Dispatch—Day 43: May 8, 2009
Teams Respond to West Ridge Avalanche
Photo: A massive avalanche pours down the Khumbu Icefall on May 7
By Dave Hahn
Photograph by Jake Norton
TwitThis

Everest Base Camp—17,530 feet (5,343 meters)
N 28º 00.336' E 086º 51.504'

I believed I’d imagined Kent Harvey’s call to me at ten minutes to four in the morning. I didn’t have any alarm set—it was a rest day coming on and I was sound asleep in my tent. So fully unconscious that Kent called me several times and when I finally responded, I had no idea where I was or what was going on. It was dark, and as he suggested that something had happened that I might want to be concerned with, I finished rubbing my eyes and zipped open my door.

The beauty of the scene seemed unreal and impossible. The moon had set, and the sun wasn’t close to being up, but there was starlight on the Khumbu Icefall, Nuptse and the great bulk of Everest’s West Shoulder. Kent was saying that he’d just seen a fairly large avalanche come down the Shoulder—sending a cloud of debris across the Icefall—and he was concerned that climbers may have been caught. I listened to him, but I was having trouble taking my eyes from the bright planet perfectly framed above the Icefall and bracketed by the mountains. I did manage to look down and left enough finally to see several small strings of headlamps, just where I knew the avalanche had to have come down. I turned on my radio, taking a guess that my friends at IMG had people in the area. I listened to Mark Tucker calmly and carefully check in with his Sherpa team to find out that they were okay—another near miss—and his Sherpa team was able to tell him that the only other team in the area was also okay and that everybody was going on with their climb.

I relayed this to Kent, stared at the planet again for some time and then went back to sleep in my warm down bag. In the morning, we all looked up at the troublesome serac on the West Shoulder to gauge its stability. The same huge fin of ice had been threatening all week. It had sent down the major avalanche we’d earlier reported which caught some of our team on their way to Base Camp while I was pushing up to Camp 2. In the morning light, it appeared hideously undercut and I don’t believe any of us expected it to last through another day. I went so far as to take “before” photos of it. But to my knowledge, no Everest climbers did anything different yesterday morning because of the serac. It wasn’t like the Icefall route would be closed by any proclamation—there wasn’t some safer way to go instead. This isn’t the only mountain we frequent that has chunks of glacier ready to fall, and I for one have mistakenly pronounced dozens of crazily tilted hotel-sized ice-blocks in danger of imminent collapse only to watch them hang on for months.

But this serac sent down a handful of lesser slides as the morning progressed—enough to keep our attention focused and our cameras ready. I wanted the thing to come down. I certainly didn’t want to walk under it again in its decaying state. At 10:35 a.m. it did come down. I was sitting in my tent doorway, and I didn’t need to fully look at Everest’s West Shoulder to know that this was the big one. In this valley of avalanches, the quality of noise was easily different and distinct for this particular slide.

I fumbled with my camera and began shooting. I didn’t see the tiny dots representing climbers in the avalanche path. Partly because they may not have been visible down in the rough terrain of the Khumbu Icefall, and partly because I was totally mesmerized by the power and majesty of the white explosion I was witnessing. I kept taking pictures as the cloud engulfed Base Camp. I knew it was only a cloud—we were nowhere near close enough to be hit with actual debris, but it was ominous and disturbing even so. It rolled over us like a volcanic ash-cloud, blotting out the sun and rocking the tents back and forth in its wind while pelting us with a “snow” of overly large ice crystals. And then, quite quickly, it was gone and what remained of any mist in the air was quickly burning off in the bright sun. I assumed that it had been a lucky day... that what needed to happen had happened and that nobody had been affected.

It is possible that I went on in this belief for a full twenty minutes before word began to filter around that people had been caught in the avalanche. I began putting on my climbing boots and quickly loading my pack. By then, word had it that it was an acquaintance of mine of several years and many mountains. My friend had been caught along with his client and the Sherpa working with them. I saw Willie and Damian Benegas going past our camp, both speaking into their radios. There were a number of Sherpas moving toward the start of the Icefall route, including Tendi and LamaBabu from our own team. Seth Waterfall was ready before me and stood patiently as I finished up my climbing harness, then we started walking fast and I joined the ongoing radio scramble to get men and equipment to the accident scene.

Since IMG’s Sherpas and clients were descending the route at the time and were very lucky to come through unscathed, they were among the first to report the situation via radio, and so all other teams migrated to the IMG frequency. This seemed right since Mark Tucker and Ang Jangbu Sherpa at the IMG basecamp had shifted into their familiar role in bilingual crisis management. Seth and I checked in and learned that HimEx was offering up a full rescue pack cached near the start of the route. Russell Brice came on the radio, directing us to the gear. We loaded up heavy packs full of oxygen, sleeping bags, medical equipment, and rescue hardware and began climbing. We listened as various expedition leaders, guides and Sherpas reported in and offered up a mountain of resources. This from supposedly competing companies—none of whom had any reason to think that their own staff or customers were involved or injured. We began to feel the sense of community that is so often overlooked or ignored in modern media coverage of the Everest “scene.” And we began to feel the intense sun that we normally avoid working under at midday. The glacier surface was brilliant in its new coat of “snow” from the avalanche and seemed to be reflecting 100 percent of the sun’s radiation onto the skin I hadn’t had time to protect in my dash out of BC. Within minutes under the big packs, we were covered in sweat.

It turned out that a descending Indian team was instrumental, along with IMG’s Sherpas, in getting my friend and his client out of a crevasse that the avalanche had pushed them into, but now the radio chatter was focusing on the Sherpa that had been with them. He was missing. Willie and Damian Benegas (Argentinian-American brothers leading two different Everest teams) were among the first Western professionals on the scene, and we relied on their reports of the situation as we continued to climb. My friend, badly hypothermic and shaken, was being placed on a stretcher as Seth and I arrived in the blast zone. We dove into the medical supplies we carried in an effort to help stabilize him. Seth concentrated his efforts then on escorting the remarkably unscathed client down. Willie Benegas and a strong team of Sherpas worked to get the stretcher down, as I then went up to join Damian and perhaps 20 Sherpas who were searching for the missing man. After 15 minutes or so, I was encouraged to hear Willie describing my friend as “combative” enough that they could no longer carry him on the litter. He preferred to walk, as it turned out, and of course that was a fine outcome.

At the “point-last-seen” I was amazed at the bravery and high energy of the searching climbers. Damian and a British guide were roped up and jumping crevasses in an effort to reach islands of glacier that might offer better views. The Sherpas had fixed ropes down a series of steep, debris-strewn ice gullies and were exploring every crevasse and alcove along their path. I kept looking up at the origin of the avalanche, where it appeared that a tooth had been broken from some massive jaw. Unfortunately, there were still other teeth, and the searchers were clearly in a terrible position should a second slide follow the path of the first.

I checked my watch and my radio to confirm that two-and-a-half hours had passed since the avalanche. I began asking the team to suspend the search. The missing man’s boot, with crampon still attached, had been found close enough to his last known whereabouts that we were each haunted to imagine the power of the wind that had hit him. His pack was eventually retrieved some 100 meters [330 feet] distant. The clues only made it more difficult to quit. The Sherpas all agreed that there was now no chance of finding a buried man alive. They agreed that it was time to quit and move to safety. But they wouldn’t. Nobody wanted to be the first to leave. Tendi and LamaBabu continued to twist in ice screws and rappel into crevasses... “Just this last one.” But they couldn’t find the 31-year-old father of two. Knowing how many of them were also fathers, I insisted that they quit. Eventually they listened to me, to their own leaders and their own valid concerns.

We walked down through the ice rolls and ridges of the lower glacier without much talking. Dozens of good folk had come out from Base Camp and stood on the ice ridges with water and tea for the search teams. Upon reaching Base Camp, the teams melted back into a tent village comprising twenty different expeditions, but not without a number of quiet handshakes and a hundred expressions of thanks. To each other... to a missing man’s sacrifice... to the good luck of survivors.

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