Kenwood contractor Jon Reiter was standing some 15 feet downslope from Dawa Sherpa, both men clipped into a fixed rope snaking through the final few hundred yards of the Khumbu Icefall, statistically the most treacherous part of the southern route up Mt. Everest, when all frozen hell let loose.
A huge chunk of a hanging glacier broke free of the mountain’s west shoulder and thundered into the icefall like a meteor, exploding into a furious cloud of ice particles and lethal chunks, sending a billowing wave of frozen debris churning down the route that three or four dozen climbers were following up to Camp I.
“That first second or two when it cracked off, maybe the first tenth of a second, I had the thought that, ‘Maybe I should film that.’ I had been filming avalanches every day.”
But then Reiter looked up at Dawa, who had his back to the advancing storm and was waving his arms and screaming at Reiter to get down, to take cover.
“My next thought was, ‘Oh my God, how many people are underneath that.’ But Dawa wasn’t thinking about himself. He was standing there, warning me, and I could hear chunks of snow slamming into his head. It was like a hail storm coming right at you.”
Reiter, now back at home with his wife, Susan, credits Dawa with saving his life, getting him down and protected as the wave passed over them, thinking clearly what to do in an unimaginable maelstrom.
What happened immediately after that changed what had been a perfect climbing day into a perfect nightmare.
Everest climbers enter the 1,500-foot-high Khumbu Icefall to reach the Western Cwm where the glacier levels out, and where many expeditions set up Camp I. Traditionally, icefall climbs are done in early morning to avoid the two most dangerous periods when surrounding snow and ice fields alternately thaw and refreeze. Thawing loosens glacial mass, and refreezing in the deep cold of night expands the ice, which can also set it free.
“We had it just right,” said Reiter. “It was about 6:30. Perfect conditions, no snow, coldest point in the day. We got up at 3, went into the dining tent and tried to eat something. There was an Australian named Gavin who didn’t show up there. He had turned his alarm off and overslept. That delay cost us 15 minutes. And that 15 minutes would have put us right in the middle of the impact. It hit a couple of hundred yards ahead of me. We would have been right there. It’s just incredible luck. We would have been there.”
Right there was where 20 or more climbing Sherpas were carrying gear up to higher camps. Sixteen of them were caught unprotected and killed instantly. Three of them have not been found.
“It was like a building imploding, the dust billowing up from the bottom. We all took our cover, then it was all pretty hazy, like a thick fog. Three of us started coming together. We didn’t understand at first, then we heard the Sherpa radios squawking and we knew something bad had happened. And a Sherpa came walking out of the cloud with blood running down the back of his head where a chunk of ice had hit him. He also had a broken arm, and he was sort of dazed. He just said, ‘Many dead.’ And I remember thinking to myself, ‘We’re in over our heads.’”
Dawa directed Reiter and his climbing partner Marcus Bridle to help the injured Sherpa off the mountain, and then the Sherpa climbed up into the cloud to begin the search for the living and the dead.
As the three descended, painstakingly supporting the injured Sherpa over the succession of aluminum ladders spanning crevasses and descending the sides of truck-sized seracs, a team of rescuers came flooding up through the icefall.
“All the teams sent everybody they could, all the doctors in Base Camp went up there, people with shovels, it was a brotherhood. When we got to Base Camp around 9 or 9:30, everybody was out of their tents, standing there, looking at the icefall. And all morning they were trying to get the wounded out. And then the three helicopters that could get up there, they had used all their litter baskets for the wounded, so they just had to clip the bodies by their climbing harnesses, arms and legs dangling. It went on all afternoon, like a scene from Vietnam, bodies being lowered to the ground, just lining them up. And I was thinking, that could be me. And some of those guys have kids at home.”
As the full impact of what happened became clear to everyone, “There was a deafening silence falling over the entire camp,” Reiter said. “I saw seasoned climbers shielding their eyes from the sight of those bodies.”
And, he added with a thoughtful smile, “That’s when all the answers you have for why climb Everest go out the window. I don’t see myself going through that icefall again. … If this is the greatest disappointment I ever face, I’ll be OK.”
Reiter had been trying to complete the Seven Summits – reaching the peak of the highest mountain on every continent. He had already done six, Everest was the last and this year was his second try. It may well be, he said on Monday, his last.
Reiter has been climbing with little more than one lung since a cancer was discovered as he neared the top of Aconcagua, the highest mountain in South America. He barely survived that climb, but returned post-surgery and successfully summited.
While he was physically “at the top of my game” this year on Everest, and while his body was ready for a summit bid, his Sherpa partner wasn’t willing. With many others, Dawa had returned to Kathmandu after the avalanche in a show of support for better compensation to families of accident victims.
True to his word, four days later he returned to Base Camp. “Dawa told me, ‘I came back for you, I stand by you, but I can’t go up this mountain.”
Reiter was in full support. “Emotionally, I don’t know what that would have been like. There are still three bodies up there. It wouldn’t have felt right.”