TIME Nepal

Mount Everest Avalanche Witness: ‘It Looked Like a Big Snake Coming Down The Mountain’

Mount Everest on Oct. 27, 2011.
Mount Everest seen in 2011. Kevin Frayer—AP

American climber Joby Ogwyn was at base camp on Mount Everest when the deadliest avalanche in the mountain's recorded history rolled down the side, killing at least 13 Nepalese Sherpas and sparking resentment over working conditions on expeditions

Joby Ogwyn was planning to jump off the summit of Mount Everest. Instead he went to funerals for his Sherpas.

There are some 50,000 Sherpas in the world, according to some estimates, mountain-dwelling people best known for the livelihood the Nepalese Sherpas have made helping tourists scale Mount Everest. At at least 13 of them were killed this month in the deadliest avalanche in the mountain’s recorded history—proportionally, that would be like a loss of about 100,000 Americans in a single day. Dozens of Nepalese Sherpas staged a walkout at the Mount Everest base camp on Wednesday, in honor of the fallen and in reaction to a tragedy that has sparked resentment over their working conditions. The mountain is closed, and long-planned expeditions are being canceled, some by teams who lost their guides in the avalanche and want to respect their memories by standing down this season, even if the mountain reopens.

One of those teams is Ogwyn’s. The American climber was set to do the first wing-suit jump off the summit of Everest, to be broadcast live by the Discovery Channel later this month. In the wake of the avalanche, the grand adventure that was hatched two years ago has been scrapped. Discovery is eating many of those costs and will instead be airing a special documentary on May 4 about the aftermath of the avalanche, which it inadvertently had camera teams in place to capture.

TIME spoke to Ogwyn from his hotel in Kathmandu about what it was like to be on the ground when the mountain came tumbling down, what he remembers of the guides that their team lost, and why he has no regrets.

“It looked like a big snake coming down the mountain through the ice fall,” Ogwyn recalls of when he first saw the avalanche. “And I saw all my guides with the other Sherpa on ladders, going up a big vertical section of ice. And the avalanche just came down right on top of them. I knew it was bad, but obviously I didn’t realize how bad it would be.”

Here’s his interview with TIME, lightly edited and condensed.

When did you arrive in Nepal and what was the trip to base camp like?

I arrived on April 4, and I was here for a couple days. Then my team took a small airplane ride to the city of Luqa and 9,000 feet. We proceeded to trek in, and it took about seven days to arrive at base camp. On the third day we were there, we had our puja ceremony, which is the blessing of all the members of the team. And it was really the most beautiful puja ceremony I’ve ever been to, and I’ve been to a lot. Each expedition has their own. They have a lama that comes. It’s a celebration, but it’s really a prayer for safe passage up the mountain. We had a really great day there and bonded with all our friends, our Sherpa, our staff from base camp.

And then what happened?

The very next day, our guides were going to take some equipment to the first camp. We had planned on going the following day. That morning that they went up, I was awake very early in my tent. It was about 6:45 a.m. if I remember right, and I heard the avalanche.

There’s a lot of little avalanches that happen when you’re at base camp. You’re on a glacier and everything is creaking and cracking, so you get used to hearing those types of things. And usually you don’t look outside your tent unless you really hear that it’s a big avalanche. Because they’re quite powerful and, in some ways, quite beautiful. But the one that I heard [even though it didn't sound big], I could hear that it was coming from the ice fall. And I knew my guides and a lot of other guides were up there. I zipped the tent fly back and looked out.

I couldn’t see it at first. It had happened a little further back on the mountain, where the piece had broken off. And then I saw it. It looked like a big snake coming down the mountain through the ice fall. And I saw all my guides with the other Sherpa on ladders, going up a big vertical section of ice. And the avalanche just came down right on top of them. I knew it was bad, but obviously I didn’t realize how bad it would be.

How could you tell, when you heard the avalanche, how big it was?

The way that it works on the really big mountains in the Himalayas, it’s not like an avalanche you would have in Colorado, where it looks like a little slab that breaks off and it’s soft snow. This is all ice. The mountains are so big and so high, they’re on these glaciers. And at some moment, a piece of it breaks off. When it hits, it falls for so long, tumbling down the mountain, it brings so much energy and speed and power, that when that piece breaks, it just turns it into pieces of shrapnel that are made out of ice. And whatever it hits, it destroys.

This one, it seemed to me, came from a piece of ice that was not hanging quite as high. It wasn’t as loud or as fast-moving as I had seen many others. There were people that had gotten away from it, people who saw it and outran it. And the people behind them, once it got to them, it had more speed and pushed them back into the ice fall. … I knew that some people had probably died, been killed by the upper, bigger part of it. But I was hoping that the guides that I saw get covered up just got a dusting. Unfortunately, that was not the case.

So what did you do in those moments after you looked out of your tent and saw the avalanche covering your guides?

I put my clothes on very quickly, got out of my tent. In other camps I started to hear people talking and yelling at each other. Our radios lit up. I walked into the our communications tent where our camp manager was and we just started to try to make contact on the radio with our guides. We made contact with some guides up there who weren’t on our team and were asking about our team members. You could hear in the background on the radio, guys were scrambling around, yelling back and forth. The Sherpa who had survived were working very hard to find the Sherpa that were covered up and were trying to dig them out, digging them out as fast as they could. Some they were finding very quickly were dead. Some they found still alive, or just covered up, and they managed to pull them out. But from what they were telling us, it was a brutal scene.

So very quickly, I would say within 12 minutes, all the Western teams had come together with their lead guides and were preparing for going up and assisting. We were getting helicopters mobilized, which was the part of the process that took the longest. It probably took an hour or two hours, which is still incredibly fast in this area because it’s just very remote. I was impressed with how fast people came together.

And what did you personally do in terms of recovery efforts? Was there much you could do at that point?

We knew that of our guides who were up there, three of them were missing and three were alive. And we also knew a lot of other people up there. So my climbing partner Garrett Madison and I, we geared up and we started walking into the ice fall. We walked up not quite halfway and our goal was to make sure that we tried to find our three guides and that we received our other three guides coming down. And every other Sherpa, we wanted to bring them food and water and medical equipment. One cameraman came up there and the two of us stayed in position there. It took us all day, until every single Sherpa was off the mountain.

My climbing partner went up the ice fall. He climbed all the way up to the actual avalanche zone, found our guides and unfortunately the three of them that we were working with, that we were going to go to the summit with, were all dead. He spent hours in this hot zone with several other guides basically chipping our guides out of the ice so we could do the body recovery for their families, which is very important in this part of the world, to retrieve the bodies of these guides. They were our guides, our Sherpa, our lead Sherpa. And this ice is really like concrete. It took a long time to get them out. And it just, really, was one of the more heroic things I’ve ever seen. What I did was trying to spot for those guys in case anything was coming down.

Eventually we got everybody off the mountain that we could. There were three guides who were missing who would be very difficult or impossible to find. But we did manage to get our three guides out and get their bodies in the helicopter back to Kathmandu so they could be cremated. We just had the funerals for them yesterday. It was a pretty massive crowd of people and it was just a very, very sad day. We definitely did everything we could to help our friends. I just wish that we could have done more.

When you think about it now, do you have any regrets about trying to have this adventure?

No, I don’t have any regerets at all. What happened was just an unfortunate one-in-a-billion accident, truly an act of God. It just was so random, out of nowhere. You have to remember that people have been climbing on Everest for over 50 years, and nothing like this has ever happened, especially in the last decades. The safety precautions and the way trips are organized has gotten really good. But unfortunately the mountain is what it is. It’s just a massive piece of nature. People do die on it every year. What’s really shocking about this particular instance is that it happened on the first day of climbing, essentially, right at the very beginning, and that is why it was all Sherpa.

My intention was to climb up the very first day, taking all the equipment we could carry and establishing that first camp. The only thing that kept me from being with these guides and being killed ourselves is that one of the producers wanted to do some shots with our equipment and from a scheduling point of view, we thought, we’ll get this out of the way and come up the next day. Literally, when they asked me, and I thought about it for an hour before saying, okay, let’s do it. The fact that I had to think about it for an hour really is scary to me now, because I almost said, Nah, I’m going to go up with my guides the first time. That one little choice saved my life.

Obviously you’re feeling some grief, but do you also feel very lucky?

Absolutely. I am destroyed for my guides, there’s no doubt about that. And I might have lost my team, but other Sherpa lost brothers and friends and cousins. It was just a catastrophe. Am I sad about my project? Of course. You know, I’m not the only person who put a massive amount of time and resources into it, and we had great weather and good conditions for the most part on the mountain. I’m quite convinced that if this hadn’t happened, we could have made everything work. But that’s really the least of my concerns right now. … Nobody is feeling sorry for themselves here.

Discovery will be running the documentary Everest Avalanche Tragedy on May 4 at 9 p.m. and contributing to the American Himalayan Foundation Sherpa Family Fund, which gives 100% of all donations to help families of the deceased. To make a donation, click here.

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