Avalanche tragedy on Ararat adventure
By Richard Cowper in Erzerum, Turkey
May 14, 2004
“Avalanche!” The cry every mountaineer dreads and coming from right
behind my left shoulder.
No time to think. No time to waste. Just ski as fast as I can away from
the wall of wet snow sliding down the side of the mountain towards me.
We were in the wilds of eastern Turkey preparing to make one of the
first British ski ascents of Mt Ararat – at 5,137m the country’s
highest mountain and famous in legend as the place where Noah landed
with his ark after the flood.
After less than a minute, near silence.
Even the gale-force wind seemed to have stopped. Then the dawning
realisation, that even though my friend Robert Mulder and I had seen
no-one go under, any one of our three companions might have been buried
under the thousands of tonnes of heavy wet snow that had filled up
the bottom of the steep gulley along which we had been skiing.
We looked for tell-tale signs like skis, bits of clothing or abandoned
rucksacks, but nothing was visible on the surface of the great mass
of avalanche debris.
On our expedition there were 14 people, all of whom were in the
Palandoken area that day, just outside the garrison town of Erzerum,
700 miles east of Istanbul. But only five had been skiing in our
close-knit group: myself and Robert and expedition leader David
Hamilton, along with ex-soldier Alun Davies and Alpine Ski Club
secretary Alasdair Ross. We could not see any of them.
With wind speeds increasing to over 70mph, the spindrift snow blowing
in the air meant visibility was extremely poor. The only sensible
course of action was to assume that all three had been buried.
Robert and I jettisoned our skis and pulled out our avalanche
transceivers, putting them into search mode as we criss-crossed the
avalanche fallout area, the size of a football field, hunting for an
electronic signal that would indicate the position of a body.
Within two minutes Robert heard a series of bleeps and at that
point just under the surface of the snow we could see someone buried
vertically, head up, feet down. I pulled out my shovel and after a
short period of ferocious digging Alun Davies’s head was freed and
to my immense relief I could hear him breathing in fast, short gasps
“Breathe more slowly, if you can,” I suggested as David arrived from
out of the storm to help get rid of the massive weight of snow still
compressing Alun’s chest. By some miracle David had ridden the surface
of the avalanche and managed to cast off both his rucksack and skis,
preventing the snow from dragging him under.
David reckoned that a group of four other members of our expedition,
led by Dr Rodney Franklin, had successfully skied through the very
gulley which had avalanched about five minutes before we had entered
it. This meant that the only person known to be missing was our
companion Alasdair Ross.
I started a new electronic search with a sinking feeling and about
12 minutes after the avalanche had occurred I found a second signal,
coming from agonisingly deep below the surface.
Overcome by a feeling of the need for urgency I shouted: “I need
help. Time is vital. We must get him out as soon as possible”.
I knew from experience that the first 20 minutes in an avalanche
rescue often makes the difference between life and death. But the
hard-set snow was so unbelievably heavy and the angle so difficult
that it took several of us many minutes to complete the strenuous,
and heartrending task of digging Alasdair out.
When at last we managed to free his head and chest, it seemed to both
me and Dr Franklin, who had arrived from below, that Alasdair must
have died from asphyxiation almost the moment the avalanche struck.
I will never forget Alasdair’s face when at last we got him out. He
looked so tranquil and, at the same time, like a waxwork. Only the
night before I had sat next to him at dinner and we had chatted with
animation of past ski trips and adventures the evening through.
An army team arrived and took over the rescue, placing Alasdair on
a stretcher. The avalanche had occurred just over 100metres from the
safety of a military post.
At last I was able to gather my thoughts and I remember thinking:
“Pride comes before a fall!” Only the day before I had been cock-a-hoop
after a personal success on my very first mountain adventure in
Turkey. Robert Mulder and I had arrived late in the Palandoken range
and from the top of the main ski station we cast our eyes to the
horizon at the steepest and seemingly most unclimbable of mountains
and then to each other’s surprise set off at speed towards it with
Six hours later we were taking off our skis and the skins attached
to them, to climb the final steep summit pyramid of what the lone
Kurdish family living in its shadow had called Yavkaz Kayuz (the
The achievement had been made doubly satisfying because of our firm
belief we would never get to the mountain at all in the time available,
let alone manage to climb the precipitous rocks to the top.
In the gathering dusk we had a sensational ski down into the main
valley. Six and a half hours to the summit. Less than twenty minutes
On the way back we visited our Kurdish friends in their snug
underground farmhouse for tea, before heading back to meet our
companions in Erzerum.
The next day, the day of the avalanche, all fourteen members of the
expedition, led by the Scottish ski mountaineer David Hamilton, were
back among the peaks of Palandoken continuing the programme to get
fit for our main objective, the ascent of Mt Ararat, a giant volcano
close to the Iranian and Armenian borders.
For much of the last 35 years it has been out of bounds due to a
series of wars in the area and the claim by the Armenians that it
belonged to them and not to Turkey.
As we set off the wind was, if anything, stronger than the evening
before, constantly blowing us over on our skis. It was surprisingly
warm with worrying patches of orange in the snow, sand blown by the
hot wind all the way from the Sahara. We could see the occasional
tell-tale sloughs of snow on slopes of 30 degrees and above. Perfect
Just before we got to the bridge close to our Kurdish friends’
farmhouse, some of us wondered aloud whether any sane ski mountaineer
would be out in such conditions. Looking back, the weather was so
wild and so warm that we should have all stayed at home. But we were
here on the trip of a lifetime, trying to cram in as much adventure
as possible and we were all so keen to get ready for the big mountain.
Now Alasdair was dead.
At 59, unmarried and with no children, he was a fanatical
skier who loved indulging his passion in the wilder parts of the
world. Unfortunately, when we got him out he had stopped breathing
and all attempts to resuscitate him failed.
By the time darkness fell and Alasdair was on his way to the mortuary
in Erzerum the wind on the mountain was gusting over 100mph, ripping
the roofs off several local buildings in one of the worst storms of
Those of us closely involved in the rescue then made a lengthy report
to the nearby army post and it was only when showing his passport
to a friendly intelligence officer that David Hamilton realised that
the greatest tragedy ever to take place on an expedition run by him
had occurred on his own birthday.
That evening we all gathered in our hotel to decide whether to abandon
the expedition altogether or whether to continue. It was the stoic
and, perhaps wise, ex-soldier Alun Davies, who so narrowly escaped
death himself, who carried the day.
“After I was buried somehow I accepted the inevitability of death. It’s
the second time I have been avalanched in three years. But there was
still a feint hope and by some miracle I was rescued.
“Alasdair was not so lucky. But he lived for the mountains. It’s a risk
we all take. I am a soldier and I have seen death. There is nothing
to be gained by being maudlin, giving up and going home. He would not
have wanted that. Let’s all go and get drunk and tell stories about
him. Tomorrow we continue!”
The next day half of the expedition members decided their heart was
no longer in it and made arrangements to return home immediately. The
others, including myself, decided to carry on.
Everyone’s reasons for staying or going were very personal and not
easy to define.
As president of the Alpine ski club Rupert Hoare decided he had to
attend Alasdair’s funeral. Others felt there would be no joy left in
the struggle against the elements when a friend had died. Some had
felt they had to talk to Alasdair’s relations to try and ease their
grief. Some simply felt fear in the patently dangerous conditions in
the Turkish mountains.
All I can say is I would not want anyone to stop an expedition for me
and would much prefer my companions to drink large amounts of local
spirits and tell stories of my most outrageous or defining moments.
Two weeks later four of the six who continued made it to the top of
Mt Ararat after a storm had cast a blanket of snow over the great
dormant volcano, though nobody was able to ski the final 1,000metres.
No-one pretended it had been a successful expedition.
From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress