RMI Guide Dave Hahn reflects on the events surrounding Mt. Everest and the Nepal Earthquake tragedy.
Mount Everest was simply too big for climbing in the Spring of 2015. The RMI Expeditions team was on the mountain and giving it our very best effort when the Nepal Earthquake struck and changed all priorities.
Six climbers -guided by myself, Jeff Justman and our Sherpa Sirdar Chhering Dorje- made the trek in from Lukla over ten days. We were one of the very first Everest teams to reach the 17,500 ft Basecamp this season, pulling in healthy and strong on April 4th. RMI Veteran Guide Mark Tucker, our capable Basecamp Manager, was already on scene along with our Sherpa climbing team and camp support staff. Frequent snowstorms didn't keep our team from making a series of acclimatization hikes to local "summits" such as Kalapathar and Pumori Camp One. With great interest, we followed the progress of the Icefall Doctors as they forged a "new" route up the Khumbu Glacier to the Western Cwm. Our own training and reconnaissance runs through the Icefall were pushed back by repeated snowstorms but we persevered and moved into Camp One at 19,900 ft on April 23. On the morning of April 25th, the team had climbed to Camp Two (Advanced Basecamp at 21,300 ft) and returned to Camp One ahead of a threatening snowstorm when the magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck. Luckily, due to the poor weather, our Sherpa climbing team had cut short their own climbing mission that morning and had exited the Khumbu Icefall well before the quake hit. Giant ice avalanches thundered down from seemingly every steep mountainside.
Fortunately, within just a few minutes via radio, we were able to establish the whereabouts and safety of our entire team. Nonetheless, the reports from basecamp were disturbing in the extreme. The airblast caused by an avalanche off Pumori had decimated a number of camps while largely flattening our own. Mark Tucker estimated they'd been hit by a cloud of ice debris moving at perhaps 150 miles per hour. Even so, Tucker and our Sherpa team engaged in a heroic, prolonged and strenuous effort to attend to the numerous casualties of the disaster. Those of us at Camp One could do nothing but sit out the snowstorm and hold on for the inevitable aftershocks. This pronounced and continued shaking made it abundantly clear that a hazardous and time-consuming effort to rebuild the Icefall route was out of the question. On April 27th, we came back down to basecamp by helicopter. We were considerably relieved to be safe and united once again, but the scope of the disaster was becoming increasingly clear. As reports of widespread destruction and disruption across Nepal now came flooding in, climbing mountains quickly receded in importance. Our Sherpa team was justifiably anxious to be getting back to check on homes and loved ones. We formally ended our climbing expedition and made plans for heading home.
The three-day walk down toward Lukla allowed ample opportunity for contemplation. Our emotions were conflicted by the bizarre circumstances we found ourselves in. In the days immediately following the quake, foreign climbers and trekkers had quickly fled the Khumbu Valley, leaving it blissfully quiet. As much as we enjoyed the solitude, we each were aware that we were seeing the beginning of the financial disaster that would inevitably follow the natural disaster. Tourism is virtually the only source of revenue in rural Nepal. We tried to reconcile the absolute beauty of the setting, still majestic with snow-topped peaks and magical with blooming rhododendrons, with the tragedy on display in the villages. We walked through funeral ceremonies and past ruined stone homes and lodges. Locals still greeted us with a warm "Namaste" even as we learned from our Sherpa staff that homes and businesses in these still-picturesque villages were destroyed and that insurance for such losses did not exist. Then we were down to Namche and Lukla and naturally our focus shifted to getting ourselves out to Kathmandu. We were simply thankful that facilities like the airports seemed to be getting back to business as usual. Convinced that getting ourselves out of Nepal as quickly as possible would be our best service to the Nepalese, we each left the country within one or two days of reaching Kathmandu. I'm certain we were all relieved to get back to the safety and comfort of our homes... but none of us could truly leave behind what we'd seen and experienced. The aftershocks continued and we were all acutely aware that the 7.2 quake on May 12th had scored a direct hit on the villages of our own Sherpa/Nepali expedition staff. Previously weakened structures had come down completely and entire villages were ruined. We are each now struggling from afar to find ways to help those who've helped us so much. It is quite a different mountain than the one we set out to climb back in March... but it is a worthy struggle nonetheless.
RMI Guide Dave Hahn
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Posted by: Tripti on 1/11/2016 at 1:19 am
Namaste from Truchas. Having twice trekked in the Khumbu, climbed Pokalde & Imja Tse, and was involved with the Friends of Shanta Bhawan clinic, I have strong affection for the people of Nepal, particularly the Sherpas. For anyone who is considering making a donation I most highly recommend the American Himalayan Foundation (http://www.himalayan-foundation.org)as an organization that will properly direct all contributions.
Posted by: Richard Hasbrouck on 5/25/2015 at 9:57 am
Rain, thunder and lightning continued late into the Lukla night, but we all felt pretty confident that the dawn would bring perfect flying weather... Which it did. We were up at 5 AM and over to the craziness of Lukla International Airport by 6 AM. At around 7 or so, a twin engine prop plane came in with the right letters and numbers on its tail and we pushed our way through the crowd to catch our flight. That flight was blissfully uneventful and by 7:30 we were just another batch of tourists in Kathmandu... Rubbernecking from our van to catch whatever signs of quake damage we could see on the way to our comfortable hotel. A casual observer could easily go unaware of the tragedy unfolding in the country around us... things are quickly returning to "normal" for those with means in the capital. The hotel was jam-packed with correspondents, camera crews, diplomats and a few grubby climbers. We met a number of our guide friends -some of whom had ambitious and worthy plans to go out to remote villages to do what they could to save lives, and some of whom, just like ourselves, intended to get out of the country as soon as possible so as not to require care and feeding from an already over-stressed society. Our team passed the afternoon resting, cleaning up, exploring and reconnecting. I was lucky enough to connect with the legendary Miss Elizabeth Hawley for the team's all important post-climb interview. As expected, there wasn't much to relate in terms of climbing goals achieved... none-the-less, we chatted for a delightful -and perhaps a bit melancholy- hour over the continuing challenges of these contemporary Everest seasons.
Back at the hotel, our team assembled for one final evening together, with a couple of toasts and a fine rooftop dinner. We were not even remotely cold or uncomfortable, we weren't in danger and we had a rising and beautiful full moon to entertain us.
Tomorrow we'll scatter to ride a number of bigger and faster aircraft toward our own homes. Thank you for following along in this challenging season. We each feel extremely fortunate to have come unscathed through extraordinary circumstances. To this point, we've had the convenience and satisfaction of placing cash directly into the hands of those who've suffered... from this point onward, we'll try to match the generosity of those at home... Making considered contributions to responsible aid organizations benefiting all Nepalis.
RMI Guide Dave Hahn
Dear Dave, your post have been a blessing to me. I have been praying for all of you, and for the sherpa and their family, also for the people of Nepal.
Have a safe trip back home! God Bless You all, Pastor Sylvia Joplin
Posted by: Pastor Sylvia Joplin on 5/4/2015 at 4:12 pm
Glad you and your team are safe and finally on your way home. Your blog has been extremely informative and I’ve looked forward to reading them and of your previous exploits. You may not recall but back in 1990 as a way to thank the team at VM sports medicine for rehabbing your leg you took a small group of us up Mt Rainier. I was in that group and you had me rope lead behind your lead. I applaud you on all your accomplishments and look forward to reading about many more. Stay safe.
Another surreal day of spectacular hiking and beautiful mountain vistas... mixed with up-close and sad recognition for the cost of lost homes and disrupted lives in the Khumbu Valley. I suppose it is surreal because we would never have chosen to be "tourists" in a disaster area... But here we are. We left Namche at around 8 this morning under perfectly blue skies... And fervently hoping that this meant that the fixed wing planes were coming and going freely from Lukla... Dispersing the crowd we'd heard so much about. The first part of the day was spent in the forests... Where there was little sign of the earthquake. But the bigger portion of the day was spent in the succession of farms and small villages in the valley bottom outside the National Park boundaries. Of course, many houses and buildings were untouched... but a significant number were cracked and damaged beyond reasonable repair. Very few had collapsed... And we were told that there had been few injuries and few deaths in these areas... Probably because Sherpas would have been outside and working hard at midday when the quake struck. And sure enough, the phenomenally strong work ethic in the area had men out moving rocks, plastering and repairing damage wherever possible when we strolled by. People without any form of insurance stood in front of ruined structures, in this fabulously beautiful setting, and smiled and bid us "Namaste" as we passed. Those that we knew, asked us first if we were all ok before acknowledging that they themselves would need to start over completely. We walked until about 2:30 PM to reach Lukla just as the raindrops began to fall. The town and the airstrip appear largely intact... And thankfully, the crowds (mobs...as we'd heard them described a few days ago) seem absent. So far, so good with our plan for coming down the valley slowly so as to allow things to normalize in front of us.
One of our Sherpa team startled me today as we took tea in his sister's place in Monjo... He thanked me for saving his life. I was baffled and embarrassed until he explained that my decision (which had actually been made in consultation with Jeff Justman and Chhering Dorjee) to have the Sherpas drop the loads they were carrying for Camp II at Camp I on the day of the big shake had meant they weren't in the Icefall later in the day at the exact wrong time. As I say... I was startled... Hadn't done the math myself. We'd asked them not to carry on to CII because of the threat of snow and avalanches off Nuptse... Not because of imminent earthquakes. But I'm now so incredibly glad that they were well down the icefall and safe for whatever reason. I deserve no credit whatsoever for getting lucky... But our team can take generic credit for having put safety first, once again, and having reaped unexpected benefits.
We are "scheduled" for the first wave of flights to Kathmandu tomorrow. Perhaps luck will still be with us.
Your team, the thoughtful decisions you make, and your sensitivity to local conditions and customs are all reasons that RMI enjoys such an enviable safety record and remains the gold standard for guided mountaineering. We all join you in your continuing support for the recovery efforts and in keeping the resilient Nepali people in our thoughts and prayers.
Posted by: Everett Moran on 5/3/2015 at 10:08 pm
So grateful that all of you are safe and on your way home even though your goal of the summit was not to be this year.
Thankfully, it was another sparkling sun and blue sky day. We got out of Pheriche by 8:15 AM and got walking out of the alpine zone and down into the land of the living. Helicopters continued to buzz back and forth overhead, traveling to Everest Base or to Gorak Shep, most likely. We encountered a few more trekkers and porters still heading up valley today, but drastically fewer than normal, which made for another quiet and easy day on the trails. We took our time, stopping in Pangboche to check on acquaintances and to pay respects to victims, but then we moved on across the river to Deboche and up to Thyangboche, which was abnormally calm and quiet. The classic and grand monastery was visibly damaged and seemed abandoned for the moment. We sat and rested in the quiet for a time before heading down the big hill and into waves of blooming rhododendrons. Then it was up the next big hill and along the dramatic traverse trail to Namche. We saw plenty of eagles and lammergeiers, Himalayan Tahr... And lots of evidence of massive rocks having crossed the trail in the quake. We've found our way back to our favorite place in Namche... Camp De Base. Damage in Namche seems slight, but we have been reminded that the earth isn't through moving yet. There have been aftershocks that we apparently haven't noticed in our tent environments. But here in town, everybody seems much more aware of them in a place where buildings shake.
We'll keep our guard up, but we'll also avail ourselves of some quality 11,000 ft sleep... The kind we haven't experienced in a month.
RMI Guide Dave Hahn
Our last night at Mt. Everest Base Camp was made more pleasant by a visit from Meagan and Rachel, the two doctors from the Himalayan Rescue Association. We'd lured them to our dining tent with high praise for Kumar's farewell pizza dinner. The two were homeless, as the HRA clinic tent was wiped out by the Avalanche air blast. We are in absolute awe of the performance of these two in managing the medical response to the Base Camp tragedy. They were hurt themselves in the blast and lost virtually all of their personal property, but went on to care for at least 80 patients over the following day -many with critical injuries. We all enjoyed the pizza, but felt terrible that the two docs were still prone to violent coughing from having taken in the super cooled, ice laden air of the powder cloud that accompanied the air blast.
Kumar kept his final night tradition by baking cakes (with and without gluten) for the team. Alas, these didn't say "congratulations Everest summiteers" but nobody complained.
This morning, we enjoyed a little sunshine for a change, which made it a little easier to put final touches on our packing. We were on the trail by 10 AM. A very different trail than we'd become accustomed to... No Trekkers, no porters, no traffic. Of course, the reason for the empty trails is sobering, but the effect is wonderful. Nobody has put the dire national situation out of their minds, but the value of a day spent walking peaceful trails through beautiful mountains can't be overestimated. We stopped in both Gorak Shep and Lobuche without seeing too much damage from the quake, but things in Pheriche are obviously worse. Many of what had seemed to be the more substantial structures in town are badly damaged. None-the-less, we've found comfortable and safe lodging.
RMI Guide Dave Hahn
Thank you to your team- not only for feeding us, but also for your endless kindness, support & use of resources during and after the avalanche. I’m glad that the team made it home safely. I hope that our paths cross again at some point- you are all always welcome in sunny Australia! .
Posted by: Meg on 5/20/2015 at 3:00 pm
Amazing 2 doctors. The whole thing is so devastating. Thank you for keeping us informed Dave.
Posted by: Jacqueline Bayless on 5/1/2015 at 1:08 am
Our expedition is rapidly winding down. Everest Base Camp is becoming empty of foreign climbers (that'd be people like us). Three of our team...HP, Hao, and Hans were able to catch a heli down toward Lukla this morning. The rest of us have spent the day packing, sheltering from snow showers and reflecting on the surreal situation and surroundings. We've each taken walks out to icy cyber, where the cell service almost works, and been stunned by the amount of heavy camp gear... Tents, barrels, tables, boots, helmets etc that are strewn hundreds of meters from base camp. These sad items testify to the force of the blast that hit Base, fully obliterating the camps in about the middle third of the mile-long cluster of tents along the medial moraine. Mark Tucker estimated that the blast was perhaps a hundred and fifty miles per hour (up from zero in a second or two). We are all still a bit jumpy, although there hasn't been a recognizable aftershock in a day or two. It sure seems like the biggest hanging glaciers have had ample chance to relieve themselves already, but we start out the tent to see every crack and boom these days. We'll walk out of this place and down toward an easier and safer world tomorrow. But plenty of uncertainty still lies ahead in this altered world. Mostly we just expect it all to take patience, and we have that.
RMI Guide Dave Hahn
You make a insignificant climber like me inspired to handle any incident on a mountain with a new perspective. You make me proud to be affiliated with RMI - so professional and humanistic- making the good decisions when it counts I am proud to have climbed with a group of professionals like you.
Posted by: Elsie Bemiss on 4/29/2015 at 8:57 pm
Thanks for taking time to give us an update. The base camp trek has been on my bucket list for some time. Now I’m more determined than ever to go once things settle down and the people of Nepal begin to rebuild their lives. They’ll need us more than ever to return and be a part of their economic growth.
We've come to the inescapable conclusion that Everest summit for 2015 is out of reach for our team. Besides the rather obvious and glaring philosophical difficulties of pursuing a recreational venture in the midst of a national -and local- disaster, there are the on-the-ground mountaineering realities that will not permit us to look upward again. We have no viable route through the Khumbu Icefall and the Earth is still shaking. We couldn't think of asking anyone to put themselves at the risk required for re establishing that route under such circumstances. The effort at this advanced stage of the season would normally be focused on building a route to Camp 4 rather than to Camp 1, nobody will be able to say when the aftershocks will end, but it will -without a doubt- be too late for fixing the upper mountain and stocking camps before the normal advance of the monsoon.
We'll put our efforts into an organized and safe retreat from the mountain. Nobody harbors illusions that travel in this stricken and damaged country will be simple, but we'll head for home now in any case.
RMI Guide Dave Hahn
Your shining example amid tragedy for the second time in 24 months make me proud to have been associated with RMI…You help all understand how to be w-i-t-h the mtn as well as o-n it, and more importantly to be with others, inhabitants as well as climbers.
Best + God bless JJ and team. Waltero
At Camp One, we were up before dawn, boiling cups of instant coffee and hurriedly packing. It wasn't going to be an ideal scenario, by any means... Being "rescued" from 20,000 ft on Mount Everest, along with perhaps 180 of our closest friends... But we weren't likely to get any better offers... The Icefall Route that should have been a two hour descent to Basecamp was decidedly out of order and couldn't be fixed while the earth was still shaking. We got out in the cold shadows in our down suits and thankfully saw clear and calm conditions. Perhaps we all did have a chance to escape the Western Cwm. It seemed unlikely that ninety plus landings and take offs -at what was a record breaking rescue altitude for helicopters only twenty years ago- could be accomplished without chaos or catastrophe... or at least unworkable delay, but sure enough, the first B3 powered on in at 6 AM and the great Everest Air Show began. A fear of the team leaders was a helicopter mob scene ala Saigon '75, but we'd arrayed our helipads in a way that didn't allow for mobbing and everybody seemed to understand the need for superior social skills on this day. There was one way out and nobody wanted to get put on the "no fly" list. Eventually there were four or five birds in the air at any time, flying a dramatic loop from BC to Camp One to BC. A line of climbers with packs formed at each pad and a stream of climbers from Camp 2 made their way into what was left of Camp 1 and then joined the queues. It took four laps in Kiwi pilot Jason's B3 to get our team down. Although it seemed already like a full day, it was only about 9:30 AM when Chhering and I got off the final RMI chopper. There was no back-slapping. No cheering. No high fives. We'd put down at the epicenter of a disaster and we could barely believe our eyes. Whatever relief each of us felt at being off the mountain was quickly replaced with sadness and awe at the destructive power on evidence all around us. Hearing on the radio about the quake triggered Avalanche that blasted BC did nothing to prepare us for experiencing the aftermath first hand. It was as if an enormous bomb had detonated. We each walked slowly through the obliterated camps, stopping to understand how much force had bent this or that bit of steel. We finally understood the enormous death toll and the nature of the numerous injuries to the survivors. When we reached our own greatly altered camp and heard a few stories from neighbors, we finally understood Mark Tucker's heroism of the last few days, helping to stabilize and transport dozens upon dozens of seriously injured, bloody and broken people. He and our Sherpa team had gone immediately to help others, even though their own camp was largely destroyed. By now, we are not even mildly surprised to learn that they somehow found time and energy to rebuild camp for our arrival. Our "ordeal" seems trivial by comparison... we had to stay a bit longer in a beautiful and legendary hanging valley and deal with a bit of uncertainty. Now back down to earth... we understand just how lucky we've been and we are sad beyond words to learn how unlucky others have been.
RMI Guide Dave Hahn
It is beyond words the devastation, and yet I am so glad to hear you are safely down off the mountain and pray for a continued safe journey to you and the many others involved. Thanks for communicating.
Posted by: michele on 4/29/2015 at 11:39 am
As Hemingway once said in defining a “hero”, it is one who shows Grace Under Pressure. You guys are all Heroes in my book. Have a safe trip home.
April 26, 2015 9:23 pm PT
RMI Guide and Base Camp Manager Mark Tucker just called to confirm our team is safely back at Everest Base Camp. We have not yet spoken with Dave, but wanted to pass this information along as soon as possible.
We will update when we know more about the team's plan to descend from Base Camp.
Dave Hahn calling from Camp One on Mount Everest 20,000'. That was a day of waiting and watching for us. The weather improved a little bit, this morning it was sunny and clear. And couple of helicopter and courageous helicopter pilots made use of that time flying out from sick and hurt people from Camp Two to Camp One. But the big work that they did was trip after trip flying casualties out from Base Camp. We followed some of that on the radio. Our efforts to get our selves out of here, two of our Sherpa team Wingen and Sunam, made a valiant effort coming up from the bottom of the Ice Fall, to see how far they could get before the damage of the earth quake stopped them. They got about a third of the way. Additionally, we were part of supporting a team, coming down from the top trying to do the same thing. They probably got about a third of the way down, luckily both teams, got out safely. There was a massive aftershock this afternoon at about 1 o'clock local time. But it seemed almost as powerful as yesterdays quake. And we are worried, as everybody is, about putting people in the Ice Fall again. That is probably not going to be our exit plan. And now we are looking to helicopter out in the next day or two to get down to Base Camp. And that probably will be what we do, but the timing is still up to mother nature. If it keeps on snowing as it did this afternoon, and making flying impossible. But perhaps we'll keep you updated. We'll let you know how it goes. We are safe. We are in a good spot. And we are not in panic mode. Thank you.
RMI Guide Dave Hahn
RMI Guide Dave Hahn calls in from Camp One with an update.