Everest Base Camp a ‘War Zone’ After Earthquake Triggers Avalanches

Massive slides kill climbers, strand others on mountain, flatten Sherpa villages

Updated 11:00 a.m. ET April 29.

Though the epicenter of the devastating earthquake that struck Nepal on Saturday was roughly 150 miles from Mount Everest, powerful shocks wrought destruction throughout the Khumbu region, where climbing season is in full swing with dozens of expeditions deployed among several mountains.

The quake triggered a massive avalanche that swept through Everest Base Camp. Initial reports say 18 people were killed with several seriously injured. Dozens of other climbers are stranded at camps farther up the mountain. (See pictures of the quake's devastation.)

“Running for life from my tent,” wrote a Romanian climber, Alex Gavan, in a tweet from Base Camp posted an hour after the earthquake. Gavan described a “huge avalanche” coming off Pumori, a 23,000-foot (7,000-meter) peak located adjacent to Everest and directly above Base Camp.

On the Nepal (southern) side of Everest, teams typically create Base Camp each year, pitching clusters of tents along a three-mile-swath of rocky moraine on the side of the Khumbu Glacier. The camp functions like a small city, home to dozens of teams of commercial guides and their paying clients, Sherpas, and other support workers.

“Huge disaster,” he wrote in a subsequent message. “Helped search & rescued victims through huge debris area. Many more to die if not heli asap.”

Washington-based guide Eric Simonson, of International Mountain Guides (IMG), posted a more detailed report on his company’s blog. “The earthquake caused a huge block of ice to fall from the ice cliff in the saddle between Pumori and Lingtren”, he wrote, noting the block was approximately 2,500 feet (7,620 meters) above the camp. “

The tons and tons of falling ice going this vertical distance created a huge aerosol avalanche and accompanying air blast that hit the upper part of Everest [Base Camp] and blew many tents across the Khumbu Glacier towards the lower Icefall,” Simonson explained.

Other large avalanches were reported as coming off Nuptse, a subsidiary peak of Everest located on the opposite side of the valley from Pumori.

Unconfirmed reports filtering out describe the upper portion of Base Camp as a “war zone,” while the lower portion of Base Camp survived relatively unscathed.

“Many of our friends in Base Camp have been seriously injured and killed,” reported Everest ER on its Facebook page, a non-profit medical team that provides free healthcare to climbers and the local Sherpa community in Base Camp.

According to Alan Arnette, a well-regarded Everest blogger who is climbing on nearby Lhotse this season, approximately 359 foreign climbers and 350 local Nepali guides are attempting Everest this year. Including support staff, the population of Everest Base Camp is more than 1,000 people. Several sources have put the number of confirmed dead in basecamp at 18, although that number will almost certainly change as recovery efforts continue tomorrow.

Several factors will further hamper rescue efforts, including snowy weather that prevented any helicopters from reaching Base Camp today and the fact that most of the cellular system in Nepal is not working because of the earthquake.

Stranded Climbers?

While those in Base Camp struggled to survive, approximately 100-200 climbers and Sherpas were acclimatizing at camps higher up on the mountain when the earthquake struck. Most of these teams appear to have weathered the disaster without injury—although they now may well be stuck, since the quake apparently caused substantial shifting of blocks within the Khumbu Icefall, destroying the route that has been painstakingly constructed with aluminum ladders and fixed ropes over the last month.

“#Icefall route destroyed,” reported Dan Mazur, an American guide who is currently in Camp I above the Khumbu Icefall, on his website. “Please pray for everyone,” he added.

“The noise and movement was enough to trip us off our feet,” wrote Rolfe Oostra, an Australian mountaineer who was just arriving in Camp I at the time of the earthquake.

“There was the loudest noise I have ever heard coming from below (Base Camp) which produced an enormous backdraft,” Oostra says. “It was not easy to work out what was going on, but we were naturally now pretty wired trying to predict avalanches as well as make out what was happening. After frantic coms to [Base Camp] it was related to us that there had been huge avalanches and landslides on a devastation scale into [Base Camp] triggered by the earthquake.”

“All of us in the Western Cwm are okay,” Arnette posted on his blog, referring to the narrow glaciated valley above the icefall where Camp I and Camp II are located.

Dave Hahn, an American guide for RMI, posted an update from his team at Camp 1: “About the same time as the earthquake a pretty good snowstorm commenced up here in the Western Cwm and down at Base Camp....But we don’t have the ability to travel right now, good mountaineering sense dictates that we stay put and ride this storm out.”

Sherpas Worry About Families Back Home

Among the dozens of small Sherpa villages scattered throughout the Khumbu Valley below Base Camp, word is filtering out describing scenes of widespread destruction. “I am in Thame village which was almost flattened entirely,” wrote American climber and guide Dave Morton. “All homes here are gone with some teahouses standing with significant damage. All in village are in tents tonight outside with food. Amazingly no one in Thame was killed, some pulled out hurt.”

A significant landslide was also reported near the village of Phakding, located on the busy trail between Lukla, where the small airport servicing the Everest region is located, and Namche, the center of commerce in the Khumbu.

With tens of thousands of remote villages scattered across a thousand miles of the Himalayas, such reports must be amplified significantly to get a true sense of the scale of destruction visited on Nepal.

Kathmandu Near the Epicenter

The quake struck at 11:56 AM on Saturday, April 25th local time. According to the United States Geological Survey Earthquake Hazards Program, which monitors global tectonic activity. The epicenter was near the village of Lamjung, in the Gorkha region, approximately 50 miles northwest of Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital city.

The USGS rates the initial shock as 7.8 on the Richter scale. In the hours after the seismic event, the USGS has logged 20 aftershocks, ranging from 4.2 to 6.6 on the Richter scale.

At least 5,000 people have been declared dead, mostly in Nepal, with additional victims in India and China. There are more than 7,100 injured in Nepal and the death toll is expected to rise.

While the worst destruction appears to be centered in the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal’s largest urban region, many areas of the country are affected.

“Sadly many killed in the town,” wrote Ian Wall, a British citizen living in Kathmandu, in a message relayed via social media. “Airport closed and things all very subdued as you would expect .. helicopters flying .. hospitals at capacity and Gov called a state of emergency asking for foreign support.”

In the densely inhabited Kathmandu Valley, home to 2.5 million people, destruction is widespread as many buildings constructed of brick and concrete collapsed.

Particularly hard hit are the city’s many temples and other historic structures, including Bhimsen Tower, a 200-foot minaret-like edifice constructed in the 1800s that has become a popular tourist destination.

<p style="font-family: tahoma, arial, helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 12px;">Mountains of debris have piled up in Nepal's capital. Here, rescue workers search for survivors on Sunday in Bhaktapur, near Kathmandu.</p>

Mounting Damage

Mountains of debris have piled up in Nepal's capital. Here, rescue workers search for survivors on Sunday in Bhaktapur, near Kathmandu.

Photograph by Niranjan Shrestha, AP

According to the Guardian, up to 160 tickets had been sold to sightseers at the time of the earthquake. “Few had any chance to escape,” wrote Wall.

Freddie Wilkinson is a writer and climber based in New Hampshire.

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