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Update from Everest Base Camp

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Our deepest sympathies go out to the people of Nepal. A powerful earthquake of magnitude 7.9 hit Nepal, causing mass devastation and loss of life. We are relieved to report Andrew Towne, YFU Alumnus to Germany and a member of the YFU USA Board of Trustees, who was climbing Mt. Everest to raise funds for YFU, is safe and healthy. -------------------------------

andrew update

We received the following email from Gary Towne, Andrew's father, after a 45 minute phone conversation he had with Andrew on Sunday.

Update from Gary Towne

Andrew is well and uninjured, has spent the last 36 hours without sleep, helping to find and care for the injured and helping with MedEvac. All of the severely injured have now been evacuated by helicopter. Several dozen people remain at Camps 1 (20,000 ft.) and 2 (21,000 ft.). It seems that these climbers experienced fewer if any injuries, none serious, but the situation is still not yet completely clear. Present concern is to determine the best way to help these people down the mountain. The altitude is near the limit for helicopters, so only 2 or 3 climbers can be evacuated on each trip. On the other hand, the ropes and ladders through the Khumbu Icefall (through which they must pass if descending on foot) have mostly been destroyed. Setting these ladders and ropes takes a large team of Sherpas at the beginning of each climbing season. There may not be that many left on the mountain; and, in any case, it appears that the icefall is very unstable, continuing to collapse, and is unsafe at this time.

Andrew stressed that the tragedy is profound—for the Sherpa community in every village of the Khumbu valley and elsewhere, as well as the entire nation of Nepal—the worst natural disaster to afflict the country in historical memory. At the same time, he clarified that this year’s avalanche had a very different effect from last year’s. The 2014 avalanche affected only Sherpas, who were rigging the ropes and ladders, and who face much greater risks than visiting climbers. Each climbing season, a Sherpa may make 30 or more trips through the treacherous Khumbu Icefall, one of the most dangerous parts of the climb, because they do the rigging and repairing as described above as well as guiding the groups of visiting climbers. Each visiting climber, however, traverses the Icefall only about 6 times—it is part of altitude acclimatization hikes as well as the final push to the summit.

This year’s (2015) avalanche was more diffuse in its effect. Not only was the total number of casualties substantially greater (exact figure not yet known), but the spread of those injured was indiscriminate. Both Sherpas and visiting climbers were killed or injured. Observers on site seem to agree that the source, location and path of this year’s avalanche were unprecedented and could not have been anticipated. The Khumbu valley ends in a cirque (French, or cwm, Welsh), a semicircular valley ground out of the mountain’s base by the root of a glacier. Last year’s avalanche fell from the east side of the cirque. This year’s avalanche fell mainly from an ice cliff in the saddle of Pumo Ri (and perhaps some other slopes) on the north and west. The falling masses of snow and rocks created a huge aerosol avalanche and accompanying air blast that came together at the bottom, and, blasting out through the most direct path, hit the upper part of Everest BC and blew many tents across the Khumbu Glacier towards the lower Icefall. (Adapted from the International Mountain Guide (IMG) web blog.) Most observers Andrew has spoken to feel that, in normal conditions, without the violent earthquake that dislodged the ice cliff, this avalanche would not have occurred.

Chance, Fortune, or Providence played a major role in which parts of the camp were most affected.  Some areas seem to have escaped nearly entirely due to positions farther from the Khumbu glacier or under a protective ridge. Andrew’s tent was only 100 meters (1 football field) from the edge of the devastation. 200 meters from his tent was squarely in the middle of the worst hit area. Even in severely hit areas, deaths were unpredictable. According to one report, a boulder crashed through a tent, drove a climber through the tent’s side and crushed him, while leaving two companions still in the tent relatively unscathed. For more frequent updates and an official perspective see the IMG blog.

Plans for the future are unclear. In the short term, the situation is still evolving, and safety of the greatest number is the highest goal. Priorities include the evacuation of the teams at the higher mountain camps and the continuing search for those who may be still buried. (UPDATE: as of Monday morning Nepal time, reports suggest that Camp I and Camp II have been safely evacuated to lower elevations, thanks to some of the world's best helicopter pilots flying 50+ sorties.)

Whether teams remaining on the mountain will be able to finish their climb and reach the summit has not been determined. Whether Everest climbs will be closed for the remainder of this season or even further into the future is also not determined. The Sherpa people, upon whom all such expeditions depend, have suffered profoundly, and the full extent of the effect on them is not yet known. Their dedication, faithfulness, fortitude and well-being must be remembered in any consideration of Himalayan climbing. The income they derive from guiding is a very important support for them, their families and communities, but we cannot forget that they put their lives on the line to earn it, as Saturday’s tragedy so clearly shows. (UPDATE: IMG has officially ended its expedition up Mt. Everest, due to the devastation of the Khumbu Valley and its impact on our Sherpa team members, the destruction of the route through the Khumbu icefall, and the continued risk of aftershocks and further avalanches. We are mourning the deceased, praying for the injured, and focusing on a safe descent of those at base camp.)

Andrew sent his deepest thanks for expressions of concern, support and prayers. He also wanted to make several points. His Everest attempt has been a benefit in support of Youth for Understanding (YFU), an old and highly respected international exchange program with which Andrew went to Germany in his high school junior year and of which he is now a board member. He is paying his own way; all money contributed goes to YFU. In addition to many individual contributions, Andrew also received major corporate support as YFU Partners from Ag Warehouse of Finley, ND, Happy Harry’s Bottle Shops & Scheels Sporting Goods of Grand Forks, ND, and Casual Adventure Outfitters of Arlington, VA. Whether or not he is able to complete his climb, he feels an obligation to acknowledge their generous support.

It is still possible to contribute to YFU. Bill Harwood, Grand Forks and UND graduate now retired from the State Department (and incidentally once stationed in Kathmandu), said of YFU, “When I worked for USIA, YFU was a major grantee organization. It had started back in the Eisenhower days, as I recall. During the next 50 years they got major contributions from corporations like Toyota. . . . Then [there was a] falling off of federal and private donations . . .” YFU remains a very worthy and venerable organization for fostering international understanding, worthy of generous support.

That is also very true of the aid efforts for the Sherpas and Nepal in general. For anyone who wishes to contribute to the Sherpas, Support For Sherpas, a British group, seems to be responding to that specific need, while Mercy Corpsand Global Giving, both American groups, have opened efforts for all of Nepal. I’m sure there are others, but these were some I could find on short notice. All three have easy-to-navigate donation methods.

After such an extended update, I expect that I will be winding down pending further major developments. If you wish frequent updates, check the IMG blog.

Thank you for all of your expressions of concern, Gary Towne

See related article in Grand Forks Herald.

and finally—

A moment of levity in a picture not all of you may have gotten—the yak with Andrew's gear ascending a "street" in Namche Bazaar.

yak

April 22, 2015 Update Prior to Earthquake

First, Andrew's father corrects the record...

"Thanks for Andrew's update. I reread the article in The Lightand thought I'd correct a minor error.  Andrew's FIRST summit was Mount Mansfield, Vermont's highest peak, at the age of 6 in 1988, just before we left Vermont for North Dakota.  He is at the left in the picture. His brother Jonathan, 8, is on the right."

Andrew and brother

Andrew's update!

Here’s the brief update:

  • On April 14, we arrived at Everest Base Camp (~17,500’)
  • We descended back down the valley to acclimatize at about 19,900’ on Lobuche Peak on April 19.
  • We returned to base camp two days ago and are getting ready for our first venture into the Khumbu icefall on the 23rd.
  • Our team is strong and morale is high.  We were fortunate to receive Buddhist ‘puja’ blessings both at base camp and in Pangboche village with Lama Geshi, the spiritual leader of the Khumbu Valley.

19,900 feet, just below the summit of Lobuche with the summit of Ama Dablam dominating the horizon.

Here’s the longer update:

In the last two weeks, we finished the trek to the head of the Khumbu Valley--Everest Base Camp (~17,500’). Along the way, we visited Lama Geshi in Pangboche for a Buddhist puja blessing. Lama Geshi fled Tibet during the Chinese takeover and is considered the region’s spiritual leader. Before blessing our climb, Lama Geshi had an audience with a woman from a neighboring village, and seeing how significant it was to her to be able to meet with him made us even more grateful for his time. Lama Geshi encouraged us to “Give up all intentions to harm others from our heart and do our best to benefit them all. If each and everyone of us feels the Universal Responsibility to do so, we will all enjoy the feast of peace!” At 83 years old, Lama Geshi was spry and obviously delighted in everything he did, saw and felt. It was clear that he was at peace with us and his surroundings, and our team left with a larger worldview and sense of purpose.

From Pangboche, we ascended past the tree line and spent a few nights in the town of Pheriche, ~14,500’. We climbed nearby ridges during the days and enjoyed sampa cake and yak stew in the evenings. I read The Boys in the Boat during our downtime, which brought back a flood of fond memories of college rowing.

After camping for a few nights ~16,000’, we finished our trek to base camp. Located on the NW edge of the Khumbu Glacier, Everest base camp is a series of camps stretching out about half a mile. In the picture below of Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse, base camp is on the outside ridge of the curving glacier at the base of the icefall. Camps generally draw water from the west side of the moraine and use the east side of the moraine as the path for accessing other camps and the Khumbu icefall, which leads up into the Western Cwm that separates Everest from Nuptse. IMG’s camp is fantastic.  Our summit team includes ~24 climbers, 8 guides, and about 50 Sherpa guides, porters, cooks and camp managers. Our tents occupy the high ground along the ridges of the moraine and at the center we have dining tents, a common tent with internet and electricity, and a large Buddhist altar for pujas and prayer flags.

We spent two nights taking in base camp before hiking back down the valley to Lobuche Peak (20,128’), which we ascended to within a couple hundred feet of the true summit to help us acclimatize. The views from the summit ridge were incredible—we could see four 8,000m peaks (Cho Oyu, Everest, Lhotse and Makalu) as well as the shorter but equally famous peak Ama Dablam.

By the time we got back to Everest base camp two days ago, we were beginning to feel much more comfortable living at these high altitudes. Yesterday, our expedition had a large puja blessing ceremony at base camp, during which we each received a sundi necklace for good luck during our climb. The ceremony was similar to the one we attended with Lama Geshi, but longer, larger and more involved. What struck me most was how genuinely happy all the Sherpa seemed to be during the ceremony. The part where we each got flour painted on our faces to symbolize our hope that we may all live long enough to grow a white beard quickly turned into a game of tag, with Sherpas delighting in smearing the flour quickly and profusely on those who least expected it. And the traditional Sherpa dance at the end of the ceremony lasted almost 45 minutes, as more and more Sherpas suggested additional songs and even invited westerners to sing and dance alongside top 40 music blaring from two small portable speakers. I left the puja with the realization that joy is a choice—it is a state of mind that we can embrace and accept where and how we want. Our Sherpas very much chose for the puja to be a joyous, fun occasion, and their energy infected all of us. I hope that as I climb the mountain and eventually return to the States, that I too will be able to choose joy and contentment as easily and regularly as our teammates do here.

Over the next three weeks, we will be moving up and down Mt. Everest in rotations—climbing and sleeping higher on each rotation than we did on the previous one. Between rotations, we will rest and recover at base camp, and on our third rotation we will attempt the summit. The mountain looms over 2 vertical miles above us right now, but by focusing on health, nutrition, and taking one small step at a time, I think we will make the most of this opportunity. I reflect regularly on the lessons I’ve learned from so many of you, and climbing, joking and becoming acquainted with the Sherpa make me continually proud to be taking this mountain on as a way to advance intercultural exchange for teenagers.

Sincerely, Andrew Towne