Cover Story

The Day the Mountain Shook

Veteran climber Dave Hahn experienced the Nepal earthquake up close—and blogged about it

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Slideshow: Before and after the Nepal earthquake

By Dave Hahn and Rebecca Rudell

“That day,”says Dave Hahn (BA ’84), “planet Earth proved who was boss—shaking Chomolungma as if she were built from Jell-O.” Chomolungma is the Tibetan name for Mount Everest; it means Mother Goddess of the Earth. On the day Hahn is referring to—April 25, 2015—a massive earthquake struck Nepal.

A little before noon, Hahn and some of his fellow climbers had just returned to Camp One after a short acclimatization hike up the mountain. Heavy snow and whiteouts preceded the first quake, which registered a magnitude 7.8 and sent tons of rock and debris falling down the mountain. Several more aftershocks were felt over the next few days. While Hahn’s team all survived unscathed, many others—particularly at Base Camp, which sits in a valley surrounded by Himalayan peaks—were not so lucky.

Hahn is one of the most successful high-altitude climbing guides in history and is the only non-Sherpa climber to have reached Everest’s summit a record 15 times. He is also a professional guide, an EMT who has rescued numerous climbers in terrifying situations, and a prolific blogger who shares his thrilling experiences with the world.

But this year’s disaster had a profound effect on him. “Mount Everest has dished out all I can personally stomach of failure, heartache and death in recent years, and I’m not positive I’ll attempt it again,” he says. “But that decision can wait a little, just now.”

Hahn is certainly not leaving the field he has devoted his life to since the early ’80s; in fact, two months after returning from Everest, he was leading a team up Denali (formerly Mount McKinley) in Alaska.

The following entries are excerpts from the blog Hahn kept from the day of the Nepal earthquake to his last night in Kathmandu:

Click to see Hahn's Trek to Safety

April 25, 2015

This morning, we completed a good circuit, climbing up to 21,300 feet to Advance Base Camp and back to Camp One, arriving about 11:30 this morning. Shortly after that, at about noon, there was a major earthquake that resulted in avalanches off all the mountains around us. We got dusted, but here at Camp One we’re just fine. We don’t have the ability to travel right now—good mountaineering sense dictates that we stay put and ride this storm out. We are self-sufficient up here and our concern is with our friends at Base Camp. We’re hearing the strenuous efforts that our Sherpa team and Mark Tucker [Hahn’s Base Camp manager] are going through down there trying to help with the injured and those who haven’t fared so well. We’ll try to be in touch. We’re obviously in a situation where we won’t have great communication. It’s likely that the earthquake destroyed any cell service around the Base Camp area. 

April 26, 2015

This was a day of waiting and watching for us. The weather improved a little bit; this morning it was sunny and clear. A couple of courageous helicopter pilots made use of that time flying out sick and hurt people from Camp Two to Camp One. But the big work they did was trip after trip flying casualties out from Base Camp. 

There was a massive aftershock this afternoon at about 1 p.m. local time. It seemed almost as powerful as yesterday’s quake. And now we’re looking to helicopter out in the next day or two to get down to Base Camp. If it keeps on snowing as it did this afternoon, it will make flying impossible. 

April 27, 2015

[At this point, it has been decided that Hahn’s team and the roughly 180 other climbers on the mountain—unable to traverse the badly damaged route through the Khumbu Icefall—will be taken to Base Camp by helicopter.]

At Camp One, we were up before dawn, boiling cups of instant coffee and hurriedly packing. 

It wasn’t going to be an ideal scenario, by any means. It seemed unlikely that 90-plus heli landings and takeoffs could be accomplished without chaos or catastrophe. But sure enough, the first B3 powered on in at 6 a.m. and the great Everest Air Show began. 

A fear of the team leaders was a helicopter mob scene, à la Saigon ’75, but we’d arrayed our helipads in a way that didn’t allow for mobbing, and everybody seemed to understand the need for superior social skills on this day. 

[Later that day, after landing safely at Base Camp]

We were put down at the epicenter of a disaster and we could barely believe our eyes. Whatever relief each of us felt at being off the mountain was quickly replaced with sadness and awe at the evidence of destructive power all around us. 

Hearing on the radio about the quake-triggered avalanche that blasted Base Camp did nothing to prepare us for experiencing the aftermath firsthand. It was as if an enormous bomb had detonated. 

When we reached our own greatly altered camp and heard a few stories from neighbors, we finally understood Mark Tucker’s heroism of the last few days, helping to stabilize and transport dozens upon dozens of seriously injured, bloody and broken people. 

He and our Sherpa team had gone immediately to help others, even though their own camp was largely destroyed. By now, we’re not even mildly surprised to learn that they somehow found time and energy to rebuild camp for our arrival. 

Our “ordeal” seems trivial by comparison. We had to stay a bit longer in a beautiful and legendary hanging valley and deal with a bit of uncertainty. Now back down to earth, we understand just how lucky we’ve been and we are sad beyond words to learn how unlucky others have been.

“We were put down at the epicenter of a disaster and we could barely believe our eyes. Whatever relief each of us felt at being off the mountain was quickly replaced with sadness and awe at the evidence of destructive power all around us.”

April 28, 2015

We’ve come to the inescapable conclusion that an Everest summit for 2015 is out of reach for our team. Besides the rather obvious and glaring philosophical difficulties of pursuing a recreational venture in the midst of a national disaster, there are on-the-ground mountaineering realities that will not permit us to look upward again. 

We’ll put our efforts into an organized and safe retreat from the mountain. Nobody harbors illusions that travel in this stricken and damaged country will be simple, but we’ll head for home now in any case.

April 29, 2015

Our expedition is rapidly winding down. Everest Base Camp is becoming empty of foreign climbers. Three of our team—HP, Hao and Hans—were able to catch a heli down toward Lukla this morning. The rest of us have spent the day packing, sheltering from snow showers and reflecting on the surreal situation and surroundings. 

We’ve each taken walks out to icy cyber, where the cell service almost works, and been stunned by the amount of heavy camp gear—tents, barrels, tables, boots, helmets, etc.—strewn hundreds of meters from Base Camp. These sad items testify to the force of the blast that hit Base, fully obliterating the camps along the medial moraine [a ridge of soil and rock formed by glacial drift]. Mark Tucker estimated that the blast was perhaps 150 mph. We’re all still a bit jumpy, although there hasn’t been a recognizable aftershock in a day or two. 

We’ll start walking out of this place and down toward an easier and safer world tomorrow. But plenty of uncertainty still lies ahead.

April 30, 2015

[Hahn and six members of his group begin a three-day trek toward Lukla, from where they can fly to Kathmandu and then home.]

This morning, we enjoyed a little sunshine for a change, which made it easier to put final touches on our packing. By 10 a.m., we were on the trail, which was very different than what we’d become accustomed to … no trekkers, no porters, no traffic. Of course, the reason is sobering—nobody has put the dire national situation out of their minds—but the value of a day spent walking peaceful trails through beautiful mountains can’t be overstated. We stopped in both Gorak Shep and Lobuche without seeing too much damage from the quake, but things in Pheriche are obviously worse. Many of what had seemed to be the more substantial structures in town are badly damaged.

May 1, 2015

Thankfully, it was another sparkling-sun-and-blue-sky day. We got out of Pheriche by 8:15 a.m.—and out of the alpine zone—and down into the land of the living. Helicopters continued to buzz back and forth overhead.

We took our time, stopping in Pangboche to check on acquaintances and to pay respects to victims, but then we moved on across the river to Deboche and up to Thyangboche, which was abnormally calm and quiet. The classic and grand monastery was visibly damaged and seemed abandoned for the moment. 

We found our way back to our favorite place in Namche: Camp De Base. Although damage in Namche seems slight, we’ve been reminded that the earth isn’t through moving yet. There have been aftershocks that we apparently haven’t noticed in our tent environments. Here in town, everybody seems much more aware of them in a place where buildings shake.

We’ll keep our guard up, but we’ll also avail ourselves of some quality 11,000-foot sleep—the kind we haven’t experienced in a month.

“People without any form of insurance stood in front of ruined structures, smiling and bidding us ‘Namaste’ as we passed. The ones we knew asked us first if we were all OK before acknowledging that they would need to start over completely.”

May 2, 2015

Another surreal day of spectacular hiking and beautiful mountain vistas, mixed with up-close and sad recognition for the cost of lost homes and disrupted lives in the Khumbu Valley. I suppose it’s surreal because we would never have chosen to be “tourists” in a disaster area, but here we are. 

Many houses and buildings were untouched, but a significant number were cracked and damaged beyond reasonable repair. Very few had collapsed, and we were told that there had been few injuries and few deaths in these areas. Probably because Sherpas would have been outside and working hard at midday when the quake struck. 

People without any form of insurance stood in front of ruined structures, in this fabulously beautiful setting, and smiled and bid us “Namaste” as we passed. The ones we knew asked us first if we were all OK before acknowledging that they themselves would need to start over completely. 

May 3, 2015

Rain, thunder and lightning had continued late into the Lukla night, but we all felt pretty confident that the dawn would bring perfect flying weather—and it did. We were up at 5 a.m. and over to the craziness of Lukla International Airport by 6. At around 7 or so, a twin-engine prop plane came in. The flight was blissfully uneventful and by 7:30 we were just another batch of tourists in Kathmandu. 

A casual observer could easily go unaware of the tragedy unfolding in the country around us. Things are quickly returning to “normal” for those with means in the capital. The hotel was jam-packed with correspondents, camera crews, diplomats and a few grubby climbers. 

We met a number of our guide friends—some of whom had ambitious and worthy plans to go out to remote villages to do what they could to save lives. Others, like ourselves, intended to get out of the country as soon as possible so as not to require care and feeding from an already over-stressed society. 

[Later that evening]

Back at the hotel, our team assembled for one final evening together, with a couple of toasts and a fine rooftop dinner. We weren’t even remotely cold or uncomfortable, we weren’t in danger, and we had a rising and beautiful full moon to entertain us. Tomorrow we’ll scatter to ride a number of bigger and faster aircraft toward our own homes. 

We each feel extremely fortunate to have come unscathed through extraordinary circumstances. To this point, we’ve had the convenience and satisfaction of placing cash directly into the hands of those who’ve suffered. From this point onward, we’ll try to match the generosity of those at home, making contributions to responsible aid organizations benefiting all Nepalis.

Hahn’s Summits and Successes

Photo: Michael Brown/Eddie Bauer-First Ascent

  • 275+ summits of Mount Rainier—he served as a guide for other climbers for the majority of them
  • 21 summits of Denali—these were also guided climbs led by Hahn
  • 15 summits of Mount Everest—the most for a non-Sherpa climber
  • 35 summits of the Vinson Massif (the highest point in Antarctica)—a record
  • In 1999, he participated in the expedition that discovered and identified the remains of explorer George Mallory, who died trying to scale Everest in 1924.
  • In 2006, he guided a team of professional athletes on an expedition to ski Mount Everest.
  • Hahn shot high-altitude video for the PBS “NOVA” program “Lost on Everest.” He also guided a film crew into Antarctica’s Ellsworth Mountains that resulted in the Emmy Award-winning film “Mountain of Ice.”
  • He received the Citizen’s Award for Bravery from the U.S. Department of the Interior for rescuing an injured climber on Mount Rainier. This rescue was performed following the crash of the helicopter transporting Hahn to the scene of the original accident.

Dave Hahn After his 14th Everest Summit