Beneath the Death Zone: A Climber’s Personal Account of the Everest Avalanche
Climbing Everest is a dangerous activity – no question about it. Climbers face the risk of hypothermia, cardiac arrest, cerebral swelling, pulmonary edema, getting crushed by rockfalls, trapped by avalanches, or getting caught at high altitude for many hours in raging storms. As one article simply put it, “to set foot on Mount Everest is to risk death.” But despite the tangible risks, hundreds of climbers head out year after year to challenge the mountain, hoping they might be one of the lucky ones to safely make it to the top.
A photo from Lucy’s blog
This April, Lucy Rivers Bulkeley was one of those hopeful few. As an experienced climber, ultrarunner and extreme adventurer, Lucy already had a number of expeditions under her belt. She was the first European woman to complete the 4 Desert Grandslam in 2010 and had successfully summited Aconcagua, Elbrus and Kilimanjaro. Reaching the top of Everest was incredibly daunting, but Lucy was prepared. Months of training had made her muscles lean, her lungs strong, and her veins thick with red blood cells (read her pre-Everest interview here). All she needed was a bit of luck.
Unfortunately, luck was nowhere to be found on Everest this year – quite the contrary. On Friday, 18 April 2014, while Lucy was acclimatizing at Base Camp, a massive avalanche crashed down the mountain, resulting in the single deadliest accident on Everest. Ever. Sixteen Sherpas died when large blocks of ice – called ‘seracs’ – broke away from hanging glaciers above the Khumbu Ice Fall. The Sherpas who died were carrying gear and supplies from Base Camp to Camp 1 and beyond.
This area – the Khumbu Icefall – is notoriously dangerous. It is often described as the “danger zone”, featuring overhanging pieces of ice that can be as large as 10-story buildings. It can take 12 hours to cross. In fact, it is so precarious that climbers try to pass through the icefall by headlamp early in the morning to avoid melting glaciers and shifting ice. “In many ways it is the most difficult and most dangerous part of the climb,” reported experienced Everest climber, Adrian Ballinger, to CNN. “ This specific zone is an area where we all know there is a lot of risk but of course we hoped there would never be a major accident like this.”
Photograph by Cory Richards, National Geographic
I was in London at the time when I heard the news. I woke up with my mouth dry and my head pounding from overindulging the night before on wine (what all R&Rs are meant for). When I checked the news, the pounding intensified. Not only had there been an attack on the UN compound in Bor (South Sudan), 20 km from where my staff were based, but there was a deadly avalanche on Everest.
I was able to quickly confirm that Lucy was safe at Base Camp, thanks to the help of our amazing network of friends, but trying to figure out anything beyond that was an exercise in futility. Some news sources reported that all expeditions were cancelled for the rest of the year and climbers were being flown off the mountain. Others suggested that the mountain was still open. Would she still climb? And if she did, would she be safe? Would she lose her chance to summit? Would she even want to climb after witnessing such tragedy?
Lucy’s photo from Base Camp
We clung to our phones waiting for updates from Lucy. Days went by and more and more climbing companies cancelled their expeditions. Lucy remained. New reports of Sherpas being threatened by a small militant group trickled into the media, painting a more sinister picture of what was happening on the mountain. Lucy remained. Fresh avalanches hit the mountain a week after the first one, making it look even more unlikely that anyone would get to climb. Lucy remained.
Lucy stayed at Base Camp until April 26, a full eight days after the deadly avalanche. As one of the last few climbers left on Everest, Lucy brings unique insight into the tragedy and offers a true account of what took place during the days that followed. I had the chance to catch up with Lucy over email after she returned to Kathmandu last week to get her side of the story.
Ultra Runner Girl: Describe to us where you were, what you were doing, and what went through your mind when you heard the news of the avalanche.
Lucy: Avalanches are a worryingly frequent occurrence on the mountains around base camp but early morning on Friday 18th there was an especially loud one. It wasn’t until I emerged from my tent that I heard from one of my teammates exactly what had happened. We had planned to be heading into the Ice Fall to practice on the ladders (often two or three tied together over the large crevasses) before heading up to Camp 1 the following day. All we knew initially was that a few Sherpas had been caught up in it. It soon transpired that it was a lot worse than that – the official figure was 16 dead and numerous injured.
Ultra Runner Girl: How did your team react? And the Sherpas in your group?
Lucy: We were all stunned and spent the morning listening to the rescue operation being coordinated over the radios. Our guide, Rob, is also a doctor and he immediately left to head up to the accident site – having made the summit of Everest eight times, he knows the Ice Fall route incredibly well and managed to reach some of the injured Sherpas before the helicopters arrived. The two helicopter pilots involved that day were incredible – they managed to airlift all those seriously injured and killed out of the ice fall and take them to hospital or back to their villages. A horrendous task to endure.
We had a team of Sherpas up there when the accident happened but thankfully they were all ok as they were either side of the accident site. However, understandably, they were deeply upset by what they saw. Tragically, two of them also lost brothers.
Ultra Runner Girl: You mentioned on your blog and on twitter that the situation quickly became ‘politicized’. Can you describe the tensions on the mountain?
Lucy: For the first couple of days after the accident it was quite rightly about mourning those lost. No one went on the mountain and all climbers continued acclimatizing on nearby peaks. A couple of teams then started to cancel their expeditions because they had lost too many Sherpas, through injury, to continue – not because the Ice Fall was unsafe as reported in the media! It was then that we started to hear about the threats being made to Sherpas and Ice Fall doctors by militants if they climbed with Westerners. Even our Sidar, Karmi, was threatened. The Nepalese First Minister flew into Base Camp for a meeting with all the Sherpas, but I think by then, it was too little too late.
Ultra Runner Girl: At what point were you going to pull the plug on the climb? Or were you determined to summit at all costs?
Lucy: Our team held out until the last possible moment. We had our Puja on the 23rd, in the hope that things might start to improve. Unfortunately the threats were too much for all the teams and Sherpas involved and we had no choice but to cancel. Gutting.
(Note to readers: ‘Puja’ is a ceremony in which the Sherpas and climbers pay their respects to the mountain deity (Sagamartha) and ask her for clear passage. Sherpa climbers will not climb before they are blessed.)
Ultra Runner Girl: After such an intense experience, most would have headed home to regroup. You are now off to climb Mount Denali (Alaska) to attempt one of your other remaining mountains within the Seven Summits challenge. What is your motivation?
Lucy: I’m acclimatized, having been living at 5300m for 2 weeks, and mountain fit. It seems a waste not to. I also think it’ll help me get my head around everything that has happened as I’m not sure it’s properly sunk in yet. Saying that, having heard that it could get to as low as -50c on Denali, a beach somewhere hot is suddenly looking rather tempting!
Ultra Runner Girl: Does this experience fuel your desire to return next year to try again or are you having second thoughts?
Lucy: I would absolutely love to return next year – I have two climbing permits (Everest and Lhotse) with my name on!
Courage, Lucy, allez allez allez!