Climbers and Nepalese sherpa guides stranded on Mt. Everest woke before dawn Tuesday to evacuate to base camp, cut off from the higher reaches of the mountain after an earthquake-triggered avalanche.
More than 150 climbers and sherpas, impatient to escape the solitude of the snowy Western Cwm and fearful of more aftershocks, gathered at a makeshift helipad to board helicopters flying loops to base camp, an elevation change of about 4,000 feet.
Three helicopters ran four-minute loops, carrying two climbers at a time, according to those rescued. Some climbers carried cups of instant coffee. Others waited in the darkness in silence.
"A fear of the team leaders was a helicopter mob scene a la Saigon '75, but … everybody seemed to understand the need for superior social skills on this day," Dave Hahn, a guide with Rainier Mountaineering Inc., wrote in a blog post. "There was one way out and nobody wanted to get put on the 'no fly' list."
The descent from the mountain gave the climbers an aerial view of the destruction below the Khumbu Icefall. The avalanche flattened half of the base camp under a wall of snow and debris and killed at least 17 people, most of them sherpas. Tent poles were sticking up from the snow.
"There was no back-slapping. No cheering. No high fives," Hahn wrote. "We'd put down at the epicenter of a disaster and we could barely believe our eyes. Whatever relief each of us felt at being off the mountain was quickly replaced with sadness and awe at the destructive power on evidence all around us."
The destruction of Everest's base camp seemed wrought by tornadoes or a nuclear bomb, climbers said.
"As I was walking up, looking for our camp, it was unrecognizable," said Alan Arnette, a Colorado mountaineer, in an audio call posted to his blog. "But I found shoes and socks and pieces of paper … indications that individuals had lost their lives."
Climbers said they hoped to raise funds to support sherpas who lost their homes and their gear, and support the families of those who had died.
"Our 'ordeal' seems trivial by comparison," Hahn wrote. "We had to stay a bit longer in a beautiful and legendary hanging valley and deal with a bit of uncertainty. Now … we understand just how lucky we've been and we are sad beyond words to learn how unlucky others have been."
Rescue efforts were cut short Tuesday afternoon by clouds and poor visibility. More than a dozen climbers remain at the camp above the icefall, awaiting evacuation Wednesday.
Many climbers have left base camp and headed down the mountain toward the Lukla Airport, where they can fly to the capital, Katmandu.
The sherpas accompanying them have returned to their villages to assess the damage and be with their families, mountaineering companies said.