The day after a devastating, 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal, approximately 60 survivors from a massive avalanche that blew through Base Camp on Mount Everest have been evacuated to the capital Kathmandu. Reports now indicate that at least 21 individuals died in the event, making it the most deadly day in the history of the mountain but paling in scale to the thousands who perished nationwide in the earthquake.
According to several eyewitness accounts, many of the Base Camp casualties resulted from the immense air blast generated by the avalanche.
“The compressed air that the chunks of snow and ice created in the bowl adjacent to the Glacier had to be released somewhere,” wrote Dr. Jon Kedrowski, a mountaineer from Colorado who was in Base Camp when the quake occurred. “People that took refuge in tents turned out to be the unlucky ones… only a few feet away if a person hid behind a rock or an ice bank they escaped unharmed.”
“People in tents were wrapped up in them, lifted by the force of the blast and then slammed down onto rocks, glacial moraine and ice on the glacier…. It’s very hard to wrap my head around it,” Kedrowski added, estimating that 40 to 50 percent of Base Camp had been destroyed.
Bad Weather, Brave Pilots
Although six helicopters reportedly reached the airport in Lukla, the gateway to the Khumbu Valley, in the hours immediately after the earthquake, they were prevented by bad weather and poor visibility from reaching Base Camp yesterday. This morning, several helicopters managed to reach Base Camp, but weather conditions remained challenging.
“First helicopter landed this morning despite poor weather to rescue those critically injured,” wrote Dr. Nima Namgyal Sherpa in a social media message. “Praying for a few hours of good weather to complete our rescue mission.”
Namgyal Sherpa posted several photos showing an an AS350 B3 helicopter operated by Fishtail Air landing in Base Camp despite obviously cloudy conditions.
Meanwhile, flying conditions in the lower Khumbu Valley worsened, preventing the pilots from flying directly to Lukla, where victims could be transported by twin-engine planes to Kathmandu.
Instead, the injured were shuttled to Pheriche, a small village approximately 12 miles below Base Camp where a medical clinic operated by the Himalayan Rescue Association is located. Later in the morning, the weather improved and the arrival of a much larger MI-17 helicopter allowed the injured to be transported to Lukla, where a second triage center had been hastily set up.
“Everything was trauma,” said Ben Ayers, an American living in Nepal who is executive director of the Dzi Foundation and happened to be in Lukla at the time of the earthquake. “There were lots of broken bones, broken backs, broken pelvises…” Four patients appeared to have died en route to Kathmandu, Ayers said.
“A couple were dead when we took them out of the helicopter,” he said, noting that the remains of victims who perished at Base Camp had been collected in Pheriche and not prioritized for further transport while so many others remained in critical need.
For Those Still On the Mountain, Helicopters Now Best Bet
Meanwhile, approximately a hundred climbers remained at Camp 1 and Camp 2 in the Western Cwm on Mount Everest. Most were physically fine yet emotionally fraught as aftershocks produced more waves of avalanches off the mountain walls around them and intermittent reports of the destruction in Base Camp were relayed via radio and satellite phone. Blocking them from easily descending to help their comrades was the Khumbu Icefall, the notoriously unstable field of towering ice features and plunging crevasses, where 16 Nepalese high-altitude workers perished in an avalanche last April.
“We have been up here at Camp 2 hanging tough, but we are running low on food and fuel, and we have to get down,” Garrett Madison, an American guide leading a commercial expedition, said in an audio dispatch from Camp 2. As he waited, Madison learned that one of his teammates, Marisa Eve Girawong, had passed away in Base Camp. Girawong, a physician’s assistant serving as the expedition’s doctor, was twenty-eight years old.
A helicopter peeled away from other duties to inspect the route through the icefall, dropping respected guide Willie Benagas with a fresh supply of rope, ice screws and pickets in an effort to help re-establish the route from the top-down. Meanwhile, several climbers were reportedly shuttled down from Camp 1 to Base Camp, though the vast majority remained on the mountain.
Complicating efforts was the fact that the Icefall Doctors, the professional cadre of Sherpas paid to maintain the route through the icefall, have reportedly been forced to retreat from Base Camp to Gorak Shep, the closest settlement to Base Camp, after their part of the camp was obliterated by the avalanche, killing three of their own in the process.
Then, at 12:54 PM, local time, a significant aftershock, which registered 6.7 on the Richter scale, set off more slides in the area. “Horrible here in Camp 1”, Dan Mazur, an American guide tweeted soon after. “Avalanches on 3 sides. [Camp 1] a tiny island. We worry about icefall team below… Alive?” Mazur wrote.
As of nightfall on Sunday, April 26th, efforts to re-establish the route through the icefall appear to have failed, and those still on Everest have pinned their hopes on an air rescue.
“That aftershock has created more damage in the Khumbu Icefall, thus those people that were valiantly trying to repair the route have deemed the icefall… impassable,” said Alan Arnette an audio dispatch from Camp 2.
“Bottom line is that the icefall route is not safe to descend at this time, so we are working on a plan to evacuate the climbers and sherpas up in the Western Cwm by helicopter down to EB and are hoping for good weather again tomorrow to start this operation,” wrote Eric Simonson of International Mountain Guides. Mountain meteorologists are predicting a mix of sun and clouds on the mountain for Monday, before snowier weather arrives on Tuesday.
Though no one has publicly said so yet, this weekend’s events most likely spell the end to a second consecutive tragic year on Everest—at least for those attempting the mountain from the Nepali side of the mountain. Expeditions on the north side in Tibet were not affected and for now remain on the mountain, though many of the teams have Sherpas who are from Nepal and have family members in the stricken areas.
In Nepal’s devastated Base Camp, some survivors have already been forced to leave, seeking shelter and food in the teahouses of the Khumbu Valley, their camps completely destroyed.
“Some people are even sleeping with helmets and boots on,” Alex Gavan, a Romanian mountaineer, tweeted.
Freddie Wilkinson is a writer and climber based in New Hampshire.