It was all going so smoothly. Yes, I had a couple of bad nights with a stomach bug but considering I was on Mount Everest, one of the most inhospitable and unforgiving places on earth, things couldn’t have been going much better. After twenty months of training, I was finally being put to the test to see if I was really ready to fulfill my dream of summiting Everest and completing the Seven Summits.
After a successful warmup on Mount Lobuche I was gaining the confidence I needed to move on to Everest proper. Two years ago, the trip from high camp on Lobuche to the summit had taken me almost 6 1/2 hours in perfect conditions. This year, my guide and good friend Mike Hamill and I, along with Mingma Tenjin Sherpa, set out before the rest of our team and made it to the summit in just over 4 ½ hours, in difficult conditions. My confidence was starting to build. Later on a couple of acclimation hikes up Pumori, the mountain that overlooks Everest Base Camp, and one trial run through the first half of the Khumbu Icefall, I knew in my heart that this was going to be my year. I was moving faster with less effort and with better footwork than ever before. I felt lighter and less awkward in the more difficult sections and less winded on the steep faces.
Massive early spring snows on Everest had made route to the summit about as easy as it can get. The new route through the Icefall, prompted by the disaster of 2014, was straightforward and less difficult than the route I had taken in 2013. Yes, Mount Everest had never been more defenseless…there was even private talks between our guides that this could be the year when 100% of our team made it to the top….something that would be unheard of in most Everest climbing seasons.
But as soon as you begin to think you have Everest figured out, something always happens. And this time, it was a disaster that no one could have predicted. The plan was for me, Mike and Pemba Sherpa to start our long rotation up the mountain early in the morning of April 25th. Rather than doing two rotations like most climbers do, we decided to do one long rotation spending two nights at Camp 1, three nights at Camp 2 and one night at Camp 3 with no oxygen before descending back down to Base Camp. This would provide all the acclimatization needed to start our summit push on or about May 7th with a summit target date of May 12th. I felt strong enough to set out on April 25th but a short illness due to a stomach bug two days earlier caused me to decide to delay our rotation by one day in order to give me a little more rest so that I could be as strong as possible….a decision that would turn out to be a huge blessing in disguise.
Rather than waking at 2:30 AM on the 25th to head up the mountain, we woke around 8:00 for a big breakfast of fresh coffee, cereal with apples, fried eggs and bacon served up by our head cook, Kagi. I then decided to kill some time by doing some laundry and start organizing my gear for the climb in the early hours of the next morning. Around noon, the lunch announcement made by pounding two big metal pots together rang out and those of us still at Base Camp assembled in our dining tent for what we thought would be just another routine meal.
I had just taken the first bite of some grilled chicken and rice when the ground under my feet started to shake violently from side to side. Then it felt as though the earth just disappeared under my feet. I had never been in an earthquake before but I immediately knew what was happening. My teammates and I ran out of the tent just in time to see a massive avalanche coming off Pumori and what appeared to be another one originating from the mountain that borders the high end of Base Camp. A huge snow cloud formed and started making its way toward us but it seemed so far away, I wasn’t overly concerned. But then the cloud grew darker due to picking up debris and rock and its speed seemed to increase exponentially. Suddenly it was on top of us. I instinctively ran back into the dining tent along with another teammate and Kagi. We grabbed the tent poles and held on for dear life as the snow cloud and wind pummeled the tent. Then, as quickly as it had started, it was over.
My teammates came out of hiding and we all assembled in the middle of our camp trying to assess the damage. No injuries, no tents down….it seemed that we had come though it pretty well. A couple of us even went back into the tent to finish our lunch. Then the radio reports started coming in and we knew that while we had survived what we later learned was comparable to an F5 force tornado tearing though Base Camp, most of our fellow climbers were not so lucky.
Within minutes, the injured started coming over the hill that just days before had served as a place for our traditional Puja ceremony where the Sherpa give offerings to God and ask for permission to climb and for safe passage up the mountain.
Climber after climber being carried by teammates or carried on stretchers or ladders started to fill our camp. Everest has a medical facility but it was destroyed by the winds and the tons of ice, snow and rocks coming off of Pumori. So our camp was quickly turned into a hospital and the doctors assigned to the medical facility moved into our camp with loads of supplies and medications. Those of us who just happened to be in Base Camp instinctively just started doing what anyone would do in that situation…help wherever we could. As I looked around and started coordinating plans with my teammates, I caught a glimpse of my guide Mike Hamill strapping on his boots and backpack. I knew that he was off to the front line, a place where a guy like Mike should be. I didn’t see him again for hours but knew that he was at a place where his skill and experience would be best put to use.
Our community tent became the triage unit where critically injured patients were evaluated by the medical staff as well as other climbers who happened to be physicians. Tables and chairs were quickly moved out of our three large dining tents which were transformed into medical facilities. An orderly process of evaluating injuries was quickly established by the physicians in charge and patients were transferred to specific tents based on the type of injury and its severity. Every climber in our camp pitched in to help the injured make their way to get treatment. Later, a list was developed for climbers to serve in shifts to aid those patients with the most serious and life threatening injuries. I was assigned duty in the head trauma unit from 6:00 PM until 8:00 PM where I witnessed pain and suffering like I have never seen before but also miracles being performed by volunteer doctors. I was relieved when I was asked to go out and gather needed supplies because just being in the tent with so many people so close to death was something I had never experienced. Several times I questioned whether or not I was strong enough to continue but then I placed myself in the shoes of those injured and tried to do for them what I would have wanted had I been the unfortunate one. A kind word of encouragement, a pat on the shoulder letting them know that they were not alone, a readjustment of their sleeping bag, a fresh bandage on their badly damaged head, an injection of more pain medication. The goal was to make them as warm and comfortable as possible. One patient looked at the volunteer doctor who was on Everest as a climber and asked her whether or not he would survive. I was blown away when she stooped down on one knee, looked the man squarely in the face and said that she was 100% confident that he would. It was a much needed boost in confidence that no doubt helped that man get through the worst night of his life.
At the end of my shift, we had eight seriously injured patients in the trauma unit and most felt that we would be lucky for one or two to survive the night. Sleeping bags were donated by our team and an effort to round up as many Nalgene bottles began so that they could be filled with hot water and placed in the bags of the injured in an attempt to keep them warm and comfortable through the cold night.
After several exhausting hours, I made it back to my tent for a short rest and immediately fell asleep. I was woken up at about 5:30 AM by the sounds of helicopters flying right over my tent. A makeshift landing pad was quickly constructed so that the helicopters could land as close to our camp as possible and we began the process of moving the injured out of Base Camp to hospitals in Pheriche and Kathmandu. Seven of the eight most serious cases made it through the night and were transferred on stretchers to the helicopters. I have no idea how many of those survived but they were alive when they left camp. Then the remainder of patients, who had no ability to walk, were flown out.
By later that afternoon, all patients had been evacuated and the focus went to how we were going to get our teammates down from Camps 1 and 2.
Several brave guides volunteered to make their way up the Icefall to assess the damage to the route and to the ladders that serve as the only way down over crevasses that are sometimes hundreds of feet deep. The route had been destroyed and given the chance of aftershocks, the decision was made to use helicopters to get all of the climbers off the mountain. I supported and even lobbied for this decision as I know that I would not have wanted to descend through the Icefall under those circumstances.
Fortunately the next day was another clear blue sky and I got out of my sleeping bag at about 5:00 AM to start helping with the rescue effort. A trio of helicopters made continuous loops from Base Camp up the Khumbu Icefall to Camp 1 where over 170 climbers were waiting in an orderly line to be brought down to safety. I was happy to see that climbers and Sherpas were treated equally in this process and I was not surprised to see that the western guides volunteered to be the last rescued.
Due to the altitude, the helicopters could only bring down two climbers at a time so a constant stream of trips continued up the mountain for hours until the last climber was back at Base Camp. When it was over, our team had all been accounted for with no deaths and no injuries. But it was hard to celebrate while in the presence of so many dead climbers whose bodies had been wrapped in tarps or sleeping bags and tied with ropes with a single piece of duct tape containing their name, nationality or team affiliation.
When the last climber got off the last helicopter my focus turned to how I was going to get home. Some of my teammates wanted to trek back down to Lukla and catch a plane ride from there back to Kathmandu but I was ready to put Everest behind me and wanted to get home as quickly as possible. Several teammates shared my feeling so six of us piled into what we didn’t realize at the time was the last helicopter out and made our way to Kathmandu. There was no room for our duffel bags so all of our gear was left on the mountain. We hope that it will eventually make it back to us but I am in no hurry since I don’t expect to be wearing crampons or carrying an ice axe for some time.
The helicopter ride gave us a unique vantage point to see the destruction of not only Kahthmandu but also of the little villages in the Khumbu Valley where I had stayed and gotten to know so well. I later learned that many of the homes of our Sherpa team were destroyed just adding to the misery. In fact, the home of my Sherpa guide was leveled in Phortse. He had no home to return to.
It’s only been five days since the earthquake but it seems like it has been a month. A full day of assisting with the injured, another spent waiting for our teammates to return to Base Camp safely. A day to get to Kathmandu and another 30 hours to get home. As I sit here today, I still have not had time to fully process everything that has happened…it’s just a confusing mix of emotions.
Even though I never got an opportunity to climb, I strangely feel no overwhelming sense of disappointment like I did the last two years. Maybe that is because I feel so fortunate just to be alive and healthy. I feel sadness for those who lost their lives just because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time and I feel for their families and friends who are hurting. I am sad for the beautiful and peaceful people of Nepal. Already one of the poorest nations on earth, now they must find a way to get through this tragedy of epic proportions. But through it all, I have an overwhelming sense of pride in the way our team came together under very difficult circumstances and did the best we could do to help. Looking back on it, I regret even taking any time to rest as many of my teammates did not. If I could do it over again, I would have done more. But that is a lesson for another day.by