Raked by Avalanches and Bitter Himalayan Cold, Two Alpinists Struggled to Survive
Lydia Bradey of New Zealand was the first woman to climb Everest without O2. Her biggest test by far came earlier.
The sky was still emptying its soul as our second day of storm dawned at camp in the high col between Kedarnath Dome and Kedarnath Peak. My climbing partner Jon Muir of Australia and I faced a decision. In the snow barrage, our bergschrund shelter was collapsing: twisting, closing in, sluffing from the sides. If we stayed, we’d likely be buried. It was a crazy, terrifying concept. It was a crazy, terrifying place to have gotten ourselves into.
We had reached the Dome’s summit the day before, but retreat in that direction, in the whiteout and in the years before easy-carry GPS, was impossible; we’d never find our way off those vast snow slopes. The only map we had was a four-line drawing. We could either stay pinned in the col or head straight down, on terrain we’d never seen.
It was 1987, and Jon and I were attempting the first traverse of Kedarnath Dome (6,831 meters/22,411 feet) and Kedarnath “Main” Peak (6,940 meters/22,770 feet), the Garhwal Himalaya of India, intending to descend via the main peak’s long west ridge.
Jon was a standout. In the days when the hardest route at Mount Arapiles was 27 (5.12c), Jon had “OSS” (On Sight Solo) lightly written in pencil against multiple 24s (5.11d’s) in his guidebook. He had climbed high with never a headache. As winner of the Arapiles roast-chicken-eating competition, he was a serious all-arounder.
Beginning the climb as part of a group of four, Jon and I had fired enthusiasm off each other; we powered up Kedarnath Dome in deep snow, breaking trail, carrying big loads, and reaching the first two bivy sites far ahead of the others. At bivy 2 at 5,638 meters (18,500 feet), our teammates rested a day, suffering from the altitude. Jon and I moved on, feeling super strong, gunning for the traverse. It wasn’t a popular move to split the team, but we were burning to succeed.
All our bivouacs were out in the open. We’d carried no tent or rope, just foam mats, bivy bags, minimal food, and two tools each. At the third bivy at 6,248 meters (20,500 feet) and 600 meters below the summit, a moderate wind began, adding an edge to our effort. Fine particles of snow crept into our bags, and the stove slowed as we melted snow. We slept poorly and drank too little. Day four we summited the broad, featureless Dome in ever-deepening snow and with a faceful of the West Buttress of Shivling across the valley. The sky was opaque, the wind cool, the snow heavy. Huge anvil-shaped clouds were stacked above Shivling.
On the summit, Jon’s voice carried into the wind: “We need to find some kind of shelter! Maybe a crevasse or ’schrund … best chance if we go down to the col.”
We giant-stepped across the summit and down to the small col between the Dome and the Peak into unknown territory: Until now, Kedarnath Peak had been hidden behind the huge shoulder of the Dome.
Fifty to 1oo vertical meters down, we found a small crevasse/bergschrund right at the col and burrowed in at a spot where the ice almost closed across above us. I was getting tired, following days of breaking trail and dehydration. Then the weather hit.
We spent the whole next day inside the ’schrund, inside a storm. I began suffering altitude sickness, vomiting. Jon continually melted snow to give me any kind of drink, handed over with words of encouragement.
“You’ll get better.”
I’d reply without conviction, dutifully drink, and throw up. Once I had to move over as Jon hand-packed snow into a gaping hole appearing in the bergschrund directly under my legs. The ’schrund was creeping, slowly changing shape around us, squeezing us out.
Early in the sixth day, after 36 hours in the ’schrund, we started down the slope that led north off the col, drilling our eyes into a solid whiteout. The bottomless snow made travel difficult, and then the angle steepened.
We turned to face in, and downclimbed small ice walls, five to 15 meters tall. It was impossible to see below, and as we clung to the mountain on our front points and axes, the first sloughs dropped out of the murk above, first as a patter and increasing to a hissing volume in which every moment ahead became an unknown.
We inched down the staircase of small cliffs until we got to a crux. The ice rose up in a fin with a big crevasse on the other side and an ice bulge above pinching down the space in which to traverse the edge.
“I can’t do it without a rope,” I wailed.
“You’ll be fine, you watch me.”
Jon crossed in a flurry of windmilling kung fu arm moves.
I am going to die falling down the mountain or into the mountain, or … just staying here.
A self-shove. I crossed the fin, balancing both my body and my fear, catching the tip of my axe in the ice, pushing a wet glove against the ice bulge. I had a little cry afterward, tears melting into the still-dumping snow and steaming up my goggles. But it was time to get on.
The angle eased abruptly, the ice cliffs seemed to slide into the earth, and the snow again deepened. It was so difficult to move that we tried having the front person kneel on one pack, leapfrogging the other pack forward; the second person leapfrogged on ski poles.
“Too slow,” we muttered, panting. We were just putting our packs back on when out of the whiteness at shoulder height the first avalanche hit us, silent except for its delicate, sinister front wind.
Jon and I swam and swam, heads stretched up, fervent to avoid rolling and being buried—there was nothing to push against to extricate ourselves. The snow churned us as we fought, stopping with our bodies half out and half in sight of each other in the blizzard.
We got hit by three avalanches on that slope, each a little bigger and separating us farther, each time a miracle to stop with our heads out. If either of us were to be buried with just a hand or foot showing, the urgent snowfall could cover it so quickly we could be lost centimeters apart. So we gathered close.
After the third avalanche, I couldn’t see anything—or anyone.
“Jon! Jon!” I called, frightened.
Neither of us wanted to be alone. Suddenly, a miracle: The clouds parted, revealing a huge slope on our left. We were in a terrain trap, funneling two big slopes. Yet 150 meters up the slope was a tiny triangular ice cliff.
“Hey, look—that ice cliff, we could shelter!” one of us said.
We began to climb toward it, but so slowly that I proposed an alternative.
“If we build a snow cave, we’ll be protected from avalanches,” I suggested. The cliff, now 25 meters above, would provide some shield.
We dug bodylength slots, touching at the feet, in the snow. Mine was barely wide enough for me to bend my knees. I placed my foam mat on the floor and my pack near the entrance, and slid in.
Jon was still outside his slot, arranging his gear, when there was a rumble and everything went dark. An avalanche swept Jon away, and the snow cave collapsed on me. I lay locked in snow, unable to move, an air space around my face. This is going to be a slow and lonely way to die.
Below, 20 meters down the slope, Jon looked up to a smooth surface where I should have been. He used everything in him to grovel up the slope to where he roughly thought I must be, and dug frenetically. Another miracle—I pushed my hand through the wall of the hole he was digging! He dragged me out.
We struggled to the base of the three-meter ice cliff and stood shoulder to shoulder, silent. Jon had lost his pack and one tool. Another flow buried us to our thighs.
“If we don’t get buried, I’ll last tonight. I’d probably get some cold damage,” I said, considering. “But I’m not sure I’d last two nights.”
Jon replied quietly, “Yes, I’m the same.”
We stood, stomping our feet, watching the night arrive. We didn’t complain or express regrets for the situation. In the best way we could, we took full emotional responsibility for being where we were, and felt stronger for it.
In the dark, gradually the skies cleared. With no moon, the mountains were lit by stars. We were the tiniest dots in an eternity of sparkling stellar crystals, and we descended through the night, slogging five hours to reach a place where we felt safe enough to rest.
In the end, the key lesson of all those days was that self-responsibility gives you power, and that knowledge enriched our futures. Two weeks later, in a lightning-fast 36 hours and crisp conditions, Jon completed the first traverse of Kedarnath Peak and Dome. I was to follow Kedarnath with a semi-alpine-style ascent of G2 in Pakistan that same year, 1987, and to climb Everest without oxygen in 1988.
Two years before Kedarnath, Jon had made the first ascent of the West Buttress of Shivling, after which a local Holy Baba had given him a golden-brown silk scarf—his talisman and protection on every trip since. In camp, he realized he had lost his Magic Scarf.
He told me, “We completely used it up.”
Lydia Bradey is an IFMGA guide in Lake Hāwea, Otago, New Zealand.
From Fall 2021