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  April 17, 2001
Mike O'Donnell and
Erik Weihenmayer climbing the
Khumbu Ice Fall.

Photo by Didrik Johnck.

From: Kim Johnson
Film Crew Base Camp Production Manager

The Avalanche


It was probably one of those mornings that I should have stayed in my sleeping bag, but being a morning person and knowing that waking to a morning in the Himalayas is a unique opportunity, I got up at 4:30 AM to send Erik, Mike O'Donnell and Sherm Bull off to Camp 1 and a week of acclimatization on Everest.

I was just going to serve them tea and wave them good-bye from our dining tent, but I decided to hike out to the edge of the Khumbu Icefall which I often do, to escort them and get some exercise. The edge of the icefall is not only the gateway to Everest, but also the dividing line between them and us -- the climbers and the Base Camp crew. I won't enter the Khumbu, considered by some the most dangerous part of climbing Mt. Everest.

We were almost to the edge when the mountains above started to thunder. It didn't sound like a friendly good morning greeting. We looked up and saw a huge serac start to fall with building snow streaming out the bottom like a giant sieve. The avalanche was starting directly above us on the Western Ridge of Everest which forms the left shoulder of the icefall. Having witnessed another release like this from our camp, I knew we would be ok and just dusted by the avalanche. However, there is still a building concern that grows and grows as the billowing cloud approaches. I have read about avalanches, seen them on TV and have lost good friends to them. They are nothing that I would ever like to witness or let alone experience first-hand. But, there I was in the middle of this one, luckily with Mike and Erik, two experienced mountaineers. A million questions raced through my head. Should we run for cover? Should I lie down? Are we ok? Instead I simply said, "I've never been through one before. I'm scared. What should we do?" And then remained quiet and listened to Mike and Erik. Time seemed to pass like an eternity as the billowing cloud rolled towards us closer and closer in slow-motion. Mike calmly exclaimed that it was a big one, that we'll be ok. We'll just be hit by debris. He directed us to turn our backs to it, pull our hats over our heads and breathe deeply. My fight or flight instincts jumping into place, I grabbed each of the men and pulled them towards me into a huddle. We were then hit by a strong burst of steady wind with wild swirls of snow hitting us all over. The storm from the avalanche blew by us in two-to-three minutes. We held our heads low as I held the guys tightly.

After it blew through, we shook ourselves off, looked around, and smiled broadly. We were happy to be together. Happy to be standing, looking around at each other and at the aftermath of the avalanche.

I continued on with Mike and Erik to the edge, watched them put on their crampons and sent them off with a hug. I ran back to camp, feeling fully humbled and somewhat initiated into a mountaineering knowledge of the power of the mountains. When I arrived at camp, Kevin called me Frosty the Snowman and gave me a hug. I was shaken but smiling, glad to be back with a new story of a lifetime to share.

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