Rifleman Dawa was slowly losing his hearing as I sat beside his bed, talking directly into his ear. It was 2010 and he had been injured in an explosion while serving in Afghanistan. Dawa showed me pictures on his laptop: his family in Nepal, the proud moment that he passed Gurkha selection. A photograph of Dawa with his brother Tshering Pande Bhote was especially striking. Tshering is an International Mountain Guide, and one of the first Nepalese to qualify under the rigorous IFMGA process. The brothers were pictured with General Sir David Richards, then head of the British army, who held up four fingers to signify Tshering’s tally of successful ascents of Mount Everest (he has since added two more).
Later in 2010, my wife and I travelled to the Himalayas to climb Ama Dablam with Tshering. The long acclimatisation offered time to think, and I vowed that if there was ever the opportunity to take a team of Gurkhas to the area, I would make sure I was involved. The 200th anniversary of Gurkha service to the Crown in 2015 presented this exact opportunity: to be part of a Gurkha team attempting to climb Mount Everest. Despite it existing in their backyard, no serving Gurkha had ever summited.
Gurkhas are first-class soldiers but they are not natural mountaineers. I have witnessed a courageous soldier, decorated with battle honours, looking puzzled by simple knot tying, his crampons on back to front. It took three years to select and train a team that had never worn a harness or held an ice axe, and the team trained in Wales, Scotland, the Alps and on the South East Ridge of Makalu. From 2,700 Gurkhas in the British army, we selected just 13.
On 25th April 2015 we stood at the foot of the Khumbu Icefall on Everest’s southern flanks. Our climb was initially uneventful and three of us moved ahead through the icefall before stopping to wait for the rest of the team. Moments later, a gunshot crack made us turn to see a giant, truck-sized block of ice crashing on to our route. It would have hit us if we had continued climbing, perhaps a gypsy’s warning that something was wrong. We continued cautiously to Camp 1, perched at 6,200m, on a glacier between three of the highest mountains in the world, Lhotse, Nuptse and Everest. We rested in our tents, spoke to our base camp manager Captain Buddhi on the radio, and to three of our team in the icefall – it had been a brilliant day that should have been topped off by their return to base camp.
At 11.48am, the glacier under Camp 1 shook violently, crevasses opened behind our tents and the mountains seemed to explode, earth and rock crashing around us. We tried to radio our icefall team and Captain Buddhi. Silence. As things calmed, I heard a Nepali voice on the airwaves say that they were buried, and that base camp was destroyed. I immediately assumed that Buddhi and our icefall team had perished. The indescribable feeling when soldiers die hit me; this was not part of the plan. There was nothing I could do.
Seconds later, the icefall team came through on the radio. They had survived, but the story they later told of avalanches and ice blocks falling around them as they made their rushed descent was harrowing. As the snow cloud settled they reported that base camp was gone, and amidst the chaos they began to search for Captain Buddhi.
At Camp 1, we felt relieved that we had survived, terrified of aftershocks and avalanches, but above all heartbroken by the thought that Buddhi might be dead. He was supposed to have been safe at base camp. It was more than three hours before we received an update from the icefall team: they had found him, but it took another 10 minutes over frustratingly broken radio signals to confirm that he was alive.
We set about planning the rescue of our teams stranded at Camps 1 and 2. The route down the icefall was completely impassable. We had food for a few days but were afraid to stay put, and at night loud aftershocks triggered avalanches around our tents. We were sitting ducks and extremely thankful to be flown to safety by helicopter on the third day after the earthquake. Our Gurkha team had family spread across Nepal, and some of their houses had been flattened. Many of our climbers had specialist engineering skills and remained in Nepal until August to assist the earthquake relief effort.
The day before I left Kathmandu, I had one more job to do: to meet the brothers, Tshering and Dawa, who had inspired this expedition. Dawa has a way with words that is typically Gurkha. Lip reading in Nepali and English, he took in our story before describing his own tale of the earthquake, narrowly escaping death for a second time while working on a hydroelectric dam project near the town of Goorkha. “I have always been good at running, Saheb,” he explained. Dawa is a hardened veteran and summed up how we both felt when he said, “It was the scariest thing in my life… more terrifying than anything I did in Afghanistan.”
The summit of Everest remains untouched by a serving Gurkha soldier, and though it would have been a great story to have made a successful attempt on the 200th anniversary of the regiment, our thoughts are with the families of our soldiers and the people of Nepal as they recover from this devastating event.