Home Time!

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Wonderbag working hard at Everest Base Camp!

Back at Base Camp, after 5 days of hiking down to Gokya, was a great feeling! Great to see Ongchu and the rest of the team, and in a weired way, back home to our base! However it was also back to the devastation and depression. Base Camp had virtually emptied and besides a few scattered Sherpa tents and what was left of other expeditions, not too many folks were left at base camp! Having returned alone, I again walked base camp, checked out the destruction caused by the avalanche. The litter of tents and equipment was spread out over base camp. So sad to see personal items and kit of those who had been worst affected lying everywhere.

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Our tents at base camp                                                                                             The Khumbu Ice fall

That afternoon, a meeting was arranged for those expeditions still left at base camp. The head of the Ice Doctors had returned and an expedition team with influence, Russell Brice and his Hymex Team, were all in attendance. Another team, still able to continue, was the Indian Army Everest Expedition. A decision needed to be made as to whether Everest would be opened again, or closed for the season.

When Ongchu returned later that afternoon from the meeting, he signaled to me that a decision had been made and that Everest was now closed. Russell Brice and his team had made a call and were pulling out. The Ice Doctors were not keen to keep the icefall open for a handful of climbers. (Not forgetting that the icefall is not a once off task of securing ropes and ladders. It needed constant maintenance throughout the climbing season.) Individuals within the Indian Team were interested in continuing up Everest, but they were outvoted. The mountain was, within this meeting, now closed. All that remained was for the Nepalese Tourism Board to officially declare Everest closed for the season.

The next day, when Sean and the team returned, Sean was still looking on the bright side. So positive and optimistic, Sean wanted to hear the answer from the Nepalese Government before making a decision to pull out. And there was another reason for this. Walking off the mountain voluntary may well compromise the opportunity to get reimbursed with the climbing permit fee. Remaining behind until the mountain was declared closed by the Nepalese Government, would strengthen the possibility of having the permit cost reimbursed.

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Next morning we got word that the Nepalese Tourism Board had declared the mountain officially closed. The Everest 2015 season was over! With the national death toll rising towards the 10 000 mark, and the fatalities on Everest now standing at 22, (18 at base camp, and 4 succumbing to injuries sustained), it was time to call it a day.

With a definite answer having been received, everyone jumped into action and the camp was slowly dismantled. Each of us got cracking and packed our personal belongings. The Sherpa and Porter team would slowly pack up the rest of our camp over the next week or so. It was so sad to see our “home” being dismantled. The team had no set foot on Everest, and it was over!

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Packing up!

Next morning, the 6th May, we departed base camp. Anxious to get back to the comforts of the Hyatt Hotel, we set a blistering pace, with Namche Bazaar our destination. This was a 40km hike! As our altitude dropped and the air got thicker, we felt stronger! I, again, took my time and only got in that evening at 8.30pm, an 11 ½ hour hike! Hiking through the Himalayan Mountains at night, with hardly a light in sight was special. Amazingly enough, there were still porters out there, transporting goods up and down the mountains!

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The SA Everest Team

Our next destination was Lukla, and we again tucked our ears in and made tracks for Lukla! 25km’s later and we entered the small village. Again Sean had gone ahead and on my arrival in Lukla, I could not find the teahouse where we were staying! Wandering the streets, I heard a loud knock on a window above me and there was Sean and the team, snug, and drinking beer shandy’s! Sean took a pic of me as I wearily looked for the entrance! A happy team now at our penultimate destination before home time!

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With air tickets out of Lukla booked for the first flights out, we were up at 5am the next morning and at the airport by 6am. With our flights booked for 7am, there was still concern that it would be delayed by weather, as had been when we flew in. However, right on time, our Sita Airline plane landed! Now for the take-off……! All seated and strapped in, the pilot revved the plane up, released the brakes and we accelerated on down the runway. There was no aborting take offs here. Once committed, it was up and away! Turning left we climbed out of the Khumbu Valley, destination Kathmandu!

We landed in Kathmandu, at an airport full to capacity with foreign aircraft, all bringing in aid post the earthquake. Once through customs, we headed off to the Hyatt Hotel. On everyone’s minds was a long hot bath and a meal with a selection of food, including real meat and desert!

That afternoon, our Camp 1 Sherpa, Kimi, came by the Hyatt to visit us. He was on crutches and had broken his leg badly, just below the knee. He would be out of action for the next 10 months, and Everest Camp 1 and 2 were off the cards for some time to come!

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The next 2 days were spent shopping and sorting out our kit for the flight home.

On Sunday 11th May, the Makalu Adventure Team picked us up from the airport and took us to the airport for our flight home. Although delayed by 2 hours, we finally boarded our Qatar flight to Doha. A 10 hour stop off in Doha, including a short 6 hour sleep in a transit hotel and then on a flight bound for Jhb!! We landed Monday afternoon with a warm welcome from my brother Donald, and family members of those climbers from Jhb. The press were there and a few interview were carried out with the climbing party. (I was surprised to discover a few days later that my interview had been broadcast on Radio 702!)

Later that day, Sean and I boarded a Mango flight for our home in Durban! Waiting for us was our respective families, happy to have us back home after 7 weeks away! I was stoked to be home, that familiar territory feeling of HOME!!

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An epic adventure, one that none of us had vaguely anticipated! Although Everest had not been climbed that season, we had survived an earthquake and avalanche at Base Camp! We had a story for our grandkids one day!

 

Ending, may I take this opportunity to thank a few people.

  • Sean Wisedale, you are an incredible person, determined, strong and entertaining! Thanks mate. To the rest of the team,
  • Nico, Wilmien and Molly; you were a pleasure to be with! We really were a team and I was proud to be a part of it.
  • To my family, Belinda, Daniel and Jenna; thanks for your understanding and support on my quest to spend time at Everest. It was a goal of mine and you gave me your blessing to achieve it.
  • To the rest of my family; Donald who assisted me with the Edge business whilst I was away. My sister Alison, always there to support me and my family. My parents; sorry to have to put you through another epic adventure, but that’s me….!
  • And to all our friends who supported me and especially for the support you gave Belinda and the kids during the tough times when uncertainty around my safety was questioned. I really appreciated the support.
  • And lastly to the men and women who make climbing Everest possible; the Sherpa community of Nepal and the Khumbu Valley. The unsung heroes of Everest, you have my respect and I salute you!!

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Treking to Gokyo

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With all casualties having been flown out, and the majority of the big expeditions having called it a day, we were now trying to decide on the best way forward. The mountain was temporary closed, and all we could do was wait it out. For how long? No one knew. Sitting around would do us no good. Fitness starts to fade, rumors are rife and constantly being on edge for another avalanche, was playing on our minds. We needed to get out!
Sean planned a trip. We would hike down the valley and up to a village called Gokyo. It was a 40km hike or so but apparently a beautiful area. From Gokyo! There were a number of options for a return trip to bc.
We packed our bags and got ourselves ready to leave. The Sherpa crew would remain behind, awaiting news on the mountain.
After departing bc, we went to Loboche where everyone climbed on to wifi! We had been out of coms fir so long, it was a communication Christmas! For a good 2 hours we all had our heads down, communicating with family and friends and updating blogs!

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From Loboche, we finally pulled ourselves away from the wifi and trekked on down the valley. We were all in good spirits, chatting away and.reliving the past 4 days events. Each village we passed, we came to see the destruction the earthquake had caused. Particularly ad was Feroche, with many buildings damages, many had even collapsed!
With the air getting thicker with each meter we descended, our bodies felt better! Soon it was dark and on we trekked enjoying the scenery, the moment. At about 8pm, we entered the village of Pangboche and found a lodge. Bed time after a long days hike!

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From Lower Pangboche we climbed up through a stunning area and shortly thereafter entered the village of Upper Pangboche. It was surrounded by Birch trees and was typically terraced. In the center of the village was a monastery. Unfortunately we needed to press on and we left Pangboche and started on a contour path. For hikers that suffered from vertigo, this path was a no no! It contoured the side of a hill / cliff, extremely exposed and a drop to the river below of 500meters! Scary, but worth the walk. Scenery like I have never seen before. After 2 hours or so, we came to the village of Portse, we slowly made our way down to the nearest tea house. On entering we heard the familiar chatter of Afrikaans. We had fellow South Africans in our company. After initiating conversation, they were out trekking the area as family. We were asked if we had come across a guy by the name of Nico Oosthuizen, a friend they part knew from home. Well, speak of the devil as Nico stepped forward!! For the next hour we chatted away on the past days events, good to be in company of fellow saffas!

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Leaving Portse we made our way down to a river, crossing it, and then the pull commenced! We were now making our way up a valley in the direction of Gokyo, and it was all uphill! Fortunately we could revel in the scenery! We were in Trekkers paradise and savoured the moments, albeit huffing and puffing! We stopped off at tea houses and drank lemon ginger honey tea, snacked and chatted the afternoon away. That evening, with the mist and snow making an appearance, we checked in at the village of Mochemo There were quite a few people in the communal living room all because of wi-fi and Sky TV!! Having been at base camp during the avalanche, many wanted to know all about it. We also caught up on the Sky news broadcast. It was at this stage that we began to learn about my hit video clip! It had over 13000 hits on Facebook, was all over the news and even featured on CNN! Sean decided I was more popular than Elvis and began referring to me as Elvis!! Wow, it was kinda weird to know that 2 of my video clips had gone viral and that the SA team at Everest was making headlines throughout SA, and even the world! Crazy stuff!!
Next stop – Gokyo! This area is renowned for its lakes. Gokyo overlooks a huge lake, with a number of smaller ones around. On the way up, Sean and I walked together with the rest up front. In true Sean style he said to me, “hey, let’s take a dip!” Now we at 4600m, there is snow everywhere and cascading out of the mountain, is this river! Rarely one to say no, I stripped off and we both took the plunge! Well not a true plunge as it was shallow, but enough to get a pic in the water with snow all around us. exhilarating!

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The lakes were stunning, although completely iced up. We even saw a duck in a small pond. Lost?
At Gokyo, we checked in spent the afternoon debating the way forward. To Sean’s point, the mountain was not closed. We had not had our camp wrecked and all logistics were in place to continue the expedition. Yes, we had experienced a life threatening avalanche. Yes, the team was rattled, and maybe heads were not in the right place, but the team was good to go. Life is about overcoming adversity and obstacles quoted Sean. It’s about the will to overcome, get up and continue. If the mountain was going to open, the SA team needed to be ready to give it a second chance! The other view was we had been given a second chance. We escaped possible death. The mountain had spared the SA team. Others were flocking off the mountain for various reasons. Maybe we should be counting our lucky stars and getting the hell off the hill! 2 views, both with merits!
The team got behind Sean’s call. We would continue until a final call had been made on the mountain.
Sean and the 3 climbers were going to traverse a pass just above Gokia, and head down to Namche for a day or 2 rest. I decided to head back down the valley, stopping when I felt lie it and leaving the 4 to bond as a team. The long walk, and pass, to Namche, was not top of my priority list just then!
Next morning, I headed off back down the valley alone, whilst the climbing 4 headed up towards Renjo Pass.
In summary, I spent the next 3 days totally alone, trekking through the most wonderful scenery! I was in no rush and frequently stopped at a river or path bend and ate snacks and drank Game. Being “patmalone” in the Himalayas, not a soul around was a wonderful experience! On the “vertigo” contour path I met 2 Sherpa youngsters. They were studying in Kathmandu and because of the earthquake and risk of disease, they decided to return to their home village for a month or so. We struck up conversation whilst walking and they invited me back to their village and home. Their father was a famous Sherpa and had summited Everest 9 times! I took up their offer and was invited in to their home in Upper Pangboche. What a wonderful experience. Their home, and that of most Sherpa families, consists of one huge room. Everything happens here. The kitchen, living area and sleeping quarters – all in this one room. Downstairs was the barn where the yaks lived. It was an old house, built by their grandfather when he was young. Their grandmother was still alive and at 93, was still active in the home!
I was then taken on a tour of the monastery. Sadly, the Lama and his team were in Kathmandu for the “death ceremony” obviously for all those who had succumbed to the earthquake. One on one I was taken to every room in the monastery and the various statues and Gods were explained to me. Apparently it was the oldest monastery in the Khumbu valley. In a locked box was a had and skull! When I enquired on it, I was told it was from the Yeti! Unfortunately in the 80’s or so, the original was stolen. This was a replica, made up by a foreign organisation to replace the one stolen!
With time running out, I needed to get going. Sonar, showed we the way out, taking me up to the place where the bodies of the dead were burned! Apparently horses are also burned in a similar fashion, the only other animal to do so!
Time to move! We said our goodbyes and I headed off, chaffed that I had experienced time with a Sherpa family.
Putting my head down, I made it all the au to Deboche, arriving at about 6pm. A long day and a climb of over 1km vertically.
Sadly, that evening after a Whatsapp chat to family back home, I handed my cell phone in for charging. An hour later, I tried to fire it up. The screen had gone, perhaps busted by the extreme cold for the past 4 weeks. My Whatsapp coms with home was over!
Tomorrow I would be back in base camp and hopefully able to get some news on the mountain!

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Avalanche at base camp!

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With Island Peak under the belt, the team was well acclimatized and looking forward to their first rotation through the Khumbu Icefall.
We all relaxed at our camp, preparing kit, minds and body.
Saturday, 24th April and the whole team was gathered in the communal tent. It was just before 12midday.
All of a sudden, the ground gave a violent shake! We all sprang to our feet unsure as to what was happening, and dashed for the door. Then it began again and the earth under our feet shook violently again, this time for a good 15 to 20 seconds! Not having any idea as to what was happening, we all just stood our ground. Up above we could not see the mountains as they were covered by a blanket of cloud. Then the noise started as avalanches were activated on the surrounding mountains. Problem was we could not identify from where they were coming. Behind our tents, huge rock land slides started and boulders rolled down the embankment behind us. The noise was loud, too loud for a distant avalanche. Everyone was frightened not knowing quite what to expect next.
Then, from behind the camp,this huge avalanche came thundering down on base camp! This thundering, rolling plume of snow and ice must have been 80m high, I don’t know, and it was heading straight for us! The Sherpas took off, running for cover. For some reason, I had my camera rolling and caught Angchu shouting “oh my God” and running for the tent.
Sean, Minki, Nico and Molly ran back in to the communal tent. I had other ideas and ran! Where to, why? I have no idea but I ran. Perhaps for higher ground, or better protection, but I bolted. Of course I never got far, making it to the camp Stupa before being hit by the force of the avalanche. Right next to the Stupa was a tent and I get in behind it, lying flat on the ground, thinking this is it! I’m a gonner!! It was now dark all around and I was being blasted by the snow. Lying face down and battling to breathe, I tried to open the tent next to me. With rocks holding it down and the zip difficult to locate, I fumbled around until I managed to climb inside. There I lay flat again as the last of the avalanche finally subsided. Sitting up, I grabbed my cell and filmed a short clip of the experience I had just gone through. Pumped full of adrenalin, and a lot of relief, I said a few words whilst filming myself. Then I crawled out of the test and made my way back to our camp.

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Sean was outside frantically calling for me. He thought I was lost! We all got together and went over what had just happened. Everyone was ok, that was the main thing! Smaller avalanches still rumbled on around us, but the camp had now settled in to an eary silence. At this stage we were unaware of the carnage that had unfolded towards the center of base camp.

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I need to get out and see what the damage was. I made my way towards the nearest camp, International Mountain Guides, and then I started to see the human damage. People were being assisted by others. In the distance, I could see people being carried. It looked bad. At IMG, casualties we’re bring brought in. I asked someone if I could assist in anyway. “if you got a good stomach! assist in that tent. Otherwise the walking wounded are in those tents”.
Not being a doctor, and not keen to assist where I knew very little, I made my way to the other tents. It was crazy! Casualties were being brought in one after the other, mostly with head and body injuries from flying rocks and stones. With 3 doctors in attendance, I assisted where I could, applying bandages, and generally acting on instruction from one of the doctors.
The rest of the afternoon was spent assisting. I also went up towards the center of base camp and ferried the injured by make shift stretcher back to IMG for treatment. Unfortunately it was then that the first of many fatalities were pulled out and put into sleeping bags.
At the same time, base camp was emptying. Climbers and Sherpas were heading out, making their way down to one of the many villages in the valley. Who could blame them!
Later that evening, Sean and I, (Sean had also been out there rendering assistance where he could) returned to camp.
The day was done. We had survived an avalanche. The true extent of the damaged was still not evident at this stage. Worrying was the +120 or so climbers on the Western Cwm. How were they??

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That night We all decided it best to sleep in the communal tent. All except Nico who retired to his tent. We all lay and chatted well in to the night, battling to sleep as avalanches continued to rumble down the mountain side. We were scared of after shocks activating more avalanches down on to base camp.

Next morning I was up early and made my way across to the IMG camp. The first of many helicopters were starting to arrive at base camp, ready to airlift the injured to safety. Throughout the day, the ferrying of injured continued. Again I did what I could to assist with the injured. Just off the the left of our camp, the fatalities were mounting under a taupalin. Not what anyone wanted to see.
With the cloud now lifting, the first helicopters managed to make their way up towards the Cwm and with relief, the evacuation of the climbers commenced. It took 2 days to get everyone off the Cwm, with not one injury! They had been very fortunate and although having felt the earthquake and being hit by the avalanche plume, they were all safe!
At lunch time, we were hit with another earth shudder, sending everyone in to a small panic! Fortunately no major avalanches were activated and everyone returned to what they were busy with.What was not known, until news filtered in from the outside, was that Kathmandu had been devastated by the quake and thousands were dead. The true extent of the damage and fatalities would only be known in weeks to come. At base camp, some 18 individuals had lost their lives!

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The South African team had escaped major injury and we talked about it for days to come!

With base camp now a ghost town, Sean, Minki and I did a tour of the area. It was as if a plane had crashed. Debris everywhere! tents, kit, kitchen equipment, oxygen bottles and more. Scattered everywhere and smashed to pieces! So sad to see. Many expeditions had lost everything!

With the camp now 80% empty and all casualties airlifted to hospitals, the question on everyone’s lips was, “what now? Will the climbing season continue?”

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