It was to be Saroj Kumari’s first try at scaling the world’s highest peak.
The 33-year-old additional superintendent of police from Gujarat, India was reading in her tent at base camp when a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck just before noon on Saturday, triggering a deadly avalanche down the slopes of Mount Everest.
When the quake hit, the ground shook so hard she could barely stand, Kumari told BenarNews in a phone interview from Kathmandu.
“And before we could even wrap our heads around what was happening, we saw an avalanche – almost as high as a 15-story building – coming toward the base camp,” she recalled.
Though the policewoman had read about the dangers of avalanches, she said nothing could have prepared her for the experience of seeing one bearing down on her.
“It was a humongous wave of snow – like a tsunami. Staring right at it, I said to myself, ‘Saroj, this is it. You’re gone’.”
The April 25 avalanche, the deadliest in Everest mountaineering history, killed 19 people, 14 of them Nepalese Sherpa guides, the Associated Press reported.
Overall, as of late Wednesday, confirmed deaths in Nepal in the earthquake disaster had risen to 5,238, an official with Nepal’s home ministry informed Reuters.
‘We surrendered to our fate’
Kumari was the lone woman in a five-member All India Services expedition team sent to scale Everest to commemorate 50 years of the first Indian ascent to the summit.
When the disaster occurred, the expedition’s leader, Ravindra Kumar, an Indian administrative services officer from northeastern Sikkim state, was on a reconnaissance climb to a higher altitude with the team’s Nepalese guide, Kazi Sherpa.
The team had been acclimatizing at base camp – 5,395 meters (17,700 feet) above sea level –for almost two weeks, and was to begin its climb to the summit (8,848 meters; 29,029 feet) in the second week of May.
Dozens of other climbers were camping out at base camp when the avalanche struck.
And as it tumbled toward them, Kumari and her other three team members – S. Prabhakaran, an Indian Forest Service officer from the southern state of Karnataka; Vikram Jindal, an Indian Administrative Services officer from Rajasthan; and Suhail Sharma, an Indian Police Service officer from Maharashtra – decided to run for it.
Within seconds they realized the futility of their attempt.
“Leave aside running fast enough, we could barely stand straight because the ground beneath us was trembling,” Kumari said. “So, we stopped, held each other’s hands and sat down with our backs toward the avalanche. You can say, at that moment we surrendered to our fate.”
In a matter of seconds, everything fell silent, Kumari said. Gasping for breath, she managed to dig herself out from a blanket of powdery snow.
“Luckily, none of the rocks and boulders that were brought down by the avalanche hit me,” said Kumari, who escaped unhurt along with Jindal and Sharma.
Prabhakaran wasn’t as lucky. He suffered multiple fractures to his right leg.
“I don’t know how. Probably, I was hit by a rock, but I can’t be sure. It happened too fast,” he told BenarNews.
Kumar, the expedition’s leader who also survived without injury, described the avalanche as “the worst natural calamity” he had witnessed in his four years of climbing mountains.
“Small avalanches are routine on mountains such as Everest. But surviving an avalanche such as the one on Saturday … we consider ourselves very lucky,” Kumar, who successfully scaled Everest in 2013, told Benar News.
When he got back to base camp, he said he saw dead bodies and several severely injured people strewn about.
“One Chinese girl, whose tent was near ours, was dragged almost 50 meters (164 feet) along with her tent. Her head was smashed by a huge rock,” Kumar said.
Kumar and his team members trekked almost three hours to Gorakshep, the closest village to base camp, which sits at about 5,163 meters (16,940 feet) above sea level.
The trek was very difficult because the group had to take turns carrying their injured teammate, Prabhakaran.
The team spent two nights camping in Gorakshep without any medical aid or food. On April 27, they were airlifted to Kathmandu, where Prabhakaran was given medical assistance.
“We are now waiting for word from the Indian government on the status of our expedition… whether it is cancelled or if it’s still on,” Kumar said.
Climbing season won’t be cancelled
Although there has been no official confirmation from the Indian side about the status of the All India Services expedition, Indian Mountaineering Federation’s secretary H.K. Kutty on Wednesday confirmed to BenarNews that the “team will be flown back to New Delhi in a day or two.”
As of April 29, all 210 climbers stranded at Everest’s Camp 1 and Camp 2 had been airlifted to safety in a rescue operation unprecedented in mountaineering history, a top official of Nepal’s Tourism Department said.
“There are no more climbers left to be rescued from the Nepal side of the mountain,” Tulasi Gautam, the department’s director general, told BenarNews.
“We are now in the process of sending a team to assess and repair the damage caused by the earthquake-triggered avalanche on the routes to the summit,” Gautam said.
“The climbing season begins in the second week of May and lasts till the end of May. We have time,” he added.
“The tragedy aside, we are not calling off the climbing season.”