NEWSLETTERS - Everest 2014

The Daily Moraine - Everest 2014 #46 June 2014


The day of the avalanche

by Russell Brice

On the day of the avalanche, Himalayan Experience were very lucky not be involved as we had 19 Sherpas carrying loads to C2 that day. At the time of the avalanche, which was below C1, they were returning from C2 to C1 and those that arrived early were erecting our C1 emergency tent where we store carry mats, sleeping bags, stoves, food, oxygen, first aid equipment and shovels. The fact that they were putting up this tent meant that my Sherpa staff had not started down through the Icefall which, if they had, would have put them in the avalanche zone at the wrong moment. But of course the rescue equipment which we had stashed at C1 immediately became useful and I know that the oxygen equipment helped stabilise one of the injured Sherpas from another team. I kept my Sherpa staff at C1 until I could see that they were not required during the rescue efforts, however on the way down they conducted a transceiver search, but found no signals.

I have been providing my Sherpas with transceivers for four years now, and make it compulsory for them to wear them going through the Icefall. They will not stop an avalanche nor stop someone from being killed, however they will speed up the rescue and location of survivors or bodies, which will reduce the length of time that rescuers have to spend searching, often without success.

All of my Sherpas also carry a radio and have to check in at various places, the start of the fixed ropes, the Football Field (about half way through the Icefall) C1, C2 and the same on the return journey, the times that each Sherpa reaches these positions is recorded in a log at BC, so it is easy to see in which part of the route anyone is at any time. Of course this speeds up my Sherpa locations in the event of an avalanche like on this day.

My Sherpas had already told our Sirdar, Phurba, that morning that there was a problem with one of the ladders and that we needed to get the Icefall Doctors to make repairs. It appears that there was already a traffic jam in this area at the time of the avalanche, so it is not surprising that there were so many killed and injured. I mentioned earlier about the numbers of Sherpas likely to be on this part of the route on a normal day, so maybe on this day there were more than 150 people in the Icefall.

The fact that this avalanche came from an ice cliff high on the West Shoulder meant that not only did it have a lot of ice blocks but it was also travelling at a very high speed and went a long way down the route.

Of course we are all affected by such an incident either directly or indirectly, and we all suffer from shock, but what is amazing is the way that everyone works together to co-ordinate such a massive rescue effort. We never have the chance to practise these logistics in advance but on the day everyone lent a helping hand. To see so many people running up the hill un-hesitantly putting themselves in danger in order to help others is most creditworthy - and so it goes on, a huge effort by all concerned including the various doctors around camp helping at the rescue site or at BC, the Himalayan Rescue Association (HRA) dealing with casualties that were delivered directly to their hospital tent and so on; far too many people to mention, but all appreciated.

It is also interesting to note that Jason Laing, a Kiwi helicopter pilot who is working for Simrik Air in Nepal, organised to bring two Human Long Lines to Nepal from New Zealand, actually Mark Woodward one of my guides carried one of these in his luggage. A Human Long Line is quite a specialist piece of equipment. Most people will have seen a cargo long line hanging under a helicopter, this is just one rope that is connected to the electronic hook under a helicopter. This hook can be activated by the pilot from a switch on his controls so a load can be dropped at any moment. With a person hanging under a helicopter it is much more serious as an accidental activation of the switch would drop the person. In order to back this up, a second point of security is found by passing a large sling around the belly of the helicopter and through both doors (which are open) to lie across the floor of the helicopter. This sling has a ‘3-ring Circus’, the same as used to quickly cut away a malfunctioning main parachute which is a very simple but effective release system that has strength when under load, but by simply pulling a toggle allows the whole system to release. So if the pilot wants to eject the Human Long Line he has to actually release two separate parts to the system. This system proved to be very effective and with Jason at the controls helped considerably to be able to carry out the rescue in one day.

Eventually, the weather started to close in making flying more difficult and as it was now the middle of the day, temperatures were getting high which is not a safe time to be in the middle of the Icefall, so it was decided to call off rescue operations even though rescuers had located one more body but knew that three were still missing. Some of the rescuers were also airlifted to BC and then a plan of action was made for the following day to again put rescuers on the mountain in the avalanche site. But one of the bad things that happened during the day was that the Ministry got involved. Without consultation they sent a large military MI17 helicopter to Pheriche to collect the bodies. In fact we could have stored these bodies in a respectful manner at BC until the following day and then taken them to the respective villages where families wanted them. However despite several requests to take the bodies to a central location in the Khumbu, they were in fact taken to Lukla for further identification by the police, a job that the Liaison Officers at BC should have been able to do. Then the military helicopter had a mechanical fault so apparently had to stay overnight causing total indignation to the grieving families. The smooth evacuation of the injured from the mountain to Lukla was also interrupted because of this Ministry intervention, and we found out later that some of the injured were not flown to Kathmandu until 18.00 that evening when some of the rescue pilots were returning home, where as they should have been evacuated to Kathmandu at about midday. I have been rather critical directly with the Ministry, pointing out that it was their responsibility to have had better communications with the Liaison Officers at Base Camp.

It was important for families to find the bodies of those missing, so the following day 12 Western and Sherpa guides went back up to the avalanche site. It was predetermined that they would all spend 4 hours on site unless they had found definite clues that they could find more victims. This was the equivalent of spending 48 man hours searching, but sadly the only recovery was the one person who had already been located the day before.

Part 3 follows shortly which covers the ensuing problems at Base Camp and beyond.

Abbreviations: Expedition Operators Association (EOA), Himalayan Rescue Association (HRA), Khumbu Climbing Centre (KCC), Liaison Officers (LOs) Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA), Nepal Mountain Guides Association (NMGA)Sagarmartha Pollution Control Committee (SPCC), Trekking Agencies Association Nepal (TAAN).