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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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Jul 06, 2018

Rescue from the Ice: A Narrow Escape In Iceland

Two men drive a jeep off a glacier and into a crevasse in Iceland. A US Air Force PJ recounts his role in a civilian rescue mission while stationed at a naval base in the North Atlantic.

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WRITTEN BY

Skiy Detray

This story originally featured in a print issue of the Outdoor Journal. You can subscribe here.

November, 2006. The call came in as our team was having dinner at our base in Keflavik, Iceland.  A civilian jeep had fallen into a crevasse on the massive Hofsjokull Glacier. The jeep was wedged 80 feet down, with unknown passengers trapped inside. Accessing the jeep and saving these people would be complex and dangerous, so local authorities had called in the American military’s elite rescue team.

As a Pararescueman (or PJ) I worked on a team with some of the most elite soldiers in the U.S. military.  PJs are highly specialized personnel, trained to conduct high-risk combat and civilian rescue operations at a moment’s notice, anywhere in the world.  Unlike other special forces – Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets – who are trained to hunt and take life, the PJ’s primary mission is to save life: we resort to lethal force only when necessary to protect our patient.  I was stationed at Keflavik, from where we conducted military rescue operations but also extended our services to the local Icelandic population when needed.

We rushed to the staging area where our equipment was waiting for us, along with a fleet of HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters.  I could feel the adrenaline surging in my blood, my heart rate quickening.

The key to successful execution of high-pressure rescue is to remain calm. No matter how unlikely success may appear, one must be confident that he or she has the skills to overcome any situation.  One must improvise, based on instinct and years of training, often thinking well outside the box.  Since the very first days of our training, we had been taught to adapt, overcome and complete the mission at any cost.

The U.S. Navy base at Keflavik was established during World War II to defend Iceland and secure northern Atlantic air routes, and remains in operation 60 years later. The PJs stationed at Keflavik were on hand primarily to support F-16 fighter jets maintaining patrols over the icy northern Atlantic Ocean.  Any time an F-16 is in flight, two assigned PJs are on alert and ready to immediately respond to any incident.  Additional PJs are on alert 24 hours a day to respond to civilian rescues for the country of Iceland, a service provided to extend goodwill to our hosts.  When PJs are not performing actual missions, they spend their days preparing and training, always sharpening their skills for future missions.

At my locker in the PJ building, I suited up for the mission in warm layers and Gore-Tex.  I grabbed my rucksack and filled it with goggles, gloves and miscellaneous survival gear. Nearby, my teammates Alex and Matt suited up for the mission.  In addition to the usual medical equipment, we loaded an extrication device (“Jaws of Life”), extensive high-angle ice-rescue gear, and a full complement of glacier camping equipment, as we had no way of knowing how long the operation would require us to be out there. We headed outside to the launch pad, where maintenance personnel were making last-second checks on our bird.

“Ready to rock and roll,” I responded.

The HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter is the Air Force’s primary aircraft for combat and civilian search and rescue operations, a modified version of the well-known Blackhawk choppers, equipped with advanced cold-weather capability for the sub-arctic environments across the north Atlantic.  In addition to rescue operations, the Pave Hawk is frequently used for humanitarian aid and disaster relief missions throughout the world and is often seen in images of U.S. military personnel providing supplies or aid to victims of natural disasters.  

As the thud-thud-thud of the chopper blades slowly increased in tempo, we loaded up men and gear into the cabin and were greeted by our pilot, Captain Thomas.  

“How are you guys doing back there?” Captain Thomas asked over the intercom.  

“Ready to rock and roll,” I responded. As a crucial member of our team, the pilot is all business during a mission, but Captain Thomas had a style and grace far beyond most of the guys: I had noticed her long, curly chestnut hair and very fit athletic build. Being a woman in the Air Force special operations is not easy, and I saw our pilot as inspiring proof that gender differences are often irrelevant in the face of hard work, talent, and raw determination.
I had been a PJ for three years, and was working towards a promotion to team leader.  On this mission, Alex was officially the team leader, responsible for important decisions and ultimately accountable for the outcome of the mission. On paper, I was still a team member, but recently I’d been assuming more of a leadership role as my confidence and experience mounted.

“PJ Team Lead, how do you want to execute this?” Captain Thomas asked over the intercom. No response. After an awkward 30 seconds of silence, I looked over at Alex and was stunned to see the uncertainty in his eyes.  

Again the pilot asked, “PJ Team Lead, what is the game plan here?”  Another 20 awkward seconds went by, as time seemed to stand still.  Meanwhile Alex, a bona fide bad-ass and highly seasoned PJ, was simply freezing up. At the same time, I felt comfortable and in my element, having spent years in the mountains, navigating crevasses and climbing mountain faces and frozen waterfalls as a recreational alpinist, and high-angle rescue was one of my strongest skills in the quiver of PJ specialties.

I keyed the microphone and responded to Captain Thomas. “Let’s do a flyover of the scene to take a look, then try to find a safe place to land.  From there we can move as a rope team to the crevasse or perhaps you can drop us in on the hoist.”  

“Roger that,” Captain Thomas responded, her voice focused and alert.  

I looked at Alex, knowing now was my time to assume the team lead role. I felt confident and capable, and unlike Alex I had been raised in the snow. Having climbed mountains for most of my life, I understood glaciers and crevasses, and although I fully recognised the dangers present in the unstable medium, and the complexities involved in a patient extrication from 80 feet deep in the ice, I felt comfortable in the environment and ready to use my abilities. If there was ever a mission built for me, this was it.

It is not uncommon for candidates to lose consciousness underwater.

As the Pave Hawk carried us toward the Hofsjokull Glacier, I thought back to my PJ training. Conducted under the cruel sun of the hot Texas desert, some call the intense and brutal indoctrination course of the PJs the most difficult selection process in the U.S. military. Ten weeks of total hell, followed by an 18-month training pipeline during which 90 percent of candidates are eliminated. Beginning each day at 4:30 am, mandatory training includes running, calisthenics, push-ups, sit ups, all in the heat, numbering in the thousands per day. But this portion of training is actually the easy part: the real hell starts in the indoor pool.  

Each candidate sits at the edge of the pool, with his diving mask, fins, snorkel, weight belt and booties perfectly aligned behind him.  As the instructors approach the 100 aspiring PJs, a loud guttural war cry fills the indoor facility with bone-chilling intensity. All are aware that the pool is where most PJ hopes and dreams will be shattered. My second week in the program, I decided I was willing to die trying to make the cut.

“Enter the water!” the instructor yells. In perfect succession, the first row of candidates enters the water and performs a 25-meter underwater swim. Throughout each 4-hour pool session, instructions must be executed perfectly. Instructors pay ruthless attention to every candidate’s every move, issuing swift and severe consequence, usually involving additional underwater suffering, to the slightest mistake.  It is not uncommon for candidates to lose consciousness underwater. Fortunately, I had just finished a career as a college distance runner, so my body was familiar with operating on depleted oxygen. I was also very determined not to get washed out. This determination paid off and I was eventually successful in making the cut to become a special forces Pararescueman.

Five years later, and now en-route to the Hofsjokull Glacier, I was thankful that the instructors had not been easy on me. They taught me valuable lessons and to pay close attention to detail.

In this business, the smallest mistake can get you killed.

Upon arrival at the scene we found a gently rolling landscape of white snow and ice littered with crevasses.  I spotted a large crevasse with jeep tracks straddling the slit, ending at a broken hole where an ice bridge has collapsed.  Three people were near the crevasse, aware of the situation but unable to help.  

Over the intercom, I directed Captain Thomas to land about 600 yards from the crevasse, in a flat area where the jeeps had driven and their tracks indicated surface stability.  We exited the aircraft on a roped belay while probing for crevasses.  After we had deemed the landing area free of crevasses, we unloaded all our gear from the Pave Hawk and the bird took off.  We immediately loaded up our large packs and moved to the accident scene, still roped up to protect against falls into any hidden crevasses.  

chopper-1

We greeted the three Icelandic men standing at the scene, then probed the surrounding area to confirm that we could unrope and move about the area safely.  The men were local firefighters and had arrived on scene minutes earlier via glacier jeep.

I asked the firemen about the status of the passengers in the jeep. They indicated that one man was dead, on the upright side of the jeep, with one survivor trapped on the bottom side. They didn’t know the survivor’s condition other than that he was injured, cold and very uncomfortable, as the jeep had been severely crushed in the fall. The roof of the jeep was compressed down below its windows, and the patient was not in a good situation. In addition, the instability of a vehicle wedged into the ice presented serious danger to rescuers at the vehicle.

Alex allowed me to take control of the mission, even though he was the team leader on paper. I directed the team to set up some ice anchors and send rappel ropes down into the crevasse. Matt and Alex then rappelled down into the darkness, along with two of the Icelandic firemen. Upon arrival at the jeep they placed several ice screws into the walls, creating a safe anchor to protect them from slipping off the side of the vehicle into the abyss and also provide a safety net in the event the jeep should shift and suddenly fall further into the darkness.  

The temperature was 38 degrees Fahrenheit and dropping fast as the sun descended toward the horizon. Working quickly, Matt called for the extrication equipment and indicated their plan: “We are going to remove the driver’s-side door to gain access to the deceased, and hopefully to the survivor.”

“Roger that,” I respond, and prepare to send down our Jaws of Life.  As we work, several glacier jeeps approach from different directions; word of the accident has gotten out and it appears that every rescue team in Iceland is keen to help.

The first jeep pulled up and a tall, solidly-built man got out and introduced himself as Bjorg. As I briefed him on the situation, I mentioned the trouble we anticipated with our small Jaws of Life trying to cut open the crushed jeep. Bjorg explained that he had a more powerful Jaws of Life, currently en route via truck from the other side of the island—hours away. With the impending darkness and dropping temperature, I knew time was of the essence. I realised we may be able to speed up the extrication process by sending the Pave Hawk to intercept the Jaws, and immediately directed Captain Thomas to rendezvous with the vehicle carrying them across the island. She fired up the helicopter and, with GPS coordinates for a rendezvous point established, headed north to fetch the crucial tool.

More jeeps continued to arrive, all carrying well-intentioned volunteers or professional rescue teams. Bjorg stated that he would be the Icelandic in charge and that he and I would work together to get this done safe and efficiently. A few moments later an independent rescue team dressed in matching red uniforms arrived and started questioning everything: our equipment, our plan, our leadership. With no time to be distracted, I calmly asked Bjorg to tell the man to step down and that everything was under control. He sternly told the man and his team to step back, and we were able to proceed unhindered.

Just then I heard the dull thud of the helicopter returning.  “DeTray,” Caption Thomas asked over the radio, “where do you want these Jaws put down?”  

“Lower them right down on top of us,” I responded.  

“Roger that,” and with a precision hover she had the flight engineer lower the package. “DeTray, how much more time do you need?”  

I indicated we weren’t sure but would probably need several hours.  She needed to return to base to refuel, and promised to be back soon.  “Roger that, see you in a few hours,” I responded.  The bird took flight once again and disappeared into the distance.

With the help of the Icelanders I lowered the more powerful Jaws of Life down to our crew in the crevasse.  Removing the driver’s door, which had been violently crushed by the fall, proved very difficult, but eventually Alex called for a litter to be sent down.  Soon the body of the deceased was loaded and hoisted to the surface, where it was placed in a body bag.

Next, Matt’s voice came over the radio: “Detray, I have some bad news. We were hoping to be able to get to the trapped man through the driver’s side, but the roof has collapsed down to the centre console. It looks like we will need to rappel down under the jeep and attempt to remove the door from the underside.”  

My head swirled with the infinite number of things that could go wrong with this plan.  I trusted my teammates’ judgment and assessment of the situation, but I also understood the risks of sending men under the jeep.  If the jeep were to shift position, it could fall and crush my men.  As acting commander, I would be morally responsible for any injury to my team.  I took a deep breath and told Matt to do what he felt was the right course of action.  “I know you want to save him, Matt,” I radioed, “but please be careful down there.”  

The men descended below the jeep and began to work on the lower door.  Light from their powerful headlamps and the roar of the Jaws of Life drifted up to the surface, eerily echoing off the icy walls.  Time slowed to a standstill, and I could feel the pressure of the situation while waiting.  Matt had just been married and I suddenly felt heightened awareness that I was responsible for his safety.  I sure didn’t want to have to give his new wife any bad news.  

The evening sun finally set and darkness settled over the scene.  Alex radioed up to me, requesting the litter and stating their plan to remove the lower door and guide the patient into the litter.  I reminded the guys to be sure the patient was secured with a rope to prevent him tumbling deeper into the crevasse.

The plan went off perfectly.  The door of the jeep was removed and the patient was loaded into the litter and secured.  Alex radioed up requesting a slow raise of the patient, and our crew on the surface brought him up.  Just as we pulled the patient over the lip of the crevasse, I heard the sound of the Pave Hawk roaring back onto the scene, and at that very moment the Aurora Borealis broke into a beautiful display of blues, greens and reds dancing in the arctic sky.  

“Pilot, we have just extracted the survivor and he is stable and ready for transport.  Request hoist pick up.”  

After an hour flying through the arctic darkness, we could see the bright lights of Iceland’s capital Reykjavik and soon Captain Thomas landed on the helicopter pad of a modern medical facility.

We had pulled off a difficult mission, where success was uncertain. Despite difficult conditions and high risk, we were able to extricate and transport our patient, saving his life, without incurring any injuries to the rescuers.

Illustrations by Rimo Dey

Text by: Skiy Detray 

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