Climbers with local ties were stuck on Mount Everest after an avalanche triggered by Nepal’s massive earthquake slammed into a section of their base camp, killing at least 18, including a camp doctor working for a Seattle-based mountaineering company.
UPDATE, Monday, 8:30 a.m.: All climbers, guides and Sherpa are off the mountain and at base camp, according to the Alpine Ascents website.
ORIGINAL STORY: More than 100 climbers on Mount Everest found themselves stranded above base camp Sunday and are now awaiting a helicopter evacuation because of an avalanche triggered by Nepal’s massive earthquake.
Gordon Janow, director of programs for Seattle-based Alpine Ascents, said one of the company’s guides had worked with other climbers to try re-establishing a route from Camp 1 down through the Khumbu Icefall to base camp. They turned back after finding the terrain dangerously unstable, with tremors and shifting ice.
“It wouldn’t be smart to pursue that now — especially with another option,” Janow said in an interview. Dave Hahn, a guide from Ashford-based Rainier Mountaineering, echoed that sentiment on the company’s website, saying they are worried about putting people back on the icefall.
Alpine Ascents and Rainier Mountaineering both have teams at Camp 1 awaiting help by helicopter. Fifteen people from Seattle-based Madison Mountaineering are among the climbers at Camp 2 who plan to descend to Camp 1 to also await a helicopter, said company co-founder Kurt Hunter.
The Madison team reported being short on food and fuel, and Hunter said the climbers were hoping to be evacuated Monday afternoon. He said the team probably has enough supplies to stay up there another day.
“Beyond that, I think the situation would get kind of critical,” Hunter said.
Janow said his team at Alpine doesn’t currently have a supply problem and expects the climbers could work together to share resources.
Hunter said he’s heard there are about 100 to 120 climbers at Camps 1 and 2.
At 20,000 feet, a helicopter evacuation from Camp 1 can be risky and challenging, but Hahn said a couple of courageous pilots already were working to rescue sick and injured people from areas above the icefall.
A helicopter was able to assess the icefall above base camp Sunday and found that climbing ladders had been lost and ropes were buried, said Eric Simonson, a partner with Ashford-based International Mountain Guides (IMG). Aftershocks also caused more ice to collapse, he said.
IMG has teams at Camp 1 and Camp 2, totaling 25 climbers and 33 sherpas.
Madison Mountaineering already is reeling from the death of its base doctor, Marisa Eve Girawong, a physician assistant, who was among at least 18 people killed at base camp. Girawong was completing a second master’s degree and getting a postgraduate diploma in mountain medicine at the University of Leicester in England.
The avalanche began Saturday on Mount Pumori, a 22,966-foot-high mountain just a few miles from Everest, gathering strength as it headed toward the base camp where climbing expeditions have been preparing to make their summit attempts in the coming weeks.
The avalanche — or perhaps a series of them hidden in a massive white cloud — plowed into a part of base camp, a sprawling seasonal village of climbers, guides and porters, flattening at least 30 tents, said Ang Tshering of the Nepal Mountaineering Association.
As the first stunned survivors of the avalanche reached Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, they said dozens of people might be missing and were almost certainly dead.
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“The snow swept away many tents and people,” said Gyelu Sherpa, a sunburned guide among the first group of 15 injured survivors to reach Kathmandu.
The 15, most of them Sherpa guides or support staff working on Everest, flew from Lukla, a small airstrip not far from Everest. None were believed to be facing life-threatening injuries, but many limped to a bus taking them to a nearby hospital, or were partially wrapped in bandages.
Bhim Bahadur Khatri, 35, a cook and a Sherpa, was preparing food in a meal tent when the avalanche struck.
“We all rushed out to the open and the next moment a huge wall of snow just piled on me,” he said in a brief airport interview before being driven to a hospital. I managed to dig out of what could easily have been my grave. I wiggled and used my hands as claws to dig as much as I could. I was suffocating, I could not breathe. But I knew I had to survive.”
When he finally dug his way out, gulping in fresh air, he was surrounded by devastation. Part of the base-camp village was gone.
“I looked around and saw the tents all torn and crushed. Many people were injured,” he said. “I had lived but lost many of my friends.”
Hundreds of climbers — from some of the world’s most experienced mountaineers to relative novices on high-priced, well-guided trips — make summit attempts on Everest every year. At times, when the weather is agreeable, dozens can reach the summit in a single day. But high winds, brutal cold, difficult terrain and massive avalanches can hit the mountain with little or no notice. Hundreds have died on the mountain over the years.
The magnitude-7.8 quake struck Saturday about 50 miles northwest of Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, just over a year after the deadliest avalanche on record hit Everest, killing 16 Sherpa guides April 18, 2014.
Those deaths occurred at the Icefall, where the edge of the slow-moving glacier is known to crack, cave and send huge chunks of ice tumbling without warning.
More than 4,000 climbers have scaled the 29,035-foot summit since 1953, when it was first conquered by New Zealand climber Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. The numbers have skyrocketed recently.