The avalanche rumble grew louder and I knew we were in trouble.
We had been on Mount Everest for a week, so the muffled crashes of distant avalanches were a normal background noise of expedition life. But, this was different. This avalanche was close by, and getting closer. It was heading our way.
My tentmate, Bart, sat bolt upright and said, “Oh, that’s a big one!”
I heard the roar building off to our left. The avalanche must be pouring down the steep 6,000-foot ice wall that ended just 200 yards from our tent.
Then, a second rumble started on the opposite side of the valley, to my right. For an instant, I hoped that this was the sound of the first avalanche reflecting off the massive west ridge of Everest. But, something in the timing, or maybe the pitch, told me it was not an echo. It was a second major avalanche, racing straight toward us at Camp 1.
“This is bad,” I said.
Bart wriggled frantically to escape his sleeping bag. I reached for the door zipper but I missed as the tent began surging up and down like a life raft bobbing on the ocean. I realized that the entire Khumbu Glacier, a dense ice sheet ten miles long, half a mile wide, and 1,000 feet thick, was heaving up and down.
It was 11:56 am on Mount Everest, on April 25, 2015. The Nepal earthquake had struck.
No Visibility as Avalanches Approach
As Bart scrambled outside, I rushed to buckle my avalanche transceiver harness across my chest, and pulled the hand-sized unit from its holster. After sliding the plastic power switch to “transmit,” the beacon needed six seconds before it could start broadcasting a signal to show my location.
The urge to flee was huge, but I forced myself to focus on the one thing that could improve my chances – getting the avi beacon operating and secured. If I was buried alive, maybe my teammates could find me in time. If I was dead, then the beacon transmissions could make it easier for rescuers to find my body, which would be better for them and my family.
Finally, a blinking red light confirmed I was transmitting. I shoved the beacon back into its chest holster and buckled it secure. No mistakes. I slapped on my hat, then zipped my coat shut. Grabbing my camera, I scurried out the tent door.
All we could see were afternoon clouds enveloping our camp. With visibility limited to twenty yards, we couldn’t tell where the avalanches were. Not knowing made it scarier.
With all the crevasses surrounding our camp at 19,900 feet, we were hemmed in by glacial cracks more than 100 feet deep. The one safe path we had taken into camp now led directly toward the rush of the second avalanche. There was nowhere to run.
All we could do was stare into the inscrutable white clouds, and wonder which avalanche might hit us first. It was like finding yourself suddenly standing on the pavement of Interstate 25 in a fog bank, and hearing trucks roaring full speed toward you from two different directions. There’s no time, no place to hide, and you don’t know where to stand to perhaps increase your chances of survival.
Suddenly, the air blast rolling in front of the avalanche debris arrived. I turned my back to the wind, and started recording video of my teammates just three yards away. The screaming wind blew snow sideways and the two dozen people near me disappeared from view. I dropped to one knee to reduce the chance of getting blown out of camp and into one of the deep crevasses.
Wet, fine-grained snow plastered my back. I was too exposed, so I dove back into our tent. Hunkered alone, I hoped that everyone else was safe. I prayed that a wave of giant ice blocks was not about to arrive.
As the air pressure waves from multiple avalanches collided, the wind swirled, reversed directions, and raced across the glacier. When the gales finally subsided, I believed for the first time in four minutes that I was more likely to live than to die.
With my immediate survival assured, my concern shifted to my teammates. My circle of awareness expanded to recognize that others nearby might need help.
Everyone in our Camp 1 was accounted for and seemingly physically OK. There was no panic, but emotions were running high. Soon, the first aftershock rattled us. This time the Khumbu Glacier glided slowly back and forth, carrying our camp on its back. As a geologist, I worried that the fragile ice structure of the glacier might collapse, taking us with it.
When my teammates and I had climbed up from the icefall route three hours earlier, there were still dozens of other climbers and sherpas in there. I was worried about what might have just happened to them during the quake.
Excited voices over the radio said that basecamp had been blasted by an avalanche carrying rocks and boulders. Scores were injured, fatalities had happened, and the scope of the disaster there was still unfolding.
Enormous Numbers Are Dead
With the integrity of the climbing route unknown, for the time being we were stuck at Camp 1. All together there were about 160 climbers and climbing sherpas trapped at Camp 1 and at Camp 2, above us, which also had been badly shaken.
Every aftershock drew our attention to the ice walls hanging above our camp. Through our satellite phones and text devices, news began trickling in from other parts of Nepal. Enormous numbers of people were wounded and dead; many buildings were destroyed.
That evening we knew sleep was necessary, but how do you rest when a disaster is unfolding close by, when you’re worried about being buried in your sleep?
We stayed in our down suits for warmth and to be ready to flee. I strapped my avi beacon on for the night. Then, I took out a sealed baggie I carried everywhere with me in Nepal. In it were photos of my wife, Gloria, and my kids, Jess and Nick, for whom I had to stay resilient enough to get home. There were also photos of deceased loved ones who always gave me strength – my parents, and my old climbing partner, Mike Price. After studying each photo, I sealed them up tight and slipped them deep inside my down suit, over my heart. No matter what happened, they would be with me.
After flicking off my headlamp, I touched the religious medallion that Gloria gave me for protection 23 years ago before my first big climb. I had prepared as best I could, so I closed my eyes.
Khumbu Icefall Route Destroyed
Dawn broke bitter cold. I slipped from the tent to photograph where the avalanches had run. Scoured Ice walls soared a mile into the blue sky. Yesterday’s fallen debris was mostly hidden beneath six inches of new snow. The muted evidence suggested that the avalanches had stopped about 200 yards from us on one side and about 500 yards away on the other.
A high-altitude helicopter lifted three people out of Camp 1 with serious medical issues. Late in the morning, two small teams of guides investigated our descent route through the Khumbu icefall. They were down among the ice blocks when a 6.6 magnitude aftershock rattled us hard. But they returned unscathed to report that most of the fixed lines and ladders were destroyed or missing.
Replacing the safety lines was theoretically possible, but we lacked the manpower, equipment and time. A snowstorm was predicted to hit in two days. Plans were developed to evacuate the 160 Western climbers and Nepali mountain workers with helicopters.
Early the next morning, I climbed aboard a helicopter with my teammate Don. There were no seatbelts, or even seats. We just sat on the floor while a skilled Nepali pilot swooped the aircraft over the icefall. I looked straight down the black throats of a hundred monstrous crevasses. In years past those ominous mouths had swallowed many climbers. They now had consumed thousands of feet of rope and dozens of ladders. Out the window I saw not a trace of man’s passage.
The 2,600 foot descent flight to basecamp took less than two minutes.
Tucking my head low beneath the whirring blades, I hustled out the chopper door. The air was warm and thick with oxygen. Still in my red down suit and green high-altitude boots, I stumbled to our mess tent for water.
Inside were some of my teammates who had been in basecamp during the emergency. With soft voices and distant eyes they told how the rock avalanche had ripped through the middle third of basecamp, taking out scores of tents and, sometimes, those inside. I heard how the medical camp was destroyed, so the mess tent in which we sat had temporarily become a triage center to deal with nearly 100 patients.
The Ever Widening Circle
An hour later, I stood on a hilltop talking on my cell phone to my wife back in Fort Collins. I glanced across the rocky surface of the basecamp moraine and saw our neighbor’s camp flattened to the ground just 100 yards away. A teammate waved to interrupt my call and said we were going to help the physicians from the Himalayan Rescue Association dig through the avalanche debris to recover medical equipment.
With the chance to help somehow, I hastily got off the phone. I grabbed some work gloves and a shovel, then fell in line behind Dr. Meghan Walmsley as she led eight of us to the where their field hospital had stood.
On the brief walk over there, we saw thousands of broken possessions scattered across the ground, the remnants of one hundred destroyed tents and nineteen fatalities. A torn jacket. A bent laptop. One boot. Bloody bandages.
Digging medical supplies out of the rubble felt like a small but useful thing to do. Moving a wrapped body up to the helicopter pad felt sad and important. Everyone who survived at basecamp must have seen terrible things.
Two days later, the retreat from basecamp was slow and somber. The airstrip at Lukla was forty miles away, and since it was backlogged, we were in no rush to get there. Instead we would stay a while in the quiet village of Phortse, halfway down the valley. Several of our Sherpa climbing partners lived there. My first glimpse of Phortse reminded me of the mythical Himalayan paradise of Shangri-La.
Many of the eighty or so rock and timber buildings in town had modest quake damage, and a few were total losses. We pitched in to help Palden Sherpa from our team carefully disassemble his home so that it could be put back together again. We saved the precious logs and hand cut rocks. It felt good to help some, but so much more needed to be done.
When we left his home site later that day, as a thank you Palden gathered his two children to say goodbye to us. Smiling broadly, he held his baby daughter’s hands together. To each of us as we departed, on her behalf, he repeated the Buddhist spiritual greeting “Namaste” – The God in me greets the God in you.
Author’s note: The people of Nepal are resourceful and resilient, so they will recover. However, their needs right now are many and great. Across Colorado there are currently many fundraising events for the Nepali people, and many charities that are bringing help to Nepal. Please help however you can. Namaste.
The Colorado-based dZi Foundation has long been involved in some of Nepal’s most remote communities, and is helping rebuild there now. To learn more and to donate: https://dzi.org/