Post #166: Full Summary of Earthquake, Avalanche, Everest Season Over.
Wednesday April 28th, 2015.
It’s a beautiful day here in the Village of Namche Bazar. This village was rumored to be in dire straits, completely destroyed and devastated by the earthquake that happened on Saturday. Strolling around the village here about a 7 hour walk from Everest basecamp you can actually hardly tell anything has happened. There are a few stones displaced, a few walls cracked or damaged, but life moves on as usual here in Namche. I’ll also say that its very quiet here, trekkers of course aren’t being flown in to trek towards basecamp since Saturday, and because the Everest Season is over now, cancelled for the second year in a row, many have fled down to Lukla, thinking that they can somehow get flown out of here….more on that in a moment.
The purpose of this post is to look back on last Saturday’s Devastating Earthquake with some perspective, and some analytical dynamics. Starting with what I saw, the aftermath and then the trickle down to the bigger and more important picture, which is the Millions of people in one of the world’s most poorest countries being impacted by this event. This in itself is precisely why the Everest season as well as Mountaineering on most of the major peaks in Nepal and Tibet is finished: the Sherpas, expedition leaders, and other locals are trying to reach their families in this time of crisis, which is much more important. (I also heard from my friend Grace on the North Side
that the Everest season is finished there too).
While myself as a ski-mountaineer was impacted in Basecamp, and escaped this powerful phenomenon unharmed, there were thousands of people in this country whose lives were turned upside down. I want everyone to know that while there are many out there sensationalizing and wanting to focus on Mt. Everest, the bigger picture here is Nepal. This event and the aftermath now is no longer about climbing or mountaineering, because that’s not important. In that regard it was very easy for me to walk away from the climbing expedition. In fact, even in the moments after the quake and the avalanche I immediately thought about a few things, and one of those things was that I was no longer interested in going up Everest and Lhotse this year. As an adventure athlete, the climb may be over, but the scientist in me is clearly fascinated by the Natural disaster that occurred, so not focusing on the deaths and injuries of people, but the natural environment, I begin this assessment of the events and will weave the Human-Environmental interaction afterwards.
The Earthquake: 1156am Saturday April 25th.
According to the US Geological Survey, and the National Earthquake Center in Golden CO, on Saturday April 25th just before Noon Local time (Approx 1211pm Colorado US MDT) a 7.9 Magnitude Earthquake was felt for nearly a minute here in Nepal. The Epicenter was Northwest of Kathmandu about 30 miles or so, and about 60 miles to the southwest of Everest Basecamp.
As a physical geographer, weather and climate scientist, and mountaineer in the field this could be considered a once in a lifetime opportunity to experience such an incredible Earth-created phenomenon.
From that perspective I’ll say that when the earthquake began and I emerged from our dining tent in basecamp, the 30-40 seconds that I got to stand on the glacier, look up and down at the valley and ride the earthquake out was one of the coolest feelings I have ever experienced. The Khumbu glacier was so fluid during the quake. The lubrication underneath the glacier from the water blending into the ice, snow and rock was almost like riding a series of smooth waves in the ocean. Of course the noise of the ice and rock grinding was loud, but it was absolutely fascinating. When it stopped, what followed next was indeed scary, and you never want people to be involved, but lets face it, the Himalayas are also the largest mountain range in the world, and I don’t think ANYONE was expecting what came next.
The Avalanche: 1158 to 12 Noon.
Within a minute, the History of Everest Basecamp was changed forever. To my knowledge, a natural hazard hitting basecamp at 17,600’/5300m has never directly killed the occupants of Everest Basecamp. In 2002 there was a similar avalanche from that same side of Pumori that sent a smaller blast of compressed Air, Rocks, Ice, and Powder into the camp, but nobody was harmed. Also, in talking to many people that have been here in Basecamp much more than I, the threat of Avalanches are always there, but just considered a minor threat.
In my last post I took some before and after photos and briefly discussed the Avalanche Path. In the future when I have some more time to go through more of my photos and video (And we may see this on a future documentary) the basic dynamics were that the ridgeline between Pumori and Lingtren cracked and released a large volume of Ice. The connecting ridge between the two peaks and where the ice came from was at approximately 6000m/20,000’. Because it was very foggy the instant the earthquake and then subsequent avalanche took place, NOBODY has photos or video of the upper mountain of Pumori and the ridge from where and when the Avalanche originated at that moment.
(There are some videos of the blast out there and more may get released soon as well, we shall see). There is one piece of evidence that can show where the snow came from, and that is in detailed repeat photos of the mountain and ridgeline. Just by sheer luck, I do have some photos from the day before the avalanche. (Many other people who were there during these days may also have some photos too) Studying these photos clearly can help us piece together not only how much snow and Ice came down, but where it mainly came from.
The strongest (See photos) line of Ice and Snow Release originated from one jagged point on the ridge and then follows the chute at an angle from the face down into a prominent bowl at the base of the moraine adjacent to the Khumbu Glacier. Many sections of the upper face of ice and snow on this face of Pumori are showing stark differences in the volume of snow that came down and of course triggered what I would term as a “Sonic Blast” of Compressed Air that obliterated the central portion of basecamp. I am sure there will be some scientists out there that do a calculation of all of this volume of snow and Ice that came down, just like from last year’s devastating Ice Block Avalanche that came down in the Icefall. I would estimate so far that the volume of Snow and Ice that came down this season was anywhere between 20 and 50 times larger than what came down last year a killed the 16 Sherpas.
Also, the Ice and Snow broke off from the Earthquake, fell and accelerated up to nearly 800 meters (2,500’) before slamming into a small bowl pocket in the glacial moraine adjacent to the Khumbu Glacier and Basecamp. That impact in the ground from the blast had to go somewhere. That blast was released directly into the tents and people across the basecamp.
The Sonic Blast.
Compressed Air is a phenomenon that can be very difficult to predict and understand. The geography of the glacier and the geometry of the landscape in Everest Bascamp was the deciding factor as to who and what were impacted by the blast. In some places people in tents were perhaps sheltered by a surrounding rock or moraine, and the blast did nothing to them. In other cases, the gust of wind from the blast flattened everything in its path and tossed items such as duffel bags, computers, supply barrels, and climbing gear further towards Nuptse and across the Khumbu Glacier. Individual tents, dining tents.
communications tents, small rocks, and other debris injured up to 60 people and as of now between 19 and 24 people are dead. From a weather perspective, the strength of the compressed air blast was at least of Category 3 Hurricane force (Over 100mph), and up to an F3 tornado rating in the United States. When I walked through the devastated areas during the rescues, in some cases camps were completely gone.
Again my feeling was more of the times I have walked through tornado ravaged towns in the Midwest, or when I lived through some hurricanes in Florida in the fall of 2005. I had listed off some names before, but of the teams I know of impacted for camps I walked through included the SPCC Icefall Doctors, SummitClimb, Henry Todd’s, Jagged Globe, Adventure Consultants, The Ghurkas Indian/British Army Expedition, a team of Norwegians, and Madison Mountaineering, as well
as a handful of others less well known. The Everest ER Clinic was
also partially destroyed. In the few days that passed, since our
seven summits team was intact, our dining tents and personal tents ok, we offered to take in people from for example the Indian Ghurkas team.
Can you imagine coming down from the mountain essentially homeless?
Kudos to the many who did stay and help all the ones in need. Many folks in the climbing community need to be credited for helping others in the basecamp.
The fortunate thing was that a majority of these teams were actually up in Camps I and II on the mountain when this blast occurred.
Upwards of 100 climbers were not in the Basecamp, and so they were fortunately not injured or killed. Deepest condolences to the families and friends of all who perished. It’s not necessarily my duty to list any names here, but please pray for all of Nepal at this time for what has happened not only in basecamp but Nationwide.
The Rescues from Camps I and II on Sunday and Monday April 26-27th.
On both Sunday and Monday three separate helicopters flew to the vicinity of Camp I at 6000m/20,000’ and helped rescue the stranded climbing teams in the Western CWM. Some may argue with me on this point, but I do believe the helicopters were necessary to get these climbers down for a few reasons:
1. Up to 38 of the ladders installed in the Khumbu Icefall were
broken, lost, mangled, and gone, therefore there was no way to climb down through the icefall on your own.
2. The instability of the icefall was very real, a number of
aftershocks were felt of a magnitude of 3.0-5.0 in the 72 hour period after the quake. (One of 4.8-magn at 1pm local time Sun Apr. 25th, with a few more after that). Anyone going through the icefall was at extreme risk.
3. Clearly going through the icefall was not an option, especially
since 3 of the SPCC Icefall Doctors were killed in their camp and not available to help re-fix the icefall, even if there was equipment and supplies to do so.
Three people I know, Alan Arnette, Jim Davidson, and Dan Mazur all were reportedly above the Icefall and when they were flown out (Mazur several days later actually), all mentioned how mangled and large the crevasses were on the route, some of this arguably was made even more un-navigable by the Avalanche.
Tuesday April 28th. Basecamp. Climbing Season Over.
Before we left basecamp, we had heard that there was one team that stayed a few days later (Dan Mazur’s Summit Climb) for some reason wanted supplies delivered to them so they could maybe continue their climb. By the 29th or so there are maybe 50 people and a handful of small teams holding out hope to perhaps either figure out a new way to re-fix the icefall route, or we may see helicopters from basecamp to Camp II and then a attempt to climb Everest or Lhotse. Himalayan Experience, and the 6-Summits team led by Nick Cienski may also be deciding what is next for them. I know their project for the Summits of Everest,Lhotse, and Makalu this season is important to them (As I climbed with Nick last year) but at the end of the day the attention should be probably turned to relief efforts here in Nepal instead of the pursuit of mountains. On my way out of Basecamp Yesterday I ran into my friends Melissa Arnot, Ben Jones, Jon, and Adam and they were actually headed into basecamp after coming off Luboche East when the Earthquake Occurred. I think they may also be walking away from Everest this season, like most others.
Tuesday April 28th- Wednesday April 29th The Trek out To Namche and the State of the Villages, My personal Observations.
I trekked out through the Khumbu in the past few days and made some brief observations:
Gorak Shep– All teahouses standing, some minor cracks in some of the buildings.
Luboche– Minor cracks in buildings, The Mother Earth Lodge had an entire eastern wall of stones collapsed with debris everywhere.
Thukla/Dhugla– Essentially no damage.
Pheriche – Not a single teahouse open, village deserted except for a few locals starting to rebuild.
Pangboche—The sides of a few buildings with minor collapses, but most teahouses operational.
Deboche– Most Teahouses operational, one nearly collapsed due to poor construction.
Tengboche– Minor damage to the Monastery there, cracks and upper level damage to exterior.
Namche– Minor cracks to some buildings, some rock walls down but very minor overall.
What’s next: Again, the people of Nepal are pretty devastated by this Quake. Perhaps 5,000 people were killed, while Up to a million people have left Kathmandu to villages where they can find resources and even a place to live at so many homes are not considered safe, or have collapsed already. I think life in the Khumbu will recover, but the future of tourism here will be decided in the future. The well being of the people in Kathmandu is not great at all right now, and so only time will tell the story. Many organizations are coming together to contribute to the relief efforts, and I certainly hope that at some point the government will act and work with any aid that is coming in as well to help the Millions affected. At this point I will try to get home in the next week or two, but since I am ok here in Namche, I am in no rush to leave until they open Lukla and I can be guaranteed a safe way out of Kathmandu at some point. As of Thursday April 30, Lukla Airport was opened from what I heard, so getting to Kathmandu is now a possibility. We’ll see what happens.
Thank you for everyone at home who have followed the blog and this trip up to this point, your support and kind thoughts are very much appreciated!
That’s all for now. -Dr. Jon