It was going to be the trip of a lifetime for Greg Hill. His first trip to the Himalayas and his first time skiing an 8,000-metre peak. For someone who’s summited and skied more than 190 mountains and set a number of speed and endurance records while doing so, this was going to be a whole new experience, battling elevation sickness to go higher than he had ever before.
He was going to film the German speed climbers Benedikt Bohm and Sebastian Haag as they climbed and skied off the 8,156-metre-high summit of Mount Manaslu in record time.
Instead, he found himself involved in a dramatic rescue as an avalanche swept through a high-elevation camp on the mountain, killing at least eight, leaving three missing and presumed dead, and injuring many others.
Hill’s story has been well-reported by this point. After the Times Review first reported on his actions last week, he was interviewed by CBC, CTV and the Globe and Mail. His blog post about the tragedy was a poignant and gripping account of the immediate aftermath of the avalanche, dealing with death and injury, and the mistakes made by the people who got swept away to their deaths.
Upon returning to Canada last Thursday, just in time for his wedding anniversary, he was interviewed once again for CBC’s The National. Before we met up over coffee on Friday, he was spending time telling his story to Global Television.
For Hill, this trip to the Himalayas was going to be the biggest of his life. Earlier this year he convinced Bohm and Haag – who he’d skied Mont Blanc with several years ago – to let him film their speed attempt of Cho Oyu in Tibet, China. Unfortunately, China closed the Tibetan border and his team – and many others – changed its destination to Mount Manaslu.
Hill arrived in Nepal on August 19. After experiencing the chaotic capital Kathmandu, he and his Dynafit-sponsored expedition made a 10-day trek to the summit of Mera Peak, a 6,476-metre-high mountains with views of Mount Everest from the top.
“The elevation’s a complete smasher,” he said. “Personally every 1,000 metres I’d usually vomit and feel terrible. Go [to] sleep low and the next day I would feel fine. It seems I have this tendency to vomit at elevation.”
But he did get some good powder skiing in on Mera Peak and the summit was the highest he’d ever been.
The next destination was Manaslu, where they arrived in early September. They quickly worked their way up the mountain from base camp, setting up their gear at camp’s one and two. It was a new experience, travelling along a well established route with hundreds of other people. “The second you’re on a glacier there’s a rope to clip onto for two kilometres,” Hill said. “You don’t feel like you’re exploring, you feel like you’re on an adventure ride that’s made safe for you.”
There was also the matter of keeping up with Bohm and Haag, two supremely fast climbers carrying almost no gear, while Hill had a camera with him. Still, he enjoyed some good powder skiing at around 7,000-metres elevation.
After several days working their way up the mountain a big storm blew in forcing everyone down to base camp for a week. They did some skiing lower down to stay in shape, and after three days waiting for conditions to settle, they started back up the mountain – after the hundreds of others that had already snaked their way through the seracs and ice walls. It was there Hill thought disaster would strike, but everyone made it through safely.
“It turns out the hazard was higher up,” he said.
That day, Hill’s group went up to their camp two, which was away from the traditional camp two location used by many other groups. “From camp two onwards it seems like the traditional spots are really exposed. People are accepting a level of risk that is quite high camping in these spots,” he said. “The second I got to camp two I knew I wasn’t camping there.”
For camp three, he had spotted a col several hours hike away from where the usual camp three spot was. “If I’m sleeping with a beacon on I shouldn’t be camping there,” he said.
This screen capture from video filmed by Greg Hill for Dynafit shows rescuers skiing up through the debris of the avalanche on Mount Manaslu that killed at least eight people. Video by Greg Hill/Dynafitspeedup
On Sunday, Sept. 23, Hill and and his team were planning on exploring up to camp three to check out the slope and see what impact all that snow had on avalanche conditions. If it felt stable, there was talk of making a summit attempt in the next few days. Instead, in the early morning hours, they were awoken by a blast of wind created by the avalanche that started when a giant serac broke away 1,000 metres above, sweeping through camp three and sending the people camping there another 300 metres down the mountain.
Hill and his group were camped out of the avalanche path. Immediately they got dressed and checked to see if the conditions were safe enough to mount a rescue.
“We wanted to make sure it was clear enough to assess the hazard, make sure we weren’t running out into something that was going to get hit by another avalanche,” he said. “There’s really no question you’re going to go help. It was clear enough we could see up and see where the crown line and realize the whole slope had gone.”
Skinning up, at first they saw a downed bootie, then some sleeping bags, jackets and more debris. A group of Frenchmen who survived the avalanche huddled about on top of the snow pointing to a tent where their friends had been buried for more than 30 minutes. Knowing there was little chance of saving them, Hill and his partners – he was with five Germans – went to help others who were only partially buried. They dug people out of the snow, provided warmth for those in shock. He watched as one woman died from internal injuries.
“I’d never actually seen death like that,” Hill said. The fact he didn’t know anyone hit made it easier but he still broke down and cried at one point. One thing that hit him was the senselessness of the situation and the fact that many of the victims weren’t mountain people, but instead were out for an adventure, following the lead of their guides.
He said many of them didn’t have beacons. One person that did was the legendary freeskier Glen Plake, who went to sleep the night before with his beacon on. After the avalanche hit, his tent mate Greg Costa was missing, as was their partner Remy Lacuse, who was sleeping in another tent. Plake survived but his partners are still missing and presumed dead.
Those three were also attempting to ski off the summit and Hill said they had spent time with that group. He knew Plake and was getting to know Lacuse and Costa. He knew Lacuse had two kids back home in Chamonix, France. “Now he had two kids that don’t have a dad and that sort of thing rams home,” he said.
After several hours at the scene, and with more and more rescuers arriving, Hill returned to his tent. He comforted Plake for a bit, then gathered his stuff and skied down to base camp. He called his step-father to let him know he was OK, and left a message with his wife Tracey. He posted a note on Facebook to let everyone know he was alive and well.
The zone of the avalanche on Mount Manaslu. A crown line is visible in the photo directly above camp three. Greg Hill photo
Back home in Revelstoke, Hill was adjusting to life at home. He was out mountain biking and after our interview he was taking his wife Tracey out for an anniversary meal. The next day I saw him and his kids Aiden and Charley at the Harvest Palooza at the United Church. The media storm that surrounded him and his family and friends has died off. He’s going back to work this week.
Meanwhile, his teammates Bohm and Haag were still in Nepal, still aiming to summit Manaslu. He said he’ll be jealous if they make it but he’s happy with his decision to come home.
“I knew that I wasn’t planning on going back up there,” he said. “There’s a possibility the next day we would have been up that slope and if it had triggered 12 hours later, we would have been there.”
Hill makes a living skiing in the backcountry; naturally he’s been reflecting on his experience for the past week. His lifestyle won’t change, but he will be even more careful than usual, even while still taking risks. He said he’ll use the footage he took of the scene in talks to help tell the story and provide a lesson on what happened.
“I think for a lot of us mountain people we’ve questioned dying in the mountains and come terms to the fact it’s a real reality,” he said. “For a lot of these people, they have no idea. They’re on the trip of a lifetime. They’ve climbed a few mountains but they’re not mountain people. I don’t know if they really understood the consequences.”