Kenwood man survives Everest avalanche
Big shift in priorities for mountain climber
Jon Reiter (center) with the Khumbu Icefall in the background. The flow line is visible from its origin on the Lhotse face all the way down the hill where it turns left and passes Everest base camp, in the bottom left corner. This picture was taken two days before the avalanche. Photo courtesy of Jon Reiter.
When Jon Reiter was packing for his Mount Everest expedition, the only media encounter he was thinking about was unfurling his copy of the Kenwood Press if he made it to the summit. Little did he know that before he reached home he would be interviewed by both CNN and the New York Times about his experience in the Khumbu Icefall when an avalanche killed 16 Sherpa guides and seriously injured nine. Eight others were injured but walked out.
Reiter, a Kenwood resident and custom home builder, has climbed six of the “Seven Summits,” the tallest peaks on each continent. Danger has always gone hand in hand with big mountain climbing, and every year people die on Everest. Reiter attempted to climb Mt. Everest last year, but turned back due to bad weather. On that try, two Sherpas died. (They were not part of Reiter’s group.) One wasn’t clipped in and fell into a crevasse in the Khumbu Icefall, and one simply sat down and died, probably from a stroke. But no climbers had ever experienced a disaster as big as the one that befell them on April 18.
That morning, Reiter and his climbing partner Marcus Bridle were in base camp waiting on another climber who had slept through his alarm. They started out about 15 minutes later than they had planned, and those 15 minutes are what saved them. That, and the instinctive reaction of Dawa Sherpa who told Reiter to “get down, get down!” and pushed him behind a block of ice.
The men and their Sherpa guides were planning to climb from base camp, elevation 17,500 feet, up to camp one at about 19,500 feet, and then come back down, as part of their system of acclimatizing to the very high altitude. They were in the part of the icefall known as the football field. When the serac broke off above them, Reiter described it as sounding like a prolonged gunshot reverberating around the valley, and as the ice crashed down it made a whooshing sound that seemed to go on for a minute or longer.
They knew immediately what it was, and just as immediately the questions that flashed through their minds were, “Where is it?” and “Who’s underneath it?” They were about 200 yards from the point of impact, thanks to that all-too-human instinct to turn off the alarm and go back to sleep.
As the uninjured Sherpas went about the grim task of rescuing the injured and finding the dead, Reiter and Bridle walked out with another Sherpa who was bleeding from a head wound. Reiter was calculating the time difference between Nepal and California and realized that it was around 6 p.m. at home and that his wife Susan would probably hear about the tragedy on the news, so he got out his satellite phone and called her from the ice field, talking only long enough to say that there had been an avalanche and that he and Marcus were OK. A grateful Susan said she could hear the distress in his voice.
Obviously, going through such an experience makes people reevaluate what’s important in their lives, and for Reiter, it’s family and home. “I may climb Mont Blanc or something, but I’m through with the big mountains,” he said. Sitting in base camp and watching the helicopters flying overhead with dead bodies clipped into cables (the baskets were being used for the wounded) Reiter said he, and others, couldn’t help but think, “That could be me…For a mountain?”
Reiter has the utmost respect for the Sherpas who make their living on Everest. He credits Dawa with saving his life, and marvels at the man’s concern for his safety in that split second moment of disaster. He says there’s a great deal of mutual respect between the western climbers and the Nepalese Sherpas. “If anything, we treat them as our superiors. They are so stable, so peaceful, so calm.” Not to mention immensely strong and skilled mountain climbers. “No one can climb Everest without the Sherpas,” he said. “Even if you say you’re going alone, you’re using the route set by the ice doctors (through the icefall) and clipping into the lines they set up.” He is sure that people will continue to climb Mt. Everest in the years to come, and that the Sherpas will continue to make that possible, but he won’t be with them.
Jon Reiter with and his son Agustin, tired but happy to be back in Kenwood on April 27.
Before leaving Everest base camp, Reiter wrote in his blog, “I think it’s time for this chapter of my life to come to an end. It’s nice that I have this option, the choice to decide to end this chapter and move on to the next life experience; to spend the next six years participating in my boy’s life on a day to day basis before he leaves for college; for 16 men on Everest they’ll never get that choice.”