Interview with Walter Laserer: Upside down in the Khumbu Icefall.

Author: Alan Arnette.
Courtesy of © reproduction prohibited without authorization

You are upside down, wedged in a deep crevasse at 19,000 feet in the Khumbu icefall. Your team mate is on top of you and you think another is nearby. Walter LasererEveryone knew the serac would give way, they just didn’t know when. Walter Laserer found out, up close and personal. He not only lived to tell the story but went on to summit Everest on an extremely harsh day in the spring of 2009.

The 49 year-old, runs one of the largest guide services in central Europe, Laserer-alpin, from his office near Salzburg, Austria. Walter has been a UIAGM guide for over 20 years.

His climbing achievements are quite impressive: the north face of the Eiger during winter, a ski descent of Eiger’s west face, El Cap nose, the west face of Husacaran, Cerro Torre, a winter ascent of Denali plus multiple summer climbs, Vinson, Carstensz Pyramid, Aconcagua, Elbrus. Oh, and he loves to ski when not climbing!

He is quite experienced on Everest with four expeditions and another planned this spring. He knows both the victory and disappointment of Everest with three successful summits and one aborted attempt in 2005 when they were forced back at the Balcony by high winds on their summit bid.

I wanted to discuss his amazing crevasse incident of last year and introduce him to readers since often the U.S. guides seem to get so much press. I also wanted his views on guiding in general and any differences with the US style. He was kind enough to take some time off his beloved ski slopes to share his thoughts.

Q: Many readers may not be familiar with Laserer-alpin. Tell us a bit about yourself and your company.

A: I founded Laserer-alpin 20 years ago in Graz, Austria. Laserer-alpin has around 1000 clients each year and operates dozens of trips every year. During the main season there are about 20 guides working in our company, all of them fully IVBV certified. Our main business is guided mountaineering holidays in the alps. The expedition – product line is the “Seven Summits”. I  personally am  working as professional and fully certified IVBV Mountain guide since 1984, so for 25 years now. For the first time in 1995, I climbed Carstensz Pyramid with clients and started to guide all the seven summits.

Q: You see many different climbers while guiding the 7 Summits. How has climbing changed since you started?

A: The Internet has changed our whole world, also climbing. In the beginning we got clients through classic advertising and everything was much slower. Now people sign in for a trip via internet and you have to be very careful that they are mountaineers. I mean about 15 years ago, they were mountaineers, cyclist, climbers, canoeist, or marathon runners. Each of them did just his own single sport.

Now it is usual, that everybody outdoors does everything. I mean no more such specializing. Many clients run marathons and train for it, many of them go also outside and bike a lot, and one part of their game is climbing/mountaineering. And therefore they are, of course, not as experienced as clients who go just in the mountains. This is a big danger for us as guides (to take too unexperienced clients to serious goals), but also a very big chance, because those clients need and usually book a lot of professional preparations and special trainings.

Q: Some readers may know you from the crevasse rescue in the Khumbu icefall in 2009 that was shown on the TV show Everest: Beyond the Limit. I was amazed to see you not only survive but to go on and summit. Tell us a little about that experience.

First of all I want to thank once more all the persons, sherpas, guides, doctors who worked so great together to help us. For me it was a sign of the “Spirit of the south side on Everest”. All the professionals work well together on the mountain, although the teams in economic competition. This is how working professionals on a mountain is different from all other businesses, we have to work together, we have to help each other once we are out in the wilderness.  And when you help others it may come back to your own team.

The 2009 season on Everest was a very warm winter with very little snow (the previous year ‘08 it has snowed nearly nothing in the Solu Khumbu) and in ’09 it was very hot during the “rotations” to the high camps. The daily avalanche patterns from Pumo Ri, Lo La pass, west shoulder and Nuptse were more frequent and larger avalanches than in other years. Especially the hanging glacier high up on the west shoulder had created big avalanches prior to our accident. There was a big serac, which looked like it would fall down immediately, but nobody could know when that would happen. Everybody – especially all the guides – were very concerned when the next big one would come.

I had successfully finished the 2nd rotation with my team and we were on our final way down from camp 2 to base camp. We made the usual start at 6 in the morning reaching the icefall around 7 when the sun reached us. We could feel that it was very hot that day. I told my team to hurry and go as fast as they could.

The avalanche hit us at one of the last ladders on the way down, I could hear the noise, looked back and realized immediately, that this was the big one that everybody had been afraid of.

We had about 5 seconds for reaction. We unclipped from the fixed line and hurried about 5 meters over and into the shadow of a serac, the only one reachable in the short time. Unfortunately there was a very small crevasse at the base. We stepped with our feet at one side, and leaned our backs with the rucksacks on, against the ice wall on the other side. Bernice Notenboom was right of me and Lapka Nuru was on my left side.

When the avalanche finally hit us, it was the same feeling like somebody would empty a truckload of head-sized blue ice cubes over us. Our heads and upper body were protected from the serac, but unfortunately our legs were right in the line. It was impossible to withstand the enormous pressure. I fell upside down into the crevasse with lots of snow and ice spraying into my face.

Bernice fell on top of me. Lapka – I couldn’t see what happened to him. I fell about 15 meters down and became lodged with my rucksack against the walls, head down feet up, but could move my hands and feet. It was possible for me to press Bernice up, and help her to free herself.

But as I pressed her, my own body slid deeper down and stuck even more. I could feel slightly that my body went down more and more, melting into the ice from my body heat. I could breath less from minute to minute, as the ice walls narrowed more and more the lower I slid down. Bernice was able to climb up the crevasse and she immediately started to shout for help.

I knew, that from base camp it was about one hour up for help. I asked myself how long is it possible to stay alive upside down? I tried to free myself again and again. No chance, I was stuck with my rucksack. Finally I could turn my legs a bit sidewards, that eased my situation a bit, but now the cold came through my totally wet clothes. I knew I am dead, alive but dead. The only thing I could do was wait for the end.

It was not possible even to easily turn my head due to the narrow crevasse, but I could see a big red spot of blood down in the snow at the base. I started to push me up mentally, I had no idea how, but I knew I would find a solution! Again and again I tried to move – still no change. Finally I tried to open the strings of my rucksack, but meanwhile my hands were so frozen, that this was also impossible. I became unconscious.

When I awoke, I could see a knife hanging directly into my face from a miraculous appearing rope. I tried to take the knife with both my frozen hands but my fingers were not useable anymore. With gigantic effort I tried to cut the rucksack string – again in vain. Hopeless I sunk back and became unconscious again.

When I awoke next, shivering from the cold and meanwhile soaked with water, I realized, that somebody was next to me. “Please don´t go, don´t leave me alone”, are the words I remember mumbling to the man. He tried to reach me from the side, as from above this was not possible. He clipped me into a rope and was able to cut my rucksack strings. And upwards I went with enormous energy and speed; I crashed with my helmet against a blue ice spot and lost consciousness.

Next what I remember is laying in the sun with a very strong ache in my arm. Felix Stockenhuber our expedition doc, who could luckily survive the avalanche, stuck a needle into my veins. I again lost consciousness but realized that I was being carried. My whole body was aching, every bone and every move ached like crazy.

Finally I awoke fully and wanted to move. I tried to stand up, to do a couple steps and with help of others it worked. My Sherpa friend Phunuru carried a large oxygen bottle and we went slowly down to basecamp. Our basecamp Sirdar Pertemba informed me that a helicopter is on its way.

I canceled the helicopter immediately, as I felt better and better. I wanted to have more time to make any decision. Bernice, Felix and Tomsky from of my team were alive, but tragically our so nice and friendly Sherpa Lapka Nuru was still missing under the enormous masses of ice.

There are several important details that allowed us to survive. First of all, the excellent and very professional “work together” from more than half a dozen teams. The Indian Neru Military expedition, which came behind us first to the place of the accident. Our own Sherpa team coordinated from Pertemba, the great communication done from Ang Jang Pu, the fact that Danuru had a rope in his pack and is also able to work with it, the Benegas brothers with their unbelievable energy, Dave Hahn, who ran up with the life saving fluid for my blood, Russell Brice for helping also with his team and many others who I don’t know by name.

My fingers were a little frozen and I had many blue dots on my legs and lower body, also several cuts in my face. It took me about one week to suffer a bit, think a lot, and finally making the right decision. After a big discussion we all agreed, that it was in Lapkas honor to finish the climb in his memory.

The only thing left for me was: how to motivate myself to climb again through the dangerous Icefall. I had already been on three Everest expeditions and summited twice with clients.

The main fact in successfully guiding clients on such big and difficult mountains is “trust”. My clients have all spent a lot of time and money to reach their personal goal of a lifetime, and they trust me, to make it possible. “Life is passion” I thought, and after a good weather forecast we started for our summit bid. Twelve days after the accident I could successfully summit with clients for my 3rd time.

It was really interesting, that on our summit day, we would rescue a stranded American at 8300 m. He was alone, running out of oxygen, and had fallen in the dark before we found him around midnight,  nearly frozen to death. After putting him on his down parka again, given him something hot to drink, heat packs for his hands and a lot of our oxygen I radioed to other teams. The guy could stay alive but lost a couple fingers and toes, I think also his nose.

Q: Your 2009 Everest was in very harsh and windy conditions. Where would it rank in your history of difficult summits?

My history of difficult summits is long during more than 20 year of professional guiding. The most challenging climb was a winter ascent on Denali in February 1989. We nearly died in a furious winter storm which hit us above Denali pass (around 6000 m). After descending down to high camp in very stormy and dark conditions we nearly couldn’t find our snow cave in the intense storm. Tragically three Japanese died, but our team could stay alive with even no frostbite!

The second difficult climb was a terrible storm on Mt. Vinson, Antarctica. After the storm had destroyed many tents, we were climbing down from the new high camp, when we suddenly stumbled over two stranded Americans, one was even not able to go without help. Our very well trained and prepared group went down the 1200 m fixed lines with the assistant guides, while I rappelled the two Americans down to camp 1, where – once more Dave Hahn – did a great job in helping and rescuing. A couple days later we all could summit without any more troubles.

Q: Everest is known to be quite crowded these days. How does Laserer-alpin manage your schedule with all the crowds?

Compare to international big mountains, I don´t think that Everest is really crowded. On Aconcagua you have about 8000 climbers every year, on Denali around 1500 and on Everest about 300 on the south side with another 300 Sherpas helping. I mean it is the highest mountain in the world, and really beautiful. Of course people from all over the world come and want to climb.

On Mt. Blanc we have about 350 people every day during the season! And of course there are a lot of differences in the ability of the climbers. I am also thinking, that the amount of accidents is not big. For example in the Mt. Blanc area every season there will be about 50 people killed in accidents, alone on the Matterhorn 47 on an average year, but of course out of thousands of mountaineers and most of them not professional guided.

Here I think it is very important for us as guides and guide services to learn to say “no”, if a client is too weak. Or to go at a later date and prepare the clients in an other year of training before we take them on such big climbs.

The work as guide out on the mountain has to be once more networking with other groups. During the last seasons it was usual, that the professional teams at south col deal out a schedule for their groups. So that about every hour the next group is leaving. This avoid bigger crowds on the climb. I never had an awful experience with many people on Everest. But of course I am getting used to dealing with other guides from my long time experience of guiding in the Alps and south America. And of course it is much easier to deal with other guides if you know each other.

Q: With German as your native tongue, do your Sherpas also speak German?

There are many Sherpas working in the Alps during European main season, when they have monsoon in Nepal, there are some who even are able to speak German. But in Europe the school system is different to that in the states. My daughters, for example have learned their first English words in Kindergarden at age 5! They are now 16 years old and learn in the public school English, French, Spanish and Latin beside their native tongue German.

Q: As a European company, do you have a favorite gear company?

Not really, in Europe we have Mammut and Salewa as the two big players in gear, but also some American companies like The North Face are well established on the market.

For me as professional guide my expenses in gear are not big compare to the money we run through our company. Usually I get equipment for free from different companies for personal use.

Q: What are your thoughts on climbing ethics, in other words climbers being honest about their achievements and potential rules governing climbing?

In Europe right now a big mountain ethic discussion is starting. Maybe some of the readers have already heard about the “Tryol Declaration”. My personal thought about this is, that the main goal in mountaineering and climbing is freedom. If we start to establish rules for mountaineering we kill our own sport. Everybody should have the freedom to find his personal felicity in the mountains in the way he wants to. The border of freedom of course is, where you constrain somebody else.

The most important thing for me is honesty. For example if you use oxygen on a high mountain, you have to tell it. If you don´t use oxygen, you should treat others, who do, with respect. An other big discussion is about doping in mountaineering. Every season not only one climber fails, because of unprofessional use of pills/drugs.

Q: Do you see a difference between American and European guiding?

If you hire a guide, you should be sure, that he is well known and experienced, or has the AMGA /IVBV (American Mountain Guides Association, Internationaler Verband der nationalen Bergführer Verbände) education and is member of the International Guiding Association.

This is the highest level worldwide for guides.  In Europe it is unthinkable to work as guide without adequate education and being a member.  This is forbidden in the Alps and also all the insurance coverage is not given. Members of this IVBV are also allowed to work in all other member countries legal! Currently, I think about, 70 countries!

The beginning of mountain guiding in the alps has been the first ascent of Mt. Blanc 1786, with Balmat and Saussure. In this nearly 250 years, mountain holiday with a guide has a big tradition and a very special self under standing. European clients know usually, that they need to have a personal history of mountaineering before signing in for a big or difficult trip. I also think, that serious guiding means to consult potential clients about their goal, and to prepare them well in advance of the climb.

European clients want usually also to work on a trip and acting as whole team. For example it is usual, that European clients also cook on a trip themselves and on the other side the guide is mainly in duty for safety and making the decisions, tracking and the choice of a camp site etc .

Thanks Walter for an inspiring and educational interview. Best of luck with your Everest season this spring. You can follow Walter on his website

* Source : – Alan Arnette : 2010 Everest expeditions.

* Related Links :

Interview with Dave Hahn.

* Previous story :

Himalaya Spring 2010 expeditions.

2010 climbing season kick-off: Everest and Himalaya list of expeditions!

Everest 2010: Still Searching For Andrew Irvine and that Damn Camera!

Everest Clean-Up Above 8000m.

Summit Day on Mt Everest – amazing video.

The Deadly Side of Everest.

The Conquest of Everest – 1953 style : amazing video.

Everest 2010 season – Expeditions with any British Teams or Britons.

Everest 2010: An Interview with Phil Crampton of Altitude Junkies.

ExplorersWeb Year 2009 in Review: Farewell to friends.

Alan Arnette’s Everest 2010 Coverage Begins, Double Traverse Announced!

Everest Spring 2010 preview: Kaltenbrunner & Dujmovits.

How Much Does It Cost To Climb Mt. Everest?

* Polish Himalayas – Become a Fan

** zapraszam na relacje z wypraw polskich himalaistów.

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