Everest / Alpine Expeditions

Keith Cowing Everest Update: Life and Death – and Life – Outside My Tent Flap

By Keith Cowing
Keith Cowing
May 8, 2009
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Keith Cowing Everest Update: Life and Death – and Life – Outside My Tent Flap
The view out of my tent flap – the Khumbu Icefall.
Keith Cowing

May 6th 2009 was one of the more remarkable days I have had in many a year – so much so that It took me several days to collect my thoughts on all that transpired. The day began with a friend and his colleagues departing on a personal quest. It was interrupted by an abrupt and brutal reminder of just how deadly this quest could be and how others can die in its pursuit.

A life was lost this day. Lives were also saved. In both cases, it was Sherpas who either bore the loss or engaged in selfless heroics. I continue to be amazed and yet humbled by these happy, usually quiet, courteous people. Their strength and skill serve only to underscore their humble, understated nature. Alas, this amazing capacity often goes under appreciated.

The IMG climbers departed in two groups. Despite Scott’s shaking of my tent, I only managed to get to the mess tent at 4:20 am about 3 minutes after Scott and his team had departed into the darkness. Shortly thereafter, a second team appeared at the mess tent. After a quick breakfast, a weather briefing, and a pep talk, they also departed into the darkness.

Just before they departed, several Sherpas, jumped into the tent. I say “jumped” because the rest of us were all tired and were moving slowly and the Sherpas simply appeared, almost mystically, out of the early morning darkness. The Sherpas were all equipped with harnesses and climbing gear. As they stood there, poised to tackle the mountains, they embodied the essence of strength and preparedness.

I followed this second group of climbers and Sherpas on their way out of camp, using my video camera’s night vision mode. The climbers stopped at IMG’s puja on the way. The puja is a Buddhist altar of sorts with a small fire burning where people stop to say a prayer, make an offering, think a calming thought, or just be silent before heading out on this improbable adventure.

Within a few minutes, everyone vanished from my viewfinder into the darkness.

I spent the next several hours napping, eating, and working. I could easily see people up on the icefall as the morning progressed. Like little ant-like specks, they were moving, stopping, and then moving again, making slow progress over the vast chunks of ice that form the Khumbu Icefall.

I was in the communications tent just after 10 am when all hell broke loose. An IMG climber and I were working at our computers when we heard a tremendous rumbling – one that we could feel in our bones. It was instantly obvious that this was more than the hourly avalanche we had all become accustomed to hearing. This was something more sinister. Indeed, with friends on the Icefall, it was also a potential nightmare scenario.

We had experienced a huge avalanche several days earlier – one that scared everyone for anxious minutes as all who were in its potential path were eventually accounted for. Today was very different. The previous avalanche seemed to occur in slow motion. Today’s was like a small tactical nuke going off.

As we got outside the tent it was clear that the same section of the western shoulder of Everest had let lose a vast amount of snow – much more than before. Whereas the previous avalanche took quite some time to spread out, this one quickly spread across the entire icefall in little more than a minute. The most terrifying aspect was that it dumped its load right on top of the path that climbers – our friends – were taking across the icefall on their climb to the summit.

This is a video of the avalanche

Within a matter of minutes all activities came to a halt. Given that this was all occurring in real time at our doorstep, IMG quickly became the de facto lead for the response. Although the effort was initially ad hoc, it quickly coalesced under IMG leadership into a lean and efficient effort to find out where everyone was – and how to rescue those who needed rescuing.

Over the course of the next hour everyone was accounted for except two Austrians and their Sherpa, Lhapka Nuru. The Austrians were quickly located in a crevasse and were promptly extricated due to the initial quick thinking of Dawa Sherpa, one of IMG’s Sherpas.

As with any event such as this, there are as many stories as there were people to experience them. In one case, Rejean, Scott’s climbing partner, was already on a descent back to Base Camp with Dawa Sherpa for medical reasons. The avalanche caught Rejean and Dawa with only one quick option for safety: to dive behind a large chunk of blue ice so as to shield themselves from the raw onslaught of the avalanche. Within minutes, the nearly suffocating conditions passed, and Dawa sprang into action.

Despite there being several dozen climbers in the vicinity of where the Austrians and their Sherpa Lhapka Nuru were trapped, Dawa was the only one with a rope – and a knife with which to fashion that rope into a rescue system. His quick thinking, and subsequent help from an Indian army climbing team, lead to the rescue of an Austrian guide and his client. Although a boot and a pack were found, Lhapka Nuru was never located.

While no one was openly saying so, we all knew almost instantly that this avalanche most certainly had the ability to be a killer. We learned later that evening that indeed it had been a lethal event – and that we had all watched someone die.

While deaths on the Khumbu Icefall are not unheard of, there had not been one for several years. One gets accustomed to hearing of death and injury much higher up the mountain. To have such a tragedy unfold outside your tent’s front flap, just as the climb is beginning, is shocking and unsettling to say the least.

Unfortunately, in many cases, when a death or heroic act on the mountain concerns a Sherpa, their name is either omitted or mentioned as a footnote. Often times they are simply referred to as “a Sherpa”. As far as my experience with the IMG family goes, Dawa’s heroic actions, and the death of Lhapka Nuru, were felt by all as if they had happened to friends – indeed, to family members.

As I write this, I am in a lodge in Pheriche, Nepal. Scott, I, and several others, came down here to lower altitudes for a little relaxation as we wait for the next summit window to open up. As we sat here in relative comfort, yet another drama unfolded over the radio. In this case it involved a rather daring summit attempt cut short by bad weather and personal injury very high on the mountain. This necessitated a rather complicated, assisted descent of the climber from the Geneva Spur – again, carried out with precision by IMG.

Shortly after learning of this unfolding saga near the summit, another radio call from IMG Base Camp suddenly put Scott in a chain of action whereby several clot dissolving drugs were to be shipped from Pheriche up to Base Camp to treat an emergency condition with a climber with another team. And then we heard of at least one other medical emergency at Base Camp.

Whether these things happen in front of me – or I hear of them via radio at a distance – they all have the same effect on me.




Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA Space Station Payload manager/space biologist, Away Teams, Journalist, Lapsed climber, Synaesthete, Na’Vi-Jedi-Freman-Buddhist-mix, ASL, Devon Island and Everest Base Camp veteran, (he/him) 🖖🏻