In 2015, the Brigade of Gurkhas selected a team of 16 serving Gurkha soldiers who would attempt to summit Everest in celebration of 200 years’ service to The Crown.
On 25 April 2015, as the Everest team made their first acclimatisation rotation on the mountain, a catastrophic earthquake hit Nepal, bringing chaos and destruction to the Gurkhas’ homeland.
Large parts of the country were destroyed, devastating the lives of the Nepali people. On Everest, a huge avalanche swept through Base Camp, flattening everything in its path. Eighteen people were killed and the Gurkhas’ base camp manager, Captain Buddhi, received a bad head wound.
The majority of the team were stranded at Camp 1 (6,000m) on the mountain. The earthquake had destroyed the route back down to Base Camp, making evacuation by helicopter the only way to get off the mountain. The team sat tight for several days at Camp 1, while the injured and dead were evacuated from Base Camp. When that mission was complete, the team coordinated the helicopter rescue of 120 climbers and Sherpa from Camp 1 back to Base Camp. In April 2017, the team will return to Everest to finish what they started in 2015.
Major Andrew Todd MBE, deputy expedition leader, writes…
On 25 April 2015, the team stood at the foot of the Khumbu Icefall, ready to make the first acclimatisation rotation to Camp 1 via the new route that had been set by the Icefall Doctors to avoid the dangerous seracs that caused the death of 16 Sherpa in 2014.
We moved fast through the Icefall and three of us were waiting for the rest of the team at the top of four vertical ladders that were lashed together. One of the Gurkhas said that his feet were getting cold and we considered carrying on to Camp 1, but made the decision to wait for the rest of the team before moving on. Soon after, a loud crack like a gun shot startled us, and we looked up to see a huge block of ice the size of two lorries come crashing down on to the route. It would have hit us if we had continued climbing. It was the gypsy's warning that something was not quite right and, with the team back together, we continued cautiously to Camp 1.
Camp 1, at 6,000m, is perched on a glacier between three of the highest mountains in the world — Lhotse, Nuptse and Everest. Disappointingly, we couldn't see any of them as the camp was under low-hanging cloud. We rested in our tents, spoke to our Base Camp manager Captain Buddhi on the radio about the weather and checked in with the three team members who were still in the Icefall and whose plan for the day had been to climb to the first of the vertical ladders then return to Base Camp.
At 11:48am, Captain Buddhi was at Base Camp, three team members were climbing in the Icefall and the rest of us were at Camp 1. Some of our Sherpa were at Camp 2, some at Camp 1 and some at Base Camp — we had started early, at 0200hrs, in order to climb the Icefall in its safest frozen conditions, and arrived at Camp 1 at 0700hrs. It had been a brilliant day and we were excited to be on the mountain at last. We were resting in our tents, eating and drinking, when the glacier under Camp 1 shook violently, crevasses opened up behind our tents and the mountains around us exploded. I couldn't hear anything except the earth and the mountain crashing above and below us. The ground dropped beneath us with a swing from side to side, and as I put my head out of the tent I was hit by a cloud of snow — a blast wave from the massive avalanche that we later discovered had wiped out much of Base Camp.
Reaching for the radio, we tried to raise our Icefall team and Captain Buddhi at Base Camp. There was silence. As the initial ground movement and avalanches calmed, I could hear the Sherpa on the radio saying in Nepali that they'd been buried and that Base Camp was destroyed. My first thought was that Buddhi and our Icefall team were probably dead.
Suddenly, the Icefall team came booming through on the radio. They had survived the earthquake and were hurriedly descending to Base Camp, telling us later of their harrowing experience of blocks of ice falling around them, the avalanches and blast waves as they made their descent. As the snow cloud settled, they reported that Base Camp was gone and everything was chaos. They began to look for Captain Buddhi, who was still missing, and assisted with the evacuation of the injured climbers and Sherpa.
At Camp 1, we were of course relieved that we had survived, but terrified of the aftershocks and subsequent avalanches. Above all, though, we were heartbroken by the thought that Buddhi had possibly been killed. He was supposed to have been safe at Base Camp. These thoughts went through our minds for more than three hours before we received an update from the Icefall team. We heard that they had found Buddhi, but it took another 10 minutes to confirm over frustratingly broken radio signals that he was alive. He had been thrown some 30 metres from his tent and face-planted into a small hollow where he and our Base Camp Sherpa sheltered, awaiting their fate. They all survived unscathed, apart from Buddhi, who suffered a cut to his head. It needed stitching and he was soon evacuated for medical treatment in Kathmandu.
At Camp 1, we set about planning the rescue of the 120 climbers and Sherpa stranded at Camps 1 and 2. Argentinian climber Damian Benegas, an Everest veteran of many years, went to examine the state of the route back through the Icefall and confirmed that it was completely destroyed and impassable. We had enough food for a few days. That night, the aftershocks got louder and triggered avalanches closer to our tents. We were sitting ducks and extremely thankful when we extracted by helicopter to Base Camp on the third day after the earthquake. We returned to find that our area of Base Camp was completely destroyed and that most our possessions had been blasted across the Khumbu glacier.
We did what we could to assist the clear-up operation in Base Camp before trekking out on foot back to Lukla and awaiting a flight to Kathmandu. Our Gurkha climbing team all had immediate family spread across Nepal. Many of the team had specialist engineering skills and remained in Nepal for several months to assist the Gurkha Welfare Trust with the earthquake relief effort.
The Nepal Ministry of Tourism decided that all permits issued to climb Everest in 2015 would remain valid for two years, so at the beginning of April 2017, the team will begin its second expedition to Everest. No serving Gurkha soldier has ever summited Everest. Hopefully, the Gurkha Everest Expedition 2017 team can change this.