Disaster at Base Camp!
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.
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.
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??
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!
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?”