Mt. Everest, Asia

The Engagement, the Earthquake & the Avalanche

And suddenly, it was that magical time of the year again when climbers from all over the world converge on the Khumbu Valley to pursue their Himalayan dreams. For the third time in four years, I was to be counted amongst them. Third time’s the charm, right, so what could possibly go wrong this time?!?

We planned to pick-up right where the previous year’s Cho Oyu expedition ended, and climb Mt. Everest (29,035’) and Lhotse (27,940’) in one push. As a strong and nimble team of three, we decided to go a little later than usual, beginning our trek through the Khumbu Valley in mid-April.

To make this year’s expedition even more special, I invited my long-time girlfriend, Carla, to join me for the trek to base camp. She would get to experience the special and unique Khumbu Valley firsthand, visit Everest base camp, participate in our puja ceremony and then fly home while I stayed to climb. What she did not know was that I was planning to propose to her once we arrived in the village of Namche and had our first views of Everest. Fortunately, all went according to plan up to that point, especially the part where she said “yes.”

We continued up valley enjoying our time as fiancées, and stopped in Pangboche to see Lama Geshe for our traditional pre-climb blessing, as we do on all Everest expeditions. This time, Lama Geshe also generously blessed our upcoming marriage, and due to some of the lost-intranslation issues, I am pretty certain we were married right then and there. No time like the present!

Just four days later, Carla and I were in Gorak Shep, the last village before Everest base camp at 17,000′, when the massive 7.8 magnitude earthquake and subsequent avalanches hit just before noon. Our teahouse shook violently and we were soon thereafter hit by a powerful powder blast from an avalanche from the flanks of Nuptse across the valley from us.

The rest of my climbing team were an hour ahead and arrived base camp as the earthquake and devastating avalanche struck. They were hit by the edge of the enormous powder blast (said to be moving at nearly 200mph) and survived its impact by ducking behind rocks and breathing through Buffs (thin neck gaiters) to prevent the fine, powdery snow from filling their lungs. Our team leader, Willie Benegas, put his EMT training to use and helped with triage at an improvised medical tent since the Himalayan Rescue Association’s ER tent was destroyed in the avalanche. My climbing partner, Matt Moniz, along with many others helped move the injured to the triage area throughout that afternoon and evening.

Amazingly, the medical team treated 85 people that afternoon and evening. Sadly, there were 19 confirmed fatalities, many due to severe head injuries, along with 65+ injured, but many more lives would have been lost without the extraordinary and collaborative efforts of many at base camp. It was a heroic effort.

Feeling helpless and worried in Gorak Shep, my fiancée and I finally heard from Willie and Matt at 5pm that they were alive and well and they told us of the devastation at base camp. We shepherded medical supplies and departed at first light to bring these additional supplies to base camp. That same morning all injured were evacuated via helicopter down valley for further treatment.

The following day, resources shifted to evacuate the ~170 climbers stranded at Camps I and II, above the dangerous Khumbu Icefall, since the route through the icefall was badly damaged due to the earthquake. Efforts to repair the route ceased due to the aftershocks that made repairing the route untenable. All climbers in Camps I and II were safely evacuated via helicopter.

Many expedition teams departed base camp to try to find their way home soon thereafter. We opted to remain in base camp since we had lots of supplies and resources there. The tremendous and widespread destruction down valley and in Kathmandu led us to believe that we were safer where we were. Finally, we saw a way to get straight from Everest base camp to the Kathmandu airport and then out of the country. We flew in a helicopter from base camp to Lukla on the evening of April 30th, followed by an early morning flight to Kathmandu the next day. We were then able to secure flights from Kathmandu to Bangkok on May 2nd and on to Tokyo and finally Denver the next day. After days of hectic, highly stressful and uncertain travel, we were extraordinarily grateful to be home safe and sound.

As for a potential return to Everest, all I can say is that I cannot imagine returning anytime soon… but never say never. This latest trip was my 3rd attempt in 4 years. In 2012, my tent-mate came down with a bad GI infection on the summit push, and, not surprisingly, I fell ill 24 hours later and my summit attempt ended prematurely. In 2014, the tragic serac collapse off the West Shoulder of Everest into the Khumbu Icefall tragically killed 16 and ended the Everest climbing season on April 18th. My team climbed Cho Oyu, the 6th highest peak in the world at 26,906′ as this occurred, but our plans to climb Everest and Lhotse afterwards were prevented by that disastrous event. And most recently, we had the unforgettable 2015 trip… so, perhaps summiting Everest is not in the cards for me, although I take away lessons and great memories from each of these expeditions and have zero regrets… only feelings of loss and sadness for the fallen and my Sherpa
friends who have been so adversely impacted by these tragedies, while also feeling blessed that I have survived these tragic events and have been fortunate to return home safely to my friends and loved ones. To ask for anything more, after all of these misfortunes, would be foolish, selfish and ungrateful. Namaste.