As you can all imagine yesterday’s tragedy here on Everest affected us all!
We left our base camp at 6:30 am with the objective of going to the icefall and getting to some of the tricky sections where we have to use ladders to cross big crevasses and to climb up large ice blocks. It wasn’t set how far between base camp and camp 1 we would get. The goal was to get some practice on the ladders and tricky terrain, gain some altitude and get to some exercise to further our acclimatization to prepare us for our first rotation. Our first rotation will be an ascent of the icefall to camp one which is about 19,700′ high. After a night there we will continue through the icefall to camp two at roughly 21,300′. The icefall, as I said earlier is that section where the Khumbu glacier falls over steep rock steps forming a giant frozen and broken waterfall of giant ice blocks that shift and move as the massive glacier gets pulled down by gravity. The icefall begins between camp 2 and camp 1 and ends next to base camp. Base camp is set on a not so active section of the glacier, though every night in my tent I hear how the ice under me cracks loudly and shifts ever so slightly. This is a very active glacier and the icefall is the most dramatic example of it’s activity.
Deaths on the icefall usually occur when people don’t clip in to the rope and lose their balance crossing those ladders with crampons on, or when those giant ice blocks shift when a person is crossing causing them to either fall in a crevasse or to be crushed by an ice block. To put things in perspective every year hundreds of people cross and the Sherpas cross many times each season without incidents. Once in a while collapses happen which require the route to be maintained and of course the most unlucky times collapses happen when people are crossing. That is of course what we all fear and how people usually die in the ice fall (Sherpas more often other climbers because they spend a lot more time crossing the ice fall doing carries). What happened yesterday was not that. It was a much more unlucky and rare event! A part of a hanging glacier on Everest’s west shoulder (a serac) collapsed due to gravity’s constant pull and triggered an avalanche over the icefall! I did mention in an earlier dispatch that this was also a danger at the ice fall but this is a pretty rare occurrence. Last time an avalanche happened there, was 2009 and I don’t think anyone was passing that section while it happened (I am not sure about this) So this is what we experienced:
As we were headed to the icefall, at about 6:45am, we heard the loud thunder-like sound of a serac collapse and an avalanche. We were facing the icefall so it was easy for me to identify where the sound came from and immediately saw the avalanche coming down the west shoulder of Everest and hitting the Khumbu icefall, roughly about 200 meters below camp ONE (it’s been mistakenly reported that it was just below camp 2).
My immediate thought of course was: “I hope nobody is there right now or this will be deadly!”
It was a pretty impressive avalanche but most of us hoped and assumed nobody was there at the time. We started wondering if the route would need repair because it obviously had a lot of force and mass. Minutes later as we kept walking towards the Icefall I remember a Sherpa running down the trail saying something in Sherpa (Sherpas speak in Sherpa among them and not in Nepalese) and looking stressed! My team mate Peter who was a bit behind said that the Sherpa told him: “many Sherpas up there!” That’s when I started seriously worrying if people were dead or injured. We had no idea that unfortunately at the time of the avalanche more than 40 Sherpas were spread out over that section of the route. These Sherpas were carrying loads to camp 2 (not setting up fixed ropes as some reports indicated. They may have included rope in their carries to fix later up the Lhotse face and perhaps that’s where the confusion comes from) but we know they were going to camp 2 carrying loads or returning from camp 2 after having drop them. Luckily our Sherpas had done their carries the day before and were not going to do further carries yesterday but on later days.
Base camp began to get noisy with people shouting things, Sherpas running, camera people taking their cameras out and aiming them at the ice fall and a general sense of commotion as we reached the beginning of the icefall. Phil, our expedition leader decided we should wait before going in too deep in the icefall to find out what had happened. He got on the radio with his Sherpas and we started listening in the radio.
At least some of the Sherpas in the accident site had radios so the ones that were not affected started calling down and the news started spreading around base camp that many Sherpas had been caught in the avalanche!
This is when we began to realize how serious this event had been. We did not want to get too deep in the icefall because we would get in the way of the Sherpas who were beginning to go help. Because they live at altitude and have spent more time at base camp than us the Sherpas are much better acclimatized than we are and are able to move much faster. Also even though our team has a lot of experience mountaineering only Phil and I are professional guides and have experience doing rescues. I, personally was not in a position to go up there and help because I am not familiar with the icefall and I am just getting acclimatized as I have mentioned in my earlier dispatches which means I would move slowly and potentially get in the way of Sherpas on those fixed ropes and this expedition is being led by Phil so I followed his lead. I told Phil: tell me if it can help you with anything. Phil called his Sherpas on the radio and told them to get here ASAP. Most of the Sherpas were understandably tired from their carry to camp TWO (!) the day before but four of the strongest Sherpas showed up at the ice fall ready in about 20 minutes time. Some of the icefall doctors (the Sherpas responsible for fixing the ropes and ladders on the icefall) showed up with two ladder sections also and went to the site.
Phil and his Sherpas took off to go help. The Sherpas moved very fast and reached the accident site which was about 1500 vertical feet higher than us in an impressive time of just one hour. Phil without as much acclimatization as them reached the site in an hour and 20 minutes ( also pretty impressive, though not surprising as he is a very fit climber with a natural ability to acclimatize fast).
The rest of the team stayed waiting in case we could help Sherpas coming down. We saw early in the morning a helicopter do a reconnoissance flight but no landing and then we saw no more helicopters for a few hours.
We watched the glacier and saw tiny black dots, many Sherpas, all concentrated at the accident site and we also saw other dots coming down. A few other western guides also went up to help.
We knew at that point, based on radio communications that there were deaths but they weren’t sure how many. Perhaps 4 or 6 they thought at the time, though nobody knew how many were missing. The Sherpas were working for different companies so they were not all working together or knew exactly who was missing.
I think my whole team felt terrible as we really care for the Sherpas and know fully well that if it wasn’t for them none of us would have a chance to summit. The Sherpas are the foundation to all Everest expeditions. I don’t know if any western climber has actually summited Everest without any Sherpa or porter help at all (and I am talking from Kathmandu to the summit and back). Even famous solo and alpine style ascents on Everest have had porters bring supplies to base camp.
I think my team members, like me, felt helpless, not being able to help at all as the tragedy was unfolding.
As the rest of the team went back to our base camp to wait for Phil, I decided to go to the medical tent that serves the whole Everest base camp and offer my help. By the time I arrived, helicopters were flying once again and they were beginning rescue operations. As I arrived I saw the medical tent was full of people with many radio conversations going on at the same time and lots going on!
I did not want to get in the way in this chaos so I went through the many people standing around right to the medical tent and asked for Susy, the doctor in charge of base camp who I had seen a few days earlier for the sleep apnea I was suffering from. She was busy inside the tent but a tall man with a beard told me he was not a doctor but he was with the company Jagged globe and was coordinating this whole rescue operation. He had a very nice, humble, friendly but effective way of leading this complicated effort. I told him my name and I said I was a mountain guide and that I was certified as a wilderness first responder. I said: “can I help you guys with anything?”. He said: yes, we may need your help, do you mind sticking around? I said: no problem.
Soon the helicopters began bringing the injured as many conversations continued in radios, some in Sherpa, some in English.
Several doctors and an anesthesiologist arrived also, offering their help. These were clients/climbers that came to try Everest too.
As the critically wounded arrived Susy who is a young doctor, probably not as experienced as the older volunteer doctors but none the less the person in charge at base camp, did an excellent job as a leader doing triage and assigning patients to these doctors asking them who knew more about this or that. I ended up helping a general doctor who got assigned two Sherpas who were not so seriously injured. They were both bleeding from lacerations in their heads. I helped her clean their heads and one of these poor guys got his head literally stapled to close his cut as it was more efficient than suturing. The stapler is one used by doctors in ERs and other situations (but it’s essentially a stapler!). I remember this poor Sherpas, this tough mountain guy, in tears with pain. It must hurt like hell to have your skull stapled without anesthesia! The scene was surreal! It was like a MASH unit! Just two tents with barely room for three or four patients and doctors! I was providing water from my water bottles to clean these wounds. The doctor, the patient and I were sitting on the floor of one of the smaller tents while we worked on him. We did have gloves, which was helpful as some of these poor guys were bleeding quite a bit. No running water, very little room to work and a tricky place to keep things sterile!
The surgeons were taking care of the more severely injured patients as they arrived. One with a broken femur and internal damage and the other one with internal damage I believe. Both were brought by helicopter. Phil and our Sherpas as well as other Sherpas helped get them in helicopters up by the “football field”, a section of the ice fall before camp 1.
As the hours went by I found myself helping in different ways, going to the helipad to see if they needed more help carrying the stretchers, helping with keeping people and cameras at a distance from the medical tent and then finally helping putting two of the critically wounded in the rescue litters to be evacuated in helicopters. It made a strong impression on me to look at this poor Sherpa with a broken femur, probably some internal damage, a bloody face with an oxygen mask and his eyes full of tears and a look of fear. I felt so sad to see him like that, the poor guy was just doing his job a few hours ago and this avalanche comes and almost kills him! One of the other rescuers was comforting him as I was helping buckle up the belts of the litter. When the helicopter landed we moved him out of the tent and it became a bit awkward as other people tried to help besides the six of us that had been assigned to carry the litter. We had to carry him carefully to not cause more damage to his injuries, we also had to carry the oxygen tank, all of this over the very uneven rocks on the glacier and towards the helicopter which landed in a very small improvised mini landing pad next to the medical tent. The helicopter at this altitude of 17,500′ cannot turn it’s engines off as it risks not being able to get them going again. So as we moved up and down this moraine/ glacier we had to be careful of the helicopter blade as we were tripping over each other, slipping on the ice and rocks and trying at all cost to keep the Sherpa safe. It was tricky but we got him to the helicopter with one of the doctors or rescue crew and finally the helicopter took off slowly. These take offs are also a bit delicate at these altitudes because of how thin the air is and how hard it is for them to generate the lift needed to fly.
Once the some of the critical patients were evacuated and the rest stabilized and waiting for the helicopter to come back, things calmed down a bit and I asked if they needed my help anymore or if I could take a break and go eat. It was almost 1 pm by then. They said I could go now and to please come to a debriefing the next day (today). They thanked me and I left. As I walked down to our camp (a 20 minute walk) I saw several helicopters bringing down the bodies of the dead Sherpas. It was a very, very sad sight to see the helicopters with a tow cable and the body at the end of the cable. And to see helicopter after helicopter all day brought home the magnitude of this tragedy!
13 were confirmed dead and four were still missing yesterday. Today, I hear, the 17 Sherpas are confirmed dead and I believe the four remaining bodies are now down. I am basing this on what I am hearing here through Phil and what I saw and heard while helping.
A very, very sad day for Everest, for the Sherpas and for the family and loved ones of the deceased.
I really hope all the living injured Sherpas make a full recovery!
Last night we got together with our Sherpas and had some drinks: beer. Scotch and rum in their mess tent.
It was a good opportunity for us all to bond more and process this experience. Our Sherpas and us have had a very nice relationship throughout this expedition. It really feels like a team, which is a great thing as that is not always the case with many expeditions here on Everest.
As you can all imagine yesterday’s tragedy here on Everest affected us all!