On the roof of the world, the day of the quake starts early. It is high season on Everest and 709 mountaineers and Sherpas from 21 expeditions are at Base Camp, a small canvas town of yellow, blue, red, purple and green which stretches for a kilometre and boasts tents for sleeping, storage, medical treatment and even dining and satellite internet. There are all sorts on the mountain – athletes, backpackers, high-paying businessmen, sponsored alpinists, Gurkas and Indian soldiers, even Google Earth mappers – but among them are climbing legends. Sean Wisedale, a South African from Durban who has climbed the seven summits – the highest mountains on all seven continents – and travelled the length of the Equator and the Amazon. Tim Mosedale, from Keswick in the Lake District, who has summited Everest four times. Guy Cotter, a New Zealander, another four times summiteer and a guide on the first ever commercial Everest expedition in 1992. Dan Mazur, an American living in Bristol, who has summited Everest seven times, survived two Everest disasters and in 2006 gave up another summit attempt at 28,000 feet to save the life of a climber that others had left for dead.
Most of the climbers have been here for a week. Conquering Everest is a two-month undertaking, involving 40 days on the mountain as the climbers acclimatize and their guides to teach them how to climb ice, abseil and walk across ladders placed over crevasses on the Khumbu Icefall before they make their push on the peak. Around 170 climbers have picked the night of April 24-25 to begin a four-night trip higher up the mountain. Waking at 3am, they start on the Icefall around 4am. Their plan is to spend two nights each at Camp 1 and Camp 2 in the Western Cwm, above the Icefall and the lowest of four camps en route to the summit. American Garrett Madison, who has taken a total of 37 clients to the summit in five previous years, is now escorting another 12 and, as he writes on his blog, is in high spirits after “a fantastic week of training in the lower Khumbu glacier! The route seems easier than the last few years. We are looking forward to the vertical ladder sections.” Dan Mazur is also setting out with his eight clients. “It snowed today but now it’s a starry night,” he tweets. “Good luck!” With them, too, is Guy Cotter, taking eight clients to Camp 1. “We left our camp via the chorten under which our Sirdar, Ang Tshering Sherpa, had lit some juniper as an offering to the gods,” he writes on his blog that day. “We each grabbed a small handful of rice that we tossed above the chorten and perhaps each one of us made a little prayer as we partook in this Buddhist tradition. The Icefall was busy. We could see lights extending from the base to the top, all Sherpas lugging loads towards Camps 1 and 2. Our pace was somewhat more sedate, but as you do at altitude, we ground it down, ascending gradually towards our goal at Camp 1. Overall the route this year is relatively safe from hazard…”
Sean Wisedale is opting to stay at Base Camp. The day before one of his Sherpas had had to be airlifted by helicopter just below Camp 2 after falling on the ice and breaking his leg. Jon Reiter, a tall, gregarious 50-year-old property developer from Sonoma, California with a mountain beard, is also in the Camp after spending the early morning practising on the Icefall with his friends, Moises Nava and Nathan Dolbeare. Like Tim Mosedale, Reiter had been at base camp in 2014 when the 16 Sherpas were killed. “That was close,” he says. “Sixteen guys in front of us just got buried. And at first you’re hesitant about going back. But then you think ‘Two years in a row? What are the chances?’”
The quake hits at 11.56am. It announces itself quietly at first, like “a feeling of unease, of wrongness, like a silently onrushing avalanche,” writes Raphael Slawinski, a Canadian climber 40 kilometres away in Tibet. In Nepal, Roberto Schmidt and Ammu Kannampilly, a photographer and reporter from the wire service Agence France-Presse, have just reached base camp after trekking in from the town of Lukla. “We hadn’t been there for 10 minutes,” says Schmidt in interview with AFP later. “We just felt this rumbling. This moan. Ammu said to me: ‘What’s that?’” Schmidt, who had grown up in Colombia where earthquakes were common, recognised the sound. “I said: ‘It’s the earth moving. It’s an avalanche.’ Then we heard this most horrifying sound. It was like a train but came from so deep, just so powerful.”
Up on the mountain, the last of the climbers have cleared the Khumbu Icefall only minutes earlier. Alex Chappatte, a 28-year-old Briton on honeymoon with her husband Alex Schneide and climbing with Dan Mazur, has just reached Camp 1. “The ground started shaking violently,” she writes later. “Before we could react Dan was shouting ‘Get out of your fucking tents. Grab your ice axes!’ We staggered out to see an avalanche coming straight at us.” Knocked down, the climbers run for shelter, anchoring themselves to the ground with their axes. Chapatte sees a fellow climber swept around his axe by the force of the avalanche like the hand on a clock. “We focused on keeping an air hole so we could breathe in the powder,” writes Chapatte. “Dan was shouting directions at us, keeping us together and strong.”
Six hundred metres below, Jon Reiter, Moises Nava and Nathan Dolbeare are in their dining tent. “It was so big, and so long – almost a minute,” says Reiter of the quake. “We came busting out of the tents. When you’re on a slab of ice, you don’t know what is going to happen.” Directly above base camp, the 7,161-metre high mountain of Pumori has shaken off a colossal block of ice and sent it crashing into the valley below, hitting the bottom of the Icefall just above base camp. “When that thing hit the ground, it must have been 100 tons of ice,” says Reiter. “It threw up this giant cloud. It felt like it must have been 1,000 feet high. And you see it coming down the valley at you and moving so fast, and you realise: ‘I am not going to get out of this. Is it going to bury us, right here, right now?” Sean Wisedale also sees the cloud of ice and rocks hurtle towards him. “It was terrifying,” he says. “A hundred-metre high plume of crystallised ice. It lifted rocks and boulders ahead of it.”
A minute after the quake, the avalanche, now 500 metres wide, slams into the centre of Base Camp. “We all dove into our tents,” says Reiter. “The wind was ferocious. Everybody’s faces were: ‘We might die right now!’ We were looking around at each other, and you could feel the fear. I mean, fuck! I just made it through last year!” Across the camp, climbers throw themselves into their tents or onto the ground or crouch behind rocks and stupas. Roberto Schmidt, the AFP photographer, says: “I remember looking to my left and suddenly saw this, this wave, with the rumble and I just thought ‘Holy shit!’ It was so big. I grabbed the camera, just pressing the shutter, I got three shots and then it was right over us.” Schmidt throws himself into a tent and tries to hide under a table. “You have this wind and then it’s like a wave crashing.” The avalanche tears the tent out of the ground and sends it spinning into the air. “We were swept up,” says Schmidt. “You don’t know whether you are upside or down or what. You are just tumbling.” Finally the wind passes. “I came to rest, on my back,” says Schmidt. “Then I felt this tack, tack sound of falling rocks. I just felt: ‘This is it. I’m going to be buried alive.’ They kept piling on top of me.”
Across the camp, the falling rocks prove lethal. “The horror was unimaginable,” writes Wiseman. “It went completely dark and we huddled around hoping not to be crushed alive.” More than 60 climbers and Sherpas are hit, many in the head. At least 21 are killed, though Reiter thinks many more are buried and crushed under the rocks and snow. The dead include 10 Sherpas and 11 climbers. Three of the Sherpas are from Tim Mosedale’s team. Five are from Cotter’s. Garrett Madison’s team doctor, Marisa Eve Girawong, 28, is dead. So are three other Americans: Daniel Fredinburg, a 33-year-old Google executive, Thomas Taplin, a 61-year-old filmmaker who is thrown 300 metres and found holding his smashed camera, and Vinh Truong, a 48-year-old trekker who had reached the highpoint of his hike. Renu Fotedar, 49, an Australian psychotherapist living in Switzerland, is crushed along with Japanese climber Yomagato Horoshi, 56, and Chinese guide Zhenfang Ge. The three are dug out by Fotedar’s husband Lokesh. Horishi lives for two days but succumbs in hospital in Kathmandu.
The quake’s epicentre is 200 kilometres west of Everest, in the Gorkha Valley between Kathmandu and the lakeside city Pokhara. The area is filled with Tibetan brick temples, pagodas and houses with carved wooden pillars and jutting roofs supported by wood struts, some of them hundreds of years old. It is these buildings, along with the dry stone village huts, which are hardest hit. In some places, the mountains seem to be shaking themselves free of the earth and its puny buildings. As the dust settles, hillsides emerge as monstrous slabs of bare rock.
One of the worst hit towns is Sankhu, a pretty town of towering red brick houses and overhanging wooden balconies set around a series of cobbled squares and stone fountains at the foot of the old trade route through the mountains to Tibet. Eight out of every ten houses collapses. The earth turns Sankhu’s exquisite human artifice back to brute nature, sending rivers of bricks surfing down the streets, burying people and smashing into houses, which tip into each other like dominoes. “The earth was rotating,” says Gunjan Shrestha, 18, through his face mask. Gunjan, a slight boy with a girlish face and calm smile, is saved by being in an open field. His next-door neighbours are not so lucky. Five are crushed to death when their three-storey home pancakes.
Gunjan’s house is cracked from bottom floor to top and he and his mother are sleeping out in the open, in a square in front of it. They are surrounded on all sides by a Himalayan Dresden. The houses are split down the middle, their roofs decapitated, spilling their guts into the street. In the rubble are people’s lives. A 12 piece stainless steel coffee set, still in its box. A purple sari. A pink shawl. A red motorbike. To one side, an entire two-storey wall has broken free from a house and stabbed the ground with a corner. It stands perfectly vertical, shivering in the wind. A three-storey temple in the middle of the square seems untouched, its red and yellow paint immaculate and its carved pillars unmarked, but a walk around the side reveals an entire side is missing. Binoj Shrestha, 35, calls me over. “My wife, my grandmother, my brother and me in my house,” he says. “All buried. First I am coming out. Second my wife. Her back is crack. Then my grandmother. Her both leg crack. My brother is three feet in and I take one pipe and put it in for him to breathe. Very problem. Very problem.”
A few streets away, on the other side of several towering piles of rubble and felled telegraph poles, a small crowd has gathered to watch a group of Nepalese soldiers digging into a pile of bricks and tiles. Under it, they think, is Brajita Manandhan, 20. Her mother, father and brother are among the crowd. This is one of several holes the family have dug for Brajita. They are hopeful this time because of the stink coming from the debris. “She went to visit her friend and was running back to her own house in a panic and this house fell on her,” says Rajin Shrestha, 22. Above the hole, the side of a four-storey house has come away and crashed to the ground. Rajin says he and his friends grew up with Brajita. “She was fun,” he says. “And a little shy.” Asked about the future, Rajin says: “There is no sense of living in these houses. Because it may happen again. We are mostly in the opinion of leaving.”
Shrestha, for his part, thinks there is no running from what he considers to be divine retribution. “It’s the Gods,” he says. “People are creating sin. People are creating pollution.” People are covering the world with sin and pollution, says Shrestha, from the deepest valleys to the highest mountaintops. “It’s all because of people,” he says.
At 5,364 metres, Everest Base Camp is not a place meant for people. There is snow and rock, and little else. No trees, no plants, no animals, not even much earth. The low pressure stretches the air so thin that it is not enough for most life. Unless climbers develop a tolerance to low oxygen by ascending slowly, they feel dizzy and vomit. Their hands, feet and faces can swell. Occasionally, but almost every year at Base Camp, they die, their lungs filled with a pink, coppery froth, their brains swelled by water and dulled to drunkenness.
There are other ways to die on Everest. Just above Base Camp, the Khumbu Icefall is 500 near vertical metres of shifting snow, rock and ice squeezed between two cliffs of which the left-hand, western one is especially steep. Every year, a group of Sherpas known as the Ice Doctors fix a new route through the Icefall with rope and steel ladders. Every day the Icefall moves and cracks and tumbles, opening new crevasses, and every season chunks of ice break off the western cliff and sends avalanches into the Icefall. Avalanches caused by earthquakes and melting snow are common too. Climbers ascending the Icefall to the Western Cwm set off long before dawn and hurry through Khumbu by torchlight, before the sun rises and begins to melt the ice. Sometimes there are so many of them that the sight can resemble streetlights winding up a mountain road. Russell Brice, who has climbed Everest twice and runs Himalayan Experience, one of the oldest Everest mountaineering companies, called his climbers off the mountain in 2012. “When I see around 50 people moving underneath the cliff at one time, it scares me,” he said at the time.
A year and a week before the quake, on April 18, 2014, 16 Sherpas carrying oxygen, stoves and tents to a higher camp died in the Khumbu Icefall when a block of ice as big as a large house and weighing 14 tons sheared off from the western cliff and buried 25 of them. Three of their bodies are still there under a metre of snow and ice. Sherpas are known for their almost superhuman endurance. Two Nepalese Sherpas have summited Everest 21 times. On the mountain they scurry past their clients with loads that can weigh more than their own bodyweight. But the deaths spooked them and brought to the surface long-running resentments over pay, which runs from $2,000 to $9,000 for a season and compares poorly to the tens of thousands of dollars per client charged by each climbing company. The bad feeling only swelled when the government, which charges every Everest climber $11,000, offered the dead men’s families $408 each. A group of Sherpas cancelled all climbing for the rest of the year. When some of the commercial expeditions and their Sherpas protested, it nearly turned nasty. “There was a veiled threat (or rumour of one) that if we go in the Icefall, we might not be safe,” Tim Mosedale wrote on his blog at the time. “Sherpas are being told that if they go on the hill, well, ‘We know where you live.’ Sherpas are turning against Sherpas, and in this country where these threats are sometimes carried out, they are taken very, very seriously.
For many of the world’s top climbers, Everest’s chief – some say sole – attraction is its height, 8,848 metres or 29,029 feet, about the same altitude as used by commercial airlines. But the established South Col climb from Nepal presents few technical difficulties. And the mountain is not beautiful. “Too chunky, too broad of beam, too crudely hewn,” wrote Jon Krakauer in Into Thin Air, his account of a 1996 Everest expedition in which eight people died in a blizzard below the summit.
The number of people on Everest today has further reduced its appeal. Going up against the most insurmountable difficulty, facing danger in twos and threes or even alone, is essential to the convicted climber. Krakauer wrote that climbing, in a way, was an artful attempt to create a clear, true and individual challenge in a world that lacked them. “Achieving the summit of a mountain was tangible, immutable, concrete,” he wrote in Into Thin Air. “The incumbent hazards lent the activity a seriousness of purpose that was sorely missing from the rest of my life. Getting to the top of any given mountain was considered much less important than how one got there: prestige was earned by tackling the most unforgiving routes with minimal equipment, in the boldest style imaginable.”
But in 1985, Dick Bass, a wealthy fifty-five-year-old Texan was led to the top by a professional climber. In 1992 the first commercial Everest company, Adventure Consultants, led another six amateur climbers to the summit. Today, the chief requirement to summit Everest is not skill but money to pay a guide company several tens of thousands of dollars. Since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first summited Everest in May 1953, more than 4,000 people have climbed the mountain. In 2013, 658 did. In 2010, 169 people summited Everest in a single day. So many climbers stay at Base Camp during the season that trekkers not planning to attempt the peak are banned from pitching a tent. So much traffic also means queues of climbers as long as 40-long at Hillary Step, a 40-foot wall of rock just below the summit.
The passage of so many climbers has also ruined what, for many climbers, is another essential ingredient of the sport, what Thomas Hornbein, an American who was the first climber to conquer the West Ridge in 1963, called a dream of the “unattainable, foreign to all experience” – walking up and away from the world of man and into the sky. That’s no longer possible on Everest. Expeditions typically discard empty oxygen tanks, food wrappers and climbing gear, which now litter the mountainside. So do bodies. The corpses of most of the 300 people who have died in the mountain remain there. The body of an Indian climber curled up in a limestone cave 27,900 feet up even acts as a marker known as “Green Boots” for climbers ascending the northeast ridge. As long ago as 1996, wrote Krakauer, for the purists, “Everest had been debased and profaned.”
At Base Camp, the avalanche passes and the rocks finally stop falling. “There was this stillness, this complete stillness, and I knew I was alive,” says Roberto Schmidt. “I knew I was conscious and I had to work out how I was going to breathe. You’re trying to clear everything away, trying to get some air. Then suddenly I felt this hand pulling me up and it was our Sherpa, Pasang. I said I need to find my camera and Pasand just handed it to me, encased in a block of snow. The lens wasn’t even broken.”
Pasang dug out Ammu Kannampilly too. “I remember getting up and everything was white and it was really, really quiet,” she writes to AFP. “I remember thinking: how could everything be so quiet? Where is everyone?” One of the group’s porters is badly injured and in pain, covered in blankets. “Our dining room attendant whom I had met just two minutes earlier was there, her head was bleeding. I saw this one roll of toilet paper and tried to wrap it around her head and she started wrapping my hand as well.” One of Kannampilly’s nails had been torn clean off her hand.
Nearby Jon Reiter and his friends have survived unscathed. They emerge from their tent to find a swath of snow and rock cutting through the centre of Base Camp. Those tents not buried had been blown 100 metres or more. “And you realize: ‘This is going to be devastating,’” says Rieter. “So we just started dragging all the cots and sleeping pads into our tent so that people could have somewhere to lie. And in 45 minutes, we have 50 injured guys in there. And for the next 24 to 36 hours, we’re just elbow deep in blood.”
Most of the injuries are head traumas. “Guys are coming in with their faces smashed in. We’d try to assess them and try to figure out what to do. If their eyes were dilated and we could not get a pulse, we would just stick them in a sleeping bag, zip ‘em up and stick ‘em outside. On others we tried to control the bleeding. We tried to get ivs in them. But this doctor said: ‘Jon, these guys are not going to make it. Head injuries don’t get better.’ So mainly we stood there and tried to comfort these guys. ‘Buddy, you’re the one we’re not worried about.’ Taking the fear away. We told everybody that. I think most of those guys died thinking they were going to make it, thinking they were just going to take a nap.”
Immediately after the quake, heavy snow sets in. The climbers lose sight of the peaks. But they can hear more avalanches all around them as aftershocks continue to shake the mountains. The expeditions pool all their painkillers and hand them out to those who need them. Sean Wiseman says the survivors then carry the wounded into the bigger tents and dig jackets and sleeping bags out of the debris to keep them warm into the night. “The smell of leaking gas bottles wafted all around the camp,” he writes on his blog. “Everywhere the icy routes were blood stained underfoot.” The aftershocks continue through the night and into the next day. “It’s so unstable now that rock fall and minor avalanches occur constantly,” writes Wismen. “As I lie here writing this, the ground is moving beneath me. My heart leaps every time the earth moves. I can’t get used to it. It feels like we’re afloat and there is massive power and force behind the movements.”
Kannampilly’s hands are treated at one of the expedition tents, where she spends the night with 20 other injured climbers. “I remember thinking ‘Wow. People are already being taken care of.’ They were organizing medical aid, helping us with sleeping bags.” Kannampilly can’t sleep. “I kept on thinking about the porter that had been hurt. I couldn’t work out why we had survived. In the middle of the night, I got up to go to the toilet, and on the way back I looked up. I could see the mountains and the most spotless sky. It was so beautiful. As if nothing had happened that day.”
The clearing weather means rescue helicopters are able to fly at dawn the next morning. In all they made around a dozen flights, picking up the injured. “They got them all out,” says Reiter. “And when it was over, the three of us felt like we’d been in a movie. We’d been doing shifts through the night, two hours on, two hours off. We were so helpless, we were able to do so little to help these guys, but it felt like a huge success, just making these guys feel better before they died. You get a lot of egos on a mountain, but that day there were no egos in that camp.”
The climbers are aware that, below them, the devastation and death is likely to be far worse. “We were all thinking, ‘What about Kathmandu?’” says Reiter. “What about those villages and tea houses? We’d walked through them. They were our friends.” That morning, there is more death on the mountain. Three Ice Doctors die in another avalanche trying to fix a new route through the Khumbu Icefall. At that, all the Ice Doctors abruptly depart the mountain, leaving 170 climbers stranded at Camp 1. “We are running low on food and fuel and we have to get down,” writes Madison on a satellite connection. “There’s no path or route through the Khumbu Icefall. The teams that have tried to make their way through the icefall today were unsuccessful and will not be attempting again in the future. At this point our only option to get down is by helicopter evacuation.”
But the weather holds the next morning and on April 28, their blades struggling in the thin air, a fleet of rescue helicopters fly 50 sorties to 19,900 feet to bring the climber back to Base Camp two at a time. There is no time to pick up everyone. Dan Mazur and his team opt to stay one more night. But Camp 1 is calm. The climbers are beginning to realize that the higher they are, the safer. “Initially we assumed that it was just something we were dealing with,” says Tim Mosedale. “But then we radioed down and it started to trickle in. Base Camp had been hammered. Kathmandu had 1,000 dead, 2,000 dead, 3,000 dead.” Five days after the quake, the head of the Nepalese army, General Gaurav Rana, estimates 10,000 to 15,000 people may have been killed. “We’d been powdered by an avalanche and you expect danger at altitude but it was nothing compared to what other people were dealing with,” says Mosedale. “It was totally bizarre.”
In Kathmandu, the historic centre, Durbar Square, dating back to 1484, is devastated. Just two of the 43 temples, columns and stupas are undamaged. Many are destroyed. Maju Dega, a 17th century shrine atop a nine-step red brick base, is flattened, crushing 60 people inside. “I’ve helped pull out 15 bodies,” says Rajendra Man Bajracharya, whose house in the middle of Durbar Square somehow survives. “And one person who was alive.” He points to a neighbouring pile of rubble, what was the Trailokya Mohan Narayan temple. Dating from 1680, it had five roofs and exquisite carved roof struts. Now a bulldozer is clearing away the bricks while teams of Nepalese and tourists, all wearing surgical face masks, form lines to pass back the bricks and carved wooden beams piece by piece. “There’s 60 people dead there,” says Bajracharya. “It was very crowded as it was hosting a blood donation programme. And over there” – he indicates a mountain of rubble where one of the largest pagodas in Nepal, Kasthamandap, stood for 400 years, giving the capital its name – “no less than 100.” The lanes around Kasthamdap, Bajracharya explains, were popular with tourists and stall-holders selling pashminas and jewellery. Bajracharya is chairman of the local conservation body. He is trying to log the columns and carvings as they are brought out and stacked into great piles. “We have to preserve it,” he says. “We must rebuild.” Rajendra is scathing about the government’s response. “Look, you see who is clearing this? We are. The people. Nobody from the government has come. The politicians are even arguing with each other in this moment as well.”
Behind Bajracharya, a Japanese rescue team is walking with dogs across the rubble of another shrine, the octagonal Chasin Dega. Next to them, King Pratap Malla’s column has lost its top pieces, three giant wheels of stones decorated with cow heads, serpents’ flanks and lotus leaves that now lie smashed on the ground. A bicycle is still chained to an ornate wood window at the side of the square. A phone is ringing somewhere inside. A man with slick hair, wearing bracelets and a T-shirt sidles up to me. “Now it’s easy smuggling now,” he says. Rajun Kwura, 46, is a tourist guide. He used to approach tourists on Durbar Square and offer to show them around for a fee. He wasn’t there on the day of the quake. “My friends said let’s go for a smoke,” he said. “And we always smoke together, so I said ‘Let’s go.’ We made one joint and the earth began moving. And I said: ‘Woah!’ But then we realise what is happening.” Kwura wants to get back to the subject of the artefacts lying around us. “People come at night and take,” he said. Something about his manner suggests Kwura means himself. I think he wants to sell me something. “Gods and goddesses. It’s easy. It does not matter. You are born to die. Nothing is permanent in this life.”
I go back and ask Rajendra Bajracharya if theft from the temples is becoming a problem. He nods that it is. That night I see the same thing is happening at Base Camp. Tim Mosedale has posted on Facebook. “Unfortunately, after the dust had settled, there was a bit of opportunistic scavenging and LOTS of US$s have gone missing from wallets, kitbags, envelopes and pouches that were strewn across the Khumbu glacier,” writes Mosedale. “It’s just opportunistic pilfering. Sad, but inevitable.” People are creating sin, Sherstha said. It’s all because of people.
Climbers are often asked a simple but confounding question: why? Their answers are not always comfortable, mixing courage with self-regard, a love of the wild with a love of success. Asked why, George Mallory, who died on Everest in 1924, famously answered “Because it is there” but in his account of climbing Mont Blanc, he described climbing as an introspective undertaking. “Have we vanquished an enemy?” he asked. “None but ourselves.”
This year’s disaster has prompted more reflection amongst climbers than normal. “We go to the mountains seeking adventure,” writes Raphaele Slawinski in Tibet, shortly before the Chinese government orders all climbing teams to leave. “This means accepting greater risks. A storm that hits when you’re two days up a route; a serac that collapses as you hurriedly cross under it; a volley of stones that bounces down a bare icefield while you cower under a pack. You hope that none of these happen, but you’re not completely surprised if they do. But the world’s even bigger and less predictable than we like to believe. Perhaps an earthquake in a tectonically active zone also shouldn’t have been a surprise. [But] the mountains trying to shake us off didn’t figure into our risk calculus.”
After two Everest expeditions in consecutive years that ended in disaster and despite Everest being the last his seven summits, Jon Reiter says he and his friends have decided that, after losing their egos on the mountain, they want to leave them there. “We’ve climbed a lot of mountains in this world but we think we’re done with the big stuff,” he says. “Let’s climb the little stuff. Take our wives. Relax and chill.” But Reiter admits he said the same thing in 2014. And other climbers still at Base Camp confess they’re not ready to give up their ambition. “There are still a lot of climbers here that have the motivation, strength, acclimatization and time to summit this year if it is possible,” writes a Danish climber, Carsten Lillelund Pedersen on Facebook. “I decided that I would find the motivation, the time and the money to do this myself, so if this year is cancelled again, I don’t know how I would react, but it would hit me hard.” Tim Mosedale, talking on his mobile as he walked down from Base Camp, said he had no doubt climbers would continue to pursue their personal aspirations, even in the face of seismologists’ warnings of bigger and more frequent quakes to come in the Himalayas. “It would be very easy to say the mountain gods are angry,” he says. Mosedale refuses to. The quake was just a badly timed accident. “I can’t think it’s going to make much difference. In a year’s time, we’ll have all moved on.” Reiter predicts two years of death will even make Everest more attractive to some climbers. “The personality of people going will change. People who thought ‘Everest is for pussy asses,’ younger guys, are now going to say: ‘These guys couldn’t do it. It killed them two years in a row.’ They’ll want it more.” In Kathmandu, Bikram Pandy, who has organised Everest expeditions for years, already has two booked for 2016. “In climbing, people die and people survive but the climbing still goes on. As long as there is human civilisation and as long as there is Everest, they will appeal to each other. It’s top of the world. It’s a universal dream.”
One night in Kathmandu, a French rescue team is cutting through concrete beams in the ground floor of a grey, modern guesthouse that has collapsed. The rubble stinks of corpses. “One unconscious, one dead, one alive,” says Detective Inspector Narayan Thapa. Later, word comes that the second man has also died. But after an hour and a half, the rescuers pull out Rishi Khanal, 27, lying him prone on a stretcher. He is going into shock and, after 82 hours in the rubble, so dehydrated that his rescuers can’t find a vein to stick him with an intravenous drip. His leg has been crushed by a beam and is later amputated in hospital.
Rishi was staying for a night in Kathmandu before catching a flight to Dubai where he’d been promised $280-a-month to work at a KFC outlet. Lying next to the dead, he soaked a handkerchief in his own urine and sucked on it to survive, while banging on the masonry around him until somebody heard. He is thankful to his rescuers. But without a leg, he says, “What will I do for the rest of my life? My chance to work in Dubai is gone and I cannot even work as a farmer. I don’t even have the money to buy a wheelchair now. How will I spend the rest of life and support my family?” That’s a true universal dream. And for Khanal, it is over.