Nepal after the quake: panic, pain and chaos

On the roof of the world, the day of the quake starts early. It is high season on Everest and 709 mountaineers and Sherpas from 21 expeditions are at Base Camp, a small canvas town of yellow, blue, red, purple and green that stretches for a kilometre and boasts tents for sleeping, storage, medical treatment and even dining and satellite internet.

There are all sorts on the mountain – athletes, backpackers, high-paying businessmen, sponsored alpinists, Gurkhas and Indian soldiers, even Google Earth mappers – but among them are climbing legends. Sean Wisedale, a South African from Durban who has climbed the seven summits – the highest mountains on all seven continents – and travelled the length of the Equator and the Amazon. Tim Mosedale, from Keswick in the Lake District, who has summited Everest four times. Guy Cotter, a New Zealander, another four times summiteer and a guide on the first ever commercial Everest expedition in 1992. Dan Mazur, an American living in Bristol, who has summited Everest seven times, survived two Everest disasters and in 2006 gave up another summit attempt at 28,000 feet to save the life of a climber others had left for dead.

Most have been here for a week. Conquering Everest is a two-month undertaking, involving 40 days on the mountain. The climbers acclimatise and their guides teach them how to climb ice, abseil and walk across ladders placed over crevasses on the Khumbu Icefall before they make their push on the peak. Around 170 climbers have picked the night of 24-25 April to begin a four-night trip up the mountain. Waking at 3am, they start on the Icefall around 4am. Their plan is to spend two nights each at Camp 1 and Camp 2 in the Western Cwm, above the Icefall and the lowest of four camps en route to the summit.

Mazur is setting out with his eight clients. "It snowed today but now it's a starry night," he tweets. "Good luck!" With them, too, is Guy Cotter, taking eight clients to Camp 1. "We left our camp via the chorten under which our Sirdar, Ang Tshering Sherpa, had lit some juniper as an offering to the gods," he writes in his blog that day. "We each grabbed a small handful of rice that we tossed above the chorten and perhaps each one of us made a little prayer as we partook in this Buddhist tradition. The Icefall was busy. We could see lights extending from the base to the top, all Sherpas lugging loads towards Camps 1 and 2. Our pace was somewhat more sedate, but as you do at altitude, we ground it down, ascending gradually towards our goal at Camp 1. Overall the route this year is relatively safe from hazard ..."

Sean Wisedale opts to stay at Base Camp. The day before one of his Sherpas has had to be airlifted by helicopter just below Camp 2 after falling on the ice and breaking his leg. Jon Reiter, a tall, gregarious 50-year-old property developer from Sonoma, California, with a mountain beard, is also in the camp after spending the early morning practising on the Icefall with his friends Moises Nava and Nathan Dolbeare. Like Mosedale, Reiter had been at base camp in 2014 when 16 Sherpas were killed. "That was close," he says. "Sixteen guys in front of us just got buried. And at first you're hesitant about going back. But then you think 'Two years in a row? What are the chances?'"

A cloud of ice and rock

The quake hits at 11.56am. It announces itself quietly at first, like "a feeling of unease, of wrongness, like a silently onrushing avalanche," writes Raphael Slawinski, a Canadian climber 40km away in Tibet. In Nepal, Roberto Schmidt and Ammu Kannampilly, a photographer and reporter from the wire service Agence France-Presse, have just reached base camp after trekking in from the town of Lukla. "We hadn't been there for 10 minutes," Schmidt says to AFP. "We just felt this rumbling. This moan. Ammu said to me, 'What's that?'" Schmidt, who had grown up in Colombia where earthquakes were common, recognised the sound. "I said, 'It's the earth moving. It's an avalanche.' Then we heard this most horrifying sound. It was like a train but came from so deep, just so powerful."

Up on the mountain, the last of the climbers have cleared the Khumbu Icefall only minutes earlier. Alex Schneide, a 28-year-old Briton on honeymoon with her husband Sam Chappatte and climbing with Dan Mazur, has just reached Camp 1. "The ground started shaking violently," she says on their blog. "Dan was shouting 'Get out of your fucking tents. Grab your ice axes!' We staggered out to see an avalanche coming straight at us." Knocked down, the climbers anchor themselves to the ground with their axes. Chapatte sees a fellow climber swept around his axe by the force of the avalanche like the hand on a clock. "We focused on keeping an air hole so we could breathe in the powder," says Chapatte. "Dan was shouting directions at us, keeping us together and strong."

Six hundred metres below, Reiter, Nava and Dolbeare are in their dining tent. "It was so big, and so long – almost a minute," says Reiter of the quake. "We came busting out of the tents. When you're on a slab of ice, you don't know what is going to happen." Directly above base camp, the 7,161m-high mountain of Pumori has shaken off a colossal block of ice and sent it crashing into the valley below, hitting the bottom of the Icefall just above base camp. "When that thing hit the ground, it must have been 100 tons of ice," says Reiter. "It threw up this giant cloud. And you see it coming down the valley at you and moving so fast, and you realise, 'I am not going to get out of this. Is it going to bury us, right here, right now?'" Sean Wisedale also sees the cloud of ice and rocks hurtle towards him. "It was terrifying," he says, on his blog. "A hundred-metre high plume of crystallised ice. It lifted rocks and boulders ahead of it." A minute after the quake, the avalanche, now 500 metres wide, slams into the centre of Base Camp. "We all dove into our tents," says Reiter. "The wind was ferocious. Everybody's faces were: 'We might die right now!' We were looking around at each other, and you could feel the fear. I mean, f**k! I just made it through last year!" Across the camp, climbers throw themselves into their tents or crouch behind rocks and stupas. Schmidt, the photographer, says to AFP: "I remember looking to my left and suddenly saw this, this wave, with the rumble and I just thought 'Holy shit!' It was so big. I grabbed the camera, just pressing the shutter, I got three shots and then it was right over us."

Schmidt throws himself into a tent and tries to hide under a table. "You have this wind and then it's like a wave crashing." The avalanche tears the tent out of the ground and sends it spinning into the air. "We were swept up," says Schmidt. "You don't know whether you are upside or down or what. You are just tumbling." Finally the wind passes. "I came to rest, on my back," says Schmidt. "Then I felt this tack, tack sound of falling rocks. I just felt, 'This is it. I'm going to be buried alive.' They kept piling on top of me."

Across the camp, the falling rocks prove lethal. "The horror was unimaginable," writes Wiseman. "It went completely dark and we huddled around hoping not to be crushed alive." More than 60 climbers and Sherpas are hit, many in the head. At least 21 are killed, though Reiter thinks many more are buried and crushed under the rocks and snow. The dead include 10 Sherpas and 11 climbers. Three of the Sherpas are from Mosedale's team. Five are from Cotter's. A team doctor, Marisa Eve Girawong, 28, is dead. So are three other Americans: Daniel Fredinburg, a 33-year-old Google executive, Thomas Taplin, a 61-year-old filmmaker who is thrown 300m and found holding his smashed camera, and Vinh Truong, a 48-year-old trekker who had reached the highpoint of his hike. Renu Fotedar, 49, an Australian psychotherapist living in Switzerland, is crushed along with Japanese climber Yomagato Horoshi, 56, and Chinese guide Zhenfang Ge. The three are dug out by Fotedar's husband Lokesh. Horoshi dies in hospital in Kathmandu two days later.

'The earth was rotating'

The quake measures 7.8 on the Richter scale, the biggest for 81 years in Nepal. Its epicentre is 200km west of Everest, in the Gorkha Valley between Kathmandu and the lakeside city Pokhara. The area is filled with Tibetan brick temples, pagodas and houses with carved wooden pillars and jutting roofs supported by wood struts, some of them hundreds of years old. These buildings, along with the dry stone village huts, are hardest hit. In some places, the mountains seem to be shaking themselves free of the earth and its puny buildings. As the dust settles, hillsides emerge as monstrous slabs of bare rock. Sankhu, just to the east of Kathmandu, is one of the worst hit. At the foot of the old trade route through the mountains to Tibet, it is a pretty town of towering red brick houses and overhanging wooden balconies set around a series of cobbled squares and stone fountains. Eight out of every 10 houses collapses. Rivers of bricks surf down the streets, burying people and smashing into houses, which tip into each other like dominoes. "The earth was rotating," says Gunjan Shrestha, 18, through his facemask. Gunjan, a slight boy with a girlish face and calm smile, is saved by being in an open field. His next-door neighbours are not so lucky. Five are crushed to death when their three-storey home pancakes.

Gunjan's house is cracked from bottom floor to top and he and his mother are sleeping out in the open, in a square in front of it. They are surrounded on all sides by a Himalayan Dresden. The houses are split down the middle, decapitated. An entire two-storey wall has broken free from a house and stabbed the ground with a corner. It stands perfectly vertical, shivering in the wind. A three-storey temple in the middle of the square seems untouched, its red and yellow paint immaculate and its carved pillars unmarked, but a walk around the side reveals an entire side is missing. Binoj Shrestha, 35, calls me over. "My wife, my grandmother, my brother and me in my house," he says. "All buried. First I am coming out. Second my wife. Her back is crack. Then my grandmother. Her both leg crack. My brother is three feet in and I take one pipe and put it in for him to breathe. Very problem. Very problem." Shrestha thinks there is no running from what he considers to be divine retribution. "It's the Gods," he says. "People are creating sin. People are creating pollution," he says, from the deepest valleys to the highest mountaintops. "It's all because of people."

Other ways to die

At 5,364 metres, Everest Base Camp is not a place meant for people. There is snow and rock, and little else. The low pressure stretches the air so thin that it is not enough for most life. Unless climbers develop a tolerance to low oxygen by ascending slowly, they feel dizzy and vomit. Occasionally, but almost every year at Base Camp, they die, their lungs filled with a pink, coppery froth, their brains swelled by water and dulled to drunkenness.

There are other ways to die on Everest. Just above Base Camp, the Khumbu Icefall is 500 near-vertical metres of shifting snow, rock and ice squeezed between two cliffs of which the left-hand, western one is especially steep. Every year, a group of highly skilled Sherpas known as the Ice Doctors fix a new route through the Icefall with rope and steel ladders. Every day the Icefall moves and cracks and tumbles, opening new crevasses. Every season, chunks of ice break off the western cliff and send avalanches into the Icefall. Avalanches caused by earthquakes and melting snow are common too.

A year and a week before the quake, on 18 April, 2014, 16 Sherpas carrying oxygen, stoves and tents to a higher camp died in the Khumbu Icefall when a block of ice as big as a large house and weighing 14 tons sheared off from the western cliff and buried 25 of them. Three of their bodies are still there under a metre of snow and ice. Sherpas are known for their almost superhuman endurance. Two Nepalese Sherpas have summited Everest 21 times. On the mountain they scurry past their clients with loads that can weigh more than their own bodyweight. But the deaths spooked them and brought to the surface long-running resentments over pay, which runs from $2,000 to $9,000 for a season and compares poorly with the tens of thousands of dollars per client charged by each climbing company. The bad feeling swelled when the government, which charges every Everest climber $11,000, offered the dead men's families $408 each. A group of Sherpas cancelled all climbing expeditions for the rest of the year.

For many of the world's top climbers, Everest's chief – some say sole – attraction is its height, 8,848 metres or 29,029 feet, about the same altitude as used by commercial airlines. But the established South Col climb from Nepal presents few technical difficulties and the number of people on Everest today has further reduced its appeal.

Today, the chief requirement to summit Everest is not skill but money to pay a guide company several tens of thousands of dollars. Since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first summited Everest in May 1953, more than 4,000 people have climbed the mountain. In 2013, 658 did. In 2010, 169 people summited Everest in a single day. So many climbers stay at Base Camp during the season that trekkers not planning to attempt the peak are banned from pitching a tent. The passage of so many climbers has also ruined what, for many, is another essential ingredient of the sport, what Thomas Hornbein, an American who was the first climber to conquer the West Ridge in 1963, called a dream of the "unattainable, foreign to all experience" – walking up and away from the world of man and into the sky. That's no longer possible on Everest. Expeditions sometimes discard empty oxygen tanks, food wrappers and climbing gear, which now litter the mountainside.

So do bodies. The corpses of most of the 300 people who have died in the mountain remain there. The body of an Indian climber curled up in a limestone cave 27,900 feet up even acts as a marker known as "Green Boots" for climbers ascending the northeast ridge. For the purists, wrote Jon Krakauer in Into Thin Air, his account of a 1996 disaster in which eight climbers died, "Everest had been debased and profaned."

The white silence

At Base Camp, the avalanche passes and the rocks finally stop falling. "There was this stillness, this complete stillness, and I knew I was alive," says Schmidt to AFP. "I knew I was conscious and I had to work out how I was going to breathe. You're trying to clear everything away, trying to get some air. Then suddenly I felt this hand pulling me up and it was our Sherpa, Pasang. I said I need to find my camera and Pasand just handed it to me, encased in a block of snow. The lens wasn't even broken."

Pasang digs out Ammu Kannampilly too. "I remember getting up and everything was white and it was really, really quiet," she says to AFP. "I remember thinking: how could everything be so quiet? Where is everyone?" One of the group's porters is badly injured and in pain, covered in blankets. "Our dining-room attendant whom I had met just two minutes earlier was there, her head was bleeding. I saw this one roll of toilet paper and tried to wrap it around her head and she started wrapping my hand as well." One of Kannampilly's nails has been torn clean off her hand. Nearby, Reiter and his friends have survived unscathed. They emerge from their tent to find a swathe of snow and rock cutting through the centre of Base Camp. Those tents not buried have been blown 100m or more. "And you realise: 'This is going to be devastating,'" says Rieter. "So we just started dragging all the cots and sleeping pads into our tent. In 45 minutes, we have 50 injured guys in there. And for the next 24 to 36 hours, we're just elbow deep in blood." Most of the injuries are head traumas. "Guys are coming in with their faces smashed in. We'd try to assess them and try to figure out what to do. If their eyes were dilated and we could not get a pulse, we would just stick them in a sleeping bag, zip 'em up and stick 'em outside. On others we tried to control the bleeding. We tried to get IVs in them. But this doctor said, 'Jon, these guys are not going to make it. Head injuries don't get better'. So mainly we stood there and tried to comfort these guys. 'Buddy, you're the one we're not worried about.' We told everybody that. I think most of those guys died thinking they were just going to take a nap."

Immediately after the quake, heavy snow sets in. The climbers lose sight of the peaks. But they can hear more avalanches around them as aftershocks continue to shake the mountains. The expeditions pool all their painkillers and hand them out to those who need them. "The smell of leaking gas bottles wafted all around the camp," writes Wisedale on his blog. "Everywhere the icy routes were blood stained underfoot." The aftershocks continue through the night and into the next day. "It's so unstable now that rock fall and minor avalanches occur constantly," writes Wisedale. "As I lie here writing this, the ground is moving beneath me. My heart leaps every time the earth moves."

Kannampilly's hands are treated at one of the expedition tents, where she spends the night with 20 other injured climbers. Kannampilly can't sleep. "I kept on thinking about the porter that had been hurt," she says to AFP. "In the middle of the night, I got up to go to the toilet, and on the way back I looked up. I could see the mountains and the most spotless sky. It was so beautiful. As if nothing had happened that day." The clearing weather means rescue helicopters are able to fly at dawn the next morning. In all they make around a dozen flights, picking up the injured. "They got them all out," says Reiter. "And when it was over, the three of us felt like we'd been in a movie. We'd been doing shifts through the night, two hours on, two hours off. You get a lot of egos on a mountain, but that day there were no egos in that camp." The climbers are aware that, below them, the devastation and death is likely to be far worse. "We were all thinking, 'What about Kathmandu?'" says Reiter. "What about those villages and tea houses?" That morning, there is more death on the mountain. Three Ice Doctors die in another avalanche trying to fix a new route through the Khumbu Icefall. At that, all the Ice Doctors abruptly depart the mountain, leaving 170 climbers stranded above the fall at Camp 1. The weather holds the next morning and on 28 April, their blades struggling in the thin air, a fleet of rescue helicopters fly 50 sorties to 19,900 feet to bring the climbers back to Base Camp, two at a time. There is not time to pick up everyone. Mazur and his team opt to stay one more night. But Camp 1 is calm. The climbers are beginning to realise that the higher they are, the safer. "Initially we assumed that it was just something we were dealing with," says Mosedale. "But then we radioed down and it started to trickle in. Base Camp had been hammered. Kathmandu had 1,000 dead, 2,000 dead, 3,000 dead."

Five days after the quake, the head of the Nepalese army, General Gaurav Rana, estimates 10,000 to 15,000 people may have been killed. "We'd been powdered by an avalanche and you expect danger at altitude but it was nothing compared to what other people were dealing with," says Mosedale. "It was totally bizarre."

The historic centre of Kathmandu, Durbar Square, dating back to 1484, is devastated. Just two of its 43 temples, columns and stupas are undamaged. Maju Dega, a 17th-century shrine atop a nine-step red brick base, is flattened, crushing 60 people inside. "I've helped pull out 15 bodies," says Rajendra Man Bajracharya, whose house in the middle of Durbar Square somehow survives. "And one person who was alive." He points to a neighbouring pile of rubble, what was the Trailokya Mohan Narayan temple. Dating from 1680, it had five roofs and exquisite carved roof struts. Now a bulldozer is clearing away the bricks. "There's 60 people dead there," says Bajracharya. "And over there" – he indicates a mountain of rubble where one of the largest pagodas in Nepal, Kasthamandap, stood for 400 years, – "no less than 100." Bajracharya is chairman of the local conservation body. He is trying to log the columns and carvings as they are brought out and stacked into great piles. "We have to preserve it," he says. "We must rebuild." He is scathing about the government's response. "Look, you see who is clearing this? We are. The people. Nobody from the government has come."

Behind Bajracharya, a Japanese rescue team is walking with dogs across the rubble of another shrine, the octagonal Chasin Dega. Next to them, King Pratap Malla's column has lost its top, three giant wheels of stones decorated with cow heads, serpents' flanks and lotus leaves that now lie smashed on the ground. A man with slick hair, wearing bracelets and a T-shirt sidles up to me. "Now it's easy smuggling," he says. I go back and ask Rajendra Bajracharya if theft from the temples is becoming a problem. He nods that it is. That night I see the same thing is happening at Base Camp. Tim Mosedale has posted on Facebook. "Unfortunately, after the dust had settled, there was a bit of opportunistic scavenging and LOTS of US$s have gone missing from wallets, kitbags, envelopes and pouches that were strewn across the Khumbu glacier," writes Mosedale. "It's just opportunistic pilfering. Sad, but inevitable."

The gods are angry

Climbers are often asked the simple question: why? Their answers are not always comfortable, mixing courage with self-regard, a love of the wild with a love of success. Asked why, George Mallory, who died on Everest in 1924, famously answered "Because it is there" but in his account of climbing Mont Blanc, he described climbing as an introspective undertaking. "Have we vanquished an enemy?" he asked. "None but ourselves."

This year's disaster has prompted more reflection amongst climbers than normal. "We go to the mountains seeking adventure," writes Slawinski in Tibet, shortly before the Chinese government orders all climbing teams to leave. "This means accepting greater risks . . . Perhaps an earthquake in a tectonically active zone also shouldn't have been a surprise. [But] the mountains trying to shake us off didn't figure into our risk calculus."

After two Everest expeditions in consecutive years ending in disaster, Reiter says he and his friends have decided that, after losing their egos on the mountain, they want to leave them there. "We've climbed a lot of mountains in this world but we think we're done with the big stuff," he says. "Let's climb the little stuff. Take our wives. Relax and chill." But he said the same thing in 2014, he admits.

Other climbers still at Base Camp confess they're not ready to give up their ambition. "There are still a lot of climbers here that have the motivation, strength, acclimatisation and time to summit this year if it is possible," writes a Danish climber, Carsten Lillelund Pedersen on Facebook. "I decided that I would find the motivation, the time and the money to do this myself, so if this year is cancelled again, I don't know how I would react, but it would hit me hard."

Tim Mosedale, talking on his mobile as he walked down from Base Camp, said he had no doubt climbers would continue to pursue their personal aspirations, even in the face of seismologists' warnings of bigger and more frequent quakes to come. "It would be very easy to say the mountain gods are angry," he says. Mosedale refuses to, though. The quake was just a badly timed accident. "I can't think it's going to make much difference. In a year's time, we'll have all moved on."

Reiter predicts two years of death will even make Everest more attractive to some climbers. "The personality of people going will change. People who thought 'Everest is for pussy asses,' younger guys, are now going to say: 'These guys couldn't do it. It killed them two years in a row.' They'll want it more." In Kathmandu, Bikram Pandy, who has organised Everest expeditions for years, already has two booked for 2016. "In climbing, people die and people survive but the climbing still goes on. As long as there is human civilisation and as long as there is Everest, they will appeal to each other. It's top of the world. It's a universal dream."