As the numbers of injured and killed—currently 5,900 and 2,400, respectively—rise in the wake of yesterday’s earthquake in Nepal and aftershocks continue to rock the countryside, the first groups of evacuees from nearby Mount Everest’s base camp have begun to straggle in to the ravaged capital of Kathmandu. Massive avalanches, unleashed by the quake, destroyed the north side camp, killing 19 people, including Google executive, American Dan Fredinburg.
Pentagon Spokesman Col. Steve Warren said nearly 70 personnel, “including a USAID Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART), the Fairfax County Urban Search and Rescue team and several journalists along with 45 square tons of cargo,” took off this morning from Dover Air Force Base bound for Nepal, and are expected to arrive on Monday.
While in no way overshadowing the country-wide devastation wrought by yesterday’s quake, the extent of which is still unfolding, there is, on Everest, a chilling sense of déjà vu. This latest disaster comes almost a year to the day after the 2014 Everest avalanche that claimed the lives of 16 Nepalese guides, calling into question the overall safety and cultural integrity of scaling the legendary mountain, often perceived by the public as the pinnacle high alpine achievement.
We spoke with six-time Everest summiteer and founder of US-based Alpenglow Expeditions Adrain Ballanger, who is staged at the northern base camp, just miles away from the avalanches and chaos, about what this horrific disaster could mean for the future of climbing on Everest. Given his limited cell and radio connectivity, Ballanger may not be aware of the scope of the damages in the rest of Nepal.
So you’re there with an expedition right now, yes?
We’re a group of 10 westerners. All together, along with 12 Sherpa, we’re a team of 22. We’re at the north side base camp. Essentially, Everest has two what we would call “normal” routes on the mountain. One side is in Nepal, where the avalanche was last year and also where the earthquake has caused these big avalanches this year, and then the other normal route is on the north side of the mountain coming from Tibet in China, which is where we are. I ran trips on the south side of the mountain, the Nepal side, from 2009 to 2014, but this year we shifted our entire expedition and infrastructure and team to this side.
Could you feel the quake?
Oh yeah. I’ve been in a number of earthquakes in my life, and this is definitely the biggest one I’ve ever felt. We’re still very close to the epicenter, because we aren’t that far away from Nepal, we’re right on the border. The main quake was big, it lasted for at least 10 or 15 seconds, it was enough to knock Thermoses off the dining table and break glasses and things life that, and it caused pretty major rock falls and avalanches off the smaller peaks that surround us. The good thing about this side is that we’re in a huge, broad, open valley, and all of the avalanches and rock fall that came down stopped well away from us.
Do you know anyone over there?
We do. None of my team was there, all of my Sherpa that I normally work with are here in Tibet. But of course, we’ve spent the last six years working on the south side, so we have a lot of friends. Our Sherpa are all from a town called Phortse, which is in the Khumbu Valley about two days walk from Everest’s base camp, and they have a lot of family members and friends who are either working on Everest or in the town. We’ve been in almost non-stop contact via satellite phone and cellphones with their family members in the Khumbu. Fortunately, none of our Sherpa’s immediate families have been hurt. But of our 12 Sherpa, nine lost their houses; they were either destroyed or collapsed. Phortse was really hard hit by the avalanche, and there’s not great building standards on the mountainside. One of our Sherpa’s mother-in-law was killed, she didn’t get out of her house quickly enough. So there’s certainly grief in our team, there’s certainly a lot of concern… You might have heard we had a really large aftershock again today, it went for 10 seconds and caused a lot of avalanches again. The tension is certainly high here.
What are the emergency response capabilities when something like this happens? The nearest hospital is many miles away in Kathmandu, right?
Tibet is more remote than Nepal because there’s no helicopter use on this side, so we come in planning to be a fully independent team in whatever the worst case scenario we can imagine is. We have a full-time expedition doctor with us every single day that we’re on the mountain; she stays in our base camp ready to treat whatever sort of accidents or sicknesses we have.
How do you guys train for something like this? Obviously as a guide, you have tons of training, but is this an eventuality that you can be prepared for in any way?
No. I mean, this is something that has been discussed in Nepal on a relatively regular basis. We’re obviously on a geologically active area and earthquakes are expected here and the building standards are so low, everyone talks about the potential danger of an earthquake in a place like Kathmandu. So we’ve talked about it, but we’ve never trained for it or had any planning around it, and certainly didn’t ever expect anything (of) this size so close to the mountain. Truly, I believe that the avalanches that occurred on the south side, no one ever expected that very big thing to happen.
So what’s the next step? This will obviously effect the climbing season, which just started over there.
Yes. It will dramatically affect the season. We’re talking to our friends on the south side, and they’re still in full rescue mode. Like, they still don’t think… They’ve flown out 17 bodies, and there’s probably more that have not been found yet, even at the base camp or in the icefall. And there’s a hundred or more climbers stranded at Camp One and Camp Two. They’re fine, they’re healthy, they can stay up there for days, but the whole south side focus has to be on getting those people down. You know, I find it hard to imagine how the south side will be able to continue after this tragedy. The loss of life, the loss of equipment, and it being the second year with this sort of emotional loss.
What about the side you’re on? Will it be business as usual?
I would say we’re taking some time to see how we feel. Today we had a day off and we had a big blessing ceremony, we brought a monk up from the local monastery and had a four-hour blessing for those who lost their lives and for us and for the mountain. The CTMA, which is the Chinese Tibetan Mountaineering Association, the group that manages the mountain on the Tibetan side, they’ve come to all of the teams and asked us for a voluntary climbing stoppage while we wait to see if there’s more aftershocks. And as far as I know, every team is happy with that. So there were no injuries whatsoever on the north side, all of the teams have come down to the base camp and advanced base camp, and we’ve all agreed to have a bigger meeting tomorrow and see what morale is like. My Sherpa are mixed right now, really. Some would like to be with their wives, who are now sleeping in tents out by their destroyed homes. Others feel like they want to show that climbing on Everest is still a good idea, because they’re worried about future seasons and what people think, and they think that it’s only four more weeks of work and then they can go home and rebuild. So, we’re just really trying to feel where we fit with all that, and we haven’t made any decisions yet.
—With additional reporting by Nancy Youssef.