Four dead in tragic end to season on Shishapangma
- Monday 9th October 2023
In a tragic end to the 8000’ers climbing season, two climbers are confirmed dead, two more are missing and presumed dead and several other injured in avalanches over the weekend on Shishapangma.
American Anna Gutu and her Sherpa guide Mingmar Sherpa, were confirmed dead after being hit by an avalanche at c.7,800m on Shishapangma on October 7th. A second avalanche in the similar area two hours later on the same day reportedly took a second America climber Gina Rzucidlo and Tenjen Lama, her Sherpa guide; both are currently still missing but presumed dead after rescue efforts failed to located them in the avalanche debris.
Respectively the climbers were attempting Shishapangma with two different companies; Gutu and Mingmar Sherpa with a joint expedition between Nims Purja’s Elite Expeditions and Imagine Nepal, and Gina with Tenjen Lama with Seven Summits Treks.
The American climbers, Gutu and Rzuciglo, were each vying to become the first American woman to complete all 14 of the world’s highest mountains – ie those over 8000m. Both Gutu and Rzuciglo had already completed the other 13x 8000’ers which are considerably higher and more difficult; Shishapangma should therefore have been a relatively easy 8000’er to complete their respective record-breaking attempts.
The two Sherpa guides accompanying the American climbers were highly experienced climbers with multiple ascents of 8000’ers under their bents. As the start of the 2023 season Rzuciglo’s guide, Tenjen Lama, accompanied Norwegian Kristin Harila on her successful completion of the fastest ever ascent of all 14 of the 8000’ers over a 92 day period. Since then he has climbed two of the 8000m giants again taking his summit tally of 8000’ers to a believed 32.
Paraxodically, Shishapangma is neither excessively steep or rocky nor does it have especially difficult terrain; however, with many of the slopes near the summit being as gentle as 30-45degrees they are susceptible to avalanche danger in certain conditions. Within Tibet, Shishapangma is located on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau and as such exposed to the onset of winter conditions. Prior to the accident, the weather on Shishapangma had been very windy and snowy; ideal conditions for the formation of wind slab avalanche.
When climbing Shishapangma it is possible to follow a long ridge line to the lower central summit. Although some climbers stop here, the accolade of being the first American to climb all 14x 8000’ers would have meant that the climbers would have to go to the true, high summit which can either be reached along a narrow, exposed and arduous ridge line or by following a lower route across avalanche prone slopes on the northeast face and then climbing direct to the true higher summit.
It is reported that a number of teams following this lower and more avalanche prone route had turned back the day earlier – ie on October 6th – being unsure of the snow conditions and hence taking a more prudent approach. However, both teams engaged with the record attempts were believed to be caught in avalanches whilst following slightly different routes albeit in the same approximate area.
In addition to the four climbers already mentioned, it is believed that another group – comprising three or more Sherpa guides – were also injured. Subsequently, it is understood that Mingma G, yet another renowned Sherpa guide who was also on the mountain leading another group, suffered a serious head injury while helping with the rescue. He is understood to have fallen a considerable distance and sustained head injuries but subsequently was able to retreat from the mountain – along with some of the other injured Sherpas - under his own efforts. He is now awaiting/on-route to hospital for investigations.
At the present time none of the guiding companies or climbers involved have issued any statements. However, ExplorersWeb report in their on-line news feed that they have received several eyewitness reports from other climbers saying, “the atmosphere in Tibet was thick with competition, as several climbers, not just the two U.S. women, vied for records.”
Accidents and unfortunately deaths are not uncommon whilst mountaineering given the inherint dangers in such envirornments. This year in particular appears to have been infused with additional pressures as various teams vied for record-breaking ascents of the 14x8000’ers. Whether such speed ascents will continue in the future is as yet a matter of conjecture but what seems inevitable is that if they do then with additional self-imposed pressure that such "record breaking races" bring, boundaries may will be pushed and risks taken and occasionally accidents and/or deaths are a very sad but perhaps an evitable consequence.
It is understood that the Chinese Authorities have now declaired Shishapangma "closed" as a result of the bad conditions and that the various teams that were on the mountain are retreating back to base camp and closing down their respective expeditions.