After deaths, a weather window on Manaslu

Using a brief break in the monsoon this weekend, climbers are making another push to climb Manaslu even as they try to overcome deaths and injuries on the mountain.

More than 400 mountaineers aim to reach the summit of the world’s eighth highest mountain – by far the most climbers on any Himalayan peak in Nepal this autumn.

The expeditions have had to overcome news of deadly avalanches and the death of the world’s most famous extreme skiers. American ski mountaineer Hilaree Nelson went missing just below Manaslu’s true summit after she and her partner, Jim Morrison, attempted to ski down the 8,613m peak.

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On Wednesday her body was recovered by a helicopter rescue team at an altitude of 6,500m on the south face of Manaslu after two days of searching. She appears to have fallen from near the summit after her skis set off a small avalanche and a cornice collapse. Nelson was 49.

A day later, a snow avalanche near Camp 4 killed a Nepali guide and injured 13 climbers and guides. Wounded and stranded climbers were rescued by helicopter on Tuesday.

Nelson, who lived with her two children in Telluride, Colorado, was one of the most prolific ski mountaineers in recent history. According to Morrison’s Instagram post, Nelson was swept off her feet in a small avalanche and, ‘carried down the south side of the mountain over 5,000m’. Morrison then skied on down to base camp for help, but poor weather conditions delayed the start of a rescue mission until Tuesday morning.

432 of the 502 climbing permits issued by the Nepal government this year are for Manaslu.

These deaths and injuries are a stark reminder of the extreme dangers associated with climbing the world’s highest and deadliest peaks. With fixed ropes and experienced teams from Nepal fixing these to the summit, many tend to look at summiting an eight-thousander as something quite normal.

This is reinforced by climbing seasons like this summer on K2, the world’s second highest mountain in Pakistan. There were more than 300 climbers, mainly Pakistanis and Nepali, and their clients on the Abruzzi spur, and only one fatality.

Manaslu this autumn has seen heavy snowfall from post-monsoon storms, increasing the danger of avalanches on a mountain that is already notorious for objective danger. A new post-monsoon low pressure system is expected to hit Nepal next week, and expeditions are expected to make their summit pushes over the weekend.

According to North Face, Nelson’s sponsor, Hilaree distinguished herself by completing dozens of first ski descents through more than 40 expeditions to 16 different countries. In 2012, Nelson became the first woman to summit two eight-thousand-meter peaks within 24 hours before returning to Lhotse in 2018 to become the first person to ski from its summit.

Hilaree’s career shattered expectations and has inspired a generation of female athletes as they aspire to climb, trek, and ski the deadliest routes in the world. Through her daring expeditions, Nelson paved the way for women in the adventure sports space. In a North Face video, she reminded viewers that women, “can throw down just as hard as men”.

Her friend and professional climber, Emily Harrington, thanked Hilaree for, “showing us that we could be everything- follow our passions as well as raise a family.”

Jim Morrison and Hilaree Nelson. Photo: JIM W MORRISON/INSTAGRAM

Conditions on Manaslu this year were dangerous because of a lot of new snow piled on top of the precarious overhangs on the summit ridge. Summiteers from early September have said the slope is unstable and may not be suitable for the hundreds of climbers hoping to reach the top in the coming weeks.

On Manaslu right now, Purnima Shrestha, the Nepali climber who became the fastest woman to summit all seven of Nepal’s 8,000-meter peaks in May of 2022, plans to reach Manaslu’s true summit without supplemental oxygen. While grieving for her fellow climbers and reminded of the unforgiving nature of Manaslu, she and her team will go up anyway.

Norwegian climber Kristin Harila recently reached Manaslu’s true summit last week as she attempted to break Nims Purja’s speed record on the 14 eight-thousand-meter peaks. She expressed deep sadness after hearing that Hilaree had gone missing, and is now focused on gaining permission from Chinese authorities to climb Xixapangma. But while waiting for that she has moved across to climb Cho Oyu from the Nepali side.

Besides Harila, 13 climbers have made it to the true top of Manaslu this month, including a Nepali rope fixing team from Nims Purja’s Elite Exped that got to the top on 9 September.

For a mountain already known for its propensity for avalanches, the climbers still on Manaslu will have to hunker down for more snowstorms next week. The narrow weather windows in the next few days will be critical as they follow Nelson’s footsteps to the mountain’s true summit.

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