The mother of all avalanches: an eyewitness account

At approximately 6.45am on Friday 18 April, 2014 I was walking with team mates through Everest Base Camp on the way to my first foray into the Khumbu Icefall. It was a climb I wasn’t to start, for at that moment a huge chunk of ice fell off Everest’s West Shoulder, triggering an avalanche which swept across the entire width of the Icefall.

Here is what we saw. I have indicated in red the position where the ice serac fell away (for a more detail analysis of the position, see the photographs provided by my team mate, Mel Huang).

Everest avalanche

We were very lucky. Had we set off two hours earlier we may well have been swept away. Others weren’t so lucky. There were as many as 100 people in the Khumbu Icefall that morning. How many were trapped by the avalanche we didn’t know, but it soon became clear that a major tragedy was unfolding before our eyes.

In fact the catastrophe could hardly have happened at a worse time, or in a worse location. A ladder had fallen out of position at a steep section of the route through the Icefall, causing a bottleneck. At that moment 40 or 50 Sherpas were standing above the ladder in the path of the avalanche, waiting to come down. Many were killed instantly, not by being buried, but from shards of shattered ice exploding like shrapnel. Injuries were horrific, and many survivors and rescuers were traumatised by what they saw.

Shortly after the avalanche occurred we arrived at the foot of the Khumbu Icefall and peered up into the ice through the lenses of our cameras. We were relieved to see many little figures – survivors – still up there on the ice. We did not know then how many had been killed, but radios were crackling, and over the next few hours the true picture began to emerge.

Somewhere near the skyline we could see figures trapped above the fallen ladder and gingerly edging their way down. They were very close to the West Shoulder where the serac had fallen, as this picture shows (bottom right).

Everest avalanche

Those who were already acclimatised to the altitude, including Sherpas and western guides, headed up to the avalanche site. Some took ladders to restore the route, and others took spades to help retrieve the fallen. At around 10am helicopters began arriving to bring down the dead and injured to Base Camp, where an emergency room had been set up at the Himalayan Rescue Association’s Everest Base Camp Medical Clinic.

Crowds gathered at the helipads and watched in disbelief as one by one the deceased were brought down on long lines. The helicopters returned again and again, and we lost count of the number of journeys they made.

A casualty is lowered by longline from a helicopter on the day of the tragedy

In all 16 people died that day. It could have been anybody – a team of western clients from International Mountain Guides (IMG) were climbing through the Icefall at the time and just 15 minutes away from the tragedy – but it so happened that all of the dead came from Nepal. While not all teams lost members, all of us had those who were friends or family of the dead. It was the worst single tragedy in the history of mountaineering on Everest.

Here is a list of those who died and the local companies who employed them:

  • Mingma Nuru Sherpa, Shangri-La
  • Dorji Sherpa, Shangri-La
  • Ang Tshiri Sherpa, Shangri-La
  • Tenzing Chottar Sherpa, Shangri-La
  • Nima Sherpa, Shangri-La
  • Phurba Ongyal Sherpa, Himalayan Guides
  • Lakpa Tenjing Sherpa, Himalayan Guides
  • Chhiring Ongchu Sherpa, Himalayan Guides
  • Dorjee Khatri, Himalayan Guides
  • Then Dorjee Sherpa, Himalayan Guides
  • Phur Temba Sherpa, Himalayan Guides
  • Pasang Karma Sherpa, Summit Trekking
  • Asman Tamang, Himalayan Ecstasy
  • Angkaji Sherpa, Seven Summit Treks
  • Ash Bahadur Gurung, Seven Summit Treks
  • Pemba Tenji Sherpa, Seven Summit Treks

Two days after the tragedy the Government of Nepal announced they would provide 40,000 Nepalese rupees (around $400 USD) to each of the families of the deceased. This triggered a labour dispute which a week later led to the mountain being closed for climbing.

Luckily the Government of Nepal was not the families’ only means of support. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy many appeals and trust funds were set up to raise money for those who had lost family members. For example, the Chinese climbers Quingyong Zhang and Geng Zhu, part of the Everest Chinese Dream Expedition team who lost Sherpas in the avalanche, pledged 7 million Nepalese rupees (around $70,000) to the families of the victims. A fund set up by the American Alpine Club had raised $50,000 before the end of April. The Japanese climber Ken Noguchi announced he would be making a donation of 10 million yen (about $97,000). A GoFundMe page for the families of three Sherpas employed by Himalayan Guides aims to raise $50,000 and is well on the way. Sir Edmund Hillary’s Himalayan Trust has so far raised another 29,000 New Zealand dollars (around $25,000 USD). National Geographic photographer Aaron Huey raised an astonishing $424,000 by selling prints over the course of 8 days. A list of other organisations accepting donations can be found on Alan Arnette’s website (under General News & Notes). It is hoped these funds will be managed responsibly, so that the money finds its way to those who need and deserve it.

When 7 Sherpas died in an avalanche on Everest’s North Col in 1922, the British climbers George Mallory and Howard Somervell could easily have been swept away as well, but they survived. In his diary that night Somervell wrote the following lines of guilt:

“Only Sherpas and Bhotias killed – why, oh why could not one of us, Britishers, shared their fate? I would gladly at that moment have been lying there, dead in the snow. If only to give those fine chaps who survived the feeling that we had shared their loss, as we had indeed shared the risk.”

Viewed through the lens of time his words sound quaint and patronising, but the sentiment is genuine. Since that morning in April many people have blamed western climbers for a disaster which owed an enormous amount to terrible luck. There is an element of danger in mountaineering, as there is in sailing a yacht, driving a car, or crossing a road. Sometimes you just have to hope it doesn’t happen to you; this time we came within such a whisker that all of us were scarred by it. While the wound will never fully heal, the goodwill and generosity of those who love the country of Nepal has ensured the families of the dead will not be forgotten.

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