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Shook: An Earthquake, a Legendary Mountain Guide, and Everest’s Deadliest Day

When a 7.8 magnitude earthquake an its resulting avalanche sweeps away much of Base Camp on Mount Everest, world-renowned mountain-climbing guide Dave Hahn of Taos, New Mexico; Sherpa sirdar Chhering Dorjee; assistant guide JJ Justman; and their five clients find themselves stranded at Camp 1, at the elevation of 20,000 feet. With their route down the mountain now obstructed by unpassable crevasses, Hahn and his team face a risky helicopter evacuation.

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Camp One, Everest

More than 25 million years ago, India, once a separate island on a quickly sliding piece of the Earth’s crust, crashed into Asia. The two land masses are still colliding, pushed together at a speed of 1.5 to 2 inches a year. The forces have pushed up the highest mountains in the world, in the Himalayas.

The New York Times, April 4, 2019

shook everest avalanche
Shook: An Earthquake, a Legendary Mountain Guide, and Everest’s Deadliest Day, by Jennifer Hull.

In the vast bowl of the Valley of Silence, four canary-yellow tents sat in a row, perched on a narrow fin of glacier, like birds on a wire. Dave Hahn, the lead guide of the 2015 RMI Everest Expedition and his assistant guide JJ Justman were in the second tent. Beside them, clients Robbie Massie and Peter Rogers shared the first tent. On their other side, sherpa sirdar Chhering Dorjee and client Hemanshu Parwani, HP as he liked to be called, listened to tinny Nepali music playing from an iPhone in the third tent. Clients Hao Wu and Hans Hilscher occupied the tent on the end. They had just crawled wearily inside of their nylon shelters, their heads throbbing from the oxygen-deprivation hangovers of their first night at 19,689-foot Camp One, and thirsty and exhausted from their successful morning rotation to 21,000-foot Camp Two. Moments earlier, they had crossed quivering metal ladders over deep crevasses, scraping their crampons on the frozen metal as their gloved hands clutched thin ropes on either side. It was 11:56 a.m. on April 25, 2015. Dave was wiggling out of his climbing harness and JJ was bent over a camp stove melting snow to make tea when they felt the ground move in waves below them. Dave froze. At nearly 20,000 feet on Everest, he suddenly felt like he was in a boat on the ocean. He and JJ glanced at each other and at the same time said, “Earthquake!”

All eight of the climbers instinctively shot their heads out of their four tents, but, socked in by the weather, they could see nothing but snow falling and a dense grey fog as the ground below them rocked.

[Also Read Winter 8000: The First Winter Ascent of Everest]

“What is this? Dave, what’s going on? Is this normal?” shouted HP from his tent. Then, above them, they heard a roar of cracking ice. Avalanches began to rumble downward, echoing in the bowl between the mountains that amplified sound like an amphitheater. The ground jolted and dropped. In the first tent, Robbie Massie remembered what he had said to his family when they expressed concern about the 2014 Icefall avalanche. “Lightning doesn’t strike twice,” he had told them.

“Oh my god!” JJ blurted.

Dave took a mental inventory of the situation. Mount Everest was shaking like jello. He and his team were camped between two crevasses and below 3,000-foot-high towers of ice. Avalanches thundered down every mountainside around them. He found himself considering whether it would feel better to die from an avalanche off of the peak of Nuptse, or from one off of Everest’s west shoulder. During those brief seconds of assessment, which stretched out in slow motion, he also took stock of the possibilities that the ice shelf on which they were camped could collapse out from under them or could break loose and slide 3,000 feet down into the Icefall.

shook everest earthquake
Base Camp after the earthquake. Photo: Coutesy of Hao Wu.

“It’s an earthquake,” he heard himself shout. “But we’re alright!”

“Zip up your tents and stay inside them,” Chhering instructed. “Get your helmets and transceivers on.”

The bewildered team obeyed, sliding on their helmets and strapping on their transceivers as they stared wide-eyed at their tentmates. HP’s hands trembled while he set his beacon to transmit mode. The roar of snow and ice grew louder and closer. Robbie and Peter grappled with tent zippers flapping wildly in the wind, as they contemplated their own deaths. Chhering thought of his wife, pregnant with their first child. The ground below them shook violently, swaying and popping. Before they could manage to zip all their tent flaps and vents shut, they were hit.

Excerpted with permission from Shook: An Earthquake, a Legendary Mountain Guide, and Everest’s Deadliest Day, by Jennifer Hull (University of New Mexico Press, 2020).

shook everest avalanche

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Jennifer Hull is a New Mexico–based writer, a former middle school teacher, and a former adjunct professor at UNM-Taos.

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