Mountain misadventures: QA man's Himalayan hike turns 'dicey'

Alex Welles, a longtime Mountaineers Club member, climbed to a base camp at Annapurna in late April. The Queen Anne resident said he expected it to be simply a strenuous Himalayan hike.

But Welles was wrong, and ended up saving the life of a digital photographer on the hike who was sliding down an ice chute to certain doom.

"Basically, it was a special trek ... mainly centered around Ed Viesturs' summit attempt on Annapurna in early May," Welles said of the Bainbridge Island resident's successful climb.

It was a chance to catch a bit of history in the making, Welles said, because Viesturs' Annapurna climb made him the first American to scale all the world's 14 mountains more than 8,000 meters (26,250 feet) tall without the help of oxygen.

Reaching the 14,500-foot base camp is roughly the equivalent to scaling Mount Rainier, noted Welles, who has made that climb with Viesturs. There were 40 porters and 15 people on the eight-day Annapurna trek, which Welles described as "very, very dicey."

"You're anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 feet high," he said, adding the trek to the base camp is probably the toughest in Nepal. But the trek got a lot tougher when the expedition ended up in a spring snowstorm on the sixth day.

The winds reached 80 miles per hour at one point, forcing the group to hunker down in tents for three or four hours. "You couldn't see your hand in front of your face," Welles said. The hikers also could hear avalanches during the storm, something he described as sounding like locomotives coming down the mountain.

When the trek began again, there were 2 or 3 feet of snow on a trail that got very narrow in some sections - conditions that would normally call for roping hikers together and using ice axes and crampons, Welles said. "We didn't have any of that."

Normally, hikers stay around 20 to 25 feet apart, but Welles had closed to within 8 feet of the person in front of him: Kristy Severance, an experienced Himalayan digital photographer. He'd gotten that close so that they could hear each other talk over the wind, Welles said.

The trail was only 2 or 3 feet wide at that point, when Severance slipped on an icy patch, landed on her backside and started to slide down a steep descent on an icy slope that led to a dropoff of 4,000 feet to a gorge below.

"She was very definitely sliding to her oblivion," is how Welles put it. Severance tried to stop her slide by jamming her boots into the ice, but it didn't do any good, he said. "She [started] to accelerate."

So Welles sprang into action. "I basically got down the incline five or eight steps," said Welles, who added that he was kicking his boots into the slope, which stopped him from sliding off the mountain because he weighs more than Severance.

"I was able to reach over with my right hand and grabbed the top loop of her backpack," Welles remembers with some amazement. Then he was able to drag Severance back up to the flat portion of the trail, Welles added.

It was an emotional moment. "She came over in tears and said, 'You saved my life. I'm going to name my next child after you,'" Welles added.

A day or so later, the trek reached the base camp, and Welles saw Viesturs arrive the following day by helicopter before he successfully climbed a mountain that proves deadly to around 30 percent of the climbers who make the attempt, he said. "It's the most dangerous mountain in the world."

In fact, Welles met a four-man Italian team at the base camp before they tried to summit the mountain and got caught in an avalanche that killed one of the men and put the other three in the hospital, he said.

Welles said he had mixed feelings about going on the $4,000 trip in the first place. For one thing, Maoist guerrillas routinely demand $100 bribes of hikers and climbers in the valleys below Annapurna, he said. "It's a communist movement, but very capitalistically oriented."

Unbelievably, the guerrillas give climbers and hikers receipts for the bribes, and the receipts can be used to get out of bribing any other band of Maoists they might meet, Welles said. But even the Nepalese porters are leery of the Annapurna trek because it's so dangerous, he added.

The Himalayan trip was the fourth Welles has gone on with Mountain Travel Sobek, and it will be his last, he said.

"Jeanne won't let me go with [them] again," Welles said of his wife, State Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles. He added that he and his wife will be visiting Severance in California later this summer, and the co-founder of the trekking company will be there, too. Kohl-Welles expects to have quite a chat with him.

Welles has taken adventure tours all over the world, but the one to Annapurna is one he'll not soon forget. "I've been on some adventures before in my life," he said, "but this tops them all."

Staff reporter Russ Zabel can be reached at or 461-1309.

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