The last thing I remember was jumping into our kitchen tent when we saw the mountain of ice and snow hurtle towards us. Now, all I see is white. “I can’t breathe, is this the end?” That’s the first thought I have. “Why can’t I breathe?” I open my eyes, and for a second, I am terrified. I fear I have lost my eye sight.
It takes me a few moments to focus, and realize that everything is covered in snow and ice, including me. The tent I was in has been shredded to ribbons and blown away, leaving just its twisted frame and an open sky.
I wipe the snow of my face and begin to slowly dig away the snow that covers me. I can’t recognize anything: no landmarks, no tents, just a trail of debris strewn across the glacier. “Am I alone…?” I wonder. I can’t feel any pain. I can’t even feel my hands, so I must be in shock. It’s only when I start shivering that I realize I’ve been drenched by the snow and now I’m extremely cold.
Suddenly, I see movement in a pile of snow five meters away, the place where our dining tent used to be. The snow shifts, and under it, I make out the fabric of the tent – and I hear voices. As I run towards the tent, a corner of the canvas lifts and the rest of my team crawls out from under the debris. They are shaken, scared, battered, and bruised; but safe. All ten of us are present and accounted for.
There is an uncanny stillness across the glacier. But then, the silence breaks. Suddenly, all around us, the air is filled with screams and cries for help.
The reality sinks in. I have just survived a deadly natural disaster. But many haven’t.
That wasn’t exactly the day I’d planned.
25th April, 2015: The day started like any ordinary day at Everest Base Camp. After enjoying bright sunlight over the previous three days, we were extremely disappointed to wake up to an overcast sky and light snowfall. The temperature started dropping, and it looked like it was going to be another cold day on the Khumbu Glacier.
As per our climbing schedule, the next day we would attempt to shift our team to CAMP-II at 22,000 feet, and occupy it for a period of three or four days.
As frequent readers of my blog posts know, I’ve been planning my ascent of Everest for more than a year, and mapping out everything from “training” climbs on LeBouche to the logistics of planning such a huge and expensive project.
Just days before, I’d written about the final plans, innocent of what was to come:
Before the fall
We arrived at Everest Base Camp on the 9th of April, 2015, after successfully summiting Labouche Peak (6,120 meters) as part of our preparation and acclimatization plan. My walk into Everest Base Camp was absolutely surreal, with the sun shining brightly across the glacier, the Khumbu Icefall with its numerous Ice pinnacles looking like huge waves frozen in time, sparkling white against a city of multi-colored tents scattered across the glacier.
This year, Everest Base Camp has a population of approximately 700-800 people, with over 250 climbers hoping to pit their might against Everest and about 60 climbers who will attempt to climb Lhotse (the fourth highest mountain in the world). With a ratio of 1:3 for climbers to their support team (comprising of Sherpas, cooks, assistant cooks, base camp managers, and liaison officers), Everest Base Camp is constantly buzzing like a hive.
Our first few days were spent getting used to life at Base Camp. We each have our own Alpine dome tent. After living in a normal sized room all my life, it takes a major mental adjustment to get used to a 6’x5’ tent. We have a huge dining tent, which also doubles up as our communication tent and is the place where the team spends most of its time when not climbing.
Of course, we have a “Pee-Tent” and a “Poo-tent” as well as a shower tent. It is mandatory for every expedition team to ensure that all human waste is bagged, tagged, weighed and taken down to Kathmandu to be processed in a sanitation plant, to protect the glacier is protected and to shed the tag of Everest being the highest junkyard in the world. Thus, every “Poo-tent” is set up over a large plastic barrel/ drum and when full, is sealed and carried down the valley for processing. In fact the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee (SPCC) even has a security deposit of $4,000US per expedition team which is forfeit in case a team does not comply with the hygiene and sanitation rules.
One of the major events at Base Camp, which we were privileged to be a part of, was the special “Pooja Ceremony,” during which a Buddhist Lama is invited from one of the monasteries in the Khumbu Valley to give blessings to the climbers who will attempt to climb. During the ceremony, special permission is asked of Chomolungma (Mt. Everest) to allow these climbers to ascend her lofty peaks safely. The ceremony is concluded by hoisting Buddhist prayer flags above the camp along with prayers and incantations. The Lama then smears wheat flour on the faces of the entire team, blessing them and leaving them in the capable hands of Chomolungma. As the 13th of April, 2015, was an extremely auspicious date as per the Buddhist calendar, Everest Base Camp resounded with the sound of prayers and Buddhist chants of prayer ceremonies taking place in multiple expeditions teams simultaneously. Within moments, the entire Base Camp was transformed into a riot of colors: not just tents, but also Buddhist prayer flags and country flags fluttering across each camp, giving it an extremely festive feel.
I woke up on the 19th of April, with bright sunlight shining down on my tent. After six days of cloudy and depressing weather, this was such a wonderful surprise, especially since the previous night, the entire valley was buffeted with strong winds. At times, the winds were so strong that I felt my tent lift with me inside it. These winds continued the entire night, leaving tremendous damage across base camp in its wake. But because of the strong winds, the weather cleared along with the snow clouds, ensuring a beautiful sunny day. . . .
I have now spent 15 days at Everest Base Camp and 35 days in Nepal, probably the longest period I have stayed in a foreign country. At Everest Base Camp, life has taken on a pleasant routine. The sounds of camp life constantly surround me, with the kitchen making up the most central part of each camp. Occasionally, the camp activities are drowned out by the sound of helicopters either ferrying people to the glacier or evacuating a poor unfortunate trekker or climber who just cannot take the altitude and the rarefied atmosphere any more. At least once a day, we witness the awesome might of nature in the form of a gigantic avalanche that rolls down the slopes of the Pumori or Nputse, the mountains surround the Khumbu Glacier. During these times, all camp activities come to a standstill as we watch massive columns of snow and ice rolling down the slopes well out of reach from our camp. A harrowing lull, and then as one, the camp comes back to life, and we continue with our respective routines.
The Mountain Falling from the Sky
25th April: We had just trekked up to Pumori High Camp the previous day so the thought of spending a day resting in our tents sounded extremely appealing. As the entire team was together for a change, instead of climbing to higher camps ferrying loads, we decided to watch a movie on my laptop in the dining tent: a documentary on the sherpas of Nepal which highlighted the challenges of climbing Everest.
Then, at approximately 11:55am Nepal standard time, the ground below our feet began to shake. My very first thought was that the glacier was shifting below us; but when it persisted, we all ran out of the tent. We struggled to maintain our balance as the ground continued to heave below our feet. The entire experience was nauseatingly unsettling as the very laws of nature were brought into question. As the tremors began to ease, the sound of the earthquake was replaced by a roar of snow and ice crashing down the mountains all around us. We squinted up at the Khumbu Icefall and Everest through poor visibility, seeking out the direction for what we recognized was an avalanche.
However, as the roar increased to deafening proportion, we turned around to see a wall of ice and snow rolling towards us from the Pumori face, giving us just seconds to react. In the moments that followed, one fact became glaringly obvious: We were going to be hit – and possibly buried – by a huge avalanche.
The avalanche that swept across Everest Base Camp on the 25th of April, 2015 was triggered by an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale. The earthquake caused a huge block of ice to crack and break off from the ice cliff situated between Mt. Pumori and Lingstren, directly opposite Everest, with the Khumbu Glacier and Everest Base Camp, located in between. Tons of ice and rock fell down a vertical height of 2,500 feet, gathering strength as it crashed down towards the Khumbu Glacier, with an accompanying air blast that completely leveled over 85% of the expedition camps.
In the hours that followed, every team including ours struggled to salvage equipment, food rations, and personal effects that were scattered across hundreds of meters. Simultaneously, rescue efforts carried on for the injured and missing. The weather continued to deteriorate. The Everest emergency response (ER) team, run by the Himalaya Rescue Association (HRA) and supported by doctors from other expedition teams, worked exhaustedly through the entire night, ensuring that all the injured in critical condition were in a position to be evacuated by helicopter the next day.
Meanwhile, over 70 climbers who the previous day had climbed up to Camp-I and Camp-II were presumed missing or worse. A few hours later, when radio contact was re-established, we received reports with incredible relief: All climbers were fine and there were no casualties. It wasn’t all good news: Though safe for the moment, they had limited resources in an incredibly unstable environment which could escalate at any time into an even more volatile situation. The earthquake and subsequent avalanches had destroyed the route through the treacherous icefall, making it impossible for teams to descend back down to base camp, leaving the climbers stranded for the next two days.
Fortunately, the weather cleared on April 27th, allowing helicopter evacuations to take place. In a dramatic display of courage and skill, helicopter pilots flew to a height of 20,000 ft. above sea level in one of the most treacherous mountain terrains in the world, evacuating two climbers at a time, thus preventing any further loss of life. On April 28th, the Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA), officially reported 24 deaths and 62 critically injured, confirming this to be the largest and deadliest natural disaster in the history of mountaineering.
In the days that followed, the panic and fear permeating through the various expedition teams at Everest Base Camp was nauseating. Although Sherpas and climbers are mentally prepared for the risks associated with mountain climbing, a very large population at base camp is made up of support staff: cooks, kitchen boys, assistants and porters, people who never expected to face such dangers and risks.
Historically, the base camp is the safest place to be, closest to the mountain. But now it seemed like the most dangerous place in the world. Random and unsubstantiated rumors of a bigger earthquake, constant smaller avalanches, and the fear of the glacier opening up below our tents added even more stress, creating an exodus of kitchen staff – thus crippling even teams who had not sustained any damage.
The complete absence of the government “liaison officers” or the SPCC, responsible for monitoring the expedition teams on the glacier), on account of them being the first to run away from Base Camp, added more chaos to an already complicated situation.
Although the wounded and critically injured were successfully evacuated and the lens of the news cameras moved on, there was still tremendous amount of work left to be done in the days that followed. Within our limited capacity, we attempted to distribute extra equipment (such as sleeping bags and tents) to people whose camps had been completed leveled. We ensured that hot water, beverages, and food were made available to any climber or camps in need, while we continued to assist in any way we could. The Indian Army, led by a close friend, Major Jamwal, institutionalized a cleanup drive, to gather up as much debris as possible, scattered across the glacier in the wake of the avalanche.
We stayed on at Base Camp for a week after the avalanche, till the 2nd of May, hoping for some clarity from the Nepal Government about the state of affairs with respect to the rest of the climbing season – as well as assisting in any way we could.
As we made our way down the Khumbu valley, we saw firsthand the devastation caused by the earthquake and its subsequent aftershocks. Along the way, we stopped at a few remote villages, such as Thame and Khunde, to help in any way we could. We were extremely relieved to find all our friends who live in the Khumbu Valley were safe and already in the process of rebuilding their homes. On our return journey, we distributed all our remaining food and rations as well as any extra resources we had from our expedition, rather than take it back to Katmandu.
It has been one month since I returned back to Pune, returned back home; leaving behind Nepal, the earthquake, the avalanche and the friends who perished in its wake. It has taken me all this time to muster the courage to put down on paper my experience, to relive those moments all over again.
When I look back at what we faced and how close we came to injury and death, I am grateful for this second life. In the face of this natural disaster, I’m glad we chose to stay, to help and lend assistance in any way we could. In the process, we met incredible people and made a few extremely close friends. By staying on, we played a small part in healing Nepal, while the people of Nepal helped us come to terms with the disappointment of our unsuccessful expedition. In the face of such adversity, their resilience and generosity were valuable lessons reminding us that the mountain still stood, mighty and proud, waiting for us to one day come back, and resume our quest for Everest. Because yes – we’ll be back.
Read about Sauraj’s journey:
- Why Everest? Because It’s There.
- My Pursuit of Mount Everest Begins
- Climbing Everest: Lessons from Lebouche
- The Food at the Top of the World
- One Step at a Time: The Mountaineering (and Other) Equipment You Need to Climb Everest
- Climbing Everest: The Number Crunch
- Climbing Everest: The First Steps on the Last Steps of the Journey
Want to make a difference? Contribute to the Red Cross’s efforts in Nepal.