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Dave Hahn Recounts the Day the Earth Shook on Everest, Reflects on the Aftermath
Posted on June 16, 2015

Base camp on Everest before the quake.

When a magnitude-7.8 earthquake hit Nepal in late April, it was a tragedy of global and personal proportions. For many of us, viewing the images of death and destruction from afar was tough enough. But Eddie Bauer guide Dave Hahn was in his tent at Camp I on Mt. Everest when he felt the ground beneath him shaking with fury. Luckily, he survived. He and his team were evacuated to base camp by B3 helicopter, landing in a scene of incredible devastation. After a few weeks of decompression, we asked Hahn to recount and reflect on the disaster. This is his report. —LYA Editor

B3 Helicopter above Camp I (19,900 ft) one morning after the quake.

Words and Images by Dave Hahn

I confess I’m having difficulty recalling what a “normal” climbing season on Mount Everest might feel like. Certainly not like this most recent one. That said, there wasn’t a lot in my 20 previous Everest seasons that ever fit within conventional norms. And that was always part of the attraction for those of us seeking adventure and challenge in high and cold places. But with massive earthquakes, cataclysmic avalanches pouring down every mountainside, and tragic loss of life throughout the region, it is a foolish understatement to say that we got more challenge than we bargained for this spring.

I’m not sure if anybody actually bound for Everest this spring believed in their core that it would simply be business as usual… even if that was what we sometimes told others. Last year’s tragedy—16 Nepali climbers dying on the job in the Khumbu Icefall—was still fresh and real and awful in the minds of those of us who were up on the glacier that day.

“The glacier was shaking like Jell-O, and I was acutely aware that we were camped on a fin between crevasses. I didn’t know whether our “ground” might simply collapse out from under us.”

 

The fallout: a gut-wrenching base camp week of grief, shock, tension, anger and distrust, culminating—not surprisingly—in a failed climbing season, was difficult to get past. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that the season necessarily had to go on anyway. In my view, had we chosen to quit the climb out of respect for the dead and concern for the living (seeing as how we didn’t have an alternate route through the Icefall), we wouldn’t have been far wrong. But that isn’t why we didn’t go back up… it was more about politics and the threat of violence. I won’t claim to have fully understood those politics—the situation was quite complicated—but for me, that inability to know just what was transpiring was a sobering reality. Everest expedition leaders like to think they are in control… and we turned out not to be.

I wanted to take another crack at it. I don’t mean that I sought to arrive on the scene this year bent on dominating either people or peaks, just that I wanted another good try at working well with both. And I’d like to think it was going okay that way on April 25 when the Earth started shaking.

Quite obviously, the world—and Nepal specifically—has far greater problems than Everest lead guides feeling out of control, but my world was pretty narrowly focused in those shaking moments. I was in a tent in a snowstorm at Camp I, perched at close to 20,000 feet at the top of the Khumbu Icefall and the bottom of the Western Cwm.

 “The roar was getting louder and closer, and I wondered momentarily whether an avalanche off 25,000-foot Nuptse to our left would feel any better or worse than an avalanche off the 25,000-foot West Shoulder of Everest to our right.”

 

I didn’t like any element of that situation, to be honest. If you get to choose where you’ll be standing when a magnitude-7.8 quake hits California, I’m guessing you won’t choose the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge. The glacier was shaking like Jell-O, and I was acutely aware that we were camped on a fin between crevasses. I didn’t know whether our “ground” might simply collapse out from under us.

I did know that all of the ice hanging three thousand vertical feet above our camp couldn’t possibly stay put for such a quake. It had to fall, and so a question in my mind was: would it fall on us? Sure enough, the mountains began to roar. I remember yelling out to my teammates in their tents, “It’s an earthquake… but we’re all right!”

 

These words left my lips even as I wrestled to unzip the tent door and see which way the avalanches were going to hit us from. But I couldn’t see a thing with it snowing so hard. The roar was getting louder and closer, and I wondered momentarily whether an avalanche off 25,000-foot Nuptse to our left would feel any better or worse than an avalanche off the 25,000-foot West Shoulder of Everest to our right. We’d zipped the door closed by the time a powder cloud hit and shook the tents for a time, luckily without any great force or actual rock and ice debris.

We’d survived. But we all knew immediately that mere survival didn’t equate to everything, or anything, being all right. We were in the middle of the biggest mountains on Earth in Nepal, a country not known for its infrastructure even in the best of times. There had to be plenty wrong. Even as we reached for the radios and sat-phone, there was a realization that it was going to be extremely difficult in this time and place to know just what was happening and what might still happen.

 “For better or worse, I’m about over being a control freak. The highest and mightiest mountain in the world shook like Jell-O, and it was all I could do to hold on.”

 

That was certainly brought home to us a few days later when we got out of helicopters, safe and sound, at Everest Base Camp. We’d known about the destruction and the loss of life and the injuries from the avalanche blast off Pumori. We’d sat up in our snowstorm, grinding our teeth and staring at tent walls while listening to others do monumentally heroic things in difficult circumstances down at base camp. But nothing via radio or phone readied us for standing in the blast zone and comprehending the forces our friends had dealt with.

Similarly, once we’d put mountain climbing behind us for a season and begun walking out through ruined villages and countless altered lives, I don’t know that we could fully wrap our brains around the scope of this disaster in this particular place. But we were trying to. There are few upsides to what happened on and around Mount Everest this year, but I seek them anyway. People helped each other. There wasn’t division in the wake of this year’s tragedy. There was no us-and-them, and no politics worth focusing on in the greater scheme of things. And personally, for better or worse, I’m about over being a control freak. The highest and mightiest mountain in the world shook like Jell-O, and it was all I could do to hold on. I may not be in control, but in this instance, I’m going to settle for just being unbelievably lucky.

In the ongoing aftermath of the quake and tragedy in Nepal, Eddie Bauer is backing David Morton and Melissa Arnot’s Juniper Fund effort to raise financial assistance support for the familes of high-altitude workers lost in the tragedy. Learn more about their mission and donate at thejuniperfund.com.

 

Author: - Tuesday, June 16th, 2015
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