Scene: Climber Jim Davidson is camped upon the Khumbu Glacier on Mount Everest at 19,700 feet with his tentmate, Bart Williams. Steep mountain slopes stretch for thousands of vertical feet above their yellow tent on two sides. It is the morning of April 25, 2015 in Nepal.
Through a drowsy haze I sensed the hard, glacial ice stabbing my right hip. I flopped onto my back and my sleeping bag swished against the thin nylon tent wall. Just rolling over at this altitude made my heart race. I gasped for air.
Next to me, Bart still seemed to be napping. Camp sounded quiet. The unhurried rest was luxurious.
A low rumbling noise came from my right. Still sleepy, I thought Bart must be bumping into his side of the tent. But the sound seemed too loud and sustained. The rumble built and moved closer as if coming from outside.
That’s strange, I thought.
I lifted my head out of the sleeping bag to listen. Bart stirred.
“Avalanche?” he asked.
“Yeah. I think so.”
We had heard avalanches daily down in base camp over the last week. They were usually miles away and headed in a different direction—they didn’t pose much risk. Most avalanche noises faded away quickly. But this growling continued.
An image flashed through my mind of the ice fields dangling high above us. From beyond the paper-thin tent fabric, the rumble deepened and grew louder. My chest tightened.
“Whoa, that’s close!” Bart said.
He and I sat up. As if trying to see beyond the yellow tent wall, we both stared rightward toward Nuptse.
A colossal boom sounded from the left. Our heads snapped around toward the new noise. In an instant, the sound swelled to a thunderous roar. Another avalanche on a different slope.
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“Something’s wrong!” I shouted. “Grab your hat and beacon, then get out!”
Over the rising din, Bart yelled: “I don’t have an avalanche beacon.”
“Then get out, get out!”
Bart thrashed to escape his sleeping bag. I lunged toward the tent door and reached for the zipper, but I missed when our tent jumped violently. We, the tent, and the thousand-foot-thick glacier underneath us all lifted half a foot into the air.
My stomach lurched.
A second later we dropped back down.
The tent heaved up again. We hovered there for about two seconds, then fell back once more.
Inside the tent Bart and I rose and sank in unison, as if we were riding a lifeboat over rolling ocean swells.
“Not good!” I yelled.
“What is it?!” screamed Bart.
The vertical heaving paused for a moment, and then the glacier shuddered hard beneath us.
What was happening?
Maybe two massive avalanches had crashed onto the glacier with so much force that the entire ice field was vibrating like a drum. But that didn’t seem right.
Why the shaking and two separate avalanches all at the same time?
Then I got it.
The ground trembled faster, and both avalanches thundered louder. If we were still inside when they arrived, the tent’s large surface area could drag us under the debris wave like a sea anchor. Being outside gave us the best chance for survival so we could try to swim atop the flowing avalanche.
Get out fast!
Bart crawled toward the exit. I finally unzipped the door, and he scurried outside. I tore out of my sleeping bag to race out behind him.
Before abandoning the tent, I scanned the gear for anything that might help. I saw my avalanche transceiver and wondered if I should put it on. If I got buried, the beacon could help others find me before I suffocated. Even if I died, the locating signal would let them pinpoint my body. Recovering my corpse quickly would be safer for the rescuers and easier on my family than if I were left on the mountain.
I grabbed the palm-size device from the tent’s mesh side pouch. After pressing down the plastic safety latch, I slid the power switch up. My beacon always needed five seconds for a system check before it functioned. I stared at the tiny screen, willing the electronics to work faster.
The avalanches outside grew deafening. I hoped that lingering inside the tent for precious seconds wouldn’t prove fatal.
Finally the beacon beeped once and flashed an orange light. I considered just holding on to the transceiver and rushing outside to save a few seconds, but the beacon had to be strapped tight against my chest so it would stay on if the avalanche tossed me about. I slipped the shoulder loop over my left arm and head, then pulled the nylon strap around my waist. I rose onto my knees and clicked the black buckle closed.
Through the tent floor the glacier quivered against my kneecaps. The longer the ground shakes, the bigger the earthquake.
My small GoPro camera lay nearby. If we all died, a recording could document what happened. And if I lived—well, I’d have an amazing video. I hit the Power button and crawled out of the tent, camera in hand.
Stay on top of the slide, no matter what.
When I emerged, most of my teammates were standing nearby. They were all looking south toward the avalanche coming at us from Nuptse. I turned that way too but saw only a veil of thick clouds.
I pivoted and looked toward the sound of the second avalanche. More clouds. We couldn’t tell if the slides were coming at us.
No one ran because we had nowhere to run. With camp almost surrounded by crevasses, the only safe way out was north, toward Everest’s west shoulder. But fleeing that way would send us directly toward the second avalanche.
So we stood there, stared into the clouds, and waited. I wondered which avalanche might be big enough to charge across the glacier and overrun our camp. Maybe neither. Maybe both. My eyes darted back and forth. I tried guessing which side we’d be hit from first.
A mighty wind blasted my face, and I instinctively put my back to the gale. I stumbled a half step forward. When my foot slammed onto the hard ice, pain shot up from my toes. I looked down and saw my feet clad only in socks.
No boots. Stupid!
An even bigger gust crashed into me from a different angle. Sudden violent winds from two different sides seemed bizarre. Then a memory surfaced from the Snow Dynamics and Avalanche class I once took: Big avalanches push away the air in front of them as they charge downslope. Those sideways winds weren’t caused by weather—they were compressed waves of air being bulldozed ahead of the avalanches. Both slides were heading straight for us.
The second air blast carried hard-driven ice particles. A white squall wrapped around my shoulders and stung my cheeks like frozen beach sand tossed into my face. In an instant visibility dropped from a hundred feet to only a few yards. Most of the team disappeared—I didn’t think they’d been blown away, but I wasn’t sure.
A gust shoved me hard from behind. I feared the wind might knock me off my feet and sweep me into a crevasse. I considered lying down. But being prone would increase the chance of getting buried when the rushing debris arrived.
I dropped to one knee as a compromise and hunched my shoulders against the wind. This put my face close to the video camera, still grasped in my right hand. A steady red light indicated the camera was powered up but not yet recording. By forgetting to push Record, I had missed capturing the start of the mayhem. Shit!
As a geologist, I figured I should document the quake and avalanches so somebody could figure out later what the hell had happened. Besides, there was little else I could do. I hit the Record button.
Lifting my head from the camera, I watched my two nearest teammates disappear behind swirling whiteness. Visibility was now zero.
Ice dust thickened the air. When I inhaled, frozen sludge choked my windpipe. I gagged and gasped hard, which sent even more ice daggers down my throat. They scratched and burned and chilled my airway.
Wanting to block out the thickening particles, I jammed the crook of my left elbow against my nose. I tried sneaking a mouthful of air from underneath my arm. When I sucked in a gulp of the thick slurry, it felt like inhaling a milkshake.
Can’t stay outside!
When I thrust my right arm out blindly, it smacked against the tent. I crawled in and tried opening my eyes. Wind and ice powder swirled around inside the tent. I shut my eyes again and fumbled with both hands to close the tent’s outer door. Once the zipper was mostly shut, the wind inside decreased. I opened my eyelids but only had a blurry view from the ice dust and water droplets covering my eyeballs. Blinking a few times cleared my vision. I was alone.
“Bart! Bart, where are you?!” I yelled.
I could hardly hear myself over the roaring winds. The Valley of Silence was no longer silent.
The tent stopped gyrating. I sat taller and thought, Is it over?
Then, an even stronger gale slammed into the north side of the tent where the second avalanche was still cascading down. At any moment the airborne crystals could give way to bouncing ice blocks the size of microwaves, refrigerators, or even houses.
I had been hoping that maybe the avalanches would veer away from us, but the unceasing powder blasts proved they were still coming our way. Everyone in camp could be buried in another minute. Gloria and the kids flashed through my mind. I put my left hand on my chest and clutched the avalanche beacon against me.
Jim Davidson is a climber and professional speaker with Speaking of Adventure. During his 40 years of mountaineering, he has ascended high mountains on six continents. He is a New York Times best-selling author who wrote “The Next Everest”, which is being published in five languages. He lives in Fort Collins, Colorado. For more information: www.speakingofadventure.com.