Updated April 27 at 6 p.m.
Scores of climbers who'd been trapped on Mount Everest in the wake of Saturday's earthquake in Nepal were were evacuated by helicopter on Monday.
An estimated 200 climbers were acclimatizing in a narrow glacial valley known as the Western Cwm—where Camp 1 and Camp 2 are located—when the magnitude 7.8 quake struck, triggering a catastrophic avalanche that blasted through Base Camp, killing 21 and critically injuring dozens.
The quake also severed the route that is set through the dangerously unstable Khumbu Icefall each year with fixed ropes and aluminum ladders, cutting off the climbers’ only way off the mountain and forcing Monday’s helicopter rescue.
Initially, expedition leaders thought they could repair the route through the icefall and bring most of the climbers down that way. On Sunday, a helicopter dropped additional technical gear at Camp I, and a team of Sherpas and foreign guides attempted to re-establish the route from the top back down to the ruined Base Camp. Another team dispatched from Base Camp tried to re-establish the route from the bottom-up.
Three Sherpas were reportedly killed in that effort, pushing the death toll on the mountain to at least 24.
“Sadly, three more Sherpas died in the Icefall, trying to repair the damaged route,” mountaineer Elia Saikaly wrote on Facebook. “There was a subsequent avalanche that took out most of the ladders in the Icefall.”
As Monday dawned, those in Base Camp and on the mountain had decided to abandon hopes of re-establishing the route and to focus on organizing a helicopter rescue for those stranded above the icefall instead.
At first light, a squadron of several helicopters arrived on scene and began to ferry climbers down. “At Camp One, we were up before dawn, boiling cups of instant coffee and hurriedly packing,” wrote Dave Hahn, a senior guide with Rainier Mountaineering, Inc, in a blog posted from Base Camp. “It wasn’t going to be an ideal scenario, by any means… Being ‘rescued’ from 20,000 feet (6,100 meters) on Mount Everest, along with perhaps 180 of our closest friends… But we weren’t likely to get any better offers…”
Efforts were hampered by the fact that above 20,000 feet, the payload of even the powerful AS350 B3 helicopters is drastically reduced, meaning that only two people could be transported at a time on the four-minute trip to Base Camp. “A fear of the team leaders was a helicopter mob scene ala Saigon ‘75, but we’d arrayed our helipads in a way that didn’t allow for mobbing and everybody seemed to understand the need for superior social skills on this day,” Hahn wrote.
All told, more than 150 individuals are now safely below the icefall, although a few more remain in Camp I, and the operation will continue on Tuesday.
Dan Mazur, an American guide who was among those helicoptered to Base Camp, tweeted: “Helicopters flew to #Everest C1 today, rescuing stranded climbers & Sherpas. @ 1:30pm, clouds & No more helis. Hope for tomorrow.”
“Around 15 climbers still to be heli evacuated tomorrow, weather permitting, from camp 1,” Romanian mountaineer Alex Gavan tweeted. “Everybody else down to base camp. Huge credit 4 pilots,” he wrote.
Alan Arnette, a climber and noted Everest blogger, was one of those lifted to safety. He posted: “No one ever in real danger at C1 and C2, plenty of food and supplies.”
For those rescued from Everest’s flanks, the return to Base Camp was surreal. “There was no back-slapping. No cheering. No high fives,” Hahn wrote. “It was as if an enormous bomb had detonated. We each walked slowly through the obliterated camps, stopping to understand how much force had bent this or that bit of steel.”
Freddie Wilkinson is a writer and climber based in New Hampshire.