On Monday morning, news circulated that renowned ski mountaineer Hilaree Nelson was missing on 26,781-foot Manaslu. Nelson, 49, and her partner, James Morrison, summited the Himalayan peak on Monday morning and were descending on skis when she suffered a mishap just below the summit. There are conflicting reports about what, exactly, went wrong. What we do know is that Nelson never made it down, and Morrison was left to descend the peak alone.
As with any breaking news in remote areas like the Himalayas, early details about an incident are often confusing, and sometimes change when individuals can finally share their respective stories. Obtaining clear information about an emergency rescue operation high on a mountainside is also a challenge. Oftentimes, information is triangulated between camps in extreme conditions, then communicated out to the rest of the world after being translated from one language to another. Understanding what happened to Nelson has been made more challenging by the lack of eyewitnesses, and by the fact that another disaster occurred lower on the mountain: a large avalanche below camp four killed at least one climber and buried a dozen or so others.
Outside reporters have been in touch with Jiban Ghimire, managing director of Shangri-La Nepal Trek, the guiding company that was working with Nelson and Morrison, and we have also been in touch with other climbers on the mountain. Climbers can get internet access at Manaslu Base Camp, and some have posted regular updates about the rescue on social media. Nirmal Purja, director of Elite Exped and the speed record-holder for the 8,000-meter peaks, and Seven Summits Treks director Chhang Dawa Sherpa, have posted online about the incident Veteran Italian journalist Alessandro Filippini has also published online. From this patchwork of information, we’ve put together an update on the search, what we know about Nelson’s fall, and what we’re still waiting to find out.
How Did Nelson Fall?
Currently, there are three prevailing explanations for Nelson’s accident. Initially, the Himalayan Times referenced an anonymous eyewitness who said that Nelson fell approximately 80 feet into a crevasse that was located just below the summit. However, Ghimire disputed this, telling Outside that she had instead lost a ski and then slid off of a large cliff. Ghimire is currently in Kathmandu and has been getting his information from individuals in Base Camp.
Finally, there is an account from Brazilian ultrarunner Fernanda Maciel, who was also climbing Manaslu on Monday, and who spent time with Morrison that evening. She wrote on Instagram that Nelson had been swept off her feet by a smaller avalanche near the summit. Ghimire disputes this account as well.
What Are Conditions Like at the Summit?
Manaslu has seen heavy snowfall this season, which brings significant avalanche danger. The summit is “a knife edge corniced ridge with 8,000 feet of air below,” as Adrian Ballinger, who completed the first ski descent of Manaslu in 2011, wrote in a trip report. The descent off the summit involves a 55-degree slope—which is incidentally too steep to hold unstable snow and is thus not considered avalanche terrain—which leads to a wider, more secure platform.
In this Facebook post from Italian journalist Alessandro Filippini, a grainy aerial image of the peak offers some perspective as to what the rest of the descent would involve: a wide bench with steep, tall cliffs on either side. He and Ghimire expressed concern that she could have fallen and slid into that steep, consequential terrain, and Filippini echoed Maciel’s story that Nelson may have been knocked off her skis by moving snow—even a small amount of sluff is considered an avalanche.
What Have Rescue Efforts Looked Like?
Reports indicate that Morrison was able to safely ski to Base Camp Monday evening. On Tuesday, website Everest Chronicle reported that a rescue helicopter went out at 7 a.m., with Morrison on board, to conduct a search for Nelson. According to Ghimire, they scoured the southern slope of the peak, the side she is believed to have fallen on. They didn’t see any sign of her.
Explorer’s Web reports that the climbers injured and affected by the large avalanche between Camp III and IV were successfully evacuated by helicopter that same day.
When Will We Know More?
Rescuers will conduct another helicopter search Wednesday if weather allows. However, search and rescue missions in such huge terrain are often inconclusive.