Top of the World Turned Upside Down
6 years ago
Four and one half years ago, at the age of fifty-nine, I discovered the world of alpine mountaineering. Since that beginning I have reached the summits of Mt. Shasta and Mt. Whitney in California, Mt. Rainier in Washington and five of the world’s Seven Summits – Antarctica, North America, South America, Africa and Europe. In March of this year, I left to climb my sixth world Summit, Mt. Everest, the highest peak in Asia and the world. I have a small, personal items summit sack that I take on all of my trips and the Tomb Guard Identification Badge (TGIB) has always been along on my climbs.
In the late morning of April 25, 2015 I was laying in my tent at Everest Base Camp reading and thinking about putting on my boots so I could walk over to our dining tent where we usually ate lunch around 12:30. I had arrived at the 17,599 ft. base camp twenty-one days earlier after having completed an eleven day hike up the Khumbu Valley. During that thirty-five mile trip up the valley, we spent our evenings at teahouses in five different villages starting at Phakding at an elevation of 8,563 ft. In order to avoid suffering from Altitude Mountain Sickness (AMS), the best procedure is to acquire new heights slowly, therefore, we had a 9,000 ft. altitude increase spread out over eleven days.
My guide company was Rainier Mountaineering (RMI), based out of Ashford, Washington. I have climbed with them on all of my international trips and also to Mt. McKinley in Alaska, North America’s highest peak. The RMI camp was situated on top of the Khumbu Glacier along with the other five hundred plus climbers camps who were there to climb Everest or Lhotse or Nuptse. Everest Base Camp is not a circular like compound. It follows the glacier so it’s spread out for about a mile and maybe 1,000 ft. wide. The glacier is not flat as it is melting and strewn with boulders and piles of rocks.
So there I was, sitting in my tent starting to put my boots on when at 11:56 the glacier under me started shaking. I had been on glaciers before that moved but it has always been a sharp, short jolt when they do. What I was experiencing was the beginning of a magnitude 7.8 earthquake that would last for thirty plus seconds. The epicenter of the quake was located fifty miles west of Kathmandu near the small village of Gorkha. Everest is about one hundred miles east of Kathmandu. At the same the earthquake was taking place, I started hearing cracks popping above the camp that I knew were avalanches starting and then a huge boom like a cannon going off in back of my tent. The cloud cover that morning was around 18,000 ft. so we could not look up at the mountains to see the avalanches, but we heard them coming. I was on my hands and knees with my head stuck outside my tent talking to the RMI base camp manager, Mark Tucker, who was standing about thirty feet from me. He was looking above my tent and yelled at me “to get behind something!”. What he was seeing was an avalanche rolling towards us that had thundered down Mt. Pumori and had day lighted below the cloud cover. I looked over my shoulder and saw it and knew I had no time to get out of my tent and run so I just backed into my tent and dropped on my stomach just as the avalanche hit us. In just fifteen to twenty seconds, it was over. I had no time to be afraid as my initial emotional reactions were surprise and amazement.
I got up on my hands and knees and pushed my tent up into its original shape although it had suffered a couple bent tent poles. Mark called out to me and asked if I was OK to which I responded that I fine. Crawling out of my tent I was greeted by a campsite of flattened or destroyed tents covered with six to eight inches of fine powdered snow. Mark was OK as he had hidden behind a pile of stone rubble. We checked on our Sherpa camp crew and they were also OK. Our next concern was the rest of our teammates who were above us at Camp 1 located at 19,800 ft. (I was stuck at Base Camp due to bronchitis). There was over 160 people at Camp 1. Even though our communications tent had been destroyed, our radios still worked. Our team was fine and it appeared that the other teams had pulled through. They had also experienced avalanches but none of them had touched the camp area.
The next order of business was to check-in with the Himalayan Rescue Association (HRA). Every year, they provide medical services at Base Camp. Mark called them on the radio and learned that their camp was flattened and that injured people were stumbling in for medical treatment. Mark decided to go help with the injured and directed me to stay at our camp and work with the Sherpa’s to try to put our world back together. It began snowing right after the Pumori avalanche and we also suffered minor aftershocks and two large aftershocks that day over magnitude 6.0. Due to the snowfall, rescue helicopters from Lukla were unable to fly. The ER Docs and volunteers treated over 80 injured people. We learned later that day that the route through the Khumbu Icefall was destroyed and continued to deteriorate with each aftershock. The climbers at Camp 1 were trapped.
On the morning of the 26th, the weather cleared and the helicopters started arriving to ferry the injured down to Lukla to get on fixed wing flights to Kathmandu. Some of the very seriously injured people were helicoptered directly to Kathmandu. All of the injured were flown out by sundown. Unfortunately, eighteen people were in body bags and they were the last to leave Base Camp. With the injured cared for, we next turned our attention up the mountain to the climbers at Camp 1.
On the afternoon and evening of the 26th, four of the major climbing team leaders (including RMI) assembled to develop evacuation plans for Camp 1. A second landing pad had to be quickly built at Base Camp plus the designation of two pad areas at Camp 1. The Camp 1 climbers had to be organized so it was clear who was to jump onto each helicopter when they landed. Organization and speed were required as we were still in a world of aftershocks (a 6.7 quake hit at 12:54 PM) and the weather could cloud in without notice. The Nepalese government was also trying to commandeer all privately owned helicopters to aid in earthquake relief rescues. We didn’t know how much longer we could keep “our” helicopters. Late into evening, plans were finalized and the helicopter companies notified. We just needed good weather the next day.
The morning of the 27th brought patchy clouds but three helicopters stormed up the valley anyway. These pilots are either crazy or fearless, or maybe both. These are not pilots flying your typical helicopter, they fly the Eurocopter AS350 B3 made in France. In May of 2005, a B3 touched down on the 29,035 ft. summit of Mt. Everest. They thrive at high altitude. Around 6:00 AM the airlift began with the three helicopters rotating back and forth between Base Camp and Camp 1. The RMI team arrived “home” at 10:04 AM. By 12:50 PM, the airlift operation was completed. Looking back over the three days of ongoing disastrous conditions and how the climbing teams pulled together, everyone involved must agree that it was one of mountaineering’s finest hours.
It was now time to leave our highly unstable world and so the mass exodus from Base Camp began. Some elected to fly out and some, like me, decided to walk down into an unknown world of potential rockslides, landslides and damaged or destroyed stone buildings. Every village we passed through suffered some kind of damage. It was like passing through ghost towns, a sharp contrast to the same villages we had traveled through at the end of March. We arrived in Lukla on May 2nd. The next day we were in Kathmandu and by the 6th, we were all headed home to the USA.
My experience at Mt. Everest was just a small pinpoint in a country racked over and over again for weeks by aftershocks and ongoing destruction. On May 12th a magnitude 7.3 quake hit fifty miles east of Kathmandu. All of the homes of my Sherpa teammates have been either destroyed or severely damaged. As of June 4th, there have been 8,709 fatalities, 784,484 destroyed or damaged houses, 2.8 million people need assistance and it is estimated that it may take $10 billion to rebuild the damaged areas.
Lawrence Seaton, SHGTUS Treasurer
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Did you know?
How many steps does the Sentinel take during their 'walk' by the Tomb of the Unknowns and why?
Twenty-one steps. It alludes to the twenty-one gun salute, which is the highest honor given any military or foreign dignitary.