When a deadly earthquake hit Nepal in April, there were two Central Albertans on location, one attempting to climb Mount Everest, the other in a nearby village, they both had very different perspectives of this disaster. This is the first part of a two-part series on their experiences.
Climbing the Khumbu Icefall on the Nepali slopes of Mount Everest is always dangerous — underline always.
Huge blocks of ice the size of a house regularly come crashing down. And don’t forget deadly crevasses that can open up with little warning or be hidden underfoot.
On April 25, former Red Deer MLA John Oldring and seven teammates were climbing that icefall to reach the Everest summit when the 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Nepal.
Miraculously, all eight survived.
Oldring said three members had just safely climbed five ladders tied together to reach straight up to a plateau when an avalanche on nearby Mount Pumori hammered part of the icefall.
“You see these big clouds of snow and you hear all the rumbling. But you’re safe and it’s not an issue. That’s kind of how we felt. That was too close for comfort, but pretty cool,” said Oldring, 63, now a managing director with investment company BMO Nesbitt Burns in Calgary.
“Then all of a sudden it was followed by just massive amounts of ice and noise. We certainly felt lots of shaking. We just thought it was from the ice pounding down. Then it was a total whiteout so you can’t see anything. All you’re hearing is noise and snow and ice. It seemed to stop, the noise at least. And all of a sudden there was just this blast of wind. Just this massive amount of wind. For me, that moment just sent pure terror up my spine. Just pure fear. It’s like — What’s next?”
He said they thought it was just a huge avalanche and the wind was a backdraught from all the ice striking the bottom.
“The three above us were just screaming and yelling as soon as the noise stopped. They thought for sure we would have been crushed by all the stuff they could see dropping where we were. They were relieved to hear our voices.”
The team quickly made the decision to keep climbing as fast as possible.
“We had one climber who was probably very close to being in shock. But we knew we had to get out of the ice field and we knew it was closer to get to Camp One then try to go back.”
They left South Base Camp earlier that day.
He said the plan was always to get through the icefall as fast as possible. To avoid other teams on the route, they gave another team a three-hour head start.
“We didn’t want anyone slowing us up, over ladders, up ladders because the biggest defence that you have going through there is to get through it as quickly as you can.”
Four hours after they left base camp, they caught up with the other team. Instead of stopping to rest, Oldring’s team had a quick snack, some water, and climbed on.
“That probably saved our lives. The team we caught up to, we thought they were probably in a very bad spot. Fortunately for them, they turned around and had actually gone down.”
Oldring’s team estimated if they had been just 15 minutes slower, they would likely have been caught up in the avalanche of ice and snow.
They went on to reach Camp One and where they learned of the earthquake from other climbers.
People didn’t expect Oldring’s team to make it out of the icefall alive. A tweet had already gone out ‘pity the poor guys in the ice field.’
“They had already written our obituaries,” Oldring said.
But it was at base camp where tragedy struck. At least 22 people died and several injured.
The powerful wind that Oldring and his team felt was funnelled down to wipe out the middle of base camp.
He said top speed was estimated at 644 km per hour by world-renowned mountaineer David Breashears who investigated the impact of the earthquake.
“Most of the fatalities were head injuries. It wasn’t people being buried in snow. They were launched by the wind. They were literally picked up and thrown into rock. All of a sudden their tent was cartwheeling down the mountain.”
Oldring was eventually evacuated to base camp by helicopter with 90 other climbers from Camp One.
He said guides had determined the icefall was passable, but for 90 people it would have been too slow and dangerous given the range of climbers’ skills.
His team spent a week at base camp where their tents were still standing because they has set up on the edge rather than the middle of the base. They also had a month’s supply of food and didn’t want to use up limited resources in Kathmandu where the airport had yet to reopen.
“The best thing we could do was stay out of the way.”
Before flying home, they took supplies to a charity for girls in Kathmandu.
Oldring, a Red Deer city councillor for 12 years and Progressive Conservative MLA for Red Deer South for seven years, said some climbers still suffer the occasional sleepless night having lived through the earthquake.
For him, it was a sobering rather than life-altering experience.
One young woman named Eve, who died at base camp, was a physician’s assistant he came to know during the trek to base camp.
She provided medical support for another team and reminded Oldring of his daughter who is a doctor.
“For me, that was probably the most devastating. Up to then it was just numbers. Eve made it real, and personal, and very sad. Those of us climbing the mountain know we are signing up for an element of risk. Eve didn’t sign up for that. She signed up to be a support person.”
He said in some ways, mountain climbing is a very selfish activity.
“Obviously none of us want to cause grief or anguish to friends and family. Regrettably, I think we did cause more than our share of grief and angst for our families. For that I’m sorry. But I do love climbing mountains.”
Right after knocking the ice and snow off his gear from the avalanche in the icefall, he was excited to continue the climb.
“I had fun every time we got another ladder or crevasse to go over, or another section of ice to front point and jimmy up. For me, I was happy because we got to go climb again. I was happy everyone was safe and alive. The world seemed pretty good at that point.”
When they reached Camp One and learned of the earthquake, he was still optimistic and had faith they would get off the mountain, even as aftershocks rattled their tents and avalanches rumbled in the distance.
“God didn’t bring us through that icefall to Camp One to kill us at Camp One. If we were going to die, we would have been dead already.”
Oldring said surviving the earthquake was his scariest moment ever on a mountain. But he intends to attempt Everest again, possibly in the spring.
“You hit that summit and you have a moment of pure joy. And then you just want to get off. You’ve just had enough of bad food, and cold weather, and wind, and snow and all that goes with it. Then you get back and it’s not long before you want to be on a mountain again.”
He said it’s hard for climbers to explain. For him, it’s about the tranquility, the challenge and the beauty of being on a mountain that he could never capture in a photo.
“No one gets to see what I just saw. Nobody gets to see, breath, smell and feel – all those emotions that you get to capture when you’re on the mountain. Only you get to capture them.”