Apr 25, 2015

NEPAL EARTHQUAKE: Shishapangma Seven Point Eight

Gasping for breath in the thin air I looked at my watch – 11.55am. An excellent time.  

Lhakpa Sherpa and I had set out from Shishapangma Advanced Base Camp (ABC) at 9am in mixed conditions – heavy snow, fog, little visibility, and a gentle breeze that left the long string of prayer flags blowing gently in the wind. It was one of those mornings that you could almost hear the individual snowflakes falling to the ground, quietly covering the earth in an ephemeral blanket of white. Despite the weather, we felt warm, safe and enclosed in the ‘sanctuary’ of the mountain as we began to make our way up to ‘Depot Camp’ at 5800m. The objective of the round-trip would be to establish a 'cache' of tents, gas, stoves and other supplies that we’d carry up the mountain to higher camps on future rotations. 

It was a long, quiet walk that left us each to our own thoughts as we plodded our way over a maze of rock, mud and snow – there was little opportunity to gaze out and fully appreciate the mighty mountain vistas hidden in the mist. I’d been mesmerised by the fleeting views of the mountain over the past 15 days as we’d been making our way to its snowy base and was happy to finally begin establishing the route which would take us to her 8025m summit, the 14th highest in the world.

A quiet sigh of relief escaped my lips when I saw the giant lump of rock marking our final stepping stone before moving onto the icy glaciated and crevassed terrain that would lead us to Camp 1. Exhausted, I flopped down on a rock and gazed into the curtain of mist, wondering what secrets the mountain would reveal. 

I tried to assess my surroundings through the conditions. I could make out a row of jagged snow spires, 'penetents' and guessed that behind them were the snow-loaded and rolling slopes of Shishapangma; slopes that I'd studied in photographs, slopes that had captivated my imagination over the past few weeks, slopes that I’d visualised hundreds of times in preparation for this expedition. To my right, a steep, exposed rocky face with a ramp of dirty boulders. Behind us, another series of tall white snow spires, reminding me of foot-soldiers, protectors of the secrets that the weather conditions had conspired to hide from us and separating us from the aggressive snow covered peaks of Langtang. Finally, to our left, the traces of our footsteps rapidly filling with snow. 

Sat there in silence I reflected on why that mornings walk had been so satisfying. Put simply, mountains provide context - they make you humble and give you the sense that there are forces in nature that will never be harnessed, that won't bend to our schedules. Rather we bend to them. Coming from a job that often demands organisation and structure,  I find this lack of ‘control’ and opportunity for reckless mental and physical creativity liberating.

I was tired but content to be in such humbling, powerful surroundings. It was eerily quiet. I took a sip of water and looked down at my watch. 11.57am.

My ears began to pick up a faint, deep rumbling sound. A natural sound that broke the silence and sparked an almost animal-like instinct. Something wasn't right. It sounded like a steam engine picking up speed, like one you’d see in an old country western movie. Lhakpa and I looked at each other quizzically.  

The rumbling continued, louder and louder. 

My initial instinct was ‘avalanche’ - but where was it coming from? We were literally surrounded on all sides by mountains and had zero visibility and the sound seemed to echo from all around. My eyes darted in all directions trying to assess where the danger was coming from. It was so confusing.

I then felt the ground begin to shift back and forth in a slow rhythmic movement… like jello. I looked down confused at my knees which began to bob up and down. I tried to stand up and turn around and stumbled sideways. 


In that split second, I was mentally transported back to university geography class mapping out plate tectonics… and in the next second I tried to recall what to do in the event of an earthquake - stand in a door frame sprang to mind – but where were the door frames?!

Lhakpa shouted over the rumbling. ‘Avalanche!’ followed by ‘Stay down’. We tried desperately to assess where the avalanche was going to hit us from as our eyes scanned in all directions and crouched to the shaking, rumbling ground. I began to gasp, ‘ohno ohno ohno ohno’… under my breath in an effort to stay calm. I felt like four loaded guns were all pointed at us and I wondered which was going to shoot first.

My main focus was trying to establish which direction the avalanche would come from as I knew we were surrounded on all sides by mountains.  Would we get hit by the avalanche itself or the debris. If I hid behind the giant rock, would the impact move the rock and crush us in the process?

 Staring out at the sea of white all around me I thought, "Is this ‘it’? Is this really ‘it’? Here? On Shishapangma?" I turned round in circles trying to get the bearings on where the danger lay.

Lhakpa shouted something over the roaring sound of falling rock against a background of rumbling. He was crouched next to a rock, eyes darting in all directions. I ran to him and we huddled together on the rock hugging each other, terrified, praying that the rumbling and shaking would stop and that the avalanche or avalanches would not hit us. 

I'm not sure how long the earthquake lasted - I don’t think that it was more than 20 – 25 seconds but it felt like an eternity. It’s amazing how many things can go through your mind in a few split seconds; it’s amazing how quickly ‘animal’ like instincts kick in. I’ve never been so afraid in my entire life. 

Even after the rumbling stopped we stayed hunched on the rock, our bodies attuned and senses heightened to every sound and movement. More rumbling followed, falling rock could be heard all around… but we knew we had survived the initial quake and any avalanches that had come down had missed us. We still had zero visibility and were relying purely on instinct. 

Lhakpa pulled out our radio to communicate back to Advanced Base Camp. Our hope was that because we had been on a glacier - generally quite ‘elastic’ – that the earthquake had felt much worse than it was. Perhaps those at Advanced Base Camp hadn’t even noticed it?

I looked at my watch – it was now 12.05. If the earthquake had been felt on Everest most climbers technically should have already passed through the icefall. My mind drifted back to my conversation with Lhakpa the previous evening. We’d spoken about about his brother on the South Side of Everest and his own personal experience in last years avalanche, prompting his decision to climb Shishapangma this year. My mind also drifted back to our conversation about his young family in Pangboche, a small mountain village just next to Everest itself. I wondered whether they too had felt the earthquake and prayed that they were ok.

Lhakpa and I sat on the rock at Depot Camp for a few more minutes before we began to make our way back.  Slowly and keeping together we left at 12.35pm. 

We began to notice the impact of the quake and the avalanches of snow and rock it had released - fresh cracks in the ground, lose boulders dislodged and sent careening down the snowy slopes, cracked ice in the lakes. Eerily, the snow had stopped and the cloud had lifted, burnt off by a blazing Himalayan sun revealing patchwork of sky. It was strange - rather than a scene of destruction and devastation as you'd witness in a city following an earthquake,  the mountain vista stretched out before us seemed almost…. beautiful, natural and strangely rebalanced. Life goes on.

We walked briskly and in silence back to Advanced Base Camp. Walking into camp we were met by Pemba Sherpa who approached us directly, his expression stoic addressing Lhakpa in Nepali. I could tell by his face that the news was not good. I soon learned that the earthquake had been widespread, its devastating impacts ripping through the Khumbu – from Langtang to Everest Base Camp to Lhakpa’s village of Pangboche to Kathmandu itself. 

I’m now in our mess tent on Shishapangma trying to summarise my thoughts. It’s hard to know what to do  - we’re sat here at 5500m without no internet, phone lines seem to be jammed or down, we literally have no contact with the outside world. We are still waiting for the news to hear whether Lhakpa’s family are safe. It’s a strange, sad, confusing, and heart wrenching situation – and now a waiting game. I pray that Lhakpa’s family and friends are  safe and likewise that the many friends I have climbing in the Himalaya and living in Kathmandu. 

For now all we can do is wait as the snow continues to fall and the mountain continues to rumble below our feet.

Note: Thanks to the committed and tremendously appreciated efforts of Bonita Norris and Kenton Cool via intermittent satellite calls and twitter exchanges, we found out three days later that Lhakpa's wife and daughter in Pangboche (a small village severely damaged during the earthquake) were safe as well as brother Padawa, a Sherpa on the South Side of Everest. I can't even find the words to begin to explain the feelings of mixed emotions of relief for the lives of friends spared mixed with sadness of all those lost.

Snowy profile of Shishapangma, the 14th highest mountain in the world

Summit profile before earthquake

Summit profile after earthquake

Back in my tent but a day I'll not soon forget

5 mins from Depot Camp (photo taken 5 days after quake)


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