to the mountain’s summit since the previous April, they chose to fix the ropes as they climbed. The afternoon before, a small group of students and instructors got as far as Rambo Rock, at 16,800 feet, but did not go any higher. Typically, when trying to efficiently get a large number of people up a steep section of a peak, a small, experienced rope-fixing team climbs the route before anyone else ascends and preps it for those to follow. Despite not knowing conditions at the top, they lumped all the trainees into one group and intentionally climbed close together.

When the slab broke, the worst-case scenario materialized: the whole slope released, and the climbers were caught in a slide above one of the peak’s deep crevasses. After 15 minutes, the odds of surviving an avalanche burial decrease exponentially, and it can be difficult to rescue just one person in that time frame, even in the best circumstances. Twenty-nine full burials inside a crevasse is an impossible rescue situation. The only people who survived being swept into the crevasse that day were those whose heads were above the debris when they landed.

Anyone adventuring in the mountains must accept a certain amount of inherent risk—and avalanches are only one form of peril—but it’s clear that the instructors on DKD2 didn’t think they were in a dangerous area. Had they known, they might’ve turned back, spread out, or separated into smaller groups. During their course, it had snowed a little bit every day, but climbers said there were no big, noteworthy storms. On the day of the slide, they reported that the new snow was mostly shin- to knee-deep, and that they had no reason to believe the snowpack was unsafe. As they climbed, instructors probed the snow with ice axes to get a sense of what it felt like.

“They at least attempted to look at the snow stability, which is great,” says Doug Chabot, director of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center in Montana and a climber who has made first ascents around the world, from Afghanistan to Nepal to Pakistan. In 2003, he visited NIM on his way to attempt Meru’s Shark Fin with Conrad Anker and Bruce Miller.

“They get something in the plus column, because they were thinking about it and looking for it,” he says, “but the techniques used were not standard techniques, so they were falsely led to believe the slope was stable when it was not.” Probing is a basic test that only offers information as far down as the device can reach—in this case, perhaps that upper foot or so of the snowpack was potentially stable—yet these surface tests don’t offer any information about what’s going on underneath.

When I laid out the specifics of this disaster for avalanche professionals, they had questions: Was there recent snow? Did they dig a pit to see whether there was a weak layer in the snowpack that could cause the slope to fail? Had there been wind recently, or a change in temperature? Was the slope near a ridge, where the wind might pick up snow and deposit it on the leeward slope? All of these factors are important.

“I wasn’t there, but you’re not only saying it’s good, you’re saying it’s so good that I’m putting everybody there, that’s how good I believe it to be,” says Chabot, imagining things through the instructors’ eyes. “And they were wrong. For an institutional setting, the teachers and guides are ultimately responsible for the safety of the less experienced. They are not equals.”

Avalanche dialogue can be confusing, but the basic principle is that a potentially dangerous snowpack involves a strong layer of snow on top of a weak layer. If the weak layer collapses under the stronger slab on a slope that’s over 30 degrees, the slope is likely to slide. These collapses can be caused by a number of things, but one way to trigger a weak layer is by walking on it. Sometimes when you’re on a slope, you get immediate feedback about its stability. If you have avalanche education, you’re trained to recognize these dangerous red flags: recent avalanches, observing wind-driven snow transport, more than eight inches of new snow in 24 to 48 hours, cracks that shoot across the slope as you walk, a “whumpfing” noise and a collapse, or a sudden drop in the snowpack under your feet. These are obvious signs that a slope is unstable. Certain conditions can make direct feedback, like whumpfing and cracking, more difficult to recognize or less likely to occur. Sometimes slabs don’t always release right away. Sometimes it’s the first person on the slope whose weight triggers it, and sometimes it’s the fifth. Sometimes it’s the one who steps in just the right spot.

Regardless of the exact nature of the avalanche on DKD2, accidents like this prompt questions about whether anything could’ve been done differently to avoid catastrophe. Some of the people I spoke with balked at the idea that training was to blame—one NIM official who refused to be quoted due to military employment called the institute’s avalanche training “exhaustive”—but others pointed out that while India’s mountaineering schools do teach students about avalanches, that knowledge is mostly theoretical. A few days before the fatal slide, students received an hourlong lecture about avalanches, and in their basic mountaineering course they received a similar-length lecture. The instructors had been given more education: an additional half day of lecture, and they practiced various stability tests during their search and rescue course. Most of the instructors also had many years of experience in the mountains.

“I know there’s a lot more specialized training available in European and Western countries,” says instructor Shahid Khan. “Those kinds of trainings are required, and currently they are missing [in India]. We do have lectures and demonstrations on those kinds of training. However, [it is] not specialized and elaborate training.” Khan would like to gain more technical knowledge by taking an avalanche course in the U.S. or Canada in the future. If others also pursue additional training, he says, it’s a net positive because everyone becomes more knowledgeable.

In countries like the U.S., Canada, Ecuador, and mountainous European countries, for example, avalanche education among professional guides is mandatory and standardized. This training typically requires weeks of in-person instruction and months spent gaining experience in the field. Obtaining the highest levels of professional guiding accreditation takes years. Standardized avalanche education in India isn’t widespread, but it does exist. Kashmir Powder Tours in the Kashmiri town of Gulmarg certifies students to internationally recognized education standards. The Gulmarg Avalanche Center, founded by American Brian Newman, provides daily avalanche forecasts and incident reports that follow a similar format to what is used in the States. While we’ll never know if additional training would have prevented the instructors on DKD2 from ending up on that slope, it’s reasonable to believe that more training raises any guide’s level of decision-making. Education doesn’t guarantee safe passage, but it can help stack the odds in your favor.

“I know there’s a lot more specialized training available in European and Western countries,” says instructor Shahid Khan. “Those kinds of training are required, and currently they are missing.”

In 1980, after Mandip Singh Soin, the prominent Indian mountaineer, lost a friend in the mountains, he applied for a scholarship to learn mountain rescue from the Royal Air Force in the UK. Soin brought back skills and knowledge to India that he says later helped inform the mountaineering institute’s search and rescue courses. He thinks that senior instructors would benefit by taking avalanche classes from established programs and bringing that knowledge back to the institutes, like he did decades ago. In fact, in addition to Khan, many of the surviving students were interested in pursuing additional avalanche education.

“To some degree, I could understand that there is a situation that they may not have read very well but, you know, there’s never a finish line to experience and wisdom,” says Soin. “You will have accidents, you will have avalanches, and you will sometimes not be able to predict, but at least you are minimizing that each time you have more knowledge and each time you have more experience.”

The sources I spoke with, both in the U.S. and in the international climbing community, continued to return to the presence of so many climbers on the same slope at once. But climbers all over the world regularly ascend peaks in this manner, taking lines up steep slopes to speed up traffic and reduce the chance of a catastrophic fall. Each spring we see photos of the lines of people inching their way up Everest, particularly on the Lhotse Face and the Hillary Step. Was the accident on DKD2 any different from what could happen to the swarms of climbers on other Himalayan peaks?

Not entirely. This could’ve very well happened on another peak somewhere else. It has before. In 2014, a serac the size of a ten-story apartment building fell from high on Everest and collided with the notorious Khumbu Icefall, itself the most hazardous section of the route. More than 100 Sherpas were in the upper Icefall at the time, and 16 died. “You have the wrong number of people in the wrong place at the wrong time, and you have the potential for a serious event with many fatalities,” says Pete Athans, an American mountaineer and guide who has summited Everest seven times. “There’s the eventuality of it, isn’t there?”

One of the NIM instructors who spoke to me said he’d climbed DKD2 so many times, it was like the trail was engraved in his body. No one had ever seen an avalanche there. But how often are people actually that high on the mountain, maybe five or ten days a year? That’s not strong evidence for overlooking safety measures, though it’s being used as one, and it speaks to a danger inherent in climbing communities everywhere: complacency. This type of thinking is so common, in fact, that it has a name in avalanche-speak: the human factor. In 2004, Ian McCammon wrote a much referenced piece published in Avalanche News about this phenomenon, coining the acronym Facets to describe the various dangers. The F is for familiarity.

“Rather than go through the trouble of figuring out what is appropriate every time, we simply behave as we have before … when the hazard changes but the setting remains familiar, this rule of thumb can become a trap,” writes McCammon. In his assessment of 267 different accidents, he found that “there is a tendency among highly trained accident parties to make riskier decisions in familiar terrain than they do in unfamiliar terrain.” And given the high number of accidents that happen in familiar terrain, “it appears that these parties greatly overestimated the degree to which familiar slopes were safer,” he told me. 

As more mountaineers head up peaks around the world, it’s important to pause and examine incidents like this and determine whether anything could have been done to avoid such a significant loss of life. How can we improve resources and education to help people avoid tragedy and experience the joy of the outdoors safely? When asked if there would be any changes to future courses to prevent something like this from happening again, NIM officials repeated: “It is under process.” 

Early this year, Colonel Amit Bisht, the principal of NIM at the time of the slide (and since 2018), was transferred to a new post. The Times of India reported that the transfer was believed to be due to the accident. In April, Colonel Anshuman Bhadauria, an army officer, took over. In the meantime, courses at NIM have continued as planned: 24 trainees completed an instructor course that started two weeks after the DKD2 incident, and in April the first advanced mountaineering course since the avalanche went back to the mountain. During that course, NIM implemented a handful of new changes: almost everyone was equipped with avalanche beacons, there were extra shovels, and a rescue team nearby was made available for immediate search and rescue assistance if needed. NIM also introduced a new standard operating procedure. From now on, climbers will increase the distance between groups to reduce the number of people exposed to a potentially deadly slope at any one time. During the course, officials noted that there was erratic weather with lots of snowfall, and after analyzing the snowpack on DKD2, instructors chose not to attempt the summit so as not to “expose students to unnecessary hazards.”

Shahid Khan reached Camp 1 at 1:30 P.M., roughly four hours after hearing about the avalanche. Around the same time, trainees and instructors started to arrive from the accident site, exhausted and distraught from the traumatic events. The instructors were military men who had seen battlefields and warfare. “They saw their trainees dying in front of them, and they were doing all they could,” says Khan. “When they came back with the majority of the students left behind, they were disappointed and angry because they couldn’t save everybody.” Still, the survivors had done their best in the aftermath, responding swiftly and aggressively to save as many lives as they could. Unfortunately, there were just not many people who survived the fall into the crevasse.

The student Ankush Sharma, who had grown close to Khan over a shared interest in long-distance running, saw him and burst into tears. Khan wrapped him in a hug. Another rescuer arrived and cried, “Shahid, we could not save them, they all died in front of us. They were young kids.” One of the instructors, Khan said, couldn’t speak at all. By 9 P.M., the group had walked into base camp. The weather had worsened. It was raining heavily, and lightning bolts ripped across the sky. Twenty-nine of their friends and colleagues were thousands of feet above, amid a raging storm. No one could remember experiencing a night that dark on DKD2 before.

Additional reporting by Nutan Shinde.