At base camp, it was lunchtime. Climbers and their guides ate bowls of thuppa noodle soup and garbanzo beans, plates of buffalo meat, green beans, sponge cake for dessert. The cooks didn’t skimp on food, even three miles above the sea in remote Nepal. It was still early in the two-month window for summiting the world’s tallest peak, Mount Everest. People played cards, checked e-mail, talked. No one was in a rush.
Migma Tashi Sherpa sat in a dining tent, one of the hundreds of yellow, red and green tents that stretched across the gray, frozen valley floor. At night, tents glowed like lit beach balls. Base camp was a temporary home to more than 1,000 people from across the world. Throughout, small prayer flags were strung from stone altars, where Sherpas and climbers prayed to the mountain gods for permission to climb and for safety on the journey.
The veteran Nepali guide knew the risks. He’d seen guides die on this trek. He believed man often was powerless in the face of nature’s fury.
Then the great mountain came alive in a way Migma Sherpa never knew. Sagarmatha shook. The earth rocked, stone moraine trembling underfoot. Migma Sherpa felt fear in his heart.
“Earthquake?” a climber in the dining tent asked.
“You are still having altitude sickness,” teased another climber, before realizing the truth.
Everyone darted outside. The quake subsided. And all eyes turned to the towering face of Mount Everest, its soaring southern face disappearing into the low clouds. Somewhere up there, 170 climbers and Sherpas were on training climbs, some at more than 21,000 feet. What would become of them?
Some Sherpas started praying for Mother Everest to save them. Up on the mountain, some climbers began praying, too.
And then a fantastic explosion shot across the frozen valley. A crack in the sky. Something had broken. But the sound didn’t come from Mount Everest.
It came from behind base camp.
Migma Sherpa turned.
Earthquakes made Mount Everest.
Over millions of years, the Himalayan Mountains shot up from the crust, sometimes inches at a time, as Earth’s Indian and Eurasian plates collided. Everest today reaches to 29,029 feet above sea level.
Those two plates collided again last Saturday just before noon, creating a horrific 7.9-magnitude earthquake centered 140 miles west of Mount Everest. More than 7,200 people, mostly in Nepal’s capital of Kathmandu, were killed. Thousands of homes and historic buildings were destroyed. The quake was a devastating blow to one of the world’s poorest countries, a human tragedy that dwarfed the 20 lives lost in conquest of a mountain.
Tourism makes up 8 percent of Nepal’s economy. Trekkers and climbers contribute millions of dollars. In a nation where per-capita income is $700, the Nepali mountain guides, commonly referred to as Sherpas, can earn $5,000 for two months of work on Mount Everest.
“It’s lucrative,” says Alan Arnette, a veteran alpinist from Fort Collins, Colo., who reached the top of Mount Everest in 2011. “They want to provide for their families, build a house, send their kids to boarding school in Kathmandu.”
The quest to tackle Mount Everest attracts a wide range of climbers, both accomplished mountaineers and affluent adventurers. It’s not a shot taken cheaply. An expedition can cost $75,000 and take two months, with frequent short climbs on the mountain to acclimate the lungs to thin air. Success is not guaranteed.
This climbing season was shaping up to be record-breaking, with 514 foreigners obtaining permits. Saray Khumalo wanted to become the first South African woman to reach the summit. Min Bahadur Sherchan, an 83-year-old Nepali man, aimed to become the oldest person. Vilborg Arna Gissurardottir was the first Icelandic woman at the South Pole. Now she was turning her attention to Mount Everest, along with photographers, business executives, former soldiers and current doctors, plus an Utah fruit farmer with his daughter.
About 20 percent of them were returning from last year. The 2014 season was canceled after an avalanche struck along the mountain’s Khumbu Icefall, just in front of base camp, killing 16 Sherpas. That occurred on April 18, 2014. Now, almost exactly a year later, the deadliest disaster on Everest was unfolding. This reconstruction is based on more than a dozen Washington Post interviews with survivors, guides, officials and rescuers, and written accounts provided by those who were there.
The earth shook as Steve Watkins sat in his tent on Mount Everest, more than 2,000 feet above base camp.
He and other members of a team with New Zealand-based Adventure Consultants had spent the night at the mountain’s Camp 1.
Watkins, 38, could barely stand as the ground jumped. Then Gissurardottir, standing next to him, spotted a wall of snow and ice barreling their way. This was a minor avalanche, of the sort that Nepali guides often saw. But to Watkins, it looked like something out of a Hollywood movie.
He ran to his tent, convinced he was in his final moments, muttering what he feared were his final thoughts to any higher power that was with him high on the mountain. “So it ends now. Thank you for my life. I don’t know what I did to deserve such a wonderful life, but thank you. Thank you, thank you.”
Watkins grew up in Topeka, Kan., dreaming of adventures. A West Point graduate, he served in Afghanistan with the Army and then spent a dozen or so years bouncing around war zones as a civilian contractor. The danger was intoxicating. But the memories of death and destruction stuck with him, too, and Watkins says he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in 2005. He eventually moved to Alaska and the previous month had completed the 1,000-mile-long Iditarod dog sled race.
Up on Camp 1, Watkins could hear bits of ice and snow pelting his tent. The avalanche stopped short. No one was hurt there. But no one felt safe, either.
At base camp, climbers and Sherpas looked toward the yawning valley opposite Everest and the source of the explosion.
Low clouds obscured the tops of Mount Pumori and Mount Lingtren, two mountains connected by a frozen ridge more than a mile away.
They couldn’t see the massive seracs — glacial chunks — snapping off the frozen ridge and plummeting to the rocky ground, driving up a powerful shock wave of air filled with rocks and ice. They couldn’t tell that an avalanche of nature’s shrapnel now rocketed across the valley straight toward them. Until, suddenly, it was on top of them.
It looked like a nuclear mushroom cloud, thousands of feet tall. It moved at what seemed like 100 miles per hour. Curses in different languages flew from mouths. Snow filled lungs with every breath. Climbers ran for the nearest tent. Others crumpled to the ground, hands over head. At least two men sought refuge behind a ceremonial stone altar, the force of the blast snapping in half a thick log that jutted from the altar to hold prayer flags.
Migma Sherpa, the veteran guide, dashed back into the dining tent. He and three other guides grabbed the tent poles, struggling to steady them as the wind howled. Somehow, the tent didn’t collapse.
Nearby, Nick Cienski, an Under Armour executive, and his wife, Sandi, knew they couldn’t outrun the plume. They huddled in their tent and prayed. He had come to Everest as part of a campaign to climb six of the world’s tallest peaks in a single year. Now, he didn’t know whether he was going to live through even one.
In another part of the mile-and-a-half-long base camp, a guide named Geljing Sherpa was knocked unconscious by the blast. The last thing he recalled was walking into a kitchen tent to get some water for an itchy throat.
The avalanche lasted maybe a minute. It roared through the middle of base camp, tearing into the town’s midsection, projecting rocks and hunks of ice through tent walls.
That’s where Geljing Sherpa stood. It’s where several groups — Dreamers Destination, Adventure Consultants, Madison Mountaineering, Jagged Globe — had decided to set up camp.
Now, those camps were gone.
Up at Camp 1, Watkins listened to radio transmissions from the valley below, the crackling filled with gruesome updates, reminding the former soldier of his days in war zones. His team’s base camp was among the hardest hit. Same with Arnette, the accomplished mountaineer, who was with Seattle-based Madison Mountaineering. Part of Arnette’s team was still down at base camp, including several Sherpas and a friendly ER physician assistant named Marisa Eve Girawong from Edison Township, N.J.
But there was nothing anyone on the mountain could do. Trekking down would take hours. And it was unlikely that the fragile route would be stable. The climbers on the mountain hunkered down for an unsettling night.
At base camp, it was chaos. People emerged from hiding spots, shaking off coatings of snow, to find a disorienting landscape. A broad section of colorful tents was gone, blown into the distance. New stone boulders jutted from the ground. The small medical outpost of the Himalayan Rescue Association was destroyed. The odor of leaking cooking gas bottles wafted through the cold mountain air. The groans of the injured called out, met by the searching shouts from friends.
Kuntal Joisher, 35, a software programmer from Mumbai, watched as everyone seemed to be searching for something. A lost shoe. A missing tent. A team member.
Sherpas and doctors crafted stretchers from the metal ladders used to cross the ice crevasses. Someone shouted that they needed Nalgene bottles to fill with hot water to warm the most critically wounded. Several trails through base camp became stained with blood.
Cienski, the Under Armour executive, discovered a Nepali worker inside a collapsed tent. He was bleeding from a deep head wound. Cienski wrapped the man’s head with whatever clothing he could find and helped load him onto a makeshift stretcher.
A hospital was set up in a tent that had served as a base camp movie theater. Many of the injured had head wounds. Tourniquets were applied to stanch bleeding on limbs. A doctor noted that they were out of bandages. Sara Pelosi, a Google employee living in Singapore, ran to get her kit of medical supplies — bandages, painkillers, altitude medications. Suddenly nobody had enough.
The doctor asked whether Pelosi had any medical training. She noted she had been a lifeguard.
“Great,” he said. “You can help.”
She was applying a tourniquet to a climber’s badly broken leg when she overheard someone say he was with Jagged Globe. Pelosi had three friends on that team, she said, and the man pulled her aside.
Her friend Dan Fredinburg, 33, a Google engineer, had died of a massive head injury.
Pelosi felt as if she was going to vomit.
More than a dozen dead were scattered across the base camp — including Girawong, the physician assistant — their bodies wrapped in sleeping bags, final locations marked by poles. There was no time to tend to them now.
The nearest medical clinic was in the village of Pheriche, a five-hour hike or a high-altitude helicopter ride away. Darkness approached. The clouds were low. Flights were impossible. At base camp, doctors worried more would die overnight.
In Pheriche, Andrew Nyberg of Park City, Utah, waited. The Himalayan Rescue Association recruited volunteer doctors such as Nyberg to staff this outpost during the climbing season. He was in the middle of a 24-hour shift when the earthquake hit. The tremors had collapsed one of the clinic’s stone walls, but no one in the town was severely injured. They’d be lucky.
Now, three hours later, Nyberg knew to expect at least 30 wounded from base camp. Hours slipped by. Radio communication was difficult. He had no clue of the devastation in the rest of Nepal, the collapse of the iconic Dharahara Tower that alone killed hundreds, the panic in the streets of Kathmandu. He didn’t know what to expect from Everest. The doctor was dozing off when a staff member woke him.
“We have a patient.”
It was nine hours after the earthquake. A young Nepali man had been thrown by the avalanche’s blast of rock and air. A friend loaded him on a horse and rode for hours to reach the clinic. Nyberg slowly examined the patient, a luxury of time that would soon vanish. The doctor stabilized his patient’s broken ribs and then went back to sleep.
He and another physician, Katie Williams of England, were startled awake at 5:45 a.m. last Sunday by the sound of a small high-altitude helicopter flying by the Pheriche Valley. It was headed toward Everest base camp. The rescue was on.
Williams, 33, met the first helicopter to return from base camp and looked in the back to see two climbers crammed onto the floor. The pilot told her they would be ferrying 51 critically injured people to Pheriche, two or three at a time, racing to complete the task while the weather held.
Williams was shocked by the numbers. This was a mass-casualty event that would tax an urban hospital. Their remote clinic stored supplies on wood shelves in plastic containers with handwritten tags such as “Nifedipine” and “PCM + Codeine.”
The helicopters kept landing. The patients kept coming, filling the two clinic rooms, then the floor of a sunroom. Finally, the clinic staff took over the dining room at a nearby lodge. Doctors quickly checked out each patient, putting tape strips across the chest listing names, vital signs and injuries. The most critical cases had another sign posted on them, too: E, for evacuation. They were to get priority.
Geljing Sherpa, the mountain guide knocked cold at base camp, wore an E. His chest and back hurt. He slipped in and out of consciousness as he waited for a flight.
Mid-morning, a massive Russian Mi-17 transport helicopter lumbered onto the town’s helipad to take the worst cases to Lukla, a bigger town with an airstrip, where they could be flown to Kathmandu. Clinic staff quickly loaded 16 people. Several of the walking wounded tried to jump aboard. Williams’s fiance, Reuben Tabner, stopped one climber with a finger injury. Panic was setting in.
Nyberg ran over and yelled to the crowd that no one got on a helicopter without the medical staff’s blessing. Quickly, the 40 worst cases made it out. Others would stay in Pheriche.
Tension eased. Nyberg and Williams tried to absorb that their small team had treated 73 patients in less than six hours.
But 170 climbers were still stuck on Mount Everest.
With fresh daylight, the expedition teams on the mountain tried to assess the always treacherous Khumbu Icefall, just below Camp 1. Each climbing season, a special Nepali team called the “icefall doctors” was charged with selecting and securing the safest route over the unstable blocks of ice. Crevasses pocked the path. This year’s route included a harrowing climb up six metal ladders lashed together to reach the top of a 100-foot vertical ice wall.
Now, many of the ladders were damaged. New crevasses had opened in the ice. The climbers at Camp 1, and the climbers who had hiked down to join them from Camp 2, would have to be flown out. Any lingering doubt evaporated Sunday afternoon with a second hefty aftershock. No one was going through the icefall.
Sending helicopters to ferry uninjured, mostly foreign climbers struck a nerve. Nepal was in tatters, its death toll jumping by hundreds every few hours, its injured stranded in remote villages. Arnette, among those stuck at Camp 1, understood. But he pointed out that private companies run the high-altitude helicopters. Climbers pay thousands of dollars in insurance to be rescued. And although they had provisions, they couldn’t stay up there much longer.
On Monday, three small helicopters flew the climbers from Camp 1 to base camp, two people at a time, over and over. It was a two-minute ride down. Less than three hours later, everyone was below the icefall.
Base camp was somber and, at times, unsettled. Climbers were disappointed that their shot at summiting Mount Everest was lost. But they also were thankful to be alive.
The 20 dead, including four Americans and at least 10 Nepalis, had only just been flown out. The destruction felt raw. Arnette found his tent flattened, yet containing all his climbing gear and even his U.S. passport.
Watkins, the Army veteran from Alaska, walked over to his team camp with Adventure Consultants. Six of the company’s Nepali guides had been killed by the avalanche. Seven more were among the injured. Watkins and others excavated the ruins with ice axes and shovels, stopping as aftershocks rumbled the glacier.
Watkins searched in vain for his Iditarod belt buckle, his reward for crossing the finish line back in Nome, Alaska. He had carried it with him across the globe, hoping to carry it to the top of the world. Now, he was reminded that no matter what people achieved, Mother Nature was far more powerful.
Hundreds of miles away, Geljing Sherpa sat in a Kathmandu hospital room, his wife at his side in tears. She made him promise to find a new job. No more mountains. He agreed. But he was struck by the suddenness of his new direction.
“If this earthquake had not occurred,” he said, “I would have climbed for the rest of my life.”
By week’s end, Nepali authorities said Mount Everest climbs could resume once the icefall was repaired. That seemed like an overly optimistic notion, perhaps highlighting climbing’s economic importance in the country. But all of the major climbing expeditions, after at first entertaining the idea, said their season was over. They were headed home.
Migma Sherpa, the guide who felt fear in his heart when the mountain came alive, was stuck in Lukla. He’s 37. He had been a proud Sherpa since he was 13. This was what he knew. After the avalanche, he listened as climbers called their families and assured them that they would never climb again. They were done.
Migma Sherpa didn’t know whether he could make such a promise. Maybe next year he’d return. But he didn’t feel like confronting the mountain now. Nepal was hurting. He’d seen enough of nature’s fury.
Lakshmi reported from Kathmandu. Frankel and Bernstein reported from Washington. Pradeep Bashyal in Kathmandu, Peter Holley and Bonnie Berkowitz in Washington, and Rick Maese in Las Vegas contributed to this report.