South Africans survive Nepal mountain tragedy

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

For two days, with limited food and water, three South African adventurers trekked through an endless road of heavy snow in Nepal to survive one of nature’s unexpected twists.

Cuan Cronje and Graeme Duane, both from Durban, and Dean Burscough from Johannesburg, were among the lucky tourists who ventured in Nepal’s hiking trails earlier this month and came out alive.

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Heavy snowstorms hit the famous Himalayan mountain range last week, leading to 43 reported deaths. By all accounts, the storm was unexpected and is unusual for October, a popular month when tourists annually flock to Nepal’s mountains.

Cronje and Duane this week recalled how they held onto life while coming across scenes of disaster as they moved closer to safer ground.

Cronje said: “We thought we might die. All I kept on my mind is that we needed to keep moving. If we were going to stop, we would die.

“The only time that we could stop was if we found a dry place. The cold from the snow gets into your body. We had no food or water for two days. We had no fuel for our body. We had melted snow for water.”

Their journey started on October 9, when they arrived in Nepal, and cycled to the Tilicho base camp to start a mountain route less travelled.

The three trekkers were at this camp in Tilicho, on the mountain trail. This is what it looked like before the snowstorm. Picture Supplied

The three trekkers were at this camp in Tilicho, on the mountain trail. This is what it looked like before the snowstorm. Picture Supplied

“The weather was beautiful before the snowstorm. It was warm. We arrived in T-shirts and shorts. Nobody, out of all those 80 people that were in that area, knew this was coming. It was totally out of season and caught us by surprise,” said Cronje.

After a few days of journeying, snow stopped them in their tracks.

“Monday night (October 13) is when it started snowing. We were holed up the whole of Tuesday. We were in the snow for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday,” said Cronje.

This is the base camp in Tilicho, on the mountain trail, after the snowstorm. Picture Supplied

This is the base camp in Tilicho, on the mountain trail, after the snowstorm. Picture Supplied

“We were really high up in the mountains. It was totally desolate. There were no cars, nothing.”

They were unprepared for snow and had “some waterproof jackets but didn’t have suitable footwear”. They started walking in search of the nearest village, following a river they trusted would lead to safety.

“We were awake from 9am on Wednesday (October 15) and stopped walking at Thursday 2am. We woke up at 6am and stopped walking at 5pm when we reached a village,” said Cronje.

“We were beyond exhausted. That first night, if we had to sleep, we would have had a problem. When you get that tired you just want to lie down and sleep. As soon as you do that you will die.

“You are so cold and if you sit down for too long you will lose your energy. If you sleep, you won’t wake up. It saved us that we kept going.”

Cronje added: “We just kept saying we were going to stay together and we would pull through. If one person gave up, it would put us all at risk. It was a long two days. It went on forever.

“We hoped to see civilisation around each corner but then we would just see endless snow. Eventually we came around a corner and saw a bridge.”

That led them to a small village from where they could find their way back to Manang ,a largish village that was connected by trails to the outside world ,and eventually to Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu.

Duane recalled that once the snowstorm trapped tourists, “base camp was a disaster zone”.

“By nightfall the snow was half way up to the roof, and we had to constantly dig our way our of room… We were surrounded by high slopes on all sides, save for the river which now charged into the valley below,” he said.

He said one “hardcore” hiker attempted to tackle the snow, “but turned back after going just 100 meters”.

When they eventually left base camp they “wrapped our socked feet in plastic bags, cable-tying and taping in various different ways”.

“We’d be walking the whole day with our feet deep in snow… this route was a terrifying prospect.

He added: “We were still unaware of the deaths to the east… The deaths were going out on the news and our families were understandably in a state of panic.

“Even without this knowledge, lying exposed in the Himalayas not knowing what’s going to happen next, and thinking of your wife and family back home is a terrible feeling.

“You feel so far away, and you realise that you’re in a situation like you’ve seen in the movies, but that this is real, and that’s not a comforting thought.”

Duane recalled they “hadn’t eaten more than a handful of peanuts for over 24 hours”.

“We eventually reached the teahouse at Kanshar where we’d stopped three days before, with a huge feeling of relief. We were back in the mix, plugged back into life and out of that wild valley that had held us for 36 hours,” said Duane.

“Over the course of that evening, the extent of the disaster was revealed. We’d been fighting our own private battle in the valley, sealed off from the mayhem around us. Other hikers were dead or missing.

“The Nepalese bring their yaks into the villages in winter, and a herd 100 strong at Yak Karka had been wiped out by an avalanche.”

Duane said a different storm has since erupted after this snow tragedy.

“There’s the usual blame game going on,” he said.

“(People are asking) why were hikers not warned of oncoming weather? Has the Annapurna (mountain trail) become the Disneyland of Nepalese mountaineering? Does it attract an unqualified crowd of hikers?” he said.

“Not one lodge had weather info, there is no way of knowing where each hiker is at any given time. In short they don’t know who’s on the trail, but to me that’s part of the appeal.

“The Annapurna is so accessible, but it’s so wild. And that’s a rare thing these days.”

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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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