Surviving an earthquake on Everest

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The ice started shaking as the climbers were catching their breath in their tents. “It was like being in a thunderstorm, but so close you can feel the earth shaking, “said Andy.

At first they thought that they were going to be caught in a huge avalanche, but soon the sounds of crashing ice and snow were coming from all around the camp and the climbers realized that it was an earthquake.

“There wasn’t any panic,” said Andy. “We knew that there was no place to go and no place to run. There’s nothing you can do but just sit there and wait and see if you were going to be buried alive. The only good thing about that is that it only takes about 15 or 20 seconds to find out.”

The group emerged to find out that their camp was intact. The avalanches had run out before they had hit the tents.

It wasn’t until about an hour later that the group started to hear reports of the avalanche that had ripped through Everest basecamp, killing over a dozen people immediately and injuring 100 more.

Andy knew that that information would be sent around the world “in a matter of minutes,” and with no communication from his position at Camp One, there would be no way for him to reassure his family that he had survived.

That afternoon, there was a series of aftershocks as the climbers tried to formulate a plan. The only way off the mountain was the way they had come, through the Khumbu Icefall, a notoriously dangerous stage of the Everest ascent made up of towering blocks of ice, with metal ladders spanning deep crevasses which often shift without warning, even on calm days.  

About 18 hours after the first earthquake hit, some of Andy’s companions retraced their steps to see whether this route was still passable, but soon realised that the avalanche had destroyed the crossing. While they were there, they were caught in an aftershock, with huge pieces of ice falling all around them. Thankfully they were able to escape unharmed and made it safely back to camp.

At this stage Andy realized: “We were not going to walk down off this mountain.”

The Nepalese government has only a small fleet of around 20 helicopters, and what private helicopters there were, were engaged in transporting the most seriously injured to hospital in Kathmandu, so the climbers began to accept that they may be stuck where they were for a number of days.

But by the following afternoon, April 26th, helicopters were able to start airlifting the more seriously injured people from Base Camp to Kathmandu, and after that plans were made to evacuate people from the higher camps down to Base Camp.

“When I got to see what had happened in Base Camp, it was just ten times worse than I had imagined it was going to be,” said Andy. “We were in a country that was totally devastated, and all we wanted to do was go home.”

The group had thought that they could fly from Everest Base Camp to Kathmandu and from there home to the US. But the government of Nepal had issued a statement saying that any helicopter that came near Kathmandu that was not bringing an injured person to hospital, was going to be commandeered for rescue efforts, so that was not an option.

Also, over two thousand people had gathered in the nearest town, Lukla, hoping to be evacuated, so the team was forced to take a roundabout route, taking over two weeks to get to the town. This slower route allowed them to stop in the smaller villages to help people and this, says Andy: “was one of the best things of my whole trip, being able to spend time in these villages and help.”

Andy tells me that the experience he had gained working in hospice and palliative care was very helpful in dealing with the earthquake and its aftermath. He said: “Doing the work that we do, of anybody, we see that life can change at any moment. Things happen very quickly for no good reason. People just get sick and life can change, you just never know. And so that certainly proved to be true on many instances throughout this expedition. But most certainly during the earthquake and the avalanches, and on the way down.”

“The other thing that I’ve seen in my work was that it’s in the worst of circumstances that the opportunity for the best in people exists to come out, he said. “So just as we’ll see patients and their families find a way to rise above their situation in a way that I think: ‘There’s no way that I would be able to have so much courage or that much dignity’, I saw so many examples of people stepping up in ways that just were so incredibly impressive. Especially the Sherpa people.”

During the long walk down the mountain Andy and his team stopped in villages that had been destroyed by the earthquake, offering what help they could. He was “struck by the generosity of these people… who had so much less than we did and yet in some ways seemed to have a lot that we don’t.”

In recognition of this, Andy decided to hold fundraising activities to contribute in some way to the efforts of the Sherpa people to rebuild their villages and their lives. The first of these, a slideshow of his experience in Nepal, took place on Friday 19 July.

The trip originally aimed to use the media opportunities provided by the fact that Andy would be one of only 600 Americans to reach the summit of Mount Everest to raise awareness for hospice and palliative care.

Now, says Andy, he is in “a much smaller group.” He says: “In what has been a series of unusual events, what I went through raised so much more publicity that I ever could have otherwise.”

He also reminds me that “the summit is promised to no-one.” The trek to the peak of Mount Everest is extremely difficult and – even without the earthquake – there are no guarantees that he would have made it.

He said: “So many things happened on this expedition, before and during and even now that just continue to affect me strongly. It’s been certainly a life changing experience. So many times I was put in a place that I was in the right place at the right time, or not in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Had the earthquake struck six or seven hours earlier, Andy would have been in the Khundu Icefall and almost certainly would have been killed.

After he had returned safely home, Andy awoke one morning to the news that a second Earthquake had hit Nepal, with the epicentre at 40 miles from Mount Everest. The epicenter of the one he had experienced had been about 150 miles from the mountain.  

A chilling realization followed this news: had he not abandoned his mission after the first Earthquake, by the time the second earthquake struck, Andy would have been making his summit attempt. High on the mountain, with no margin for error, “I’d have been dead for sure,” says Andy. “So in an ironic way, the first one saved my life.”

Many things happened during his trip that made Andy think about what it is like for hospice and palliative care patients and their families. He says: “You just never know when life is going to change and things can and do change very quickly.”

Andy returned safely from the mountain, but his thoughts remain with the people who lost their lives, their health or their loved ones after the earthquake.

You can find out more about Andy’s journey and his fundraising efforts on his website, Climbing for Hospice

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