The snow started innocuously as we returned from Cho Oyu base camp down the Ngozumpa Glacier to the Sherpa village of Gokyo nestling high in the Nepal Himalaya. We were on the final stage of a month long trek in the Everest region and had hitherto enjoyed blue skies and sunshine. Indeed we were ahead of schedule which was to prove extremely fortunate.
Cho Oyu from Khumbu Panch Pokhari
Throughout the afternoon it snowed steadily. One large group of trekkers and their staff headed off down the valley. I wondered where they were going - they would not be able to get far so late in the day and in such poor conditions.
In the evening Nima, my Sherpa guide, suggested I slept inside the lodge with the staff but I dislike lodges ( good ones are congested and noisy, bad ones are dirty and dismal ) and retired to my tent pitched in an adjoining field. Unseasonal snowfalls had been experienced on many previous treks but had never amounted to much.
Cho Oyu from Gokyo Village
I was awoken by something pressing against me. The sides of the tent were bulging in under the weight of snow. I tried to push it off but it was too heavy. I switched on my torch - the tent poles were beginning to buckle. In a panic I stuffed my things into my kitbag and scrambled out of the tent - only just before it collapsed. I ploughed through the deep, wet snow and burst into the safety of the lodge.
It was still snowing next morning. My tent had disappeared completely beneath 4ft. drifts. Only through necessity did anyone venture outdoors.
Shiva,our kitchenboy, was kitted up for an expedition down to the lake, about 50 metres away, to replenish our water container.Soon after he left there was a tremendous roar. Almost immediately Shiva burst back into the lodge wide-eyed and shaking with fright. A massive avalanche had cascaded off Gokyo Peak into the lake sending a huge wave racing across the surface. Shiva had narrowly managed to save himself from being engulfed but had lost the water container.
All day the snow fell. I instructed Hakim, our cook, to go easy with our food and kerosene supplies in case we were to be stranded for a prolonged period - we had enough for about five more days. I also began to worry about how much snow the lodge roof would bear.
It was a bad night in the lodge, stuffy and overcrowded - bed bugs biting. Forced to go out by a call of nature I emerged into an ethereal world. The skies had cleared and everywhere the snow gleamed in the light of a crescent moon and a myriad stars.
Activity reigned in the morning amidst a dazzlingly bright snowscape. Paths were beaten between the various lodges. The Australians, the largest contingent of trekkers, started to make a path out of the village. Planks of wood were laid alternately and jumped upon to compact the shoulder-deep snow. Progress was slow. After two hours only some 200 metres had been covered but they persevered and by late afternoon had reached the end of the lake - normally a five minute walk.
There was no army or police post in Gokyo village - no outward communication was possible. However there were a few transistor radios and word began to circulate of events elsewhere. The whole of the Nepal Himalaya had been hit by a freak, 36 hour snowstorm; the Gokyo Valley was the worst affected as it lay directly in the direction of the storm unprotected by any intervening mountain range.
Only a short distance further down the valley the group I had seen leaving Gokyo village at the start of the storm had been entombed by an avalanche - 29 people were dead - 13 Japanese and 16 Nepalese. In the region hundreds of trekkers, trekking staff and villagers were cut off.
Before breakfast next morning I saw two well equipped Sherpas heading down the path. I thought they might be attempting a break-out to the next village of Pangka, where the major tragedy had occured, and followed on behind them. I was surprised at how far the path now extended - on to the second lake. However the Sherpas were only going to join the gang already working on the path.
Yaks were a problem. They knew it was time to return to the lower valleys for the on-coming winter and would make their way down the path. To pass them you had to lean back against the snow embankment ( if you stepped off the path you would sink waist-deep into the unconsolidated snow ); the yaks would approach cautiously then charge past in a headlong rush with their sharply pointed horns only inches away.
In the village there was no sense of crisis - indeed the opposite was the case. Lines of washing had appeared and groups of trekkers and staff lounged around basking in the warm sunshine. Helicopters occasionally flew overhead but none landed.
The fifth day dawned bright and clear. From our lodge window I expected to see people going down to work on the path but there was no sign of anyone. I went up to the Australian's HQ. They had given up. The doom and gloom brigade, mostly a group of Americans, had got to them. The path had been extended to a bridge below the lakes where the trail descended beneath a steep hillside. The scaremongers were warning of avalanches and saying it was too dangerous to go any further. The leader of the American group had forbidden his members and staff to work on the path.
One climber, Matthew, an Australian, however was going down to check the situation and Nima and I, with a few others, went with him.
From the bridge we could see Pangka where a helicopter had landed and was surrounded by people.
I belayed Matthew whilst he carved a path through the drifts on the far side of the bridge and around a rock buttress. Round the corner a steep snowfield led on downwards - difficult but possible - the way to Pangka was open.
One sirdar decided to go down immediately. His group was running out of time for their international return flight and he was anxious to make contact with the helicopter. Nima also decided to go down. I headed back up to Gokyo with the intention of returning in the afternoon to fix a rope handrail round the awkward corner and move down to Pangka the following day.
Back at Gokyo there had been developments. One of the small helicopters had landed and instructions given that arrangements be made for people to be airlifted out.
After giving priority to those with urgent international flights to catch and those who were sick ( most of the Americans ), the Australians had put all other names ( trekkers, staff, villagers ) into a hat and drawn them out at random., A long queue stretched from the square of snow that had been flattened for a helipad.
Three times that afternoon large Mi-17 helicopters, only recently purchased by Nepal from Russia, landed. Each flight evacuated about 30 people. ( "It depends on the pilot - some are stronger than others", said the local agent Pasang Sherpa ).
It was already getting dark when the fourth flight arrived. I was watching with Hakim and we were astonished to see Nima emerging. He had quite a story to tell. He had made it down to Pangka, despite a bad fall on the way, had then hitched lifts in helicopters, first to Namche Bazaar, and then all the way to Lukla where he had passed on word that we were safe and well. He had then managed to return to Gokyo on the last flight.
Later in the evening I had our names added as a single block of six to the evacuation list ( from which we had been omitted ). In Namche Bazaar the situation had been chaotic as many trekkers had been dispatched without their support staff, tents, food or kitchen equipment - a consequence of mixing people at random in the list and not in their groups.
The first flight next morning was mostly a cargo flight with some trekking staff. We flew out together on the second flight. The Sherpani from our lodge and her three young children were also on board. Her husband was staying behind to tend his yaks and the lodge.
Mt. Kwande Ri
A mere eight minutes later we touched down in a different, snow-free world of green meadows and pine forests at Namche Bazaar - normally a three day trek from Gokyo. "Today my life changed", declared Pertemba, one of our two Rai porters after his first experience of flying. Hitherto his only means of transport had been his own two feet.
On the flight I had studied the valley below. It was covered in unbroken snow - no path existed - it would not have been possible to walk out even if we had managed to reach Pangka. A month later the trail had still not been re-opened.
By the end of the rescue the helicopters would have picked up a total of 549 people - 250 trekkers and 299 Nepalese - most from the Gokyo region. 61 fatalities were recorded. More were expected to be discovered in the Spring after the eventual melting of the snows.
( Weekend Extra, The (Glasgow) HERALD, Saturday 11th May 1996 )