Gurja Himal tragedy

The imposing South Face of Gurja Himal in the Dhaulagiri Range rises narly 4km vertically from the valley below. Photo: JOY STEPHENS

The disaster which struck the Korean expedition on 10 October brought Gurja Himal (7,193m) and this inaccessible region of Nepal to world attention. A few weeks after the disaster, there is still much uncertainty about what caused the Base Camp at 3,500m to be blown away, killing five Korean and four Nepali climbers.  

Gurja Himal is one of the westernmost peaks in the Dhaulagiri massif and has an imposing and unclimbed south face that rises almost 4,000m vertically from the valley below. The Korean expedition hoped to be the first to climb it, and it was led by veteran mountaineer Kim Chang-ho who is famous for being the first Korean to summit all 14 eight-thousanders without bottle oxygen. Disaster struck even before the expedition had started climbing the mountain, and since no one survived we really do not know what happened.

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Locals who helped retrieve the bodies said there was no ice or snow where the Base Camp was, and the bodies had been blown across the river to the opposite slope. Tall trees in the narrow valley had been snapped in half, and videos and photographs taken by the rescuers show scars from what look like an avalanche from the rock face above.

Locals recalled that there had been a massive thunderstorm with hail-stones in the area, and there is speculation that the storm whipped up tornado-strength wind that was funneled up the valley. Others said the position of the bodies and remains of the tents are consistent with an air blast from an avalanche that roared down the face, and the reason no ice was found was that it had melted by the time rescuers got there.

Villagers also have another explanation, and say they told the expedition to establish their Base Camp lower at 3,000m so to avoid angering the mountain’s guardian deity which they say does not tolerate people defecating nearby. Over the years, they report that several locals have died near the same spot.

Sita Chhantyal, sister of the local guide who died in the disaster, said the expedition did everything to propitiate the deity, sacrificing a chicken and a goat. She added: “They made the mistake of locating the camp too close to the face. It made the god angry.

Rescuers talk of the bodies flung off the mountain, yet in the camp site they found crates of eggs unbroken. “Not even one egg was cracked,” Chhantyal said.

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