Home BLOGSTORY Shishapangma Summit 07 October: A Climber’s Perspective

Shishapangma Summit 07 October: A Climber’s Perspective

by thesummiters.com
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Upon returning to Nepal, climbers who experienced the tragic on Shishapangma summit push are sharing their accounts, shedding light on the challenges they faced due to intense competition and its catastrophic consequences.

The Competitive Atmosphere

The expedition took an unexpected turn that Mingma G, leader of the Imagine Nepal team, never foresaw. He expressed his disappointment at how the competition between two climbers, Gina Rzucidlo and Anna Gutu, marred what was initially a smooth journey. The two women were locked in a fierce contest to become the first U.S. women to conquer all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks. Both had successfully scaled 13 of these peaks and had Shishapangma as their final conquest.

Mingma G’s Survival

Mingma G’s team was the only one that managed to avoid fatalities, but he personally came close to losing his life while aiding in a rescue operation. Here’s his account:

Mingma G’s harrowing experience began with a 150-meter fall at an altitude of 7,300 meters as he tried to rescue Karma Gyalzen. All involved were fatigued, including another rescuer, Kami Rita Sherpa of Climbalaya. During the rescue, Phurba Sonam was managing the belay rope when Mingma G noticed it dangerously entangling with Sonam’s boots. In a quick move to avert a crisis, Mingma G slipped and began sliding down the mountain.

Migma G
Mingma G

During his fall, he anticipated colliding with a large rock and the likelihood of breaking bones. However, he managed to avoid the rock and landed on a snowy surface, which likely saved his life.

Mingma’s survival can also be attributed to the rapid response of Depon Gurung, who discovered him unconscious and not breathing. Depon Gurung administered CPR, and fortunately, Mingma G regained consciousness and showed signs of recovery.

Remarkably, he was able to stand, refused further assistance, and slowly descended the mountain.

Mingma G returned to their tent at Camp 2, visibly shaken and covered in blood, according to Tracee Metcalf, a fellow team member who is also a medical doctor.

Upon arriving at the hospital in Kathmandu, a CT scan revealed that Mingma G had sustained a skull fracture and a fractured tailbone. An MRI is scheduled for the following day to check for any internal injuries.

Sasko Kedev, a team member and cardiologist, acknowledged Mingma G’s immediate initiation of a rescue operation following an avalanche. Mingma G’s tireless efforts during the rescue were conducted without the use of supplementary oxygen. When questioned about the availability of spare oxygen systems for emergencies, Kedev confirmed they had such resources, but it appears that Mingma G did not consider them necessary.

Insights into the Climbing Community at Shishapangma

Sherpa Arrangements

Seven Summit Treks (SST) has emphasized to multiple journalists that Gina Rzucidlo, one of the unfortunate U.S. climbers, was affiliated with the Climbalaya team and had no direct association with SST. Nevertheless, questions have arisen regarding her collaboration with SST’s prominent sherpa, Tenjen Lama.

Rzucidlo’s climbing history reveals her affiliation with various outfitters over the years. Last year and part of 2023, she was with Imagine Nepal, and subsequently, she joined 8K Expeditions, with which she successfully summited both Gasherbrums and Nanga Parbat in the past summer.

Her initial plan was to continue with 8K Expeditions in Tibet, but visa complications hindered this endeavor, which had parallels with Kristin Harila’s sherpa visa issues in 2022. Consequently, Rzucidlo opted to pursue Cho Oyu under a Climbalaya permit, achieving a summit on October 1 before proceeding to Shishapangma.

During a stopover in Tingri, Rzucidlo expressed her desire to have a swifter sherpa than those provided by Climbalaya. She enlisted the services of Tenjen Lama, who was guiding for Seven Summit Treks in Tibet. Tenjen Lama had played a pivotal role in helping Kristin Harila complete all 14 8,000-meter peaks in just over three months, sharing her remarkable record.

Rzucidlo compensated SST for Tenjen Lama‘s services, given his affiliation with SST. Additionally, when she embarked on the ascent of Shishapangma, she was accompanied by Kami Rita Sherpa from Climbalaya.

Upon their arrival at Shishapangma’s Base Camp, SST climbers initially assumed Rzucidlo to be a new member of their team, stemming from the collaborative efforts between Climbalaya and SST. Climbalaya confirmed Rzucidlo’s membership in their team and acknowledged their partnership with SST.

Leadership and Decision-Making at High Altitude

Sasko Kedev, a climber with a vast experience of summiting eight 8,000-meter peaks since 2009, offers insights into the crucial role of leadership in challenging high-altitude situations. He emphasizes that effective leadership is indispensable, as clients may be inclined to offer higher payments to their sherpas, potentially influencing decisions that impact the entire team. Sound leadership is essential to make decisions that prioritize the safety and well-being of all team members.

The Intense Rivalry

Climbers have highlighted the competition for records, emphasizing that it was intense but not necessarily toxic until the final stages of the race between the American climbers. Shishapangma represented the last peak for many climbers, with objectives ranging from becoming the first Pakistani to summit all 14 8,000-meter peaks, achieving significant records, and completing their 14 peaks without oxygen. While several climbers were on track to reach their goals, the fiercest competition was noted among the American women, which eventually escalated to a critical point.

The Dynamics of Climbing and Competition on Shishapangma

Anna Gutu‘s Kind Gesture

Naila Kiani, hailing from Pakistan, shared her thoughts on Anna Gutu, highlighting a compassionate act during a previous climb. Despite not knowing Anna personally, Kiani recalled how Anna had offered her hand warmers when she was battling the cold on Cho Oyu, an act of kindness that left a positive impression. It’s worth noting that Gina Rzucidlo had referred to Anna as the “Instagram Climber,” but Kiani found Anna to be a genuinely nice person.

Anna Gutu | A Profile Photo of Anna Gutu
Anna Gutu | A Profile Photo of Anna Gutu

Challenges After Cho Oyu

Following their successful ascent of Cho Oyu, the situation took a turn for the worse for the climbing team. Gina had left the base camp a few hours earlier than expected, and the group faced delays due to interactions with local authorities and encountered issues with the yaks.

While there is no concrete evidence, some team members harbored suspicions that Gina Rzucidlo might have influenced the authorities to stall the second team’s progress, potentially causing a delay in Anna Gutu’s transfer to Shishapangma. This suspicion was voiced by Naila Kiani.

To ensure Anna’s timely arrival at Shishapangma Base Camp, the team was compelled to leave their duffel bags behind and proceed with only the necessary gear for their summit push. This adjustment frustrated the entire team.

Impact of Fierce Competition

Naila Kiani reflected on how both Rzucidlo and Gutu had become intensely focused on their competition, leading to a loss of control over the situation. She lamented the lack of collaboration between them and emphasized the need for women to support each other, a sentiment shared by many on the mountain.

Gina Rzucidlo | Profile Photo
Gina Rzucidlo | Profile Photo

Tracee Metcalfe, who was the third in line among the climbers, offered insights into her experiences with Gina Rzucidlo. Metcalfe described Gina as a joyous and humorous presence on their expeditions. Gina was known for her infectious laughter, capable of lightening the mood for the entire team.

However, Metcalfe admitted that the competition between Rzucidlo and Gutu had grown toxic over the last three months. She noted Gina’s strong desire to be the first U.S. woman to conquer all 14 peaks and her surprise at Anna’s swift progress in achieving the same goal.

In contrast, Anna Gutu was relatively new to the climbing scene, having only ventured with Elite Expeditions. The company described her as a beloved and cheerful star with a great sense of humor.

Ironically, Tracee Metcalfe now holds the record for the most 8,000-meter summits among U.S. women, with a total of 9. Gina Rzucidlo’s pursuit of records did not concern Metcalfe, as she held no interest in record-setting. She climbed for the sheer joy of the experience and cherished the beauty of the mountains. Metcalfe expressed her disapproval of the current record-driven frenzy and the potential motivations, such as seeking attention on social media, that may not align with the genuine spirit of climbing.

A Fierce Ascent to the Summit of Shishapangma

The Race for the Summit

Gina Rzucidlo embarked on her ascent ahead of the Elite/Imagine Nepal team’s arrival at the mountain. However, she encountered an obstacle at Camp 2 where there was neither an established trail nor ropes, as explained by Naila Kiani.

The combined team of EliteExped and Imagine Nepal commenced their journey to Shishapangma Base Camp on October 6, wasting no time to prepare for their summit attempt, planned for October 7.

Unusual Oxygen Usage

Uta Ibrahimi, another member on the mountain, noted that both Gina Rzucidlo and Anna Gutu resorted to using oxygen when they reached Camp 1. This practice was deemed uncommon at such a relatively low altitude, particularly on less towering 8,000-meter peaks like the 8,027-meter Shishapangma. Nonetheless, their decision could be attributed to a keen desire to secure every advantage in their race to reach the summit.

Guidance and Progress

Anna Gutu received support from Migmar and Karma Guyalzen, while Gina Rzucidlo was under the guidance of Kami Rita Sherpa, with a special mention of Tenjen Lama, acknowledged as one of the most robust sherpas in the climbing community.

Breaking the Trail

As the team progressed beyond Camp 2, they encountered a situation where it seemed as though everyone was awaiting them to break the trail and fix the ropes. This arduous task fell on their shoulders.

Despite the exhausting nature of this trailblazing endeavor, the team decided not to undertake the additional task of fixing ropes. It was solely their team that took on the burden of breaking the trail, with others joining the effort only after a significant delay of five to six hours.

Altered Route

As the dawn approached, the team found themselves nearing the upper slopes of Shishapangma. Following a trend observed in recent years, they opted not to follow the traditional route along the long, sharp summit ridge that crossed the central summit. Instead, above Camp 3, they chose to deviate toward the primary summit wall, with the objective of ascending one of the snow couloirs. Their goal was to reach the summit ridge as close as possible to the highest point, aligning with the approach taken by most climbers.

Diverging Routes on the Path to Shishapangma

Alternate Routes

Anna Gutu‘s group, taking the lead among their team members, made an unconventional choice by veering away from the designated path at Camp 2 and opting for a point on the ridge.

Naila Kiani had initially kept pace with Anna but eventually fell behind due to the necessity of removing her sunglasses, a decision that would later prove crucial for her safety.

Kiani admitted to uncertainty regarding Gutu’s intentions, pondering whether Gutu was aiming for the wrong summit or seeking to connect with the traditional route at the ridge’s commencement.

Nirmal Purja, the leader of Gutu’s team, lagged behind the rest because he was not using supplemental oxygen, according to accounts from fellow climbers.

The Role of Guides

The climbers refrained from speculating whether the situation might have unfolded differently had the guides taken the lead, with Tracee Metcalfe noting that it’s not uncommon for leaders to trail behind the leading sherpas.

Pressure Points

Kiani expressed her profound respect for Mingma G but revealed that her team leader felt compelled to keep up with the Elite team. This pressure was attributed to Anna Gutu’s determined goal, which had an impact on the overall dynamics of the expedition.

Gina Rzucidlo’s Advancement

Meanwhile, Gina Rzucidlo was slightly below the others and taking a different path, but she was in a hurry to make progress.

A Swift Ascent

Gina Rzucidlo’s group astonishingly overtook the rest of the climbers at a breathtaking speed, as described by Naoki Ishikawa. The absence of fixed ropes prompted Tenjen Lama to lead the way, employing two axes and even using a rope to assist Gina.

Guidance by Personal Sherpas

Most clients were connected to their personal sherpa guides using short ropes, as highlighted by Kiani. Sasko Kedev estimated that Rzucidlo’s group passed the others just before reaching Camp 3.

Divergent Climbing Lines

At this stage, the two women and their sherpas were following distinct climbing paths. Anna Gutu aimed for a diagonal ascent directly towards the summit, while Gina opted for a route that led from left to right, traversing a gentle slope.

The Right Path

Naoki Ishikawa and Kilu chose to follow Gina’s path, which they believed would lead to the correct summit, while Anna unwittingly headed towards a false summit. Their realization occurred after passing Camp 3, confirming that Anna’s summit was not the actual peak.

A Necessary Pause

Gina’s group, led by Tenjen Lama, briefly halted at approximately 7,700 meters, causing a delay of about an hour. Subsequently, they resumed their climb.

Rest Stops

Naila Kiani continued her ascent until Nirmal Purja advised her to take a break. They stopped alongside Sirbaz Khan, who, like Nirmal, was climbing without supplementary oxygen. Their rest spot was not entirely flat, but it provided a brief respite on their challenging journey.

The Remaining Climbers and the Initial Avalanche

The rest of the group remained in the same vicinity, their positions unchanged.

The First Avalanche

The commencement of the incident unfolded as they were at the traverse. Sasko revealed, We were at the traverse when the first avalanche happened.

Kiani recounted Nims’ sudden shout, “Avalanche, avalanche!” confirming the occurrence.

Ishikawa reported hearing a powder avalanche descending from higher up the mountain. They were sheltered by the serac and remained unaffected by the avalanche.

Subsequent radio communication confirmed that Anna Gutu, Karma Gyalzen, and Migmar were caught in the avalanche. It was then reported that Gutu and Migmar had lost their lives in the slide.

Ishikawa raised the question of whether Tenjen Lama and Gina Rzucidlo, who were positioned ahead of them, were aware of the avalanche that struck Anna Gutu and the others. He noted the utilization of different radio frequencies by the teams. Typically, teams on the same mountain share a common frequency, especially when there aren’t many climbers.

In a video recorded approximately 20 minutes after the accident, two rescuers on the far left can be observed attempting to extricate Migmar from the snow. The three distant figures on the right represent Rzucidlo’s group. Karma Gyalzen and another unidentified climber can be seen standing and sitting on the far right.

Kiani expressed her belief that Rzucidlo’s group likely witnessed the avalanche and, given its magnitude, heard it as well. Sirbaz stated that he observed three individuals disappearing. Kiani looked downward and saw some movement, with one person alternately standing and sitting. Nims contacted his team located below to inquire about the situation. Mingma G arrived at the scene and contacted Base Camp so that they could relay instructions to Gina and the others, presumably advising them to halt.

Various sources on the mountain assert that Base Camp did instruct Rzucidlo to stop and turn back, although this information has not been confirmed.

Kiani added that she gazed up at the summit, which was around 350 meters above. The ascent to the summit entailed navigating treacherous blue ice without ropes, a formidable challenge. Uncertain about the condition of those affected by the avalanche, Kiani’s legs trembled uncontrollably, prompting her to make the difficult decision to turn around.

Someone suggested that she should continue climbing, but she declined. Tracee Metcalfe chose to descend with her. Regrettably, they did not witness the occurrence of the second avalanche, as Kiani reported that it transpired not two hours later, as initially believed, but merely 30 minutes following the first one.

The Second Avalanche

The group led by Gina Rzucidlo had chosen to persist in their climb. Ishikawa made contact with Mingma G, who was trailing behind, and they collectively decided that the conditions were becoming too hazardous to continue. At 7,800 meters, they reached a point where they decided to turn around. Ishikawa documented their location with a photograph. However their gauntlet was far from over. As they commenced their descent they found themselves engulfed by a sudden resurgence of snow.

Sasko Kedev disclosed that they had decided to turn back at the customary position of Camp 3.

Kedev mentioned that Sirbaz Khan had lingered there slightly longer, and as a result, he had a clear view of the second avalanche.

Lessons to Learn and Reflections

“The lesson, while not new is that the death zone is no place for competition” emphasized Tracee Metcalfe.

Kiani also magnified the importance of sharing this unfortunate story as a moment for everyone to learn from the experience. She expressed her sadness over the loss of lives and extended her heartfelt condolences to the
wailing families. Kiani stated “Records don’t mean anything if we aren’t there anymore.”

In addition to the loss of Gina Rzucidlo and Anna Gutu, two promising Sherpa climbers lost their lives while performing their duties.

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