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Richard Cowper tells how his climbing expedition to 8,000m Nanga Parbat ended in near-tragedy

Avalanche! The cry most feared by mountaineers everywhere. None more so than by those lured to the greater ranges, where heavy snowfall, warm weather and fierce winds regularly send thousands of tonnes of snow crashing down the mountainsides.

Avalanches are the high-altitude climber's worst enemy. There have been just 2,385 successful ascents of the world's 14 8,000m peaks - all of them in the Himalayas or the nearby Karakoram - but 450 climbers have died trying, almost half in avalanches. An avalanche has killed one climber for every ten successful ascents on the world's most coveted peaks.

My trip to Nanga Parbat in Pakistan, on an expedition to the world's ninth highest mountain led by Doug Scott, 53, the first Briton to climb Everest, was brought to a premature end by just such an imperious act of nature.

Scott and our other team member, Wojciech Kurtyka, a Pole in his early 40s who is one of the world's most outstanding Himalayan mountaineers, have more than 50 years of climbing between them and nine 8,000m peaks to their credit. But avalanches are complex natural phenomena, and even the most experienced climber is not able to predict when - or even if - one will occur.

On the day of the avalanche we planned to climb the highest peak west of the Mazeno pass, above our base camp. Unlike the lower but more alluring rock spire nearby, climbed by Scott in a great rush of adrenalin a few days earlier, it was not an attractive mountain. But it had not been climbed before as far as we knew and, at just under 6,000m, was suitable for training and acclimatisation. We named it Mazeno west.

Our party of three set off in fine weather from base camp at 5am, early enough we felt to get us down before the heat of the day made the slopes unstable. No danger there, we thought - except that the peak we were attempting was in a basin and south facing, caught by the morning sun.

There had been some snowfall the day before, but lower down it was just a light dusting. No danger there, we thought - but it does not take a huge snowfall to trigger a slope already poised to slide.

It seemed a sensible route: up an old avalanche scar. No danger there, we thought - except that the top third of our route had not avalanched recently, and higher up we found that in places the snow had an unpleasant hollow ring to it.

We reached the top without any great difficulties shortly before 10am, from where we had dazzling views of many of the peaks along the 13km Mazeno ridge, the expedition's planned route to Nanga Parbat's 8,125m summit. It has become known as 'infinity ridge' because it is the longest unclimbed ridge in the world, and some argue it will prove impossible to climb so far at such altitude.

By now the sun was well up and we did not linger, descending at speed unroped, as we had on the ascent. Kurtyka first, then Scott, with me, the expedition lightweight in terms of skill and experience, well behind.

As it turned out my slower descent was a stroke of luck. It meant I was not in the path of the avalanche when it struck.

Kurtyka, a man with the looks, sensitivity and athleticism of a young Rudolf Nureyev, tells of the incident that so nearly killed Doug Scott.

'Very soon after arriving at the narrowest part of the gulley I heard a muffled noise. Avalanche! I looked up and saw a long crack appear across the slope above and then the snow began to slide. Doug was about 25m above me, running towards some rocks. He was trying to escape, but the snow was catching him up ...

'Immediately I made three or four jumps out of the gulley and on to some rocks at the base of the nearby mountain wall. It was just a few seconds before the first rush of snow hurtled past. I had made a very narrow escape.'

But with less time to get clear, Scott was not so lucky. A wall of snow crashed into him, sending him spinning down the steep couloir.

'I tried to scurry across the gully towards the rocks away from the avalanche, but it was too late,' says Scott. 'I thumped both my ice axes into the ice. Then the avalanche of heavy wet snow hit me and pulled me off. I was carried down, not thinking much of it at first.

'Suddenly my descent speed picked up. I lost one ice axe. I tried to pull myself upright to put the other pick in the ground. It was useless. I was vaguely conscious of passing Wojciech. All the time I was flailing my arms, trying to get on top of the snow to stop myself from being buried and suffocated.

'Twice I felt as if I was flying through the air. There was a wonderful sensation of floating, just mixing with the snow. Twice I seemed to bang my head on rocks or something solid. About two thirds of the way down my boot crampons snagged on some rocks. It was tremendously painful.

'As I was swept down the mountain I kept thinking that I would soon become unconscious and die. But afte r each bump I didn't and I thought how resilient the human body was. I had been expecting a kind of blackness.

'There was no other thought, other than living each second of the fall. Then the whole thing slithered to a halt. I had to undo my rucsac belt in order to breathe. I poked my head out of the snow, cleaned my glasses. 'Oh, I'm alright' I thought. Then I tried to walk - and I couldn't'

Scott had fallen 350m down a snow and ice gully of more than 50 degrees. Even with a helmet, which he had only decided to take at the last minute, it was a miracle he survived. But he was badly hurt: his snagged crampons had smashed the joints and tendons in one ankle and the flesh had come away from the bone.

If the snow which peeled away like a broad carpet across the slope had been just 15cm deeper, Britain's most accomplished mountaineer would have been buried under more than 2m of snow and would have quickly suffocated. We may never have found him. Or he might have hit directly one of the many boulders on his long fall. In either case his chances of survival would have been minimal.

As I climbed nervously down through the avalanche debris the tenacious Scott was already starting to slide and crawl across the glacier, while Kurtyka, showing his extraordinary stamina, ran off to get assistance from Captain Ali, our liaison officer, and our two Pakistani camp assistants, Hussein and Hakim.

The journey down the last part of the mountain had taken Scott just a few seconds. But the 3km trip to base camp, over moraines and around crevasses, mostly on his knees, took several nightmare hours. He is a giant of a man, well over 6ft, and just too big to be carried easily across steep terrain.

The pain on his face as he crawled over snow, ice and boulders reminded me of the famous photographs of him taken in 1977 by Chris Bonington, when Scott broke both legs while climbing the 24,000 foot Ogre in the Pakistani Karakoram. That epic descent in a storm took eight gruelling days.

Later, back at Nanga Parbat base camp, Scott said that the memory of that terrible day had helped him develop an efficient method of crawling, like a crab, on Nanga Parbat.

Even after his lucky escape it was hard for us to accept that the expedition was now over. We had been happy together; healthy, fit and on the way to becoming well acclimatised. The lure of Nanga Parbat was still strong. This was Scott's third attempt to climb it; Kurtyka was captivated by its size and many challenging unclimbed routes; and after several weeks on its slopes I too had come under its thrall.

Bounded to the north and west by the river Indus, Nanga Parbat ('Naked mountain' in Sanskrit) stands in mighty isolation as the culmination of the western half of the Himalaya. Looking to the summit from the Rupal valley it rises almost sheer for close on 5,000m, the biggest face on any mountain in the world.

It may not be the most beautiful of the Himalayan giants, but it is the grandest I have seen. It is also one of the most dangerous. Famous for savage storms just 112 climbers have reached its summit since it was first climbed by Herman Buhl in 1953, and 56 have died trying, over half by avalanche.

It certainly saw us off. Even the 'walk-out' from our 4,800m base camp was not without incident. We overcame a porter strike, lost one of our 11 mules over a 60m ravine, and Scott narrowly prevented his horse from jettisoning him down the same precipice when the beast shook off his saddle.

Six days after the avalanche we limped into the small mountain town of Astor where a doctor took an X-ray, wrongly diagnosed that Scott had a broken foot and assured us that the three screws put in after the Ogre break were still in the right place. Four days later we were in an aeroplane on our way home from Islamabad. From the aircraft, we had a final glimpse of the unattainable snow-white trapezoid peak, looming in the distant mist.

The expedition was supported by the British Mountaineering Council, the Mountain Everest Foundation, and Malden Mills. Clothing by Buffalo and Jack Wolfskin.

(c) The Financial Times Limited September 25 1993