(Correne Coetzer and Tina Sjogren) Originally a startup by pioneering Everest guide Rob Hall; New Zealand's legendary Adventure Consultants are Himalaya veterans.
In the past two seasons the outfit became the hardest hit on Everest, losing a big number of their staff in two unreal incidents: the 2014 icefall collapse and the BC quake this year.
Explorersweb caught up with mountaineer and AC general manager Suze Kelly for the inside story on what actually happened during the tremor.
A seasoned quake zone resident - NZ had a 6.4 earlier this year and in 2011 the Christchurch earthquake killed 185 people - even Suze was taken by the Everest disaster this spring.
Explorersweb: You were in Camp 1 at the time of the earthquake. How many of your team were there?
Suze: We had 19 of our team members at C1 at the time of the earthquake – 14 westerners and 5 Sherpa. We had been at Basecamp since April 12 and had come up to Camp 1 through the Icefall on the 24th for the start of our first acclimatisation rotation on the mountain.
Explorersweb: Twelve Sherpa were at C2, right? Reports said the damage was not severe at C1, but what did you experience there?
Suze: Yes, we had 12 Sherpa up at C2 at the time. At C1 we felt the earthquake, and with glacial ice being quite plastic it was a rocking and rolling sensation. Quite a lot of noise accompanied the quake as snow and ice began falling down around the Western Cwm and then once the majority of the shaking stopped we were aware of an avalanche coming towards us from the West shoulder of Everest.
It was lightly snowing so we couldn’t see very far from our campsite. Guy [Cotter] and I were in our tent at the time and scrambled to put on footwear and jackets and get out of the tent – Guy yelled ‘avalanche’ and then we were hit by the wind blast from the avalanche, which brought some snow and bowed the tent under the pressure from the wind, but it then sprang back up and the avalanche was over. We were lucky, no damage and no really big avalanche at Camp 1.
Explorersweb: Emotionally, what went through your mind? How scared were you? Did people go in a panic? How did the others react?
Suze: At the time I thought, ‘just hang on’, as I’ve experienced quite a lot of earthquakes in New Zealand and they eventually do stop, but it was also very apparent that we had nowhere to run and hide at Camp 1 and you are instantly cognisant of the fact that Camp 1 has been wiped out by avalanches before.
So the feeling was like how it feels when you are in the Icefall – you have got yourself into this position and now just have to get through it, as you know this site has risk associated with it and you have already accepted that level of risk by choosing to be there. Thus I remember feeling quite calm, because there was nothing you could do about the situation.
There wasn’t time to panic other than having your heart rate rocket sky high in preparation to run, but there was nowhere to run to. I think everyone on our team coped quite well as we had no immediate impact of damage to ourselves. We were aware of how big the earthquake was and it didn’t take long to find out that it had been a 7.8 magnitude earthquake and I could immediately anticipate the damage in the cities and villages of Nepal.
Explorersweb: How many of your team were in BC? Could you see your BC from where you were? What could you see from C1?
Suze: We had 20 Sherpa and three western staff in BC. We couldn’t see BC directly from Camp 1 and because of the low cloud and light snowfall we weren’t aware of the avalanches coming down around the basin that surrounds Basecamp.
Explorersweb: Surely you had sat phone contact with your BC team? What was the first info they gave you?
Suze: We had sat phone and radio contact with Basecamp before the avalanche, however at our Basecamp the communications tent was blown away by the avalanche that came off the ridge of Pumori and hit the centre of BC.
Our Basecamp Manager Anthea Fisher had been in her tent at BC when the earthquake started and she radioed through to see if we were alright as the shaking was going on, as she put her shoes on and left her tent to head to run to our main dining tent where the others were, and I had time to respond and say it was ‘rocking and rolling’ and ‘avalanches were coming down’.
About 5-10 minutes after the shaking stopped Guy heard from Anthea on the radio, who asked how we were, and then she said, ‘Basecamp has been obliterated, we have no comms, I expect mass casualties, I’ll call you in half an hour.’
It was completely shocking , and it took a while to sink in, that we were actually fine in C1 and that BC had been taken out. Anthea’s handheld radio stopped working after that as it was filled with snow so we didn’t hear from her again that day and our sat phones, other radios and base set radio at BC had blown away as well as our medical supplies, and everything else really.
Explorersweb: You must have realised that the Icefall could be extremely dangerous. Did you feel helpless there, not able to physically help in BC? What plans did you make to get down? How much food did you have there for in case you were stranded?
Suze: All the leaders at C1 got together at regular intervals to swap information and see who needed help. As we had stocked Camp 1 and Camp 2 for the first acclimatisation phase we thought we had enough food for a few days, especially if we were to move up to C2, though we immediately went on to half rations.
We did feel helpless being cut off from BC and not being able to help and we had no idea when we would be able to get down. We were able to phone our office in New Zealand and our agent in Kathmandu and we could listen in on all the other radio channels at BC to hear what was going on, but we had no idea how much damage there was, we could only imagine. It continued to snow at BC and on the mountain during the day so there was no option to evacuate any injured out of BC on the 25th.
A small party of guides from other teams went to look below C1 at the state of the Icefall on the morning of the 26th. With the aftershocks continuing that day and all the days afterwards, we didn’t want to be in the Icefall in such a situation and Guy advised the people going to look to not descend into the icefall proper as it was just too dangerous.
Very early on the 26th we could hear on the radio that helicopters were arriving in BC and evacuating the injured and as the morning turned out to be clear and calm, once the injured had been flown to Pheriche and Lukla the first helicopters came up over the Icefall and into to the Cwm.
We sent Guy down to Basecamp in the first flight available as we knew by then we had so much to deal with at BC and as the helicopters kept flying then we were able to fly a further 7 out, including myself, before the weather closed in again, and the remaining 23 people at dawn the next morning, along with all the other teams that were up at Camp 1 and 2.
Explorersweb: Getting back to BC with the helicopter, what did you experience there?
Suze: Arriving back at our Basecamp was like walking in to the scene from a plane crash. The forces from the avalanche were catastrophic and our camp had literally been blown to bits, with pieces of equipment found up to 1.5km away. We were well looked after by another team and after spending a night in their camp Guy and I and some of our team members moved back up to our site so that we could help guard our camp and get going on the clean up.
We had all sorts of people help us out over the next few days and the Sherpa who stayed to help clean up worked incredibly hard to help us recover what we could. In a time of sadness it was uplifting to be part of such a great team, with the way people looked after each other and helped one another creating lasting good memories alongside the memories of the hard times.
Adventure Consultants (AC)
Guy Cotter talking to 3News, New Zealand (plus compiled video)
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