s
s
Sections
Sections
Search
Subscribe

Kenwood climber recalls Mt. Everest's deadliest day (w/video)


Ten minutes.

That's how long Jon Reiter of Kenwood was held up at the start of his fateful last day attempting to scale Mount Everest -- a day that would include the deadliest disaster in the history of the world's highest mountain and end the climbing season on Everest.

That 10-minute delay may have saved Reiter's life.

Reiter woke up at Base Camp at 3 a.m. April 18 and prepared for an acclimatizing hike to Camp 1 at 20,000 feet with seven other international climbers and their Nepalese Sherpa guides.

Their route would take them through the Khumbu Icefall, a notorious section of yawning crevasses spanned by precarious aluminum ladders and towering ice blocks, all of which are constantly shifting and crumbling.

Reiter's team was aiming to set off at 4 a.m. in order to make it through the most treacherous section before the sun's warmth can cause parts of the glacier to collapse.

"In the icefall, it's intense," said Reiter, 49. "You're hyper aware of your surroundings. Everyone's concerned because you know those blocks are creeping slowly downhill. And eventually they're all going to tip."

They were going to follow a team of 30 Sherpas carrying heavy loads of supplies up to stock the higher camps.

At 4 a.m., though, one of Reiter's teammates was missing. He had overslept his alarm and was scrambling to get dressed and secure his climbing harness.

The group of Sherpas left on time. About three hours later, a powerful avalanche swept down the mountain killing 16 and injuring another nine.

Because of the missed alarm, Reiter and his group were 10 minutes behind and watched the disaster from a few hundred yards away.

"They left right at 4. We left a little late," Reiter said. "Isn't that wild? You think about that and you think about the timing of life. It was ironic."

In an interview a week after returning from Nepal, Reiter, who builds custom homes in the Sonoma Valley, spoke at length about witnessing the avalanche and its impact on the Sherpa community.

He was on his second attempt of the 29,035-foot mountain having turned back in the Khumbu Icefall last year. The mountain is the last in his goal of climbing the Seven Summits, the highest peak on each continent.

Reiter described the sound the avalanche made as being like a long, dull gun shot. Dawa Sherpa, his guide, helped him get to shelter behind some ice blocks.

"I was thinking 'That wasn't that far away. This is all going to come at me,'" he said. "As I'm thinking all that, I look up and Dawa was like 'Get down, get down!' I snapped to really quick like this is coming at us. Right about then, the cloud comes over you. It's just little pelts of ice. Think of horizontal hail coming at you."

When the snow and ice settled, Reiter and his team mates climbed up to where the group of Sherpas had last been seen, just past a flat stretch of the icefall known as the "Football Field." He said he could hear Sherpas in his group talking to colleagues over the radio.

"You could hear the terror in their voice," he said. "Then, just coming down through the Football Field, there is this young Sherpa kid who came walking to us who I ended up helping down the mountain later. He had blood running down the back of his head, he had a broken arm and he was limping. He was stunned. He goes, 'Many dead. Many dead.' Then, it's like shock just rolling over you."

Reiter got the injured Sherpa back to Base Camp then spent the rest of the day watching helicopters assisting in the rescue effort.

"That afternoon was rough," he said. "First the helicopters were bringing down the wounded. Then they started flying the (dead) bodies down. And that was tough, man. There was literally a long line from the helicopter clipped to their harnesses. Hands and legs just hanging as they were flying right over us. The flexibility of the dead limbs freaks you out a little bit. You start thinking 'Boy I was so close.' It just starts flooding over you. It's so real when you are that close."

Reiter and the rest of the international climbers spent the next four days at Base Camp contemplating whether to continue with the climb. Then, on April 22, the Sherpas essentially made the decision for them.

In protest over poor treatment by the government of Nepal, most of the Sherpas walked off the mountain effectively ending the climbing season. They were angry at what they saw as a lowball payment of $400 the government offered families of the killed Sherpas.

Sherpas on Everest, who carry much of the loads for high-spending international expeditions and bear much of the risk, can make up to $6,000 in one season, about 10 times the average annual income in Nepal. Climbing Sherpas typically support large extended families on their income.

Reiter's ambitions to climb Everest were scuttled by a domestic labor dispute.

"This is the income for the grandparents, the parents, the children," he said. "All their income just died on that mountain. The Sherpas said 'If we don't stand up now, we'll never get this for them. And all you Westerners, we're sorry but you can make money, we can't. We have to stand up or we can't live with ourselves.' We totally supported that 100 percent. Everyone supported that. How selfish would it be, when you look at that, to say 'I want to climb Everest this year?'"

Reiter spent about $70,000 for the guided Everest climb. He said he did not get a refund and he is trying to get a reimbursement from his trip insurance policy.

He said he is glad to be home with his wife and 12-year-old son. He is not planning on going back to Everest next year, but he acknowledged that he may get the itch to explore again.

"Will I make it back to Everest? I don't know," he said. "I'd like to summit Everest. The other side of that is, there are a lot of dead guys on Everest that aren't coming home to their kids. Every time my mind starts going 'I gotta go finish this,' I start thinking I could be hanging from the bottom of a helicopter. I'd love to see the top of Everest. I just don't want to die up there."

(You can reach Staff Writer Matt Brown at 521-5206 or matt.brown@pressdemocrat.com.)