Tuesday, June 7, 2016

I Work With Some VERY Bad Dudes...

To date, this was the most high profile rescue of the season and showcased to the world exactly what I've known for months... our Sherpa rescue team is the most bad ass, highly trained, hard charging collection of alpine rescuers the Himalaya has ever seen. 
Yesterday we received a report that 2 Slovakian climbers had been hit by an avalanche around 23,000 ft while climbing the extremely difficult southwest face of Everest. They were stuck, one was injured and they were requesting a rescue. Based on sat phone reports from the climbers, they were perched some 2,000 ft above the valley floor, holing up on a ledge known as Bonningtons Plateau. They could neither ascend nor descend. A long line helicopter rescue was out of the question based on the steepness of the slope and surrounding rock and ice. In order to rescue these guys, a team would have to climb up the technical face, secure the Slovaks and descend with them to standard Everest Camp 2. 
Our 5 man Sherpa team have essentially been training their entire careers for this operation and knew this was the type of mission for which they were in place on Everest for the season. Once they heard about this and what it would require of them to accomplish the task, they were like caged animals at basecamp... they couldn't get their harnesses on fast enough. 
The southwest face of Everest is unquestionably one of the most technical and challenging routes on the highest mountain in the world. Sir Chris Bonnington lead a team of Brits with the first successful summit of the route in 1975 and it has only successfully been repeated by two other teams since then. Several other teams have attempted it... all have failed, several have died.
It's steep, sustained and has an abundance of objective dangers at every turn. 
At the moment, our Sherpa team was positioned at Everest Basecamp (EBC) preparing to ascend to Camp 2 tomorrow and rotate around the mountain for the next 2 weeks as the heart of the summit season is in full swing. So, first things first, we had to get them up to Camp 2. I hopped in the Dynasty helicopter with Andrew again and flew up to EBC to help coordinate and discuss the next 24 hr operation with our EBC team. In order to move 4 of our guys and all of their gear, it would require 4 helo shuttles from EBC up to Camp 2. They would then begin climbing from there up to the Plateau around noon with the hope of reaching the Slovaks by dark. Then it would be up to them based on time, terrain, condition of the climbers and group fatigue whether they would continue to descend or wait till morning. I gave them each a big hug and wished them safety and strength as they boarded the stripped down bird in succession. Close to an hour later, Andrew had them all in position at Camp 2 and I flew with him back down to Lukla where we would monitor comms all afternoon into the evening. 
We settled in to our Lukla headquarters and patiently waited for each of the team's transmissions. They were climbing fast. And I mean really fast. Within 2 hours they were half way up to the Plateau. Another hour later they relayed back to us that they had made visible contact with the Slovaks. Then, 4 hours and close to 2,000 vertical feet of technical terrain from stepping off, they reached the stranded party. 
They found one of the climbers to be able bodied and ambulatory on his own power. The other guy was essentially blind from taking the brunt of the spindrift avalanche in his face which left him with painful corneal abrasions. He could walk but would need guidance with his new found blindness. 
A blind dude descending Everest... I've heard that story before 
The team made a quick decision to start the descent in deteriorating conditions at 6pm. Ballsy for sure. We expected to be sitting by the radio till the wee hours, so we were a bit surprised to get a transmission 2 hrs later that the entire team and Slovaks had safely made it back to Camp 2. An absolute Herculean effort. 
The next morning Andrew and I headed back to EBC in a stripped down bird. A quick stop at the EBC landing pad to drop extra fuel and the two of us began the circling flight up to Camp 2 at 21,000 ft. The conditions were perfect as we crested over the icefall and entered the Cwm. The walls of Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse were glistening with fresh snow. We got a visual on the lower landing zone and Andrew deftly landed us on top of the glacier. 
I exited the helo and walked directly to our Sherpa team and bear hugged each of them. They looked remarkably fresh. 
Then I got a good look at my blind Slovakian. He had a patch over his right eye, sunglasses on and was sitting on his pack in the snow. I had him hold onto my shoulder as I led him into the spooled up helicopter. Andrew lifted us off, swung the bird down the valley and over the icefall. We landed at EBC a couple minutes later and got out so Andrew could return for the second Slovak.
The mid 40s, temporarily blind Slovakian climber was all smiles upon landing. I applied some ocular drops in each eye which quickly relieved his pain and I watched him fully relax now that his pain was gone.
He knew how close they had come to the edge and what an effort our Sherpa team had gone to in order to safely get them down. He was effusively grateful. Yesterday afternoon they were precariously perched high up on a technical face unable to escape... today, they were headed down to Kathmandu for more pain meds, a hot shower and a hotel bed. 
There is no doubt that what our Sherpa team did yesterday was of epic proportion. Their job this season was to conduct rescue operations on the biggest mountain in the world. They transcended that yesterday and took it to legendary status. 
They are my heroes. 
One self-appointed spokesman of the Khumbu newsfeed claimed from his home in the U.S. that we "aggressively inserted" ourselves into the scene to perform the rescue. It should be clear that without an aggressive approach these Slovakian men would have met a much different fate. 
The summit window is wide open for the next 10 days. I'm guessing our guys will have more work up high.
And we will be aggressive.