Dispatches from the roof of the world
Dispatch #19 April 29, 2012
Days of Drama
Mark Jenkins
Writer Mark Jenkins, photo assistant Andy Bardon, and eight Sherpas pulled photographer and The North Face athlete Cory Richards down the Western Cwm to Camp 1.

We’ve had a couple days of lucky disasters here on Everest. Two days ago, the coxcomb of 100-foot-tall ice seracs on the west ridge of Nuptse collapsed at approximately 9:30 a.m., sending a monstrous avalanche down the north face, across the Western Cwm, and rolling part way up the West Shoulder of Everest. The avalanche, several hundred feet deep, blasting along basketball-size boulders of ice, tore right across the route from Camp 1 to Camp 2. At certain times during the day there are more than 50 people on this path.

Directly following the avalanche, teams from both Camp 1 and Camp 2 mustered rescue parties (we sent down Hilaree, Kris, and Cory) and within one hour, more than 30 people were scouring the avalanche debris searching for survivors. As it turned out, miraculously and inexplicably, there was only one person caught in this hurricane-like avalanche: Nima Sherpa. He was blown into a crevasse by the avalanche. Found 35 feet deep inside a black, tomb-like crevasse by Damian Benegas (one of the lead rescuers on Everest during the past few years) and Tendi Sherpa, he was alive but trapped. Benegas, Tendi, and a team of Sherpas managed to strap Nima into a sked (a plastic, sled-like backboard) and haul him out of the crevasse. They got him down to Camp 1, where a chopper snatched him up and flew him to a hospital in Kathmandu. Nima Sherpa sustained three broken ribs, two broken vertebrae, and had bitten almost entirely through his tongue. Serious injuries, and yet—given the fact that dozens of people could have been killed—this was a very lucky day for Everest climbers.

Andy Bardon
Doctors examine Cory Richards at Camp 2.

Our own Cory Richards, high-altitude climber and National Geographic photographer, was the victim yesterday. While the South Col team did an acclimatization run up to Camp 3 at 23,000 feet, Conrad and Cory reconned in the opposite direction, up toward the West Shoulder. They reached a high point of 23,000 feet before determining that this line was too dangerous due to rock fall. They turned around at 11:15, at which point Cory began to feel chest pain and a severe shortness of breath. By the time they had dropped back to Camp 2, at 12:30 p.m., Cory was gasping, dry-heaving, and was desperately weak. Over the next hour, inside our team tent, we had Cory lie back, attempt to relax, and drink fluids. Unfortunately, his chest pain and respiration rate (36 breaths per minute) did not diminish. Cory was visibly fatigued and kept remarking, between quick sucks of air, on his inability to catch his breath. He said he felt like he was suffocating.

We brought down two doctors from the International Mountain Guides camp, Ramin Behmand and Jef Field, who examined Cory with stethoscope and pulse oximeter. They questioned him thoroughly. Although Cory’s heart rate and blood arterial oxygen saturation were normal (for him), and he had no gurgling, wheezing, or signs of fluid in his lungs, his respiration rate and ongoing lower left-side chest pain simply would not go away. According to Drs. Behmand and Field, the contradictory symptoms led them to believe that Cory might be experiencing a pulmonary embolism. At 2 p.m. we put Cory on oxygen at a two-liter-per-minute flow rate and began discussing an evacuation with Base Camp and Everest ER.

Andy Bardon
Sherpas pull Cory on a sked from Camp 2 to Camp 1.
Andy Bardon
Sherpas escort Cory through the debris field from Friday’s avalanche.

Our only option was to get Cory down to Camp 1 (yes, directly across the vast debris field from the avalanche the day before), where a chopper evac might be possible. Eight of the toughest Sherpas in Camp 2, including our own sirdar Panuru and our strongman Danuru, plus several big guns from International Mountain Guides, volunteered to drag Cory in the sked down to Camp 1. Ten of us (eight Sherpas, photo assistant Andy Bardon, and I) left Camp 2 at 2:30 p.m., with Cory and a bottle of oxygen strapped in the sked. The Sherpas literally ran down the Western Cwm, pulling Cory like a child in a sled.

Just above Camp 1, Cory got out of the sked to walk across the aluminum ladders spanning the crevasses. We reached Camp 1 at 3:30 p.m., where Cory was hurting from moving on his own. So, with the advice of Dr. Rachel Anderson at Everest ER, we cranked the oxygen to a flow rate of three liters per minute and got Cory to the LZ, a flat hump of ice between two crevasses. Through radio communications, we learned that a chopper had been scrambled from Lukla to evac Cory from Camp 1. Unfortunately, within an hour, heavy, misty clouds rolled in and the possibility of a chopper rescue vanished. We had only two options, stay at Camp 1 for the night, or try carrying on, down through the Khumbu Icefall to Base Camp. I was against Cory spending a night up high, despite his legitimate fears of the Khumbu, and he eventually agreed. Upon the advice of Anderson, we cranked Cory’s oxygen up to four liters per minute, and he took off down through the Icefall with the assistance of Panuru.

Andy Bardon
Cory and Sherpas rest at Camp 1.

Late afternoon is not the time to pass through the Khumbu, which was steaming and creaking ominously, but we had no choice. It was a matter of weighing risks. Despite his condition, Cory flew down through the Icefall. Near the bottom, we were met by more of our Sherpas, who brought hot tea and the confidence of strength.

We arrived at Everest ER before 6 p.m., where Cory was examined by Anderson and Nepali doctor Ashish Lohani. They obtained his symptom history and vital signs, and suspected a small pulmonary embolism or a small, spontaneous pneumothorax. They administered two subcutaneous shots of the blood-thinning agent mini-heparin into his stomach, and just then—with perfect timing—the chopper arrived. Cory was hustled onto the bird and is now in a Kathmandu hospital undergoing a thorough diagnostic work-up.

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