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Apr 25, 2016

Exclusive: Everest Base Camp doctor shares his story from the 2015 quake

Major Ritesh Goel was part of the Indian Army Expedition on Everest Base Camp when the disastrous earthquake struck Nepal in May 2015, and triggered a deadly avalanche on the mountain.

WRITTEN BY

The Outdoor Journal

He treated more than 80 people before helicopters could arrive. In an exclusive story for The Outdoor Journal, he shares his personal journey through the catastrophic event.

In 60 Parachute Field Hospital there is a saying: “Be careful what you wish for, because you end up getting an overdose of what you want”. As a young probationer I found the achievements of Major N Linyu very inspiring. She went out to explore new lands, with toil and self-sacrifice, fitted herself to become a champion in the field of mountaineering, and became the first Army Medical Corps Officer to summit Mount Everest—to imitate her was my dream.

Photo by Dr. Ritesh Goel – Nepal Earthquake 2015.

But little did I know that after years of training in Himalayas, my dream would turn into a nightmare and I would nearly die in it. I hope through photographs, I’m able to transfer some of the excitement and sadness I felt to readers who are deeply interested. Also, I realize that there are some photographs that will reside only in my memory; they are the images I cannot share.

“Close your eyes, and time moves faster”

On the evening of 15 May 2015, I squeezed into a dome tent with a dozen other climbers, all keyed up for our journey back to Kathmandu from Everest Base Camp. We sat knee to knee on torn mattresses facing each other in the bare tent. The space inside wasn’t exactly a stretch limo; you might try not to crowd out the guy next to you, but there was only so much you could do. We sat there for what seemed like years. Every inside in my body cramped. Tight wasn’t the word. Thankfully, just about everyone inside the tent with me had showered an hour back in the heavy rainfall that had hit the Syengboche airstrip, from where we were being evacuated the next day.

At first, it was cold and to most of us who were drenched it felt like deep winter—but within a few minutes the butane gas stove was choking us and we had to crank it down. I put my rucksack down on the floor with my climbing gear propped between my legs and my down jacket on the backside. I had a makeshift pillow. I tried to sleep.

Photo by Dr. Ritesh Goel – Nepal Earthquake 2015.

“Close your eyes, and time moves faster”, my team leader Maj RS Jamwal often quoted. I didn’t get that much sleep. As a team, we have been awake for most of the last 20 days, ever since we woke up early morning on the 25th of April and started our climb over the Khumbu Icefall. Of all the obstacles to those ascending Mount Everest, the Khumbu Icefall is perhaps the most treacherous. The last 20 days we saw terrible things and more, we lived through them.

We survived two devastating earthquakes, numerous aftershocks and the heavy rains that followed, which triggered wave of landslides from these precarious slopes in the Everest Region. This has been hard on our minds and bodies. The damage was not obvious in the euphoria of survival. But over the days, a number of cases of post traumatic stress disorder were diagnosed. Sometimes my team mates could not bear to fall asleep for fear of the flashbacks and the faces of the dead mountaineers that haunted their dreams.

Photo by Dr. Ritesh Goel – Nepal Earthquake 2015.

In the months since then, I’ve come to realize that those twenty days in the mountains forever altered me. I think back to some of the things I’ve seen over the last three years—from Kedarnath to Nepal—communities broken through natural calamities, families broken by death and disease. I wouldn’t take any of it back, not a single second, but it begins to feel less strange to admit to being a little broken myself after witnessing it all. I have renewed respect for those of my colleagues who keep mission work up year after year, working side by side, without ever forgetting who we are and the Army Medical Corps we represent.

Friends and journalists have asked how this experience has affected me. I’ve often dodged the question by saying that it’s not about me. And truly, although a torrent of others’ pain has passed me by, I certainly felt like I was working in a war zone. For now, my team mates seem dearer, and the plight of many people strikes me as even more tragic than before this mission. In fact, for the record, I’m fine. Let’s get back to those who aren’t.

Chaos of the days

More than a hundred people arrived on stretchers, suffering from fractures and head injuries. Sadly, there were twenty dead among them whom we placed in a respectful private area. For the living I had less than three minutes for each one of them in my triage tent, sometimes a little more. During these minutes I exchanged a few words, with the ones who could talk and were conscious. “Are you okay? What’s your name?” I asked. It’s a strange phrase. Despite their exhaustion and fear, they had arrived, they were alive. They smiled. Many also thanked me.

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Photo by Dr. Ritesh Goel – Nepal Earthquake 2015.

My fellow team mates assisted with the difficult task of carrying patients across the terrain. All who helped had already been through a traumatic experience. A wonderful team of skilled people also began to assist—mountain guides, doctors from other climbing teams, and many others. We worked to quickly triage, carry out life and limb saving interventions, provide pain relief and the best compassionate care we could to all. A careful search effort through the devastated camps brought more patients. A huge effort was needed to transport all our patients to the makeshift hospital established in a kitchen tent, a good 500 meters trek away from our damaged middle section of the Everest Base Camp, at 17590 feet. In the makeshift hospital tent we cared for over 80 patients, including 25 with serious life-threatening injuries.

Throughout the evening and night, I stabilized and treated the patients who had suffered head injuries. We had enough medications and medical supplies, courtesy the extra medical funds received by the MT Dte and AFMSD, Delhi. It was a long night and we worked hard. Everywhere I looked, there were doctors and mountain guides from around the globe. They all worked incredibly long hours, helping the relief effort out of the goodness of their own hearts. I saw a Sherpa die two meters from where I was standing. We spent minutes doing intensive revival work, giving CPR, adrenaline shots, basically demonstrating the relentless commitment that goes toward saving a life.

The agony of inaccessibility 

The high altitude villages in the Everest region are far more difficult to access, and it takes more than days to reach the small community of Khunde and Khumjung. It looks like heaven to me, a kind of untouched postcard paradise. The mountain sand so fine it feels like flour, azure blue skies and old handmade Ghompas. We were greeted with smiles and cheers by a beautiful group of men, women and children, so grateful for the relief work that was being done. However, they were hungry, incredibly poor, and virtually cut off from the essentials they need. These people, like most, were living in tents, except that this camp was in a giant basin-like valley. Logistically, moving that many people, with the imminent monsoon and hurricane season lingering like a time bomb, was a terrifying reality that they all were facing. There was an area where tents balanced precariously on the edge of a ditch that drops 10 feet into what was a riverbed. When rains fell a week ago, that ditch became a raging river and two children very nearly lost their lives.

Photo by Dr. Ritesh Goel – Nepal Earthquake 2015.

The treatment here was archaic, the conditions inhumane. The people I saw were obviously and seriously unwell. Some were screaming, some blissfully quiet, very few were clothed and during my visit, most stood in the open, naked and covered in rugs. Two earthquakes killed an estimated 8500 people and injured another 20000 in Nepal. While air evacuations from the mountains by helicopters were organized on an impressive scale for the seriously injured, others with conditions deemed ‘not immediately life-threatening’ remained trapped in their villages, unable to access help.

When you do something out of love, you don’t want to stop. Not yet.

My feelings are mixed and complex as always. This feels like the mission that I always knew I was going to do. Ever since leaving Base Camp I couldn’t enter a building without noting its exits and potential shelter points. The local markets down narrow ramshackle brick lanes in Namche Bazaar were reduced to a narrow strip of rubble. I loved those markets—the noise, the spices, the smells, and the women in bright saris squatting amidst their produce grinning their gap toothed, paan stained smiles at me whilst trying to marry me off to their daughters. The amazing thing was that the country had a spirit that very quickly gets under your skin. The people were friendly and welcoming, and everywhere I looked, I witnessed examples of human courage beyond imagination. They were sticking together through what has been the most devastating earthquake in a hundred years.

Photo by Dr. Ritesh Goel – Nepal Earthquake 2015.

For me, Everest is no longer just the highest mountain in the world; it is the resilient doctors and locals who worked side by side, enduring every single obstacle that came their way. I still don’t know whether tonight’s sleep will be restful, or whether I’ll be in a helicopter above the mountains of Nepal. But I do know volunteering for such missions has its moments and it’s those moments that make life worth living.

Some of these photos are those I did manage to squeeze out of my frozen camera before disaster struck. I hope they will transport you to the high Himalaya and perhaps inspire and intrigue to volunteer for such expeditions.

When my attempt to stand atop the world’s highest mountain ended, I knew it was time for me to do something different. There are lots of other mountains and other challenges. That’s a good thing for me. When you do something because you love to do it, you don’t want to stop. Not yet. That’s the way I feel.

Story (Text and Images) © Major Ritesh Goel 

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Oct 01, 2018

The Forbidden Zone: Mongols, to Your Horses

The rolling green hills, rocky passes, flower-laden meadows and clear streams of Gorkhi Terelj National Park in northern Mongolia is the birthplace of the Mongols. The Outdoor Journal spent a week on horseback with Stone Horse Expeditions in the heart of this country’s vast wilderness.

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WRITTEN BY

Apoorva Prasad

Tdrihe Khan Khentii mountains stretched before us, from one end of the azure sky to the other. Tegri, the Great Sky God, watched us with his infinite panorama. From here, I could see miles and miles into the distance. This was the “Forbidden Zone”, that unknown wilderness where Genghis Khan was born. As a child and then again much later on, he hunted here, his true home, on a horse, sheltered in a ger or under the blue sky. When he was a boy, exiled with his family into the cold and harsh wilderness of the northern Mongolian hills, his only friends were what these lands contained. After he built an empire and died, it became a sacred and taboo zone, left to the deer and wolves. For decades the area had been closed off. The Soviets enforced it as a Highly Restricted Area to allow them to do what they wished with it – from logging and military exercises, to also countering any potential rise of Mongolian nationalism around the great Khan. Despite those years, the Area remained wild.

No wonder the Mongols worshipped it.

A day before, we had crossed fresh bear tracks. There were no signs of human presence apart from our train of horses and riders. And now, this vista lay in front of us, green and yellow grassy hills, long valleys, meadows of flowers stretching to higher mountains all the way to Siberia, some still snow-dusted despite the summer sun. Burkhan Khaldun stood further behind higher peaks. And that incredible sky. No wonder the Mongols worshipped it. We all lived once under this blue infinity. As we’d ridden northwards away from Ulan Bator, the city’s pollution had faded away long ago, the gray curse had lifted and my eyes had once again accustomed themselves to what they had evolved to do – see long distances, look for hares, deer, bears, navigate passes and ford streams, climb rocks, and watch falcons circle on thermals above. And over the last few days, we had done all these things.

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The weary horseriders arrive in the ger to refresh themselves.

We had left our last camp around mid-morning, some hours ago. One half of the party broke away to ride into another valley out west, while Keith and I wanted to ride up and to the pass in the range of hills that separated the Gorkhi Terelj from the Khan Khentii. We skirted the granite mounds which punctuated the ends of this valley, forded a marshy grassland below the campsite, fought off the bloodsucking horseflies that made our horses’ lives miserable for a little while, eventually entering a tall forest of larch and birch. The ground began to rise as we entered a narrow rocky trail that started to wind uphill. Jerry, my sturdy, stubborn little Mongolian horse plodded on. This easy gait was infinitely more comfortable than the long trots of our previous days in the saddle. Keith Swenson, a taciturn, the 64 year-old owner of Stone Horse Expeditions along with his wife Sabine Schmidt, showed none of the wear I felt – my skin of my thighs were quite literally raw after 50 kilometers of riding and trotting in the wilderness. After a few days Keith opened up with wisecracks. “People ask what do you do, and I say I’m a rider”, says Keith, punning on his American accent. “They think I mean ‘writer’, “and they ask, what have you written?” “So I say, Blackie, Brownie, Ol Dirty Face…”, naming his horses.

These lands, however remote, are important.

Halfway up the trail was a shaman’s totem, poles placed on the ground to make a conical structure, wrapped with bits of fabric and ribbons. But at the base, and near a tree, we also found broken shards of glass, vodka bottles drunk and thrown by unknown travelers who no longer respected their old ways. We’d been riding for an hour or so and we stopped for a short break in the little opening in the forest. It was quite warm in the strong sun, perhaps 30C like every day of the summer, but cold at nights, often dipping below freezing.

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These Mongolian horses play a huge role in making a trip across the steppe easy and fun for riders. Each horse has a unique personality. Big Dirty Face pictured here loves coffee and will drink it straight from your cup if you let him.

The Mongols invented the modern world*

The old ways are important. These lands, however remote, are important. The Mongols invented the modern world*. When, at the age of 55, Genghis Khan rode out into Asia and Europe, he created the largest empire known to humanity, as well as its first international postal system, and the largest free-flowing network of ideas, trade and culture. But today, Mongolia feels relatively isolated and far away, landlocked in the Eurasian continent. And getting there turned out to be a greater adventure than we’d expected. Instead of flying, we took the famous Trans-Mongolian from Beijing to Ulan Bator. At 11pm, the train pulled into the last station on the China-Mongolia border to change the undercarriage (the railway gauge is different in Mongolia). Three hours later we got back on the train and waited patiently for the Chinese guards to hand us all our passports back. Our intern’s passport was returned ripped from its cover. Before anyone could make a move, the train entered Mongolia… where the Mongolian border guard insisted that the 18-year old girl get off the train because she wasn’t allowed to enter on an invalid passport. Twenty minutes of arguing later, at nearly three am, we got off and watched the train leave without us.

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Mongolian cuisine is typically meat and dairy products. Vegans beware.

Fifteen hours later, after many phone calls and emails to various embassies and important officials, she was finally allowed to enter the country. The Trans-Mongolian having long gone, we finagled an eight-hour taxi ride across the great steppes (on a second-hand car coming off a goods train) for $45. Welcome to Mongolia.

REAL MEN TROT

I did not have much riding experience, but I usually don’t let a little thing like that deter me from a trip. Keith, once also a climber, agreed that anyone up for adventure would be perfectly fine on a Mongolian horse. They were sturdy and forgiving. We all gathered at their staging camp an hour’s drive from Ulan Bator – a Singaporean couple on their second trip with Stone Horse, their friend from Hong Kong, a French diplomat from Swaziland, our team of three, Keith, Sabine and their crew – Nyamaa, Buyana and Jackson, the American intern. Soon, our team of 16 horses and Stinky the Mongolian Dog, a most genuine companion if there ever was one, were off towards the north. Day one went reasonably well, with a short four hour ride to our first campsite inside the Gorkhi Terelj National Park. The other experienced riders asked me various questions about how I felt and whether my horse had cantered or galloped, and I said I didn’t know, but the horse seemed to know what it was doing. Apparently, they have many gaits.

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Nomads Yadmaa and Tavaasurn inside their summer ger, just outside Gorkhi Terelj.

I learned what that meant the next day.

The morning begins easily and we move along a gentle valley. At a stream, the horses bend to drink. They’re herd animals, comfortable only in their own numbers. Suddenly, there’s a commotion as one of the pack horses spooks and bolts. We’re unprepared, and good old Jerry decides to follow the bolting horse too, suddenly turning 180 degrees and galloping wildly. I have to pull firmly on the reins to stop him, while the teamsters have to get the other fella back. He’s bucking around wildly, his unshod feet stamping, his grass-eating brain telling him that that bee sting he felt on his hind was a wolf’s nip. Stinky ignores the commotion, running ahead happily back in his favorite hunting grounds, chasing ground squirrels to their holes. We continue, entering a forest and then riding uphill to a pass. On the other side, a wide open valley, and our first real gallop. Now I feel the sensation, riding with the animal as one, gently cycling my feet in the stirrups and gripping with my knees, all of it coming naturally to me and I urge Jerry on, on, on. Chhoo, Jerry, Chhoo! We stop at a babbling brook in the valley below where we wash our faces. Are we in paradise?

And then the long trot begins. For a horse, it’s the most comfortable way to move. But it’s bouncy. I try to “post” like all the real riders. Watching me grimace in agony, Keith smiled and said, “real men trot,” as he rode along comfortably with that rolling ankle movement to compensate for the horse’s bumpy ride. “Trotting is how the Mongols moved such vast distances. If you make him gallop, you won’t get very far, you’ll kill the horse”.

a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities

But Mongolia changed the course of human history since long before the great Khan and his riders, the ultimate, self-sufficient soldiers. Apart from the Mongols, it is also the original homeland of the Huns and the Turks. It is a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities, where thousands of years ago two language families met and separated – the Indo-Europeans and the Altaics – and possibly where the wild horse was first tamed, thereby changing the course of history. When men on horses first raced out of Central Asia, first ancient Mesopotamia, then Egypt fell. Europe’s original ‘mother culture’ and India’s Harappan civilization disappeared. Humans, moving incredible distances on horses, spread across Asia, from the western end of Europe to Korea, all the way down to Arabia and India, creating nearly all the cultures we know today. Some of the languages they spoke evolved today into English, and others evolved into Japanese, but some of their words have become so intermingled that it’s hard to distinguish which came from which. Hindi is an Indo-European language, but today the common Hindi word for “home” is “ghar” (from the Sanskrit “grhá”) which is nearly identical to the Altaic Mongolian’s word for home, ger.

When the Hunnu (“Huns”) fought the Chinese Hans, the clans that lost fled towards Europe, creating Hungary, as well as leading to the downfall of the Western Roman Empire. Centuries later, the Turkics originally from the Mongolian steppes came hurtling into Constantinople, wiping out the Eastern Roman Empire.

We ride through rocky hills and rock formations, up and down defiles, over passes and across shallow streams, through meadows of flowers and knee-high grass. We ride all day, and every evening set up our traveling camp like the Mongols of old. We sleep in modern-day lightweight tents, under trees or under the stars, breathing cold clear air, drinking from fresh rain-fed streams, eating atop rocks while falcons circle above and the horses graze.

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The Stone Horse team from left to right – Jackson, Keith, Buyana, Nyamaa and Sabine.

The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

One day we stretched out the ride to reach a farther campsite, a Hunnu gravesite. We set up our tents atop 2000-year old graves, low mounds of stones marking the places where men, women, children and horses were laid to rest. “I believe that these people would have loved us to be here, living like they did,” said Keith. When they hear our horses, they’ll feel alive”. The next morning, I pulled my horse off to a side and to a vantage point to shoot the group riding further down the valley. Jerry stomped and neighed angrily as the herd passed him by, but I held him back. When the group disappeared into the distance, I quickly packed my camera gear back into the saddlebags. Then jumping back on, I let the horse fly as he wished, back to his herd. Jerry, the funny but tough little horse, galloped madly a mile north over the gently rising slope. Our hooves rang out in the valley, as two large round mounds, Hun graves, emerged in front on the mountainside. Neither Jerry nor I needed to veer, and we galloped directly over the centre of the mounds, the sound of our hoofbeats gladdening passed Hunnu souls. Their ancestors, our ancestors, had once tamed wild horses, and together changed the world. The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

Images by Madhuri chowdhury.

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