I survived the deadliest day in Everest’s history, and I’m still surviving it

The wind from the avalanche blew debris onto the far reaches of the Khumbu glacier.
The wind from the avalanche blew debris onto the far reaches of the Khumbu glacier.
Image: Svati Narula
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Promotional posters for the new Everest movie recently appeared in New York City subway stations, and these days I travel to and from work with a strange lump in my throat.

Everest, which opens in wide release in the US today (Sept. 25), is based on the true story of how eight people died in a storm on the world’s tallest mountain in 1996. It’s the same story that Jon Krakauer told in his bestselling book Into Thin Air. It was, until last year, the most deadly accident in Mount Everest’s history.

Then on April 18, 2014, an ice release killed 16 climbers on the mountain. And barely a year later, April 25, 2015 became the new deadliest day in Everest history, when a magnitude 7.8 earthquake killed nearly 9,000 people in Nepal, 21 of them in an avalanche at Everest Base Camp.

I was there, and my feelings about it are still a mess of contradictions.  I lived through Everest’s worst day. It was the same day that shattered an entire country. I escaped mostly unhurt from a place where I hardly belonged. And after I came home from Nepal, my life seemed to return to normal almost overnight.

But when I watched the Everest trailer online a few weeks ago, I couldn’t stop shaking. When I see the movie posters, my chest tightens and I replay the worst memories from Base Camp in my head.

I fretted about writing this article. I’m not a climber. I tell myself I have no right to be emotional about a film depicting other people’s tragedies. I have no right to make my experience in Nepal more significant than anybody else’s.

But I’m still going to tell you all about it. Maybe then my brain won’t be so stuck, unable to hurdle the wide gap between the scariest things I thought could happen at Base Camp and the scarier things that did.

* * *

I started reading books about mountaineering in grade school, and in college I developed an academic interest in the Himalayas. By then I’d also decided that I had no desire to climb big mountains. Still, when I became a journalist, I gravitated toward stories about sports and the outdoors; my writing led, circuitously, to a meeting this January with the famed climber and filmmaker David Breashears.

David shows up in pretty much all the Everest literature. He’s summited the mountain five times since 1983, and is the guy who guided Dick Bass to the top in 1985, setting the stage for a thousand aspiring conquerers of the Seven Summits. He directed the 1998 IMAX movie Everest, and is one of the co-producers of the new Everest film. Now he spends months at a time on expeditions in Nepal, India, and Tibet, photographing glaciers to document the effects of climate change.

So when David called me in February and asked if I’d like to temporarily step away from my job in New York City, where I’m a reporter for Quartz, to work for him at Everest Base Camp during the upcoming spring climbing season, I hesitated only briefly.

I was mostly worried about altitude sickness. Another concern was my Type 1 diabetes. Balancing insulin intake with food, exercise, stress, and all the other factors that affect blood sugar requires constant attention and a lot of medical supplies. Doing it for six weeks at 17,500 feet (5,300 meters) was a daunting prospect. But I had previously met two guys who had summited Everest with Type 1 diabetes. Compared to what they had faced, managing diabetes at Base Camp, with all its amenities, would be easy.

* * *

Base Camp from afar.
Base Camp from afar.

The trail to Base Camp was exhausting, crowded, and beautiful. Peak Promotion, a local agency that David has been using for years, sent me off from Kathmandu, with a guide and a porter, in early April. From the hillside town of Lukla, we walked for eight days: across swaying suspension bridges over a turquoise river, on dusty, switchbacked trails dotted with pink rhododendrons, through deep snow, behind slow-moving groups of trekkers and even slower-moving herds of yaks. The last stop before Base Camp, Gorak Shep, was the only place along the route I couldn’t access Wi-Fi, and only because of technical difficulties at the lodge we stayed in.

But there was Wi-Fi at Base Camp. Here are some excerpts from the email I sent to friends and family on April 17, two days after arriving:

[Base Camp] is HUGE and it takes about 25 minutes to walk from one end to the other (And that’s only if you’re on a circumnavigating trail below all the individual team camps, which are located on little hills amid glacial nooks and crannies. Trying to cross BC by walking through individual team camps is near impossible: so much up and down, so much snow and ice and yak dung, and loose rocks and deep puddles!)…

[I]n addition to hosting me and David, Peak Promotion is hosting the “Everest ER” doctors who work for the Himalayan Rescue Association. So, what our camp looks like is a bunch of blue Peak Promotion tents (including a kitchen tent and a dining tent), several small yellow Mountain Hardwear tents (almost everyone has his/her own for sleeping/privacy), one shower tent, several toilet tents (more on this later), the famous Everest ER clinic tent (white with a red cross), and a bright orange waiting room tent…

The Everest ER team of 2015 had arrived at Base Camp on April 3. Rachel Tullet, a hardened emergency-room physician from New Zealand, and Meg Walmsley, a soft-spoken anaesthesiologist from Australia, were both in their early thirties. Aditya Tiwari had finished medical school just weeks earlier in Kathmandu and didn’t look a day older than his age of 24.

Rachel Tullet in front of the Everest ER. The white tent with a red cross pops up at Base Camp every spring before the climbers arrive.
Rachel Tullet in front of the Everest ER. The white tent with a red cross pops up at Base Camp every spring before the climbers arrive.

None of the three had spent a season at Base Camp before, but they’d done their requisite seasons at HRA posts in the mountain villages of Pheriche and Manang, and had hiked in to Base Camp with Luanne Freer, the American doctor who founded Everest ER in 2003. Rachel had instant credibility with guides who’d crossed paths with her in Antarctica in 2014, where she had been on medical duty when they had been climbing the Vinson Massif, one of the seven summits.

Meg Walmsley steps out of our dining tent at Base Camp. In the background are the tents where she, Aditya, Rachel and I slept. Further back: the Khumbu Icefall.
Meg Walmsley steps out of our dining tent at Base Camp. In the background are the tents where she, Aditya, Rachel and I slept. Further back: the Khumbu Icefall.

On the night of April 24, snuggled in my sleeping bag for the last time, I spoke on the phone to my mom at home in the US. Neither the altitude nor my diabetes were posing any serious problems, I said. The one thing that was bothering me, I told her, was the collectively grim mood—not just in our camp, but across the entire mile-long, 1,200-person city of tents.

A few days earlier I had overheard Ang Dorje, one of the “icefall doctors”—the Sherpas who each year set up ropes and ladders through the Khumbu icefall, one of the most dangerous parts of the ascent and the site of the deadly 2014 avalanche—talking to David and to Damian Benegas, a guide for Alpine Ascents. Dorje said he had counted 196 climbers in the icefall the previous day. Other guides had estimated that nearly 400 climbers ascended that day. It sounded horrible.

Benegas described 30-minute waits at each ladder, in some cases because there were so many people, and in others because of inexperienced Sherpas, hired by lower-tier guiding companies, “who had never done this climbing before.” The three men shook their heads over the free-for-all nature of things.

Meanwhile, people were getting antsy. There was an unusual amount of snow in the Everest region this April. It slowed down the climbing teams—few had even made complete trips through the icefall by that point—and was also making it tough for David to get the photographs he wanted. The ice was what he wanted to document, and it was covered in fresh powder.

To cap it all, the Wi-Fi most of us had paid for wasn’t working. A cheap Nokia cell phone purchased in Kathmandu had proved invaluable, though, for me. It only cost a few Nepali rupees to call and text over the country’s cell network, and service was strong at Base Camp.

* * *

April 25, a Saturday, started badly for the Everest ER. The weather that morning was all snow and clouds. Rachel had been awake all night taking care of two patients in the clinic: hapless trekkers who’d arrived at Base Camp late on Friday and, thanks to a severe case of altitude sickness, could not get themselves back down. They needed to descend to a lower altitude, but they didn’t have the money to pay for a helicopter to evacuate them, and the weather had knocked that option out anyway.

However, Rachel and Meg decided the girls were well enough to make the two-hour walk down to Gorak Shep. A few minutes after 9am, the girls left.

Rachel planned on retreating to her tent for a much-needed nap at this point, letting Meg and Aditya run the clinic during the day. But at 9am another very sick patient had arrived: a Sherpa with severe stomach pain, requiring intravenous medicine for relief and the clinic’s ultrasound machine for diagnosis. Had this not been a life-threatening case, perhaps Rachel would have gone to take that nap she needed. As it was, she stayed in the clinic, taking charge of operations as usual.

I had parked myself in a large yellow tent where most of David’s camera equipment was stored, approximately 50 feet away from the Everest ER clinic. My iPhone was plugged in to a solar charger, a half-eaten chocolate bar was sitting atop a stack of magazines, and I was excitedly typing away on my laptop. It was the first time I’d been able to get online in days.

I was in here when the earthquake struck. It violently released the cliff of snow and ice visible in the top right corner of this image. The summit of Mount Pumori is hidden, but would be in the top left corner.
I was in here when the earthquake struck. It violently released the cliff of snow and ice visible in the top right corner of this image. The summit of Mount Pumori is hidden, but would be in the top left corner.

David was up on the mountain with Ang Phula Sherpa, his longtime climbing partner and camera assistant on Everest. I reckoned they were sitting inside a tent somewhere at Camp I or II waiting for the bad weather to pass. They hadn’t said when they were coming back to Base Camp, but I knew it would be at least a few days. David wouldn’t come down until he got the photos he needed, and he couldn’t get the photos until it stopped snowing.

At 11:56 am I glanced at the time in the upper right corner of my laptop screen, started thinking about lunch, and decided to send just one more email before heading back to our dining tent. Through the walls of the yellow tent, I detected a ceasing of the snow, perhaps even some sunshine.

When the ground began swaying, slowly, it felt like being aboard a medium-sized boat on a calm sea. I ignored it at first. Everyone is hypoxic at 17,500 feet: With half as much oxygen as at sea level, your cognition is impaired. Also, Base Camp is “like one big construction project,” as David said once, and maybe I thought someone was moving boulders nearby.

At some point I stopped my typing and thought, It’s an earthquake. But not until at least 10 more seconds had passed did I stand up and walk out of the tent, coming face-to-face with our cook, Fhinju Sherpa, and our government liaison officer, Suber Shrestha. They were striding toward me from the kitchen tent.

“Earthquake?” I said curiously, half-expecting to learn a new Nepali word. Neither of the men said anything as they swiveled their heads around and scanned the mountains above. I realized there must be an avalanche to see, and naively thought this would be interesting.

Avalanches occurred within sight of Base Camp frequently, but so far I’d only heard them at night. The sounds never scared me; though the peaks surrounding Base Camp seemed to tower close above, they were all at least an hour away on foot, and snowfalls on them would never disturb us. So when I followed Fhinju’s gaze to Mount Pumori, where a mile-long ridge to the right of the summit was exploding, I wasn’t immediately frightened.

It wasn’t the kind of avalanche I’d seen footage of in documentaries, a billowy white plume traveling down a mountain’s face. This looked more like a tsunami—the unrealistic kind of tsunami you see only in Hollywood movies. It looked as if it was rising from the ridge and would barely touch the actual slopes of Pumori, instead hurtling through the air to a farther destination: us.

Then Fhinju and Suber started running. I took one last glance at the apocalyptic cloud and turned on my heels to run with them.

We didn’t get far.

I myself hadn’t taken two steps when I tripped and fell flat on my face. The sensation of gravelly rocks digging into my knees and palms was dulled by the intense gratitude I felt as Suber reached down, grabbed my left arm, and pulled me to my feet. I’d never been so grateful for anything.

Suber and I each took about two more steps, and then it hit us. I tried to keep my feet under me and sort-of run with it—difficult enough to do when hit by a breaking wave in strong ocean surf, let alone a 300-mile-per-hour blast of water in its more solid states. Eventually I let the force of the avalanche knock me to my knees but managed to keep the top of my body upright.

Visions of National Geographic and Discovery television shows flashed through my head—episodes featuring avalanche survivors who had been found by search and rescue dogs or had dug themselves out. The only survival tip I remembered was “create an air pocket for breathing.”

As the snow kept swirling around me, I fought to stay oriented—keep your head up, elbows out, don’t get crunched—and psychologically prepared for hours or perhaps days of agony waiting to be rescued. Anticipating being buried under several feet of snow, I cupped my hands over my face to create an air pocket. If I’m lucky, I won’t be buried too deep.

What felt like a minute or more later, but must have been less, I realized that the blast was finished, my head was not buried, I was not stuck, and I could breathe. The extreme relief I felt was quickly replaced by hysteria.


My screams were shrill and frantic, and I would have been embarrassed if I thought anyone could hear them. But I couldn’t even see my surroundings. Beyond my bare hands, I couldn’t see anything. And all I heard was wind.

For a second I feared that everything and everyone was gone, that I was all alone.


Then the powder snow that had been thrown in the air settled and the landscape came into focus. Suber, who had been wearing a bright red parka, popped up in front of me. Fhinju stood up too. The three of us exchanged “Are you okay?”s and “Oh my God”s, and then trudged forward to the only tent in the immediate vicinity that was still standing: the Everest ER.

Mount Everest and Mount Pumori
Image: NASA image, annotated by Quartz

The tent had been torn open by the wind blast from the avalanche. Much of the damage at Base Camp, it turned out, had come from the wind. The bulk of the snow had fallen short of us, closer to the base of Pumori, but it landed on the back of a uniquely-shaped ridge with such force that some of it ricocheted up and across Base Camp like a bomb blast.

The tent’s poles were twisted, and snow covered every surface inside. All the medicine that had been neatly organized in drawers and boxes along one wall was scattered on the opposite.

Meg ordered me to sit on a cot with Aditya under a fleece blanket and get warm. My hands were excruciatingly cold, and the blanket was coated in ice and snow. We lifted it slowly, sloppily. Snow was in my pockets, my armpits, my underwear. Rachel radioed the HRA post in Pheriche: “HRA Pheriche, this is Everest ER. We have an emergency. Over.” A crackle on the radio. “HRA, HRA, this is Everest ER. We have an emergency. Is anyone there? Over.”

Another crackle. It was David’s voice on a different radio, saying that he and Ang Phula were okay at Camp I. There were wails of distress from the sick patient, who had a bloody IV needle sticking out of his arm. Then came sounds of boots on snow and the voices of other people coming into the tent in search of help, chattering in various languages.

Aditya and I finally sat down on the cot, hand in hand, and other people took seats next to us. There was a lot of blood on them and on the floor. Even after Aditya had tried to warm my hands in his, they were painfully numb, but I forced one under my jacket to reach my Nokia phone. I wanted to call my mom, to wake her up at 4am in Maryland and say: “Listen to me carefully. There was an earthquake, and then there was an avalanche. Base Camp has been obliterated. I’m very lucky to be alive.”

The phone turned on, but there was no service.

* * *

I would spend the next few hours trying to be useful but feeling helpless.

Rachel had asked Aditya and me to first get warm and then help triage incoming patients, sorting the walking wounded from the critically injured. Soon, though, the triage was happening without us. Guides from other teams—tall, strong men—were carrying immobile Sherpas inside the ER, coordinating with Meg, and sitting others down outside on sleeping bags.

Meg sent me to find my insulin and take care of my diabetes. “We don’t want you becoming another patient,” she said.

I went to my sleeping tent. Normally a 45-second walk uphill from the Everest ER, it had been blown over the crest of the hill and was now a smooshed piece of wet fabric tangled with broken poles. I located it easily but had trouble finding an opening through which to retrieve whatever belongings were still inside.

Eventually I ripped a hole in one of the flaps. I started whispering to myself. “You’re okay. You are ohh-kayyy.” The tent was upside down, and I kept shaking it and turning it over in search of the little cooler that held my insulin, a separate bag that had snacks and candy bars, another with syringes and tubing for my insulin pump, and other things I needed to stay alive. A red duffel bag that I had been keeping next to my tent was still intact, though, and the clothes inside were dry.

“Rachel,” I yelled, “I’ve got a lot of layers in here!” She yelled back: “Put them on!” It wasn’t the answer I expected—I thought of offering them to people who were cold and wet—but I didn’t want to disobey her, so I put on a thin fleece that I’d bought for $8 in Kathmandu over my thin down jacket, which was soaked and torn. I pulled my heavier down jacket out of the topsy-turvy tent and put that on, too. After stuffing some diabetes supplies inside the pockets of these newly-donned layers, I stumbled back down to the ER.

There I was finally able to do something to help, briefly holding a patient to keep him warm while Sylvie, a doctor from another team, treated him. Sylvie also looked at a wound I had discovered on my head, assured me it was nothing to worry about, and slipped a piece of gauze over it under my hat. I retrieved my half-wet sleeping bag from my tent, determined to donate it to someone, but Sylvie told me to wrap it around myself.

There wasn’t enough space inside the ER for all the critical patients who were arriving. Some were brought on makeshift stretchers, pieces of plywood that had served as tent floors before the avalanche swept the tents away. One man had been put down with just his head poking out of the sleeping bag he had been brought over in. A few minutes later, the bag would be zipped all the way closed. Within the hour, another patient would be laid on the ground nearby, and his head would eventually be covered, too.

Word came over the radio that two of the larger teams at Base Camp, IMG and HimEx, had completely escaped damage. Rachel announced that the Everest ER was going to move over to IMG. There were going to be aftershocks, she said, and since our camp had already proven vulnerable, it was not a good place to stay.

Meg told me to go ahead of her and Rachel, so I went. I took the low trail that bypasses most individual camps, as that’s usually fastest. But the footpaths were covered by snow and debris, and I turned up to higher ground too early. Backtracking downhill to the lower path, I saw a man lying facedown at the bottom of the hill.

I stopped and thought. He was off the path, and if I kept going down and around I would be separated from him by a gully. If I wanted to get to him, I would have to scramble more vertically down this hill. Remembering the story of Beck Weathers, who had been left for dead on Everest in 1996 but eventually made it down (minus a few limbs), I figured I couldn’t walk past this body without checking for a pulse.

I began making my way gingerly down the hill, and then stopped cold. I was pretty sure those were brains, exposed, coming out of a broken skull. I went back to the path, feeling sickened as well as guilty and relieved that there was nothing else I could do for him.

I ended up waiting for the ER doctors in the HimEx dining tent, where I sat with five injured Sherpas and an English climber I’d met a few days earlier. He had come in with several broken ribs and said one of his teammates was dead.

Suddenly an aftershock shook the ground. Then came the unmistakable sounds of an avalanche, provoking panicked chatter among the Sherpas and tears in my eyes. HimEx was in a kind of big bowl of rocks, somewhat isolated from the other camps. It had seemed safe, but now it felt like we were trapped. Though the avalanche off Pumori had not touched the camp, there was no telling what another release coming from a different direction might do.

A few minutes later there was another aftershock and another avalanche, which sounded like it was coming from behind us. The Englishman shook his head and muttered under his breath: “We’re fucked.”

Compared to the rest of Nepal, we had so many advantages at Base Camp: Technical clothing, warm sleeping bags, sturdy tents, first aid kits galore, Western-educated doctors, and plenty of money—or at least robust insurance policies—to summon rescue helicopters. Amid our own shock and distress, we knew we were better off than just about everyone else in the country. But in that moment, sitting with strangers in a tent as avalanches released all around us, it was easy to feel doomed.

Eventually I decided to go back to the Everest ER. There I encountered Rachel, who was just about to leave for IMG. As we were setting out, another aftershock released another avalanche, from the same direction the big one had come. “Svati, get behind a rock!” she yelled. Convinced I was running for my life yet again, but anxious about my footing since everything was covered in snow and I didn’t know where the rocks were, I frantically skipped to the nearest boulder.

When the avalanche noise stopped, I skipped to her. She took my hand and we started walking. Rachel was very self-assured in that moment—“It will be a few days,” she said, “and then we’ll get the fuck out of here”—but she had a pronounced limp, which was aggravated when we both slipped and fell on the ice. Later I learned that in the original avalanche, she had seriously injured her knee; the next day she would stitch up the gaping wound over torn tendons and a cracked kneecap herself, without anaesthetic. But at this point her only concern was to help patients. Soon after we got to IMG she was walking around with a cane, still working.

I spent much of the evening in a separate tent for the “walking wounded,” helping look after two badly hurt Sherpas. When I wasn’t needed there, I milled around the camp, restless. I overheard a blonde woman use a satellite phone to call the US and inform the family of Dan Fredinburg, a Google engineer I’d met a few days earlier, that he had sustained a fatal head injury.

Back in the tent, I made eye contact with Aditya as he eavesdropped on a conversation in Nepali. “Eve, the doctor from Madison Mountaineering,” he mouthed to me. I nodded, remembering the petite and friendly young woman who said she wanted to stay in touch after Everest because we both lived in New York. “She died.”

* * *

The sound of a helicopter woke me up at 6:15 the next morning. It was Maurizio Folini, a widely admired Swiss pilot for the Fishtail Air helicopter company. He was flying back and forth between Base Camp and the HRA clinic in Pheriche to evacuate the worst-injured people. When that was done, he went up to rescue the climbers at Camps I and II on Everest. Damage to the Khumbu icefall had made it impassable, stranding nearly two hundred climbers up there, vulnerable to avalanches set off by aftershocks. Flying that high in a helicopter is dicey due to the thin atmosphere, but Maurizio was a pro; he had set a high-altitude rescue record by picking up someone at 25,590 feet on Everest in 2013.

David came down on one of the first flights. I had spoken to him briefly via radio the previous afternoon, saying “Base Camp has been obliterated.” Now, as I led him back to our camp to survey the damage and try to recover some of his camera gear, he saw what I meant. “It’s just… obliterated,” he repeated.

When we got to camp, I wandered uphill to where my sleeping tent had been. The ground rumbled with an aftershock, setting off an avalanche on Lho La—another ridge surrounding Base Camp, on the border between Nepal and Tibet. It looked small, but I wondered if I should run.

“Svati, come here,” David called. Panicking, I ran to where he was standing at the other end of our camp. “Oh it’s okay, you didn’t need to run,” he said when I got there. “Watch.” He put his hands on my shoulders and we stared as the avalanche billowed out, a perfectly safe distance away.

Fhinju set up new sleeping tents for me and David, next to the platform where the large yellow tent had been. I realized I didn’t have a sleeping bag anymore, so I ventured into the decrepit Everest ER tent where a heap of used ones had piled up.

I tried to pick the sleeping bag that was the least bloody and wasn’t leaking feathers everywhere.

What remained of our original tents, approximately 24 hours after the avalanche.
What remained of our original tents, approximately 24 hours after the avalanche.

* * *

David and I would stay at Base Camp for a week after that, clearing debris and waiting to hire porters to carry our gear out. There was a frustrating sense of urgency—it wasn’t fair to keep our Sherpas from their families during this time, and there was so much cleaning up to do—but also an oddly peaceful letting-go. The expedition had failed for reasons beyond our control, and everything was so messed up that we had nothing left to lose. I recognize now that my sense of calm was probably a symptom of shock.

Surveying the damage and cleaning up at the camp of Adventure Consultants, on April 29. Six Sherpas died here. If the rest of the AC climbers had been in camp on April 25, instead of up on Mount Everest, there might have been more casualties.
Surveying the damage and cleaning up at the camp of Adventure Consultants, on April 29. Six Sherpas died here. If the rest of the AC climbers had been in camp on April 25, instead of up on Mount Everest, there might have been more casualties.

I was, however, easily spooked. The sound of avalanches at night, once an unremarkable part of life at Base Camp, had become terrifying. Whenever I heard one, I debated putting on my boots and running for my life. David, in his tent less than two feet away from mine, always spoke up before I had a chance to move. “Svati, it’s not coming anywhere near us. It’s okay.”

David Breashears and Ang Phula Sherpa on April 30, taking pictures of the Khumbu icefall. The mangled Everest ER tent is still standing.
David Breashears and Ang Phula Sherpa on April 30, taking pictures of the Khumbu icefall. The mangled Everest ER tent is still standing.

Apart from being constantly on edge, I was also troubled by the fact that my memory of the avalanche didn’t seem to line up with other people’s.

I remembered the sun coming out over our camp about 10 minutes before the quake, and stepping out of my tent to a clear sky. That was how I, Suber and Fhinju had been able to see the avalanche before we heard it. I recalled seeing the entire ridge to the right of the summit of Mount Pumori explode in snow.

David, however (along with many others), surmised that the avalanche had come from a crook even further right of the summit, closer to Mount Lingtren, when the quake broke off some ice there; he called my account “impossible.” Moreover, he insisted that he had spoken to other people who’d been at Base Camp and that nobody had seen the avalanche until it had been right on top of them. “You couldn’t have seen it,” he said. “It was too cloudy.”

I knew people sometimes filled in their memories unconsciously, but how could I be fabricating the most terrifying moment of my life?

Mount Lingtren, top right, as photographed from my tent, above our camp’s dining tent and the large camp of the Indian army expedition, on April 21.
Mount Lingtren, top right, as photographed from my tent, above our camp’s dining tent and the large camp of the Indian army expedition, on April 21.
The summit of Mount Pumori, at left, on April 29. The top of David Breashears’ head is visible on the bottom right.
The summit of Mount Pumori, at left, on April 29. The top of David Breashears’ head is visible on the bottom right.

* * *

On May 2, a week after the quake, I was reunited with Rachel and Meg in Pheriche. David had sent me walking down from Base Camp ahead of him, saying he’d catch up with me on the trail.

As I was in the bathroom with a bucket of scalding hot water, trying unsuccessfully to wash a big gunk of dried blood out of my hair—the gash on my head was still open—a knock came on the door. It was Meg, telling me that Rachel’s insurance had agreed to send a helicopter for them, because of her knee, and that there was an extra seat for me if I wanted it—but I had to come now.

I wondered if David would mind, and decided he’d want me to be safe above all else. I’ll be safer with the doctors than alone here, I figured.

After a mad dash to get dressed and pay the lodge owner, I jumped aboard. The pilot was Maurizio, who had flown the rescue missions the day after the quake. He flew us to Lukla, where we boarded another chopper to take us to Kathmandu. The 45 minutes of that flight were the most serene I can remember in my waking life.

It was only May 4 when I landed in the US. The descent from Base Camp and exit from Nepal had happened too fast. I wanted to still be there, with Rachel and Meg, David, and the others with whom I’d lived through that terrifying day and its aftermath.

After coming home, I read Sebastian Junger’s article, about post-traumatic stress and war veterans, in the May issue of Vanity Fair. “Any discussion of PTSD and its associated sense of alienation in society must address the fact that many soldiers find themselves missing the war after it’s over,” writes Junger. “And the war that is missed doesn’t even have to be a shooting war.”

What all these people seem to miss isn’t danger or loss, per se, but the closeness and cooperation that danger and loss often engender…

The kind of closeness that gets endlessly venerated in Hollywood movies but only actually shows up in contemporary society when something goes wrong—when tornados obliterate towns or planes are flown into skyscrapers. Those events briefly give us a reason to act communally, and most of us do.

I had felt like an outsider, even unwelcome at times, during my first week at Base Camp. After the avalanche, that feeling dissolved. The village on the glacier was no longer composed of cliques where some people belonged and others didn’t; it was a community. But my membership in that community felt tenuous as soon as I got to Kathmandu. By the time I arrived home, to the comforts of hot showers and unlimited internet access, I wondered if I’d ever belonged to it at all.

* * *

Throughout May, friends and family asked if I planned to see a therapist. I said yes, of course, when I go back to New York, I’ll find someone. But I was having such an easy time recounting my experience at Base Camp, around dinner tables and on the phone, that I felt certain I was doing just fine. The few nightmares I was having about avalanches and murderous mountain climbers were normal, weren’t they? I would stop jumping at loud noises soon enough. And surely I would start feeling better and better as time went on.

But in August, the nightmares got worse. An annual vacation with extended family felt torturous: My relatives wanted to talk about how lucky I was to have survived the avalanche; I wanted to talk about Dan Fredinburg, and the man whose shattered skull I’d seen, and the Nepali families weathering this year’s monsoon under tarps because their houses had fallen down.

The waves breaking on the beach reminded me of avalanches. I became preoccupied with what I would do if a tsunami occurred. One afternoon, lying on a towel in the sand, I heard screams and a stampede of footsteps. I grabbed my mom’s arm and said “What’s happening?” I thought the commotion signaled the start of a mass panic, that everyone on the beach was about to get up and run away from something. It was just a flock of children running excitedly into the ocean.

This month, finally, I saw a therapist. She told me that I wasn’t being too dramatic—that I really had experienced trauma, and it had changed my brain.

At first, being upset about what happened at Base Camp seemed shameful in light of the devastation so many others suffered and are still suffering throughout Nepal. How dare I keep talking about how horrible my experience was?

But thoughtful friends and acquaintances have since told me that I’ve made them more aware of the larger disaster. “Because of you, I now have Nepal on my inner radar,” one wrote recently. “It’s not selfish to keep talking about it,” another said. “You’re giving people a way in to the event.”

I’d like to believe that. And though I thought too much time had passed to write this article, the sad truth is, there’s no expiration date on the story. Many people who were involved in the 1996 tragedy on Everest are only now, prompted by the Everest feature film, coming forward and admitting that those events still haunt them.

Beck Weathers—the climber who made it back down after being left for dead, and who is portrayed by Josh Brolin in the movie—reflected on this in a recent interview. “As time passes you gain a different perspective on Everest. You get some distance, and life becomes calmer and simpler. At one point, it would have been the most important event in your existence, but that importance fades over time.”

Yet, while “life has gotten a lot more mellow,” he said, “my interaction with the story remains extremely vivid. Surprisingly it still affects me emotionally and viscerally like it happened yesterday.”

Weathers said there’s one thing he makes sure to mention when he talks to people about his ordeal. “I tell them that my Everest experience, as dramatic as it was, was only three days. The hard part is what you do when you get back home. That’s when the story really begins. And that part generally is never told.”

All photographs by Svati Kirsten Narula for Quartz, except where indicated.