Dispatch—Day 37: May 2, 2009
Avalanche in the Khumbu Icefall
Photo: Snow cloud from an avalanche about to overtake Base Camp
By Dave Hahn
Photograph by Jake Norton
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Camp 2 [Advanced Base Camp]—21,200 feet (6,460 meters)
N 27º 58.811' E 086º 54.160'

Click here to zoom in on a high resolution image of the avalanche »

Camp 1 couldn’t have been quieter last night. There wasn’t a puff of wind to rattle the tent fabric. No dogs barking, no trucks shifting gears, no loud parties and no roosters crowing when our 5 o’clock alarm went off. Breakfast took about an hour—not because we read newspapers, but more because our little propane canisters barely want to burn when they are cold. So we put our boots on with our sleeping bags on our laps, and we put coffee powder in our cups, and stared at a pot of icy water waiting for a puff of steam. After a few hot drinks, some cereal, and a little pre-cooked bacon, it isn’t so hard to throw open the tent doors and greet the day. I watched the mere hint of a cloud cap play around Lhotse summit, in an otherwise clear sky as we stuffed our packs.

Today was basically our “tag team” day. Those up the hill were dropping down while we were moving up to take control of the heights.

As planned, Peter Whittaker came through first so that he and I might have a few minutes face-to-face in order to figure out the timing of our various pushes for the mountaintop. My team of Ang Kaji, Kent, Seth and Erica marched out of Camp 1 at 7 a.m., leaving me to my meetings and the small chore of knocking down our tents for safekeeping.

Peter strapped his helmet on and dropped down towards Base Camp. Ed Viesturs and John Griber weren’t far behind. As I packed up the last tent and stepped into my crampons, I saw Gerry, Melissa, Lambabu and a handful of sherpas bringing up the rear in their strategic withdrawal to Base Camp. We chatted for a few minutes as the sun finally found Camp 1.

A half hour later, I was cruising up the middle of the Western Cwm alone—feeling pretty good about the day and my strength—when I heard familiar voices in panic on my radio. I stopped and turned around, now sickeningly aware of an avalanche roaring somewhere down-valley, out of my sight. I barged in on the radio, trying to get some clear accounting for where the slide was hitting and who was involved. Others closer and with a view began to do the same, and I shut up.

I told myself I could run to the scene—the popcorn in the lower half of the Icefall—in 45 minutes. But that would be for some worst case scenario that I hoped would not come to pass. I stood in the Cwm waiting through the tedious process of various teams taking attendance on the radio. My mind kept darting back to the morning in 2006, when my own radio attendance efforts came up short, and I realized I lost a friend to the Icefall. This time the headcounts came out right. It was a near miss and too close a call, but everybody was all right.

I continued my walk to ABC, still intent on catching my gang. I still felt healthy and hopeful, but I didn’t feel nearly as bulletproof or in control anymore. With vast walls of ice and rock surrounding me, in the world’s greatest cathedral, I missed my strong, humble friend Phinjo. I’d trade a thousand pretty mountains so see his smile again... but it doesn’t work that way.

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