Bend climbing guide recounts grim scene after deadly April avalanche on Mount Everest
BEND, Oregon — On the mountain, it could happen at any moment — so Bend’s J.J. Justman considers himself lucky.
In 2006, he escaped death by a minute. In April, he escaped it by a day.
The Khumbu Icefall on the Nepalese slopes of Mount Everest is riddled with crevasses and blocks of ice the size of houses that can collapse without warning and hurtle down the mountainside with lethal speed.
On April 18, 13 Sherpas — Nepalese climbing guides — were killed in an ice avalanche while working in the icefall to prepare for the climbing season. Three other Sherpas are still missing and presumed dead, and nine others were injured. The climbing season on Everest was effectively canceled.
On his fourth expedition to Everest, the 41-year-old Justman was climbing through the icefall just the day before the April 18 tragedy, the deadliest accident in the history of climbing on the world’s highest peak in the Himalayas of Nepal.
In 2006, Justman was only a minute behind three Sherpas who were killed when a massive tower of ice fell on them in the Khumbu Icefall.
Justman, who says he helped recover two of the bodies in this year’s accident, remains haunted by the loss of life he witnessed on the ever-crowded Everest.
In 2004, Justman, a professional mountaineering guide, reached the 29,029-foot summit of Everest on his first attempt. He had made previous trips in 2006 and 2009, each time forgoing his own summit to get his clients back down safely.
Justman, with 20 years of experience as a guide, was eagerly anticipating the 2014 trip with RMI (Rainier Mountaineering, Inc.) Expeditions. Justman would be assisting RMI guide Dave Hahn, who boasts the most Everest summits of any non-Sherpa, with 15. Along with fellow guide Billy Nugent and a team of 12 Sherpas, they would help lead seven paying climbers up Everest, a challenge that requires weeks of acclimatizing.
On the day before the Sherpas were killed, the RMI team made a practice run through the dangerous icefall — a jumbled mass of ice broken from a glacier — then returned to base camp at 17,598 feet. Climbers use numerous ladders, set up by Sherpas, to cross dangerous crevasses in the icefall.
“Our intention was to do a day of rest and then go up and occupy Camp 1 (20,015 feet),” Justman says of the camp located just above the icefall.
Justman awoke on the morning of April 18 at Everest Base Camp and heard from inside his sleeping tent the ice avalanche, but he did not think much of it — every night, climbers at base camp hear collapses from the icefall and other surrounding mountains. Then he went outside, glanced up at the icefall, and noticed an unusually large gathering of fellow mountaineers. He turned on the radio, and that is when he discovered the enormity of the situation.
Hahn and Justman strapped on their boots and readied their packs. After some hesitation, concerned about possibly interfering in the search, they decided to go see if they could help.
“We just had this sense,” Justman says. “We felt like we should go up there to do whatever we can. Even if it’s helping people come down, because there were injured (Sherpas). Obviously we knew then that there were people that had died.”
Justman, Hahn and two Sherpas from their team ran up to the accident site.
“Already I can feel the emotions coming on,” Justman recalls. “It’s like, this is absolutely horrible. I’m giving water to some of the Sherpas who are coming down who have helped. I thought, if this is all I do, is just give water to these guys who have been working, it’s well worth it. We kind of were told, hey, the helicopter’s coming in and out, hauling victims who were still alive as well as recovering bodies. So it’s like, yeah, you didn’t want to get in the way.”
It was a grim scene, Justman says, as a guide from another expedition was checking for pulses of 11 Sherpas who had died, just to be certain. Rescuers rigged bodies to helicopters via cables to get them flown off the mountain.
Eventually, the climbers and guides at the site decided to start back down to base camp. Justman was incredulous. He remembers looking at Hahn, and stating that he refused to leave alone in the icefall Sherpas who were rigging up bodies of their friends and family.
“If something happens to them, someone needs to be here,” Justman says. “I’m like, we’re not going anywhere. I told Dave, I’m staying here, I’m waiting, at the very least.”
Then Justman and Hahn heard from another guide that two bodies whose whereabouts were known had yet to be uncovered. They were located lower down from the main group that had died together in the ice avalanche.
“Dave and I ran up there and, uh, it . it wasn’t good,” Justman recounts with sadness about what they found when they came upon the bodies. “We got to the (first) guy, and he had been hit really hard by the debris. There was another guy right on top of a ladder. It was tough. I’m not gonna lie, I was crying at that point, dealing with that.”
He says he didn’t personally know any of the Sherpas who died, but many mountaineers like Justman have a special kinship with the Sherpas, who carry food and supplies to camps and support climbers in their summit quests.
Justman did know one of the Sherpas who had lost several of his team members in the ice avalanche, and he says the Sherpa was devastated.
“Everyone’s either related or best friends, throughout all the expeditions, they all know each other,” Justman says of the Sherpas. “So our Sherpas knew these guys, he grew up next to some of them in the villages. It was a rough day.”
May 15-30 is usually the best weather window for reaching the summit of Everest. According to cnn.com, foreign climbers spend between $40,000 and $90,000 each in their attempt to scale the mountain, and Nepal’s government rakes in about $3 million from Everest climbers during the high season.
Sherpas earn up to $6,000 per season, and they typically receive a summit bonus if their clients reach the top of Everest, according to Justman.
In 2004, the year Justman reached the summit, more than 300 climbers made it to the top. In 2012, the number was more than 500. The deadliest year on Everest — before this year — was 1996, when 15 climbers died. Another 12 lost their lives on Everest in 2006.
After the April 18 tragedy — which Justman calls “the worst thing I’d ever seen in my almost 20 years of guiding” — the Nepal government eventually met the demands of the Sherpas who wanted monetary compensation for the families of those lost. Many Sherpas also did not want the climbing season on Everest to continue this year.
Justman attended a ceremony at Everest Base Camp for those who lost their lives. The gathering also provided an opportunity for all the expeditions to discuss the fate of the season.
“For me, I kind of knew in the back of my head, it’s done,” Justman says of the climbing season. “I know it’s going to be done. And finally, it was.”
Eight days after the tragedy, the season was canceled.
“It just didn’t feel right,” Justman says. “The vibe was not there. All the big operations respectfully said, yeah, we’re done. That was that.”
On May 23, a 40-year-old Chinese woman reportedly was taken by helicopter to a location above the Khumbu Icefall, then climbed the rest of the way to become the first and only mountaineer to summit Everest this year.
Justman fears this sort of “cheating” to reach the top might become commonplace.
“That, sad to say, is I think what’s going to happen with most expeditions,” he laments. “I hope not.”
This summer, Justman has a full season of guiding booked on Washington’s 14,410-foot Mount Rainier. He also plans to guide two expeditions on Russia’s Mount Elbrus in July before returning to Rainier.
When asked if he will ever return to Everest, he responds with an honest “I don’t know.”
“Definitely a lot of family and friends would hate me to answer that question as ‘I don’t know,'” Justman notes. “But it’s hard not to go back. It’s a beautiful place, beautiful people. Our Sherpa team, they’re friends of mine. They’re like family.”
Justman has attempted six of the world’s 14 8,000-meter peaks, most of them located in the Himalayas. At one time he wanted to try them all, but now he says that is unlikely at this point in his life. He has summited Mount Rainier 207 times, which is no small accomplishment. Earlier this month, six climbers died while attempting to summit Rainier, the highest peak in the Cascade Range, in the worst disaster there in more than 30 years.
Like any experienced climber, Justman accepts and respects the risks on the world’s most challenging peaks.
“The biggest thing I want to do now is just share these mountain experiences with other people,” he says. “That’s why I love climbing Mount Rainier. You get people who have never done it ever in their life out on a mountain that’s very doable for them, but very serious. To share that with them, that’s what I live for now.”