Words and Photos by Raphael Slawinski
A black swan event is an incident so unlikely we don’t seriously consider it a risk, but when it does happen has a shattering impact. In retrospect a black swan seems obvious – “We should’ve seen it coming.” – but rationalizing it away doesn’t help us predict the next one.
Just before noon on Saturday, April 25, the Indian tectonic plate lurched beneath the Eurasian plate. In a matter of seconds the southern edge of the latter, bearing Kathmandu, the forested hills and deep valleys around it, was lifted up by nearly a metre. Within minutes of the earthquake thousands were dead, crushed under collapsed buildings and buried in massive landslides. On the south side of Everest, a serac broke off the nearby Pumori and swept through basecamp killing nearly twenty people – a basecamp that had been safely used for more than sixty years.
The mountaineers on the south and north sides of the mountain might’ve thought about the dangers they’d face in the coming weeks: avalanches lower down, storms higher up. On our acclimatization hikes above the rubble of the Rongbuk Glacier, as we gazed at Everest’s massive north flank, Daniel, David and I looked to our coming climb with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. But I’ll wager that no one, when they woke up on that gray Saturday morning, worried about an earthquake. And yet we’d all chosen to spend two months in an active tectonic zone. Only eighty-one years earlier, a blink of geologic time, a strong earthquake had devastated Nepal. It wasn’t a matter of whether another major quake would strike – only of when. So why didn’t a tectonic event figure in our risk calculus?
Shortly before midnight on June 23, 2013, more than a score armed, masked men walked into the basecamp below the Diamir face of Nanga Parbat. To this day it isn’t entirely clear what motives guided their actions. However, what those actions were is all too clear. They bound the hands of those unlucky to have been in camp that night, then proceeded to calmly execute ten foreign climbers and a Pakistani cook.
Early the following morning, Jesse Huey, Ian Welsted and I, along with our liaison officer, lieutenant Farhan, ate an early breakfast in our Islamabad guesthouse. With the long drive up the Karakoram Highway (KKH) ahead of us, we wanted to be off before the day heated up. Leaving the capital city before it woke up, we headed out into the green countryside. Two hours into the drive Farhan ended a cellphone call and turned to us with a grim expression. He’d just gotten word of the massacre. We listened in stunned silence as he told us about the murders.
When months earlier we decided to attempt unclimbed K6 West, we’d evaluated and accepted the risks that come with getting on a two-kilometre-high face on a seven-thousander in the Karakoram: hard climbing, serac and rock fall, storm, with little chance of rescue if something went wrong. We also accepted the risks that come from traveling through a troubled country: a bomb going off outside a police headquarters, a fundamentalist gunman spraying bullets at people who hold different beliefs. However, we’d never imagined being targets ourselves. And yet why not? Little more than a year earlier, Sunni militants stopped a bus along the KKH and executed eighteen Shia passengers. It was only the most notorious of a series of sectarian bloodbaths. So why didn’t a terrorist attack figure in our risk calculus?
In 2013 in Pakistan, after twenty-four hours of agonizing uncertainty, Ian and I decided to go on with the trip. This year in Tibet, the decision didn’t end up being ours to make. A few days after the quake, word traveled around basecamp on the north side of Everest that some high-ranking officials would be arriving to make an announcement about the rest of the climbing season.
“The China Tibet Mountaineering Association has decided to terminate the climbing expeditions of the 2015 spring climbing season”, one of the envoys read from his phone to tens of climbers packed into a house-sized tent. “The main reasons run as follows. First, aftershocks continue. Secondary disasters will follow, significantly increasing the risks of mountaineering. Second, most of the Sherpas are not in the mood to go on climbing, since their hometowns suffered from the disaster. Third, to show respect to mountaineers killed in basecamp on the south side.”
We filed outside and walked over the cobbled plain back to our tents. So that was it. After months of dreaming, planning and training, the expedition was over before it had really started. I reminded myself I had much to be grateful for: nearly twenty people were dead on the south side of Everest and thousands more in Nepalese towns and villages, but on our side of the mountain no one had been injured. And while the Sherpas and cooks would be returning to ruined homes and rubble-strewn streets, Daniel, David and I would be going back to safe, comfortable lives.
We go on big trips knowing we might get altitude sick, stormed on or avalanched. However, the world is a vastly more chaotic place than we imagine. On top of all the known unknowns that make our biggest adventures so frustrating, so frightening yet also so rewarding, once in a while a wholly unexpected event happens. When we get on a transoceanic flight, the first step in a long journey to a faraway mountain range, we don’t know what the coming weeks will bring. Paradoxically, if they bring something that catches us completely by surprise, we shouldn’t be surprised.
On our last day in basecamp, a shining, cloudless day, I walked up the moraines toward the north face of Everest, still nearly twenty kilometres away. Over the past few days basecamp had grown quiet, as one expedition after another packed up and left. Here, among the granite rubble, solitude was complete, wind and water the only sounds. Everest, with its distant icefields and couloirs, shone in the bright noonday sun. After a few clear days, sun and wind had stripped away the last storm’s snow, exposing bare ice. I imagined myself cramponing up this vast, empty expanse, calves and lungs burning. When almost a year ago I’d decided to attempt Everest, I was drawn by its height and by its history but not its aesthetics, finding it squat and graceless. But now, looking at this giant pyramid of black rock and dazzling white snow, with the ever-present plume of ice crystals blowing from the summit, I thought Everest not only impressive but also very beautiful. Maybe someday I’ll go back and experience its harsh, hypoxic splendour. If I do, I’ll consider myself lucky if the only swans I encounter are white.