When Everest shook
Two of India’s best-known climbers recount the harrowing story of what happened when an avalanche hit the Everest Base Camp.
It was Love Raj Singh Dharmshaktu’s eighth visit to Everest, and if all went well, he would climb successfully to the summit for the sixth time. With five ascents already in the bag, he was the Indian to have climbed Everest the most number of times. In love with the peak, he had become associated with regular returns to Everest.
His 2015 expedition had been difficult to put together. Everest is an expensive affair, and sponsors had been hard to find. “This time, it wasn’t as determined an effort. I decided to go if I secured some support,’’ Love Raj said. In the end, some financial assistance did materialise, but it wasn’t enough, so Love Raj tweaked the details of his passage up the mountain, so that he did all the climbing and cooking by himself, to save money. He left for Kathmandu on April 4, to join the Eco Everest Expedition organised by Asian Trekking, among the best-known organisers of expeditions to Everest. Their annual Eco Everest Expedition, besides climbing the peak, contributed its bit to bringing down trash from the mountain. The team this year had 14 climbers, from the UK, South Africa, Australia, Belgium and India.
Love Raj’s flight from Delhi to Kathmandu was delayed by several hours. It was midnight when he reached his friend’s house there. The next day, he had to meet his team and also complete the final preparations for the expedition. The day after that, April 6, the team left Kathmandu in fine weather for Lukla. “From Lukla onward, there was something funny about the weather,’’ Love Raj said. The local people spoke of snowfall. Usually, bad weather in Namche Bazaar, in the season of Everest climbs, meant three to four inches of snow on the ground. But, this time, it was as much as half a foot. For the next few days — April 9, 10, 11 — it snowed. There was a pattern to it. Morning dawned clear. By nine or ten, clouds gathered. By afternoon, it snowed. The consistency of this cycle marked those spells apart from typical bad weather. On April 12, it snowed at Dingboche (14,800ft). On April 13, too, it snowed. The team walked into Lobuche (16,210ft) that evening, amid snowfall. The next day, April 14, the team reached Everest Base Camp (EBC/17,598ft). According to Love Raj, the first set of tents at EBC typically belong to trek
king groups, whose trip is limited to reaching the base camp. Beyond these are the tents of the mountaineering expeditions hoping to climb Everest. Having grown in size over the years, the camp’s tents can nowadays be found on both sides of the ridge and its crest. At its apex lay the heavily crevassed Khumbu Icefall, one of the most difficult sections on the climber’s passage up the mountain. To one side of EBC are Pumori (23,410ft), Lingtrense (21,972ft), Khumbutse (21,785ft), Changtse (24,780ft), the west shoulder of Everest and Nuptse (25,791ft). Of these, Changtse lay in Tibet. A saddle in this array of peaks forms the Lola Pass.
The main bulk of Everest (including its summit) and its adjacent high peak, Lhotse (27,940ft), are not visible from base camp. Pumori, Lingtrense, Khumbutse, Changtse, Lola Pass — roughly put, these physical features run parallel to EBC on its side. There is a depression between EBC and the commencement of these mountains. Pumori is eight kilometres west of Everest. Named by the late British climber George Mallory, Pumori means unmarried daughter in the Sherpa language. It is a popular climbing peak with significant avalanche danger. Kala Patthar (18,513ft), well-known as a high perch to view Everest, is an outcrop below the southern face of Pumori.
The Eco Everest Expedition had its tents located just above the trekkers’ tents and at the beginning of the mountaineering lot’s share of camp. It was thus 20-25 minutes away from crampon point, which is from where crampons become essential for travel on ice. This is a tad different from the usual thinking of climbers who like to be close to a climb. But, that distance meant the Eco Everest Expedition was removed from the thick of the tents at EBC. Significantly (significant from the angle of later events), the Eco Everest Expedition was away from the depression between EBC and Pumori. From the depression, you would have had to ascend the slope to the ridge and then descend to reach the team’s tents. Love Raj said, when he arrived at EBC, that there was already a strong contingent of tents and climbers in place.
One possible reason for the many people at EBC was an accident that had occurred a year ago. On April 18, 2014, a large chunk of ice broke off from a serac band at 20,200ft, triggering an avalanche. On the National Geographic website, the chunk that broke off is estimated at 113ft high, with a top area slightly in excess of a basketball court. At that dimension, its maximum weight in ice was estimated as the equivalent of 657 buses. The broken chunk and the avalanche it triggered barrelled down on Nepali mountain workers in the Khumbu Icefall, who were preparing a safe route for clients that season. Sixteen of them were killed.
Following this accident, and the outcry in its wake, of inadequate protection and welfare schemes for mountain workers, several outdoor companies had cancelled their expeditions. Some of the clients and climbers who missed climbing the mountain in 2014 would have returned in 2015, contributing to the robust camp Love Raj saw at EBC. According to old reports on the internet, the authorities had said that ascents in 2015 would take a slightly different route, given the damage caused by the 2014 avalanche to the old approach. That 2014 avalanche had been responsible for the highest numbers of deaths on Everest in a season, till then. Indeed, among the 8000m peaks, Everest has claimed the most number of lives, largely due to the high number of people congregating every season to attempt the world’s highest peak. As per information on the internet, around 250 people have died on Everest, so far.
On April 15, the Eco Everest Expedition had its team puja. After the puja, some of the newcomers were given the time to train and check gear. Typically, the day after the puja, the team members go up the mountain a little bit; the accompanying mountain workers climb up to Camp 1 and return. This time, the Eco Everest Expedition decided to try Lobuche East (20,193ft) as a pre-Everest climb. On April 16, they moved from EBC to Lobuche, where Asian Trekking had a hotel. The next day, they shifted to the upper base camp on Lobuche East. On April 18, they were on the summit. “The weather was bad all through. The Sherpas who came with the team said they had never seen so much snow on the summit before. There was almost two feet of snow on the top,’’ Love Raj said. On April 19, the team returned to EBC.
The next two days, April 20 and 21, were devoted to acclimatisation walks and training on the glacier. On April 21, the team’s support staff went up to Camp 1 and came back. April 22 and 23 were rest days. On April 24, some of the team left early in the morning for higher camp. The plan was to stay two nights at Camp 1; the first day, proceed to Camp 1 from EBC, and then go from Camp 1 to Camp 2 and return to Camp 1 on the second day. On April 25, according to Love Raj who was at EBC, two members returned early to Camp 1 from the climb to Camp 2. They had reached Camp 1 and not yet gone into their tents. The rest of the team was in the Western Cwm. Named by George Mallory, the Western Cwm is a large bowl-shaped glacial valley at the foot of the Lhotse face of Everest. It is reached via the Khumbu Icefall and is notorious for how its shape, combined with the vast amount of snow and ice around it, reflects sunlight to gift the climber rather hot days, despite the significant altitude of the location.
Noon, April 25, 2015: Nepal’s devastating earthquake struck. News reports on the internet peg the exact time of the event as 11.56 AM, local time. At EBC, Love Raj noted it at 12.06 PM. With an epicentre in the village of Barpak in Gorkha district, the quake’s intensity was estimated at 7.8 on the Richter scale. The whole Everest region was shaken up. Up on the mountain, top Indian sport climber Praveen CM was one of the two people from Love Raj’s team who returned to Camp 1. They were roughly ten minutes away from their tents when the earthquake struck. According to him, visibility was poor, but they could hear avalanches in the neighbourhood. “Avalanches happened to our right and left. There was also a third one,’’ he said. Luckily, the campsite was spared a direct hit and only the smaller debris rolled in.
Down at base camp, Love Raj, the team’s doctor and a Sherpa were in the dining tent discussing something when the earth started to shake. It was initially mild. They stepped out of the tent. By then, the tremors were strong. EBC is on a moraine slope atop a glacier. There were sounds of things falling and breaking up. Glaciers are a live environment. Even on a normal day, when camped on or near a glacier, mountaineers hear the sound of ice cracking deep within. This time it was more pronounced; the sounds were very loud. The three men held on to each other. Just after this, from all sides, the sound and the fury of the avalanche set in.
From past experience, Love Raj knew what was coming. Within no time, he felt the approaching gust of wind, followed by the spectacle of powder snow billowing 30-40 feet in the air, rearing up behind the camps on the ridge between EBC and Pumori. The avalanche, coming down from Pumori, had hit the depression, powered up the next slope to the ridge and was looming like a cloud for the onward journey. In the process, it had already flattened camps on the slope immediately above the depression.
Seeing the cloud of snow, Love Raj and his companions ran their separate ways. He and two Sherpas took shelter behind a rock, and the avalanche swept by. Love Raj said, “When an avalanche arrives, there is a severe wind chill. That and the powder snow flying around make your breathing laboured. The snow gets into your lungs. You are in a cocoon of heavy breathing. That’s what I heard when I took shelter. Later, when I got up, everything was covered in snow. I was breathing hard, as though I had run a 100m sprint.’’
Since avalanches come from above, their first instinct was to check on climbers up the mountain. They immediately contacted the team members who were at Camp 1 and above. They replied they were safe but couldn’t see anything, as visibility had plummeted. One of the members had been on a ladder placed across a crevasse when the quake happened. He was immediately pulled back, averting a disaster. Love Raj and others at EBC advised them to stay put on the mountain. At both campsites, across the many expeditions attempting the peak, there were approximately 100-120 people. No major tragedy was reported from the higher camps. Unknown to Love Raj, it was EBC that took
As visibility improved at EBC, the devastation became clear. The injured started coming in. Most injuries were to the face, head and limbs — a consequence of being hit by flying debris or being flung around by the avalanche on the rock-ridden moraine. While some people fled after the quake, the others commenced rescue operations within 15 minutes of the incident. The tents that hadn’t collapsed were immediately converted into treatment zones for the injured. Love Raj said that a chain of command took shape organically, and pretty soon a rudimentary medical facility was in place.
Mountaineering expeditions travel as self-sustained groups, because they anticipate accidents and are prepared for them. Teams now pooled together their medical kits. Kitchen staff got the stoves going; hot drinks and food were prepared. In terms of the impact of the disaster, those camped on the ridge slope facing Pumori were the worst hit. Those on the ridge and on the other side were less affected. In all, 19 people would die in this avalanche, making it the worst season on Everest. A year and six days after the 2014 avalanche, its reputation as the worst season on the peak had been surpassed.
Some argue that the high incidence of tragedy on Everest is prompted by the number of people on the mountain, and the varied nature of those people, spanning seasoned climber to abject amateur. Makalu (27,838ft) is a beautiful sight from Everest and Lhotse. Eighteen kilometres east of Everest, it stands apart from other mountains. There were people on Makalu and at Makalu’s Advanced Base Camp (ABC), which serves as base camp for the peak, when the earthquake hit, but nobody died. Arjun Vajpai, who briefly became the youngest person to ascend Everest some years ago, was at Makalu.
Arjun had managed to climb Everest, Lhotse and Manaslu (26,781ft) on his first attempt. He then decided to try Cho Oyu (26,906ft) and Shishapangma (26,335ft). Attempting these mountains in spring, he ran into bad weather. He temporarily suffered partial body paralysis and had to be brought down from Cho Oyu. Following this, he decided to attempt Makalu. His first attempt in 2013 failed because the team ran out of rope; the second attempt saw much further progress on the mountain, but he again succumbed to rope-related issues. His 2015 trip to the mountain for a third attempt, was a “really calm’’ one. The description fit the state of affairs — till noon of April 25.
Arjun reached Makalu ABC on April 22. At 19,500 feet, this is the highest base camp for any mountain. Both the approach to Makalu and the ABC don’t have any of the heavy traffic or frills one finds on the Everest trail. “There is no impressive infrastructure here,’’ Arjun said. In 2013, there were just two teams on the mountain. In 2014, there were three to four teams. What he saw in 2015 was the highest number of teams he had seen so far on his visits to Makalu, but it was still nothing compared to EBC. Arjun, too, noted the snow he saw en route.
The topography and lay of Makalu ABC is different from that of EBC. The main peak sits recessed and away. What is closer to ABC is rock-ridden ridges from which, even on normal days, stones can roll down. Around noon on April 25, the earth shook. “We started hearing noises from all around,’’ Arjun said. Fifteen minutes later, there was an aftershock. Till then, there had been no major avalanche. According to Arjun, the aftershock felled a big serac with a lot of snow behind it, at Camp 2. Also, ahead of Camp 1 on Makalu, there is a 150m steep ice wall. A climber was rappelling down it when the wall split from the very centre. That climber and his team were rattled. One of them left the next day. The quake caused injuries at Makalu ABC. There were no fatalities. The approach trail to the region was badly damaged. Although Arjun managed to call home and say he was fine, for the first day or two, he said, there wasn’t a clear idea of the dimension of the earthquake. Then it slowly filtered in; first came news of EBC, then news of lands beyond all the way to Kathmandu. With the trail leading to Makalu damaged, Arjun and his team were ferried out by helicopter from Yanglekharka, a village some distance from ABC.
At EBC, Love Raj said that news of the scale of the tragedy was available within an hour or so after the quake. Some of the local people left wanting to know what had happened back home. “But, a lot of them stayed back. The rescue operation was actually carried out well. There was no particular panic in that department, despite everyone affected by the quake and traumatised by it,’’ he said. A makeshift helipad was made at EBC. By the next morning, helicopters began arriving. Up on the mountain, people successfully reached Camp 1 from Camp 2. But, reaching EBC from Camp 1 proved difficult; a group of mountain workers tried it, but they retreated to Camp 1, as many of the ladders in the Khumbu Icefall were gone. Eventually, they were brought down by choppers.
The immediate rescue operations at EBC were more or less completed in the first three hours after the quake. There was little need to dig out anyone from the snow — the dead and the injured were on the surface. By the evening of April 26, word came that China had closed access to Everest from the Tibet side. It wasn’t yet known what would happen for Everest ascents in Nepal. Every year, the initial part of the climbing route to Everest is opened by personnel from the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee (SPCC). Their team — often called the Icefall Doctors — open the route till Camp 2. With the SPCC camp at EBC among the worst hit by the quake, their personnel were not around any more.
Around April 30, Love Raj said, Himalayan Experience, which along with Asian Trekking typically opens the route above Camp 2, decided to pull out. Himalayan Experience is an interesting company. As early as 2012, it had warned about impending disaster on Everest due to a bulge of hanging glacial ice on the climbing route, and actually pulled out its expeditions that year. It was criticised. In 2014, that decision was seen in a totally different light. On May 2, SPCC personnel reached EBC by chopper. By next evening, it was decided to shut down the climbing season. The reason given at EBC was that even if the SPCC opened the route till Camp 2, the route further up couldn’t be opened, because some of the important expedition companies had decided to retreat. Love Raj made his way back to Delhi. In all, the earthquake killed over 8000 people in Nepal and injured more than 19,000.
Two major tragedies in two seasons in a row may leave a psychological mark on Everest climbs, but the rational approach from a mountaineer’s perspective is different. I asked Love Raj what the earthquake could mean for future climbs. What if the route has altered? “Isn’t that how mountain environments are?’’ he asked. Mountains are dynamic. The icefall may have freshly cracked; new crevasses may have opened up; existing crevasses may have grown wider. But, then, there are the winters and their snows, which bridge and compact things afresh. It is the earth’s natural cycle. Mountaineers will find a way through.
It was a sentiment shared by Arjun, albeit differently. He pointed out, in the context of varied types of people congregating in high mountain camps and then panicking when calamity strikes, that trained mountaineers know how to cope with such situations. Love Raj was worried less about climbers. He was worried more about the mountain workers, whose houses were destroyed in the earthquake, not to mention their source of livelihood being literally shaken up. “For them, there is a big gap in earnings between working on Everest and working on other peaks,’’ Love Raj said. In Nepal, Everest is a small economy in itself. When it shuts down, it affects the lives of those dependent on it. Put differently, it may not be possible to keep it shut for long.