“I can’t breathe . . .!” That’s the first thought I have. “Why can’t I breathe?” I open my eyes, and for a second, I am terrified. I think I’ve lost my eye sight.
The last thing I remember was jumping into our kitchen tent, when we saw the mountain of ice and snow hurtling towards us. Now, all I see is ‘White…’ 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 any landmarks or tents; just a trail of debris strewn across the glacier.
“Am I alone . . . ?” 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 am freezing. Suddenly, I see movement in a pile of snow five meters away, the place where our dinning tent used to be. The snow shifts, and under it, I make out the fabric of the tent and hear voices. As I run towards the tent, a corner of the canvas lifts and the rest of my team crawl out from under the debris; shaken, scared, battered and bruised; but safe.
All ten of us our present and accounted for. At first, there is an uncanny stillness across the glacier. But then, the silence breaks, and suddenly all around us, the air is filled with screams and cries for help. The reality sinks in. We have just survived one of the deadliest natural disasters in the history of man, but many haven’t . . .
25th April, 2015 – The day started as any ordinary day at Everest Base Camp. We had enjoyed bright sunlight over the last 3 days and 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, we would attempt to shift our team to CAMP-II, located at 21,900 Ft. the next day, and occupy it for a period of 3-4 days. We had just trekked up to ‘Pumori High Camp’ the previous day and so, the thought of spending a day resting in our tents sounded extremely appealing. As the entire team was together for a change, as opposed to climbing up to higher camps ferrying loads, we decided to watch a movie in the dinning tent on my laptop. Incidentally, the movie was a documentary on the Sherpa’s of Nepal and highlighted the challenges of climbing ‘Everest’.
Suddenly, at approximately 11:55hrs NST, 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 nauseatingly unsettling as the very laws of nature were being brought into question. As the tremors began to ease out, the sound of the earthquake was immediately replaced by the 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 knew to be 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 was 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 approximately 2500ft, gathering strength as it crashed down towards the Khumbu Glacier, forming a huge avalanche and an accompanying air blast that completely leveled over 80% of the expedition camps. In the hours that followed, every team including ours, struggled to salvage as much equipment, food rations and personal affects that had been scattered across hundreds of meters. Simultaneously, rescue efforts carried on for the injured and missing, while the weather continued to deteriorate. The Everest ER team, run by the Himalaya Rescue Association (HRA), 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 140 climbers having climbed up the previous day, were at Camp-I & Camp-II, presumed missing or worse. A few hours later, when radio contact was re-established, we received reports with incredible relief, that all climbers were fine and that there were no casualties. Though safe for the moment, these climbers had limited resources, and were stranded 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 them stranded for the next two days. Fortunately, the weather cleared on the 27th of April, 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 2 climbers at a time, thus preventing any further loss of life. On the 28th of April, 2015, the Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA), officially reported 19 deaths and 61 critically injured, thus confirming this to be the largest & deadliest natural disaster, in the history of mountaineering.
‘Descend Now . . . !’ The panic and fear permeating through the various expedition teams at Everest Base Camp, in the days that followed, was nauseating. Though 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 have never had to face such dangers and risks. Historically, the base camp is the safest place to be, closest to the mountain. But this time, 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 fuel to the existing fire, creating an exodus of kitchen staff thus even crippling teams who had not sustained any damage. The complete absence of the government ‘Liaison Officers’ as well as the SPCC (Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee 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.
In the days that followed, though the wounded and critically injured had been successfully evacuated, there was still tremendous amount of work left to be done. In 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 constantly made available to any climber or camps in need, while we continued to assist in any way we could. The Indian Army, led by Major Jamwal as Expedition Leader, institutionalized a cleanup drive, to gather up as much debris as possible, scattered across the glacier in the wake of the avalanche. In the absence of any ‘Nepal Government Representation’, the various teams began to turn towards Indian Army Expedition camp as a rallying point to determine a future course of action. We stayed on at Base Camp for a week after the avalanche, till the 2nd of May, 2015, hoping for some clarity from the Nepal Government about the state of affair with respect to the rest of the climbing season as well as working to assist in any way we could. As we made our way down the Khumbu valley, we were able to see firsthand, the devastation caused by the earthquake and the subsequent aftershocks. We distributed all our remaining food & rations as well as any extra resources we had from our expedition, rather than take it back to Katmandu. Along the way, we stopped at a few remote village such as Thame and Thamo, to help in any way we could. We were extremely, relieved to find all our friends who live in the Khumbu Valley, safe and already in the process of rebuilding their homes.
It has been one month since I’ve 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 some 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’ . . .
The Outdoor Journal
Times of India ( Pune edition )