Nebraska climber witnesses Everest avalanche: "just nothing to get in its way"

Kay (left), with one of his team's Sherpa, during his 2013 attempt to climb Mount Everest (photo courtesy Robert Kay)
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April 24, 2014 - 8:20am

A climber from Lincoln was close enough to see and hear the avalanche that killed at least 16 Sherpa guides on Mount Everest. It was the single deadliest accident ever on the world’s highest mountain. Today, Robert Kay is still at Everest base camp, as all climbing has stopped to mourn the dead, and with talk of Sherpa strikes and teams abandoning their climbs. On Sunday Kay talked by cell phone with Mike Tobias of NET News about the accident and what’s happening now on Mount Everest.


UPDATE (APRIL 24) - Robert Kay's third attempt to summit Mount Everest is over. Nepal's government has closed climbing from the south side of the mountain, through Nepal. This morning, Patty Kay (Robert's wife) posted on his blog that "he had finished spending several hours with the Sherpa in respect and sympathy for their loss of family and friends and is now beginning to pack and arrange for helicopter transport out of EBC (Everest Base Camp). Robert is extremely disappointed but is moving forward quickly now that the decision has been made. He is organizing and packing his gear, doing the same for a fellow climber who is not at EBC (medical emergency), and getting out. It will take at least a week for his climbing gear bags to reach Kathmandu. He will only take essentials on the helicopter and hopes to leave tomorrow. Right now he just wants to get out of a very unpleasant situation." (More on the end of climbing on the south side of Everest and Kay's climbing on the NET News "Eyeing Everest" page)


Nebraska climber witnesses Everest avalanche

(Mike Tobias/NET News photo)

Robert Kay, shown here in his office, is owner of Star City Motor Sports. This is his third attempt to climb to the top of Mount Everest; he was within 1,500 feet of the summit in 2010 and 2013 before turning back. More of his personal story, as well as our blog tracking this year's climb, can be found on the NET News "Eyeing Everest" page.

 


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“There is a glacier hanging above the ice fall on the west shoulder of Everest. I heard it break loose and watched it fall into the ice fall and immediately knew we had a big problem. We saw people coming down and they looked quite shocked. At the same time rescuers headed-up, including Phil (Crampton from Altitude Junkies, the team Kay is climbing with) and six of our Sherpa. Unfortunately very little could be done as they were all buried deeply. Helicopters arrived after about two hours and took the injured down to Base Camp in several trips. The injuries range from cuts and bruises to broken limbs and internal injuries. Base Camp became a very somber place."  

(a portion of a text Robert Kay sent his wife, Patty after the accident)

MIKE TOBIAS, NET NEWS: How far away were you from the avalanche?

ROBERT KAY: We were walking through base camp and I heard a noise, looked up and saw the avalanche happening. We were probably, as the crow flies, three quarters of a mile. As a person walks, it would take me three or four hours to walk that distance because there’s quite a lot of climbing involved. The Sherpa can do it in about an hour.

TOBIAS: What did it look like and what did it sound like when it was happening?

KAY: It’s a roaring noise like an engine roaring or a jet engine, something like that. It looked like a regular avalanche. It was a chunk of the glacier, so it looks like ice. As soon as it starts to break up it becomes smaller pieces and it looks like a snow avalanche. It fell onto the trail, the route up through the ice fall (the Khumbu Ice Fall, just up the mountain from Everest base camp). There was just nothing to get in its way. What happened was there’s a big crevice, and there was a bunch of guys in the crevice, and all the ice and snow swept them off their feet and buried them in the crevice.

"State of Confusion"

TOBIAS: You said afterward that the mountain was in a state of confusion. What was going on?

KAY: Base camp is probably three-quarters of a mile long, and there’s perhaps 15, or 20 different groups on the mountain, private groups and commercial expeditions. The ability to communicate is pretty limited. People were running around not knowing who is involved or how many people were involved and which groups were suffering losses. You know, just huge amounts of speculation. There were people coming down from the accident scene, people who were below it and were either just sort of startled or shocked and terrified, or perhaps injured but were able to walk. They were all coming down. Meanwhile people from below, keeping in mind it was 6:25 in the morning, they had to be raised out of the tent, get their clothes on, their boots, grab whatever medical gear or shovels, whatever they thought was appropriate and rush back up.

TOBIAS: That evening you said that you and your team spent several hours with some of the Sherpa in their tent. What was that like?

KAY: We were just trying to show support, and sympathy and respect to these guys. They hadn’t been hurt directly, but the Sherpa community is very close. They’re all friends, and they knew a lot of the guys who had been killed. We were just trying to support them. We had a real good time together, reminiscing with people who were there, that sort of thing.

TOBIAS: Sharing stories and such?

KAY: Yep. We all squeezed into their dining tent and we were just packed in like sardines and nobody cared. We were all arms around each other and shaking hands and that sort of thing.

TOBIAS: So what is happening there right now? Have some of the climbers and Sherpa headed home temporarily or for the year?

KAY: That’s the "$64,000 Question." Some of the Sherpa at their home villages for a few days just to kind of spend time with their family. Other Sherpa are here, hanging tough, making calls to home. There’s one Sherpa who is agitating for everyone to go home, and we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen just yet. Everyone’s nerves are raw. People are making rash decisions.

"Want to Continue"

TOBIAS: What about your plans? What do you want to do or have your plans changed?

KAY: Our entire group as far as I know, Sherpa and team members, all want to continue to the summit.

TOBIAS: And it’ll be several days before you know whether that’s going to be possible?

KAY: It could be a week before we know. We’re just sitting tight, we’re keeping our heads down, not pressuring anybody. We’re just sort of standing off to the side being patient.

TOBIAS: Here’s the philosophical question: should this accident be cause to reconsider whether climbing Everest is worth the cost?

KAY: These things happen. (Mountaineering) is dangerous. You’re not forced to do it. It’s a personal decision for every single person here. You weigh the cost and (be) optimistic with a  "it won’t happen to me sort of mentality." If you didn’t have that, you wouldn’t dare drive a car, you wouldn’t cross the street. I realized percentage-wise this is more dangerous, but everybody feeling confident in themselves. Mankind has a history of doing adventurous things that are dangerous, whether it was sailing across the ocean 500 years ago or going to the moon.


Learn more about Robert Kay and follow his 2014 attempt to climb Mount Everest on the NET News "Eyeing Everest" page.

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