Dispatches from the roof of the world
Dispatch #16 April 27, 2012
Avalanche at Camp 1
Travis Corthouts
From Everest Base Camp, we looked up to see a cloud of snow over 100-feet high barreling out of the Western Cwm over the top of the Icefall.

Note: This post originally appeared on The North Face’s blog. Montana State University student Travis Corthouts is accompanying MSU geologist David Lageson on the expedition.

Usually I’m not in the right place at the right time to see something incredible happen, I always just miss it; that wasn’t the case this morning.

After breakfast I took a walk up to the Everest ER medical clinic where I found myself sitting in the sun, chatting with some of the staff. The ER location is as far up valley as a base camp location can be, which offers a great look at the icefall and into the beginning of the western cwm. While chatting with ER staff and enjoying the morning rays, we heard the common rumble of an avalanche and looked up to the faces that flank the icefall, but saw no avalanche. We looked back at each other to continue talking but the rumble increased and we looked back, but again saw nothing.

Travis Corthouts

Seconds later people began screaming and shouting, and this time we looked up to see a cloud of snow over 100-feet high barreling out of the western cwm over the top of the icefall. The mass of snow was so tall it didn’t even seem real and it filled the entire width between the walls of Everest and Nuptse.

We were in disbelief – Camp 1 sits right at the top of the icefall. All you could hear was people saying “no, no, no” as the cloud pushed out over the icefall. Near the top of the fall I could see a single file line of small black dots disappear – people, making a routine descent were now enveloped by the expanding cloud. All we could think was, ‘is Camp 1 completely buried?’ How many people are lost?

The scale of what we saw didn’t make sense at first. The top of the icefall is low angle, nearly flat, and yet a plume of snow ten stories tall went blasting over it like an explosion. The avalanche must have been massive! Guides, Sherpas and anyone nearby affiliated with an expedition converged at the Everest ER tents, all with radios in hand on a different channel listening to someone screaming in Nepalese, Italian, English, whatever; it was chaos for several minutes following the avalanche.

As the snow dust cleared I looked up to see the black dots, which were now huddled in a group – Safe!

Imagine their panic when they saw what was coming for them, not knowing if a river of snow would entomb them or the tail-out would just dust them. Luckily it was the latter.

News began piling in from the radios. One of the doctors who speaks Nepalese was frantically taking notes to keep track of which expeditions radioed in as “all accounted for.” There were still so many questions. The radio talk was frantic, with people on scene and in Camp 2 rushing to get a tally on their clients and guides, and to form a search and rescue plan ASAP.

Some of the first details were – one Sherpa was definitely missing, an orange helmet was found along the debris periphery, some people were injured, a young man was blown into a crevasse, and members on multiple radio channels called for their Camp 2 first aid kits and skeds (body sleds) to be sent immediately to the site.

I stayed at the ER for a half hour and then returned to camp. Right now it’s just Dave and I at base camp – the rest of the team is on their second rotation up the mountain.

From our camp, Dave didn’t quite get a good view of the action and so I informed him on the severity of the situation. We scanned the radios, getting updates on the status of each expedition. Things were scattered, but it seemed most people were accounted for. We had little concern about our team as we knew all members to be up at Camp 2 or higher.

The main effort soon revolved around the man who had fallen into a crevasse. He had been rescued from the void but was in critical condition. People on scene were rushing to set up a tent to treat him and mark out an area for a potential helicopter rescue.

The medical reports over the radio were poor, but we picked up that he was in and out of consciousness, barely responding when conscious and tachycardic (going into shock).

All the while there were constant questions on the radio about a potential helicopter evacuation – is there a landing zone marked, what’s the wind, elevation of clouds, is there a helicopter available, is the patient stable enough?

Soon Simone Moro’s high pitched, fast-talking Italian voice became involved in the conversation of a helicopter rescue.

Simone has graced our camp multiple times as he is friends with Conrad and Cory. He was also one of Cory’s partners last year on the first winter ascent of Gasherbrum II. Simone is one of the more decorated mountaineers alive today and he’s planning the Everest-Lhotse traverse this year without oxygen. He’s also a helicopter pilot and owner, experienced in high altitude rescues. In fact he was the pilot who flew to Camp 1 to retrieve the body from last week’s casualty.

Dave Lageson

Before long Simone was airborne and on his way to base camp from Lukla. We listened to his eta updates over the radio and when he warned 1 minute, we could hear the dull roar of his blades and we stepped out of our mess tent to watch him blast over our camp. He landed and held idle, waiting for the go ahead from people coordinating the rescue above. I grabbed my camera and a radio and jogged to the helicopter, parking myself 50ft away with the helicopter pointed right at me. I could see Simone through the windshield and I listened to the communications between him and rescuers on site. A few minutes past and then a voice on the radio said, “Simone, ready to take off?” Simone insta-replied, “ok ok, we take off!” He throttled up, lifted about 10 feet, dropped the nose of the chopper straight at me then floored it. The rescue took minutes only and Simone landed back at base camp briefly to drop off Rachael, the ER doctor, and then took off to Kathmandu hospital. That’s all the detail I have now, but I will keep you posted as things develop.

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