After the Earthquake - Annapurna and Beyond
Shortly after writing my last dispatch for the summit push on April 21st, a series of tragic events took place. I will try my best to convey to you everything that happened up to and including the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that shook the foundation of Nepal to its knees and left thousands dead and many more homeless. Where there were once thriving communities, there now lays death and rubble. Thank-you so much for your prayers, well wishes, and thoughts and for following along on The Big 14 Challenge.
The Big 14 Challenge is still moving ahead and will pick up in Pakistan in June, permitting that more sponsors come on board with me.
“And I heard as it were the noise of thunder one of the four beast saying come and see and I saw and behold a white horse and on his back road death.“
Let’s pick up the story at the summit push from camp three at 6,400 meters…
I am in my sleeping bag, lost in thought, as the little stove continues to melt snow for water. I see a bright flash of light, and all I could think was “Holy shit! The tent five feet away is on fire!” I hear screams as I pull on my boots. I exit my tent when another light flashes. People are running in different directions. I quickly do a head count. My mind is racing. Did we lose anyone? Did someone slip into the void? Out tents are on a serac - a block of glacier ice that can be three to four stories high. In this case, it’s attached to the side of a rock face and can collapse without warning. Our tents were on the edge of it. I see people without boots on; everyone looks in a daze, panic everywhere. One climber is just standing there. I focus in on him. “Get your boots on,” I say. He looks at me but his eyes are glazed over. I call out to him again, but he is in shock. Another climber next to him hears me and jumps into action to help him put his boots on. I grab the sleeping bag that he is holding and someone’s down jacket, and threw them into the Chinese tent. Several Sherpas are thinking fast and start collecting all the gear outside and toss it into the closest tents. The wind is howling, the cold penetrating. I look over to the climber who just got his boots on and he slips; down he goes. I feel if we do not get him into a tent we will surely loose him tonight. I call out to whoever is listing, “Get that man into a tent now, we cannot have things spiral out of control!” My pleas are answered and he is pushed into the nearest tent. The Sherpas are in full control of what is happening and have taken great action. The burnt tent is given to the winds, and the Sherpas grab a stashed tent belonging to the Koreans and quickly erect it where a tent was on fire just a few mere minutes ago. The climbers return to the new tent and their belongings are also put inside. My gratitude goes out to the Sherpas who, despite the cold and high winds, never once gave up until everyone was safe. They light the stove once again to melt snow for hot water for the souls inside.
Early the next morning — April 22nd — I slipped out of my tent as people were getting ready, and clipped into the ropes. As I turned my head, Janzbhu Sherpa said “Be careful, Al”. With that, I moved upwards into the vertical world. I climbed like a predator on the hunt; aware of my surroundings, no mistakes. I was alone. Up through one ice band then another, then a traverse with no ropes. One slip here and it’s goodbye Al. I kept going and finally came to a massive snow field. I tried to read the snow and work out where the hidden crevasses were. I sat down to take a break and what seemed like a couple of minutes turned into an hour. I got lost in the view and was taking photos when I see some heads moving in my direction. It was the Sherpas. I willingly let them take over the lead from my position. The snow was deep at times, often up to our knees. This would go on all the way to camp four at an altitude of 7,000 metres. We had to dig out platforms for our tents on the side of the snow slope. What looked to be the safest place was behind a serac. Because of the fire destroying one of our tents at camp three, we were short one tent, and there was not enough space for me, so once again my good friends Chris and Lakpa Sherpa from another company made room for me in their tent. Once all of the team members were at camp four and out of the elements, the process of melting snow to hydrate our bodies started. In total there were three tents with four to five people in each one plus all of the gear. There was just enough room to sit, but we would only stay here for a few hours anyway before the push to the summit.
At around 9 p.m., I pulled myself away from the warmth and comfort of the tent and into the cold dark night. People were getting ready inside of the tents but I was outside and getting cold. I made the decision to start moving and start breaking trail. Three Sherpas went ahead an hour ago, and their tracks were all but lost because of the snowfall and spindrift. I traversed sideways for a bit and knew that the rope was somewhere. I searched and searched but was having a hard time finding it. My brain was racing in thought, “It’s here, it’s here, but where...” I am balancing on the front points of my crampons. A torch light comes in my direction, and it’s Lakpa. He moves like a silent lion and starts helping me, digging our hands into the snow until we find the rope. I clip into the rope and take the lead once again. Climbing in the dark and being in front can be scary at times. You feel the pressure of those coming up behind you. They are following you into the unknown; you are leading them into the mouth of the beast. The vertical snowfield turned into ice, and from my position I could see an ice bulge, the tip of which looked like where the rope was anchored. The problem here was that there were two ropes and I wasn’t sure if one was from an old expedition, or for that matter, which one to clip my safety device into. The other problem was that people were now moving up from camp four — Chris and Lakpa were just below me and in the distance below them I could see the torch lights as the other climbers were moving up the ropes. If I clip into the wrong rope I was going to have a hard time unclipping from it on the ice bulge, because the other climbers were going to be using their jumar, a climbing device clipped onto a rope and used for ascending, and the rope would be pulled tight like a piano wire. I was not sure about the anchors, either. I needed to make a decision soon. I stood on my front points, took a deep breath, and up I went as if I were ice climbing in the Canadian Rockies (the difference being that I was at over 7,000 meters and in the dark). I got to the anchor in question, checked it, and kept climbing. No concept of time or space, just fluid motion. I have no idea how much time had passed, but I was beginning to tire from being up front when Chris and Lakpa moved in and took over the lead. For the next several hours Lakpa and Chris would alternatively share that duty. I slipped in behind them with a sigh of relief. In my backpack I had a small bottle of oxygen that I was using. I knew that I was on vapors, and my mask became tighter and tighter on my face. I struggled to breathe with no luck. I sat in the snow and tore off my mask, my lungs struggling to breathe in the thin air. Time stood still as I sat there inhaling and exhaling with great effort when a Sherpa’s hand went for my backpack and swapped out the empty bottle. With the fresh flow of oxygen, I continued to climb. I came across the climber from the burning tent incident. He asked me to look at his fingers. “Oh no, you need to turn around now. Go down and take your Sherpa,” I said to him. His fingers on both hands had the early stages of frostbite. He refused and kept climbing. Even as team leader there was nothing I could do; my pleas fell onto deaf ears. This is not a place for confrontation — you cannot get physical with someone. You can only do your best to try and make them understand that safety is what’s most important and that the mountain will always be there, but if they refuse to take your advice then you are out of luck. All you can do is pray for the best for them.
The weather on Annapurna seemed to be in a good mood early in the morning, but turned bad as the morning moved into mid-morning. We had to keep our eyes on the distant clouds rolling in our direction. The team before us made some mistakes and got caught in bad weather — two paid with their lives and many of the rest of the team lost fingers or toes due to frost bite. They got caught in whiteout conditions and lost their way. It looked like the two with the most experience tried to move down the mountain to lead the others, when one slipped and fell knocking the climber off his feet and into the void they went. The rest huddled together until the early morning hours to find their way down, but by then the mountain had taken its toll.
At around 7,900 metres, the painful decision was made that we would turn around and go down. The summit of Annapurna is 8,091 metres high. From where our tracks ended, it seemed that the summit was right there; you could almost touch it, but in fact is it’s an illusion, an illusion that has tempted many climbers on different mountains and some had their lives taken by it. For us, the summit was about three to five hours away and the snow was up to our knees. Bad weather was coming in our direction. Chris and Lakpa turned around first and soon Janzbhu and I followed. The illusion of the summit was so close that it kept others hypnotized and they were not sure of which direction to go, up or down. As I was descending I looked back and thought some of these climbers might die today. Chris and Lakpa were moving fast — I could see them in the distance. By the time Janzbhu and I reached camp four, Chris and Lakpa were already on the move to the safety of camp three. We had been climbing for over twelve hours straight, and at arriving at camp four, I felt completely exhausted. I expressed this to Janzbhu but he said that we needed to descend to camp three. For a while I wanted to stay the night but I just needed to rest a bit. By this time bad weather was upon us again, you could only see maybe twenty feet in front of you. We were in the tent but the rest of the climbers were somewhere above us in the “Ping-Pong ball” — everything around you is in whiteout conditions for 360 degrees. Not a good place to be. We lit our tiny stove and started the process of melting snow for hot water, as the climbers would be in need of something hot and will be dehydrated. Minutes turned into hours and the hours ticked by. I heard the faint sound of voices; they were coming down the ropes one by one and looking worse for wear. Crumbled up in a pile in the snow at the bottom of the fixed ropes was the climber with the frostbite. It took considerable effort to get him into a tent. With everyone in the tents I crawled into my sleeping bag for a nap. Then I heard it. The sound first, but my body reacted faster. The sound of an avalanche. I sat up and the snow pushed us face first into the tent. It got dark and quiet. I called out to see if everyone was okay, but all I could hear was muffled voices. We were scared that more snow was coming our way, and that we would all be buried alive. We had to use a knife to cut ourselves out. All three tents were hit. It was nothing but mass confusion. We had to dig with our hands to find our crampons and ice axes in over six feet of snow or more. We needed to move fast — if the avalanche lasted three, four, five seconds longer I would not be writing this.
Outside, the climbers worked fast in getting ready. Snow conditions were terrible and at any moment an avalanche could take us away. The climber with frostbite was not in moving condition. He went about ten feet and sat down in a clump in the snow. Norbu Sherpa strapped on a bottle of oxygen cranked it up to three liters a minute with the hopes that it would bring him around and get him moving again. Norbu took the lead got the other climbers moving in the direction of camp three. The avalanche happened around 5:05.
“Radio Annapurna base camp, Annapurna base camp this is Al, over. Annapurna base camp do you read me, over”… a crackling noise, then, “This is Annapurna base camp, come in, over.”
“We have a big problem here, we have a climber who is in bad shape and is giving up, over”, I replied. “Janzbhu is with me, this is now a rescue, over.”
“Base camp, we read you, over.”
To the rescue victim, I said “Please get up, we are trying to help you”. But no response, just a far stare. This went on for a long time and we were starting to loose daylight. He looks terrible. I have seen death many times and I knew that death was coming for him. Finally we help him to his feet. After a few steps he is down again. I begged him to get up, but my words made no difference. Janzbhu and I were extremely tired. I reminded the victim that he had a son and his dad was going to die here and two more people who are trying to save you will also die here tonight. All of a sudden I saw a tear drop in his eye. I believe it was the thought of his son. He pushed his hand in my direction and Janzbhu and I helped him to his feet. We had him moving. We climbed downward through the snowfield as he stumbled. At times he would collapse but we would get him up on his feet again and take more steps towards camp three. The twelve hour summit push, nearly being buried alive at camp four and the rescue victim were taking their toll on us. Energy was leaving our bodies but we were not going to give up unless our victim dies. As long as there is hope we will stay with him.
My radio spoke.
“Annapurna camp three, Annapurna camp three … come, in over.”
“This is camp three, over...”
“Norbu we need help over, we need help… things are getting worse over. If Lakpa is there ask him to climb up to us over. “
The radio crackles.
“Lakpa has descended to high camp two, over.”
In the distance I could see a torch light; someone was down lower waiting for us.
I hear Janzbhu call out, “Avalanche!” It’s dark, I can hear it, but is it coming in our direction? I dig in deep and the wind and spindrift hit us. My eyes, nose and mouth are covered in snow. That was close. Not five minutes later it happens all over again. My nerves are starting to fray. We reach the other Sherpa climber and he jumps in and starts to help. Three of us now are trying to save one man’s life; he is back sitting in the snow. There is a groove in the snow where the other climbers descended to camp three. One minute I see the victim, the next minute he is gone, flying through the night on his backside. We call out “Ice axe! Stop yourself with your ice axe!” Thank god the tracks were criss crossed to avoid releasing a snow slab. The climbers before us would go straight down for a while then diagonal for a while then straight down again. At one of the diagonal sections we found our victim. This time we short roped him, with one rope in the front, one tied to his harness and one in the back. A Sherpa was in front of him, one in the back and me on the side.
We were preparing to travel across a very dangerous diagonal section with no safety ropes. I told the Sherpas to not tie the end of the rope into them — just hang on to the rope as best as they could, because if our victim falls and your tied into the rope he will pull all three of us off this mountain and we will all die. They knew what I meant.
Again, my radio spoke.
“Camp three, camp three do you read me, over…”
“Yes, loud and clear. Over.”
“We need help on the last two pitches of vertical ice, over.”
“Please send up Sherpa’s to help, over.”
“I read you, over, they are climbing to you now, over.”
Upon arriving at the section, three more Sherpas met us and gave great help in getting the victim down to camp three.
Five of us piled into one tent, I asked for water for the victim and for us but was told that there was no fuel, which meant no water or food. We arrived at camp three at around 9:30 at night, totally shattered.
Early the next morning, the radio buzzed.
“Base camp… base camp this is camp three, over.”
“Go ahead, camp three.”
“We request a rescue helicopter, over, the victim will not make it down to camp two, over. His hands are severally frostbitten and he is in bad shape, over.”
We knew that a helicopter rescue would be a risky challenge for the pilot; a long line would have to be used to sling the victim from the belly of the aircraft until reaching base camp where he would be placed inside. Camp three is around 6,400 metres up. There is a lot of risk in evolved. Two Sherpas would stay behind and hook the victim up to the long line of the helicopter. The rest of us would descend to upper camp two where Chris and Lakpa were waiting for us. Both Chris and Lakpa heard that we had no fuel for water and no food, and elected to stay at upper camp two rather than descend to base camp.
Janzbhu and I took the lead breaking trail and freeing up the ropes from camp three down the vertical ice. The going was slow at times; the snow was so deep and our ropes kept getting buried. With each passing rope section the anchors were checked, and every knot in the ropes doubled checked. No mistakes would be made. Upon arriving at upper camp two, I was so happy to once again see Lakpa and Chris. They could have continued to the safety of base camp but they stayed until we were all at their tent, and only after making sure everyone had plenty to drink and eat did they move on.
Moving down from upper camp two to camp one, and then to the toe of the glacier went off without a hitch. We arrived at the toe of the glacier, a place we called crampon point. That’s where we would put our crampons on. We were met with Dawa Sherpa and the kitchen staff serving hot drinks and more food. It was so good to see everyone.
From here, we crossed through the moraine, and down the rocky path back to basecamp. I quietly went over to our Puja alter and said thank-you to the spirits.
I was up early and went over to the cook tent for a cup of coffee. After breakfast, I went back to my tent for a nap, as I was still tired and in need of more sleep. Then I heard this loud noise. It grew in intensity and sounded like a freight train moving down the track. The ground all around me started moving, and it dawned on me… “Holy shit, earthquake”. The last time I witnessed one it was in Tibet at Shishapangma base camp, another one of the 8,000 meter peaks. With my boots in hand I was heading out of my tent. People were already running for their lives in full stride. Annapurna base camp is similar in shape to a horse shoe — on one side is Annapurna, and on the opposite is another mountain. In the curved section you have a huge rock wall many thousands of feet tall and on top of that you have a huge serac. It was misty outside and everyone thought that we were going to all be crushed. Thank god we were spared and nothing fell. Throughout the day, people would start running each time there was another aftershock or another earthquake. That night in my tent the ground would shake, and I would think, well, this is it.
Through satellite communications I found out that Nepal was hit with a 7.8 magnitude earthquake and that thousands were killed and many more were left homeless. We were all shocked at what we were hearing. We also knew that all resources from the government would be, and rightly so, directed to the affected areas. Our food was running out but we had our tents and water. We were safe.
On May 2nd, the sound of a helicopter could be heard coming up the valley to airlift us from base camp to Kathmandu. The Spanish victim is back in Spain where has lost parts of several fingers. I still wonder if he has any idea or concept of the series of events that took place or that death was on his doorstep.
“And I heard as it were the noise of thunder one of the four beast saying come and see and I saw and behold a white horse and on his back road death”.