In a heart-wrenching turn of events during the 8000-meter climbing season, Shishapangma, one of the world’s renowned peaks, witnessed tragedy. Two climbers have been confirmed dead, two are missing and presumed dead, and several others have sustained injuries due to avalanches that struck over the weekend claiming the lives of the four climbers.
On October 7th, American climber Anna Gutu and her Sherpa guide, Mingmar Sherpa, were hit by a devastating avalanche at approximately 7,800 meters on Shishapangma. Tragically, they lost their lives in this perilous incident. Later that same day, another avalanche occurred in the same area, affecting a second American climber, Gina Rzucidlo, and her Sherpa guide, Tenjen Lama. Despite rescue efforts, they remain missing and are presumed dead, buried beneath the avalanche debris.
Shishapangma, standing at just over 8,000 meters (26,247 feet), ranks as the world’s 14th tallest peak. While it is considered one of the less technically challenging mountains of such height, it is not immune to the inherent dangers that high-altitude climbing presents.
Two avalanches struck Shishapangma’s slopes at elevations of 7,600 meters and 8,000 meters on a fateful Saturday, claiming the lives of Anna Gutu and Mingmar Sherpa. Gina Rzucidlo and Tenjen Lama, who aspired to achieve remarkable feats on the mountain, are now missing, their hopes and dreams buried beneath the snow.
The climbers attempting the summit, hailing from various countries, including the United States, Britain, Romania, Albania, Italy, Japan, and Pakistan, found themselves in the treacherous path of these avalanches. In response to the unstable snow conditions, all climbing activity on Shishapangma was suspended.
This season, the Himalayas welcomed climbers in October, a month traditionally known for more stable conditions as the monsoon rains recede. However, experts have been warning about the increasing avalanche risks in high-altitude regions, including the Himalayas, due to global warming.
The tragedy extends to other climbers on the mountain, as reports indicate that several Sherpa guides were also injured in the avalanches. One of them, Mingma G, a renowned Sherpa guide leading another group, sustained a severe head injury while assisting in the rescue efforts. He, along with some of the injured Sherpas, managed to retreat from the mountain and is now en route to the hospital for medical evaluation.
This season appeared to be under the weight of heightened competition, with climbers vying for records and unprecedented ascents. The quest for speed ascents and record-breaking achievements might have contributed to additional pressures, pushing boundaries, and increasing the risks associated with mountaineering.
At this time, none of the climbing companies or climbers involved have issued official statements, leaving the mountaineering community and the world in mourning. Shishapangma has been declared “closed” by Chinese authorities due to adverse weather conditions, prompting the teams to retreat to base camp and terminate their expeditions.
Tragedies like these serve as a poignant reminder of the inherent dangers of mountaineering and the fragile line between triumph and tragedy in the world’s most challenging environments. While climbers pursue their dreams and records, the mountains stand as formidable, unpredictable opponents, and the risks they pose should never be underestimated.
Racing to beat smash mountaineering records
Accordingly, the climbers were trying Shishapangma with two separate outfits: Gina and Tenjen Lama were climbing with Seven Summits Treks, while Gutu and Mingmar Sherpa were climbing with a combined expedition led by Nims Purja’s Elite Expeditions and Imagine Nepal.
Gutu and Rzuciglo, two American mountaineers, were competing to become the first American women to summit all 14 8000-meter summits. Shishapangma should have been a reasonably simple 8000’er to finish their individual record-breaking efforts since both Gutu and Rzuciglo had already done the other 13x 8000’ers, which are far higher and more challenging.
The two Sherpa guides who were with the American climbers were seasoned mountaineers who had climbed many 8000ers.
Tenjen Lama, Rzuciglo’s guide, assisted Norwegian Kristin Harila when she completed the fastest-ever ascent of all 14 8000-meter peaks in 92 days at the beginning of the 2023 climbing season. Since then, he has summited two more 8000-meter giants, bringing his total to 32, according to estimates.
Shishapangma does not have particularly tough terrain or very steep or rocky slopes, but because many of the slopes around the summit are just mild slopes of 30 to 45 degrees, they can be vulnerable to avalanche risk under certain circumstances. Shishapangma is a mountain in Tibet that is situated on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, making it susceptible to the arrival of winter weather.
Shishapangma had experienced extremely windy and snowy circumstances prior to the tragedy, which were favorable for the development of wind slab avalanches.
Shishapangma may be climbed by ascending a lengthy ridge line that leads to the lower center peak. Although some climbers stop here, the honor of being the first American to summit all 14 8000-foot mountains would have required the climbers to continue to the true, high summit, which can be reached either by taking a lower route across avalanche-prone slopes on the northeast face or by climbing directly to the true, higher summit via a narrow, exposed, and difficult ridge line.
Many of the teams that were pursuing this lower and more avalanche-prone path reportedly turned around the day before, on October 6, because they were unsure of the snow conditions and wanted to be extra cautious. However, it is thought that both crews involved in the record attempts were trapped in avalanches while using slightly different paths in the same general region.
In addition to the four climbers already reported, it’s also possible that three or more Sherpa guides from a different party were hurt. Mingma G, another well-known Sherpa guide who was already on the mountain guiding another party, is said to have sustained a major head injury while aiding in the rescue.
He is said to have fallen a fair distance, suffered head injuries, and then managed to climb back down the mountain on his own, along with some of the other injured Sherpas. He is now waiting or in way to the hospital for examinations.
The Norwegian Kristin Harila had Tenjen Sherpa as her guide when they scaled K2 in Pakistan in July to set a record for the quickest ascent of all 14 summits above 8,000 meters. He aimed to accomplish the feat of climbing all 14 summits twice at a young age.
When the avalanches struck, 52 climbers, including those from the US, Britain, Romania, Albania, Italy, Japan, and Pakistan, were attempting to reach the summit, according to Xinhua.
Shishapangma’s climbing operations were put on hold due to shaky snow conditions.
According to Pakistani media, two climbers from Pakistan narrowly avoided the avalanches on Saturday after postponing their summit attempt due to bad weather despite having reached within a few hundred meters of the top. The first Pakistani to reach the summit of all 14 mountains higher than 8,000 meters would have been Sirbaz Khan, one of the climbers from Pakistan.
Less than 10% of climbers who attempted to reach the summit of Shishapangma died in their attempts, according to estimations made privately. To far, more over 300 successful summit attempts have been recorded. This contrasts with one of the world’s most dangerous peaks, Nepal’s Annapurna I, which has a mortality rate of about 30%.
Famous American climber Alex Lowe, who was killed in an avalanche on Shishapangma in 1999, was one among many who had previously perished there. In a glacier that had partially melted, his body and the remains of his climbing partner David Bridges were discovered in 2016.
Because of its historically more stable conditions when the monsoon rains subside, October is a popular month for climbers in the Himalayas. However, experts caution that avalanche dangers are increasing due to global warming in high-altitude areas like the Himalayas.
To assess the effects of climate change in the Himalayas, a Chinese team installed a number of weather stations on the 8,201-meter Cho Oyu at the boundary between Tibet and Nepal last week.
Heartbreaking tribute from climber Nims Purja to Anna Gutu, who perished along with opponent Gina Rzucidlo and their guides while attempting to break a world record
After his friend Anna Gutu perished in an avalanche, climber Nims Purja sent her a touching farewell, calling her “one of the best mountaineers” and saying, “Sorry I couldn’t save you.”
After a fellow renowned climber, 32, passed away in Tibet over the weekend, record-breaking climber Purja published an Instagram post celebrating her life and their relationship.
We were on the same peak during the same summit push, and Purja apologized that he was unable to help. I appreciate you being my buddy and sister. Words cannot even begin to express how I feel, but I will always remember you, Anna,” he continued.
“Missing you” doesn’t cut it anymore; you are now a part of my life and will be in my recollections for as long as I live.”