Mike MacNair was halfway back to Lukla, the small Himalayan town that serves as an entry point for Everest climbers, when an avalanche on the Khumbu Icefall killed 16 Sherpas, many of whom he had lived and prayed among only two days earlier at Everest base camp.
The avalanche struck last Friday, the single greatest disaster in Everest’s disaster-laden history. MacNair, who owns a travel-management company on King Street in Alexandria, had gone to Nepal to accompany his friend, John Carney, on Carney’s summit attempt.
“When we turned 40, he and I challenged each other,” MacNair says of Carney, whose consulting business is down King Street.
He got Carney into triathlons and Carney got him into mountaineering. Carney planned to ascend Everest’s summit. MacNair joined for the long journey to Base Camp at 17,598 feet, even though he has two bum knees and is blind in his left eye from a benign tumor on the retina.
“I had always wanted to trek in Nepal,” says MacNair, whose company often arranges business travel to exotic and third-world locales for organizations such as USAID. “It was a bucket-list dream trip.”
They arrived in Kathmandu, the Nepalese capital, and then flew to Lukla, where their bags were offloaded from the plane and strapped to yaks. No roads run between Lukla and the base camp; only foot trails span the 39-mile, 8,215-foot ascent.
The trip up, through small villages and mountain passes, took ten days with the help of guides and Sherpas. “These aren’t canal paths. These are some challenging paths,” MacNair says. The blindness in his left eye heightened the challenge because it plays havoc with his depth perception. “I really had to watch where I was going, because a misstep could be a dangerous fall.”
On the way to base camp, their lead Sherpa, Lakpa, took MacNair and Carney to visit his native Himalayan village, where he recruits the Sherpas who work for him.
MacNair and Carney reached base camp and settled into their tents. “It’s a small village,” as MacNair describes it. Each expedition, with climbers, guides, and Sherpas, becomes a pop-up community laid out around food tents, shower tents, storage tents, and communications tents.
From base camp, climbers get comfortable working as a team with their Sherpas on day hikes, and participate in pre-climb puja prayer ceremonies, a Hindu tradition.
Veterans told MacNair that avalanches were typical. “They didn’t even flinch,” he says.
From his tent, MacNair could hear them booming and echoing off the amphitheater of cliffs.
Before climbers ascend past the base camp, Sherpa are charged with fixing ropes on the icefall, a notoriously dangerous section of the mountain. MacNair would hear Sherpas trudging past in the pitch dark of night when temperatures dropped so low that snow would fall inside his tent, tiny crystals of condensation drifting down whenever the walls shook.
The Sherpas worked at night because daytime sun heats top layers of snow, which become heavier than the layers underneath. Top-heavy snow is less stable and more likely to produce an avalanche.
“They would go in the middle of the night when it was the coldest, but you would still hear these avalanches,” MacNair says. “Nobody prepared me for that. So I’m lying in my tent and I hear this horrific noise, and I’m just hoping and praying somebody tells me if I have to run.”
He stayed two days in camp. Then he began a descent while Carney stayed behind to prepare for a summit attempt.
The trip down to Lukla took four days. On the second day, MacNair learned of the avalanche, which struck not far above base camp. Five of Lakpa’s Sherpas had perished. When MacNair eventually reached the airstrip, Sherpas’ bodies lay on the tarmac after having been helicoptered off the mountain. A silent crowd was gathered along the fence to look.
From Lukla, MacNair flew to Kathmandu. There, on Monday, he witnessed an impromptu memorial service for the local Sherpas who had died on the icefall. The mood was somber, but tinged with anger at the pittance paid by the Nepalese government to families of the deceased. MacNair watched as bodies were loaded onto trucks and driven in funereal procession around the city.
Afterward, he flew four hours to Abu Dhabi, slept at a hotel, and then flew another 14 hours to Washington. He arrived home on Tuesday evening. Despite everything, the experience had been, in many ways, affirmative.
“My body, even though broken, wasn’t beaten,” he says of his bad knees and limited eyesight. “I came back stronger having challenged myself. I find a lot of travelers go back and forth to the same places over and over again or to places that are comfortable. It was good to go to an uncomfortable place and reflect on everything that is out there in the world.”
But for both men, the trip proved harrowing in ways they hadn’t expected. Carney left Everest a few days after MacNair, his expedition canceled. It was Carney’s second attempt at summiting and the second time a death on the Khumbu Icefall had turned him back. Over the prior year, he had been exercising, training at altitude, dieting, and sleeping under a sealed, low-oxygen altitude simulator. Before Carney got back to Virginia, MacNair booked his friend a trip to Costa Rica, figuring that, after his experience, he’d need time to regroup.