I was trying to look up, but tears were crowding my eyes, and I couldn’t see anything. A Sherpa, who had stumbled down from Camp 3 bare-foot, was being wrapped in a sleeping bag and examined for shock and frostbite by Phil and my team mates. Boot-less and, therefore, useless, I sat out of the way in the snow, in a cloud of sleeping bags, with E next to me. Everything was cold, and solid, and white, and empty. I looked into the Sherpa’s eyes, wide with dread, and then up again, towards where he had come from, where there was nothing now but snow and the remains of the night, melting slowly off the sky. Just a few minutes had passed since the avalanche had struck, when a group of Sherpas from lower Camp 2 began making its way towards where Camp 3 had been. ‘Up there…it should have been me,’ a thought crossed my mind and lingered, as I stared at the spot.
I couldn’t sleep that night, as I never really can at high altitude, unless I’m on oxygen. Again, thoughts fought for the best seat in my mind, muscles twitched, and the cold was impossible to ignore. Again, I waited for the alarm to give me the excuse I needed to start moving at 4:15 am. Then, I got up, lit the stove and changed from my down suit into the Gore-Tex jacket and pants I would wear on the way down to base camp. I wanted to leave Camp 2 at about 6 am to have the time to descend leisurely before lunch, take a shower and do some much-needed laundry. It was still dark and very cold, so, while getting my things ready and throwing chunks of ice into the pot, I stayed in my sleeping-bag. E got up soon after me, and a couple of familiar voices sounded from the surrounding tents: in the tent to our right, Dorjee, our sirdar, Pasang Nima and Nuri were awake; Junior’s and Gordon’s sleepy mumbling came from the left. An then, there was this other sound…
“Avalanche!” E whispered, as if her and I could keep it secret in our tent.
“Far above us,” I had the time to reply – and the audacity to sound certain.
Hardly more than five seconds must have passed between the initial loud crack and the moment it turned into the deafening roar, which hit the tent and sent it tumbling down the slope: our nylon home, loosing its familiar shape and structure, spun around E and I in confusion.
“If we stop before we fly into that crevasse, we’re gonna have to get out as soon as possible,” I thought, pushing the sleeping bag off my legs and shouting for E to do the same. I thought, too, that I had to find and keep hold of the zipper, in the unlikely event we should, after all, grind to a halt before reaching the crevasse. And then, I simply thought that that was it: I was prepared for something to hit me, or pierce me, or crush me any moment. Just then, we stopped. Immediately, I unzipped the tent, expecting – absolutely irrationally – for snow to flood in, and thinking that E and I would now have to dig ourselves out from under the avalanche debris. As I looked out of the destroyed tent, I saw stars against the still-dark sky. The air was cold and quiet, and I crawled out into it, amazed to be free. Beams from the head-lamps of my team mates hovered on the snow of the curving slope slightly above what used to be E’s and my tent. I counted the lights: they were as many as I thought there ought be; my team mates, then, were all fine; E was alright and so was I. Together we dragged the tent, heavy with our gear, as far back up the slope as we could, and began to search for the missing items. On my way I picked up some crampons, and put them where other such recovered pieces of equipment were being carried by my team mates.
It was Dorjee, who pointed out to me that I was freezing – I was wearing boot liners but my boots were gone, and it was way too cold for Gore-Tex. “Where is your down suit? Wear it!” he ordered. He found two mats for E and I, wrapped us in sleeping bags and commanded that we keep warm. Phil was already co-ordinating rescue efforts for the victims at Camp 3, and the rest of the team were either waiting patiently for their boots to be found, trying to fend off the pre-dawn cold, or searching for those missing boots, crampons, ice-axes and other things with Dorjee, Pasang Nima and Nuri.
As we sat and waited for the sun to rise, we watched many people rush past us on their way to help, and listened to Phil reporting on the situation on the hill and making rescue arrangements on the radio. It amazed me how efficiently everybody worked together to locate, stabilize and evacuate as many survivors as possible.
Before we knew it, almost all our climbers’ essential gear had been located by their peers or the Sherpas. I was still missing one boot when my feet became alarmingly cold, and I was taken into another team’s tent lower down at Camp 2 to warm them up – under a team mate’s armpits. ‘Bye, Mila!’ E’s voice briefly brushed past the tent I was in as she and most of our other climbers started down towards base camp. Out of our group only my climbing buddy from the day before (partially boot-less, like me), another ‘Junkie’ (a paramedic) and myself remained at Camp 2 with Phil and the Sherpas.
Once the air had warmed up sufficiently, I limped back to the site of our Camp 2, where Phil and the Sherpas were building a helipad for the chopper, due to pick up the injured Sherpa from Camp 3. Soon, helicopters started flying above us, and in under an hour one of them came for the victim our team had been looking after. The helicopter also dropped off a pair of boots for my climbing buddy to use on the descent and some hot juice to keep those remaining on the hill hydrated – welcome ‘gifts’ from the Junkies’ base camp staff. By then, my missing boot had been located in the vestibule of one of the tents at the lower Camp 2, and delivered to me by Dorjee – I was ecstatic to have it back!
I had no idea what time it was, but when the helicopter had left, Phil said it was time for me and the other two climbers, one now wearing ‘new’ boots, to begin descending to base camp. There was nothing we could help with; certainly, not me, who for some reason felt completely drained. Thus, we bid good-bye to Phil, Dorjee and Pasang Nima, staying behind to continue with the rescue, and wobbled away with Nuri.
Every step I made away from Camp 3, away from death and injury, I said to myself: “It should have been me.” It was hard to walk with the burden of that thought, and I descended carelessly, as if waiting for the avalanche to engulf me, too, after all. Down at Camp 1 I waited for my two team mates, and we crossed the glacier together. At crampon point we were met by two of our kitchen staff with tea, juice and snacks. Base camp was quiet when we arrived sometime in the afternoon. The Junkies’ Sherpas, who had been waiting for us and worrying, smiled quietly and watched as we dropped off our packs, drank hot milk tea and talked to each other.
I had nothing to say, except that ‘it should have been me’, so I quietly went to the shower. It took me forever to undress, and then I just stood there, naked and cold: “It should have been me!” And I was still waiting for it to be me, so I delayed for hours before finally calling home.
“Hello?” my mother’s voice, clear and warm, sounded from across the world. It cost me a lot of effort to keep it together.
“Have you heard about the avalanche?” I asked, adding immediately that I was perfectly fine.
“No, I’ve heard nothing.”
“Never mind. I was just worried you were worried,” I said, sighing with relief. It felt great, for once, to have a family that didn’t care the least bit about climbing, and only followed the official expedition blog.
“What avalanche?” Now she was worried.
“A large serac apparently collapsed from about 7400 meters early this morning, triggering an avalanche. 8 dead, 3 missing, many injured, they say – at Camp 3. We were at Camp 2, though, so we’re all fine. Our tents got damaged, my mug went missing, a team mate lost a boot – that’s all.”
“Where are you now?”
“At base camp for a few days. I’ll call you again in a little while. I have to go now.”
“Are you coming home?” she asked quietly after a long pause, clearly knowing the answer.
“No. I’m climbing on.”
“And then, are coming home?”
“I am,” I replied, as cheerfully and reassuringly as I could.
I hung up and left the communications dome for my tent. There, I prayed in my native tongue and recited mantras for the dead, the missing and the injured. Counting away the beads of my white mala, I whispered to myself what I could not have said on the phone – that it should have been me. I felt that if I could, I would trade places with any of the climbers, lost in the avalanche. Perhaps, they had children, and loved ones, and things to live for; surely, their lives were about more than just putting one foot in front of the other on a mountain somewhere… They must have been – had to have been – unlike me, whose little nieces and nephew think that auntie Mila lives ‘in the house next to the Sun,’ so far away, she can only visit them once or twice a year. When she comes, she tells wonderful stories, and then, leaves without saying good-bye. It should have been her. It should have been me.