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Death on the mountain: The diary of an amateur climber

'Saw it for the first time today. It looks pretty full on - I can't wait to get started'. A few days after he wrote this, Duncan Williams, 32, an amateur climber from Southampton, was killed by a massive avalanche on a frozen Himalayan mountainside. Here, his friend Alex Hannaford retraces his final steps and asks, why are so many young men dying on the roof of the world?

October 20, 2006: I fear we have lost Pumori due to avalanche risk. Only time will tell... We heard more news today about the avalanche [which] killed four sherpas. Terrible! How many have children or are married is unknown.

This was a diary entry my friend Duncan Williams wrote three weeks before he too was killed by an avalanche in the Himalayas. Sometime in the early hours of 14 November, while Duncan was asleep in his tent at Camp Three on Ama Dablam - a peak in the Everest valley that, at 22,349ft, is one of the world's tallest and most beautiful mountains - an ice shelf fell, causing a huge avalanche. The camp was completely swept away along with six people: Duncan and his Sherpa Mingma Nuru, Swedish climbers Mikael Forsberg and Daniel Carlsson, and their Sherpas Danurbu and Tashi Dorje. It was a month before Christmas and Duncan was just 1,600ft from realising his dream of reaching the summit.

I met Duncan in the early 1990s when we spent our summers teaching sailing at the Island Cruising Club in Salcombe, Devon. Unlike me, he was one of the club's most talented yachtsmen and his sense of adventure and lust for life led him into countless outdoor pursuits, of which sailing and climbing were his favourites. He became a recognised name in the world of yacht racing, taking part in offshore races which included the last Fastnet. With his girlfriend, Theresa Avey, he discovered climbing and together they scaled Mont Blanc, the Dent du Géant, Petite Aiguille Verte, and Cosmiques Arête in the Alps, as well as Kilimanjaro.

A month before his trip to the Himalayas, Duncan sat on the decking outside a friend's house in Devon poring over a newspaper report they had just read about "Green Boots", the nickname given to an Indian climber who had died 10 years earlier on Everest and whose body had remained there ever since. Duncan knew the risks involved and would devour every piece of mountaineering literature he could get his hands on. He read compulsively - about high-altitude medicine and biographies of explorers and mountaineers.

Duncan didn't boast about his imminent expedition to Ama Dablam. As a result, few of us knew just how serious his climbing had become.

Duncan's best friend, Jim Hewitt, who shared a flat with him in Southampton, recalls a conversation when Duncan said he wanted to test himself: "He wanted to know what he could and couldn't do. He'd never shirk a challenge. But he was always incredibly safe. If he didn't feel 100 per cent right about something, he wouldn't do it. He was almost anal about his research. But people didn't realise what a feat it was going to be."

Duncan's parents, Clive and Corrie, said his enthusiasm was infectious. "Before he went to Nepal we had all the maps out and he went through every detail about what he was going to be doing," says Corrie. "Everyone thought Duncan was going trekking. It was when I saw the maps and his itinerary that I got really worried. But he told me not to worry." "Nepal was a first for him," Clive adds, "and he was full of it."

Duncan wasn't alone in his quest to climb and put himself to the test in the valleys that boast the world's tallest and most beautiful mountains. Rock climbing has been the fastest-growing sport in Britain now for about seven years. There are around 5 million people using climbing walls each year in the UK and, in 10 years, membership of the BMC (British Mountaineering (omega) Council) - probably the best statistical indicator of the rise in popularity of mountaineering - has doubled.

In addition, getting to the Himalayas is far easier and cheaper now than it was even a decade ago. What used to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, is now easily financially achievable by many. Last year, almost 12,000 Britons flew to Nepal, most to go trekking or mountaineering. According to the Nepalese Embassy in London, that figure looks set to increase this year.

Ama Dablam isn't for the faint-hearted, and Duncan knew it. The mountain involves technical rock, snow and ice climbing and he would need harnesses, ice axes, crampons, and a sleeping bag designed for use in temperatures as low as -25C. Adventure Peaks, the outfit Duncan chose to travel with, rated the technical difficulty of the climb as five (out of a possible six). It has sections of very steep snow and ice (at angles over 50 degrees), rock sections up to "severe", and is suitable only for "experienced mountaineers who could be self-sufficient".

Tim Mosedale, who reached the summit of Ama Dablam a few days before Duncan's attempt, says: "When you're looking out the window of an aeroplane you wouldn't have to look that far down to see the peak of Ama Dablam. It stands pretty much alone in the Khumbu area of the Everest valley. Trekkers return home with a whole array of different photographs of Sherpas, yaks, villages, and various mountains the names of which they can't remember. But they always remember Ama Dablam. It's one of the most beautiful mountains in the world and its name means "mother's amulet"; it has long ridges like the outstretched arms of a mother about to embrace somebody in a hug."

Duncan left his digital camera and diary at base camp before he climbed Ama Dablam. As a result we can piece together his movements after he arrived in Kathmandu on 15 October. He slept most of that day, before visiting the Rum Doodle rooftop restaurant for dinner - an obligatory stop for climbers heading off to tackle Himalayan peaks, its walls festooned with cut-out cardboard feet signed by previous visitors. From that rooftop, in the distance, Duncan would have been able to see the outline of the Himalayas. Two days later, he flew to Lukla and spent the day getting to Namche Bazaar, a village 11,000ft above sea level known as the gateway to the high Himalaya.

The plan was to climb Pumori, a mountain 8km west of Everest first, and then Ama Dablam. But, the following day, another member of the expedition returned to the lodge saying he'd heard four porters had been killed by an avalanche on Pumori.

Unfortunately the sheer beauty of the mountains - the views of jagged peaks that pierce the blue sky, the little wisps of cloud that silently disappear behind the summits, the delicate frosting that softens those sharp, rocky edges - masks a lurking and persistent danger for climbers and adventure sports enthusiasts.

Last year, Mount Everest had its deadliest season in a decade when 11 people lost their lives. Elsewhere in December, champion Austrian climber Hari Berger was killed in an ice collapse in a cave near Hintersee Flachachau, Austria. In February, Adam Petter, another British climber, died as he descended Aconcagua in the Andes, and Australian Shaun Kratzer was killed by an avalanche while skiing in the Indian Himalayas. Most recently, two British cross-country skiers froze to death on a Norwegian mountain (see over). Even the BMC's participation statement states that climbing, hill walking and mountaineering "are activities with a danger of personal injury or death".

Back in the Himalayas, Duncan called his mother from Pumori Base Camp. "He said he was standing there looking at Everest with a blue sky and it was just awesome," says Corrie. But, although the weather was warm and sunny in the mornings, by early afternoon it would turn cloudy and cold, and by 4pm the snow was coming down in flurries. Duncan was worried he wouldn't be able to attempt Pumori due to the risk of avalanche. In addition he heard that another group had to turn back from Ama Dablam's south-west ridge due to too much snow and he was uncertain he'd be able to make that attempt as well. "With three weeks to go hopefully some groups will bash a path through or clear the route," he wrote.

According to David Pritt, the director of Adventure Peaks, Pumori was renowned in the area as a mountain with the potential to avalanche and the decision was made to climb Lobuche East - 20,000ft up in the Himalayas and considered one of the hardest trekking peaks - instead. As a result of the change in schedule, Duncan would eventually be attempting Ama Dablam a day earlier than planned. Local villagers held a traditional Hindu puja ceremony in which Duncan's ice axes and crampons were blessed and shown to the mountain. Then, on 2 November, Duncan and his Sherpa, Mingma, reached the summit of Lobuche East.

After a couple of days' rest, the party began the trek to Ama Dablam and just under a week later Duncan wrote that he finally had "amazing" views of the mountain's north ridge. "Mingma thinks it will take 10 days from now till I'm on the summit! Let's hope so. This is by far the most excited I've been all trip. But I still desperately miss Theresa."

He arrived at Ama Dablam Base Camp on Thursday, 9 November, and Mingma suggested a rest before starting out for Camp One on Saturday. "This would ideally mean summitting on Tuesday," Duncan wrote. "There is a weather forecast predicting very bad weather next Wednesday... so if I did summit on Tuesday, 14 November, this could mean me leaving Kathmandu on Wednesday the 22nd, arriving home Thursday 23rd. We'll see, as this is getting ahead of myself."

The rest of the group, which included climber Steve Gandy and Adventure Peaks mountain leader Clive Roberts, were one camp behind as Duncan was more acclimatised, having already climbed Lobuche East. The others needed to rest longer, plus there were limited sleeping spaces on the mountain, and the climbing party was split in two.

Duncan's last diary entry was on Friday, 10 November - a rest day. "Pretty boring to be honest," he wrote. "I still don't know if I'm going tomorrow or not!" He set off the next morning.

From Camp Two he would have climbed along an exposed snowy ridge to reach Camp Three which is situated just to the side of the huge, hanging ice shelf. The temperature here can reach -25C and there would have been lots of frost on the inside of the tent. According to Tim Mosedale, "Every time you move you get (omega) a little shower of frost flakes on your face. Physiologically at that altitude climbing becomes hard, hard work. You're in a very rarefied atmosphere and you have to pause halfway through even something as simple as putting your boots on to catch your breath."

Mosedale was asleep in his tent at Base Camp when the avalanche struck. He peered outside at 4am "to see a huge plume of snow and spindrift floating at the bottom of the mountain. It was obvious that this had been a huge fall," he wrote later.

Despite repeated attempts to reach them, Duncan's party were not answering their early morning radio calls. Steve Gandy was the first climber to reach Camp Three after the avalanche. He said all that was left was a metal spoon and two old ropes above some steep ground. "On the surface there was no evidence of Camp Three ever having existed," he wrote. Two helicopter searches failed to find anyone on the Wednesday, and on Friday a final search by helicopter included an expert from the Himalayan Rescue Association, but there was no sign of the six men.

It was a tense few days when the news first filtered back that Duncan was missing. Hope that he would turn up at Base Camp unharmed turned to disbelief at what had happened, then shock. There was still talk among our circle of friends back in England that after all the tears, news would arrive that he'd been found and was going to be OK. Duncan would be back in England laughing at us all in a few days. But in reality the news reports only confirmed our worst fears.

A foreign office spokesperson confirmed to BBC news that Duncan was one of six missing climbers. Three helicopter rescue missions had failed to locate Duncan or any of the other five climbers and the search was called off.

Mosedale later said Camp Three had been located in as safe a position as it has been in the past. "The tents were pitched on platforms hewn from the snow and ice, and could not, actually, have been easily sited any further to the right or left... no one stood a chance of surviving what was a huge serac fall and avalanche."

Each year, avalanches claim more than 150 lives worldwide. Most people's understanding of an avalanche is of a wave of powdered snow ploughing down a mountainside. But, according to Adele Pennington, who has climbed Ama Dablam three times and works as operations manager for mountaineering specialists Jagged Globe, the most common type that claims lives - at least in the UK - is a slab avalanche.

The best way to understand a slab avalanche is to think of two pieces of biscuit sandwiched together with custard cream. A slab avalanche occurs when that top bit of biscuit slides on the custard. "Sometimes climbers are caught on the slab, or the slab falls into them and knocks them off the mountain," Pennington says. "People have this image that you're buried in an avalanche, but that's not necessarily true."

Nobody knows exactly what happened in the early hours of that morning on Ama Dablam. But it's likely that a rarer, powder avalanche occurred, after falling chunks of serac - an ice shelf, one of which rings Ama Dablam's summit - dislodged built-up snow.

Back in the UK, Duncan's friend Jim Hewitt returned home from a work trip to Holland, during which he had been busy calling friends to update them, and liaising with Duncan's parents.

"When I got back all my post was there," Jim says now, "and on top was a postcard from Duncan. Duncs was my best mate and it was difficult to look at it, but when I did it suddenly hit home; everything just made sense. He'd gone to do something he was completely passionate about. It didn't make it any easier for me, but I suddenly realised just why he was doing it.

"On the front of the postcard was a picture of Ama Dablam. He said he had a five-day hike to Base Camp ahead of him and he was talking about how awesome it looked. He wrote: 'Saw it for the first time today. It looks pretty full on - I can't wait to get started.'"

I too wanted to know why Duncan had decided to do it; why any climber would attempt something that they know to be so dangerous. I'd lost a friend and, perhaps selfishly, wanted to know why Duncan would risk everything he held so dear. But the truth is that, without risk, Duncan wouldn't have been Duncan: his passion for adventure was addictive; his "go for it" attitude was an inspiration; and his laughter throughout it all was infectious.

Sir Chris Bonington, one of the world's most experienced mountaineers, has seen two good friends lose their lives taking part in the sport for which he was given a knighthood. His career has included 19 expeditions to the Himalayas, including four to Mount Everest and the first-ever successful ascent of the south face of Annapurna.

It was during the Annapurna climb in 1970 that Bonington's friend Ian Clough, with whom he had climbed Mont Blanc and the north face of the Eiger, was killed by a falling serac on the lower slopes. Then, in 1978 on the west face of K2, an avalanche took the life of his good friend Nick Estcourt. I wanted to know how Bonington could reconcile climbing with the tragedies he had witnessed first hand.

"I've had to do the oration for all too many of those memorial services," he tells me. "But I think what one can say is that these individuals went into it with their eyes open. They were living life to the absolute full. OK, their life was terminated and they had an awful lot more to accomplish but, by golly, they had a pretty intense life while it lasted. The tragedy is not so much in the individual who died but the people left behind: the parents, children, wife, partner. They do have to bear a lot of the suffering. As I know all too well.

"Loss of life is the sad collateral of wanting to do adventurous things. But it's the spirit of adventure that gives a society its energy and vigour. There has to be an element of risk, whether it's physical - like climbing - political, commercial, artistic, or scientific, it's important that people are prepared to adventure. It's also important that there is an understanding that some individuals will lose their lives in the process.

"You could argue it's selfish - it probably is, but it's part of me. My wife, Wendy, recognises that. And I've had dozens of incredibly narrow escapes. But there is an element of the 'it'll never happen to me' mentality. The truth is that climbing is one hell of a lot of fun. You accept risk as part of it, and the risk is part of the adrenalin rush."

The BMC's deputy chief officer Nick Colton says climbing takes you away from the mundane. "If you go back to the Romantic poets," he says, "it's the concept of the sublime. It's the feeling of being in awe of nature. It's beyond comprehension."

On 9 December, there was a memorial service held for Duncan at the Royal Southern Yacht Club in Hamble. As we took our seats, Nepalese mountain music played, and images taken from the digital camera Duncan left behind at Base Camp were projected on to a screen. They showed Duncan, with that trademark stuck-on grin, sitting on a rock with Ama Dablam towering behind him. After the poems and recollections, "Don't Stop Me Now" by Queen was played.

Duncan's dad, Clive, says the letters he and Corrie received were inspirational: "Duncan's kindness (omega) and thoughtfulness for others (including us) comes through in all of them. Everyone talked about his zest for life, infectious laugh and insatiable enthusiasm. One read: 'I think Duncan was the most positive person I've ever met. He was never grumpy or miserable.' Another: 'I will always remember the way he grabbed life and made the most of all his opportunities.'"

His brother Ross says Duncan loved to enthuse about what he did and to share it with other people: "Had he made it back safe and sound, we'd have all been bored senseless. But he'd have loved it if someone could have gone back and done it all again with him. Duncs didn't bide his time; he just went out and did it. The only time I ever saw him sit still was to plan another trip."

After Chris Bonington lost his friend Nick Estcourt in the avalanche on K2, he wrote: "It was his capacity for enjoyment as well as work, the parties, the booze-ups... the fun of climbing with him, combined with an exceptional sense of loyalty and integrity that his friends will miss."

We'll miss the same things about Duncan. But at his memorial service one of his friends showed me a piece of paper he had folded in his pocket. On it was a poem that read: "To live is to risk dying. To hope is to risk despair. To try is to risk failure. But the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing."

That, I think, is what really sums up Duncan.

Donations for the benefit of the widow and children of Mingma Nuru Sherpa can be sent to Manby & Steward LLP, Solicitors, George House, St John's Square, Wolverhampton WV2 4BZ. Cheques should be payable to "Manby & Steward LLP" and marked "Duncan Williams Memorial Fund"

Beyond the limit A year of deaths in the mountains

14 May, 2006

Perhaps the year's most controversial death was that of 34-year-old British climber David Sharp on Everest. Having reached the summit, he got into difficulty on his way down and froze to death. It was claimed that as many as 40 climbers had passed him as he lay dying, including one group who - after supplying the stricken climber with oxygen on their way up - decided he was beyond saving as they made their way back down.

16 May

Swede Tomas Olsson (right) died while skiing down the north face of Everest. He and teammate Tormod Granheim decided to abseil down a 150ft cliff face but, tragically, a snow anchor ripped out during Olsson's descent and he fell to his death.

5 July

Paul Holmes, a 33-year-old rock-climbing enthusiast from Wales, was killed by an avalanche on Mont Blanc in the French Alps. Holmes had been climbing out of a glacier when it hit, sweeping him into a crevasse and breaking the rope that connected him to his climbing partner, who survived.

13 August

Four élite Russian climbers were killed in an avalanche 200 metres from the summit of K2 - regarded as the world's most lethal peak due to the high ratio of deaths per attempted ascent. The Russians were at the head of a group of nine climbers when the avalanche happened, knocking two climbers off the cliff, and burying the other two instantly. A British climber at the rear of the group survived.

20 November

Britain's own peaks are also dangerous. Last November, two young ice climbers, Richard Hardy, 18, and Graeme Cooper, 23, were caught up in terrible conditions on the Scottish Cairngorms, with 70mph winds and temperatures of -20c. Following an impressive rescue effort, the two men were found dead just minutes away from the safety of the Cairngorm ski area car park.

10 March, 2007

Rupert Wilson watched his 18-year-old son Peter (below) and 50-year-old friend Jim Ross freeze to death on a high windswept plateau in Norway. The trio had tried to find shelter after getting caught in a violent blizzard. When rescuers finally located the cross-country skiers, only 48-year-old Rupert was alive. Reports indicated that they were using unsuitable equipment.

Adam Jacques

Duncan's Diary Excitement, boredom and exhaustion at high altitude

19 October 2006

This morning we walked to Everest viewing point. Ama Dablam looks incredible! I can't wait. Ian says four porters have been killed on Pumori by avalanche.

20 October

The weather this morning on leaving Namche was hot and beautiful. By 4.20pm it is snowing. I fear we've lost Pumori due to avalanche risk. Ama Dablam loomed large as we walked in. One group had to turn back due to too much snow! But hopefully some groups with bash a path through or clear the rocks/route. We heard more about the avalanche [which] killed four Sherpas. Terrible! How many have children or are married is unknown.

22 October

We have been to a lecture by the Himalayan Resource Service (HRS) on altitude illness. Very good, similar content to the high-altitude medicine book I have. We've taken them up on their offer of a trial. Some are given Diamox, others sugar pills, with tests tomorrow at Labouche. I had my oxygen-saturation level tested, 84 per cent. My lungs checked, pulse and breathing. All very good.

28 October

Up at 7am-ish, climbed to 2.30pm and reached 6,200m, a new height record for me! EXHAUSTED.

29 October

A rest day. Very tired. Tried calling Theresa loads but couldn't get through. Spoke to Mum and Dad. Missing Theresa loads!

8 November

A rest day in Pangboche. The views are spectacular. Mingma [my Sherpa] thinks it will take 10 days from now till I'm on the summit! This is the most excited I've been all trip.

9 November

I'm now at Ama Dablan base camp - yes! Approx 4,560m. Mingma has suggested we have a rest day tomorrow and then go for the summit, starting out for Camp 1 on Saturday. Before Mingma and I left this morning, Sonam's father had blessed a set of prayer flags for us. If I did summit on 14 November, this could mean me leaving Kathmandu on the 22nd, arriving home on the 23rd. We'll see as this is getting ahead of myself!

10 November

A rest day. Pretty boring to be honest. Waiting for Clive and the team to come down off the mountain and Mingma to come up from Pangboche. Still don't know if I'm going tomorrow or not. Have repacked - again! I can just make most things fit into 40-litre pack. Did a walk scramble this morning to approx 4,800m to the left of Ama Dablam. Great fun and good views.

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