Dennis Broadwell has professionally mountain guided since 1997 and has nearly 25 years of climbing experience. His passion for mountains and exploration has led him to climb and travel all over the world. In 1993 he worked as a volunteer in Nepal where he discovered his love of foreign cultures while helping the Nepalese people. His guiding experience includes over twenty expeditions in Nepal as well as numerous expeditions around the world.
Everest survivor – Klahanie climber shares tale of living through deadly avalanche
May 20, 2015, By Neil Pierson
Dennis Broadwell has been traveling to Nepal for more than 20 years, not only leading climbers up some of the world’s highest and most dangerous mountains, but giving back to one of the world’s poorest countries through humanitarian missions.
Now, Broadwell is starting his own fundraising effort in the wake of the April 25 earthquake that killed more than 8,000 people, and the resulting avalanche on Mount Everest, where he was stationed, which killed at least 19 climbers.
His project, The Himalayan Outreach Project, is attempting to raise money for Nepalese citizens whose homes, businesses and schools were destroyed in the 7.8-magnitude quake.
Contributed by Dennis Broadwell stands at a climbing camp decorated with Tibetan prayer flags and a U.S. flag at a Tibetan rock cairn on a lower slope of Mount Everest on April 10, before the April 25 earthquake.
The 43-year-old Broadwell and his clients, Brad Paskewitz and Ben Breckheimer, were at Everest Base Camp when the quake struck, sending tons of snow and ice down the Pumori Face and Khumbu Icefall before destroying much of the south-side base camp.
Here is Broadwell’s story of what happened before, during and after the disaster.
Preparing for the summit
Everything was good early in the expedition. When we first got to base camp, there was a disproportionate amount of snow than normal, so that kind of set back all of the teams. There was also a memorial event for the climbers that had died last year in an avalanche on the Khumbu Icefall.
That was April 18. We didn’t start going up toward Camp 2 (21,000 feet elevation) until a few days later. We’d done a lot of training in the lower part of the icefall area. We spent 10 to 12 days there training before starting the actual climb.
Eventually, we went up to Camp 1 (at 20,000 feet), going through the icefall with other groups. Everybody did really well, and we made pretty good time. Then we took a rest day and went up to Camp 2, and everyone was feeling good about the team at that point. But it was still a long road ahead of us. You have to do multiple rotations up and down the mountain to get acclimatized to the altitude.
The next day was April 25. We got up in the morning to find mist and snow in the air. We descended back through the icefall, and everything was going smooth.
‘The earth started shaking’
I got back to base camp, went into my tent, took off my crampons and got a drink. Brad was just a few minutes behind me, and Ben was about 15 minutes back. But I’d seen him come down from the icefall with his Sherpa guide, so we knew he was safe.
I was in the dining tent with Brad and all of sudden the earth started shaking. I had been in the Nisqually quake (a 6.8-magnitude temblor that struck Western Washington in February 2001). I kind of knew what was going on right away. I told Brad, “Get up and get out of the tent.”
We went outside, and we heard rocks and mini-avalanches falling all around. I wanted to get to higher ground, so I walked up a rocky hill on the glacier. A few seconds later, Brad yelled at me – “Look!”
I turned around and looked over my shoulder, and that’s when I saw this huge cloud of debris, probably 200 or 300 feet high, coming down. It was kind of rainy and misty, so I didn’t really have an idea of how much debris was actually falling.
Immediately, I told Brad, “Run! Get up on the hill!” He ran to a different hill, and I ran to the back side of the hill that I was on. I’m not sure, but I think he yelled out, “We’re going to die.” And that was definitely the thought that was going through my head. It was kind of this moment where you kind of realize, “This is the end. This is how I’m going to die.”
This thing was massive. I got on the leeward slope of the hill, and all this ice and snow went over my head. It took a little while for it to clear. It was a lot less than I thought it would be, and I knew I was safe at one point.
I got up, and there was so much debris floating around in the air that it almost looked like an ash cloud that you would’ve seen on 9/11.
It took a while to understand the gravity of the situation. And luckily, we were on the northern side of base camp, on the edge of this thing, so our tents didn’t get knocked down. We were in a good position, and we didn’t comprehend that other people’s tents would’ve gotten knocked down right away.
My clients were pretty tired from descending the icefall, so we settled in and I turned on the radio. I heard that some of the lower camps really needed help. So on and off for the rest of the day, we were involved in rescuing others and going down to a triage station.
My Sherpa went down the mountain and told me, “There’s a lot of people down there, but there’s nothing you can do.” I don’t think he was trying to escape the situation, but emotionally, he was so overwhelmed by the experience that he was in shock. I was like, “We’ve got to go down there.”
One of the big guide services, IMG, bore the brunt of the triage situation. They brought down a lot of the victims and put them into their big dining tent. I don’t remember the exact numbers, but they had 50-something injured and 20-something critically injured.
At that point, I had seen six or seven dead bodies, and the number steadily grew. Somewhere in the neighborhood of six foreign climbers died, and I think two or three were Americans.
It was just a hard day. The next day, luckily, the weather had cleared enough that they were able to evacuate folks out of there, which was a huge relief. They also started helicopter rescues to Camp 1 and 2, people that had altitude illnesses. They were stuck up there, and the icefall wouldn’t have been safe to climb down.
Leaving the mountain
The next day around noon, there was a major aftershock, and I think that convinced most people that it wasn’t going to be safe to try to find a route down through the icefall, especially with their clients. They decided to evacuate everybody off the mountain. We left the day after that, on the 28th, and we wound up taking a helicopter the next day to a town, Lukla, where we spent a couple days. From there, we made our way back to Kathmandu.
The hard thing for me is so many of my Sherpa friends have been affected by this thing. And not to trivialize it, but what happened at Everest Base Camp was really a small event compared to what happened in the country – 8,000 people dead.
I launched The Himalayan Outreach Project, which was something I was thinking about doing before. Every year, I do charity climbs on Mount Rainier and other places, so I was thinking about raising funds to help my friends in Nepal, maybe send their kids to school. A lot of it will just come down to how much money we can actually raise.
Nepal has been a big part of my life, and I know a lot of people there. Out of this tragedy, hopefully, people will want to go trek and climb there in the future because, really, the only path forward for Nepal is if they can get tourists back. It’s their only real ability to earn money.
I’d probably go back next year. This is a big shock. I mean, nobody expects something like this to happen. You expect some deaths on the mountain, and that can happen for various reasons. It could be people who take too much risk and push it way too hard. Those types of events are more explainable.
I had no aspirations of staying on the mountain. I kind of knew within a few hours that our expedition would be over. I kind of saw the gravity, but it took my clients a day or two to realize that. They had their hopes and dreams pinned to summiting, and they thought that somehow maybe this incident wasn’t that big and they’d be able to keep climbing.
There was a little glimpse of hope I had, but I wasn’t pushing for it. I knew that a lot of my Sherpas would want to get back home and make sure their families were OK. So even if it wasn’t for all the aftershocks, I just thought it would be really hard to push forward with an expedition. I thought it would be too self-serving at that point. I was content to go home.