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08.05.2015

Physician recounts experience on Everest during avalanche

Tragic event left him with new perspective on the importance of family, health and community

By Heather VanDusen Wilson  |  HSNewsBeat  |  Updated 4:45 PM, 08.05.2015

Posted in: Community

  • SLIDESHOW: Pottinger has dreamed of climbing Everest since the second grade and started training seriously in 2007. Paul Pottinger
  • SLIDESHOW: Paul Pottinger, UW associate professor of allergy and infectious diseases, was climbing Mt. Everest when a massive earthquake hit Nepal in April. Paul Pottinger
  • SLIDESHOW: “Everyone should see Nepal, going there makes a big difference, but any kind of donation of time or money on relief efforts would be well spent," Pottinger said. Paul Pottinger
Dr. Paul Pottinger, a University of Washington associate professor of allergy and infectious diseases, was living his lifelong dream to climb Mt. Everest when he experienced something so powerful that it shifted the world’s highest mountain an inch.

The 7.8 magnitude earthquake killed more than 6,000 people throughout Nepal when it hit April 25. It delivered the mountain's deadliest day ever; at least 19 people lost their lives, far surpassing the 1996 tragedy chronicled in the bestselling book “Into Thin Air” and the movie “Everest,” soon to be in theaters.

Before the earthquake, things had gone well for Pottinger’s expedition. Snowfall was high for this time of the season, but the expedition was only a few days behind schedule.

“We were at Camp 2 doing an acclimatization rotation when the quake struck,” said Pottinger, who was climbing with International Mountain Guides. “We felt the tremors and shaking that triggered avalanches. It was alarming.”

Avalanches have cost many climbers their lives on Everest, but Pottinger and his fellow climbers were safe at Camp 2, 21,300 feet above sea level, with only minor injuries to tend to after the shaking stopped.
Khumbu Glacier
Wikimedia Commons
A photo of the Khumbu Icefall from 2005.
A photo of the Khumbu Icefall from 2005.
When the guide expedition team learned that the central base camp had been destroyed, their summit aspirations ended and their focus turned to helping those in need.

However, the earthquake had shattered the route through the Khumbu Icefall, an area known as one of the most treacherous parts of an Everest climb because of the large crevasses, seracs and constant movement of glacial ice. Just one year earlier, 16 Sherpa died during an avalanche in the icefall.

The climbers at Camps 1 and 2 were stranded. It was too dangerous to traverse the passage back, especially with looming aftershocks. The nearly 200 people trapped on the mountain had to wait for helicopters to finish evacuating the injured from basecamp before flying the climbers down.

“I was very frustrated I couldn’t do more to help,” Pottinger said.  “Once we arrived back at base camp, two days after the catastrophe, there was very little to do from a medical perspective. This is a huge testament to everyone who worked so hard during the rescue. Not just the doctors, but everyone.”

It took the expedition team some time to get home: They had to trek out slowly due to the damaged infrastructure and instability in Kathmandu. Pottinger said official aid was not apparent as they traveled down the mountains and witnessed the damage sustained by the villages.

“It was heartbreaking to see this happen to people who already live incredibly austere lives, yet they still maintain a warm and welcoming ethos. They believe in taking care of themselves and others,” he recalled.
Nepal earthquake
flickr | European Commission
The April 25 earthquake in Nepal killed more than 9,000 people and triggered an avalanche on Mt. Everest.
The April 25 earthquake in Nepal killed more than 9,000 people and triggered an avalanche on Mt. Everest.
The damage to the Sherpa homes in the Everest region was extensive. The expedition team did what they could to help by moving and cleaning up debris as they visited each village along their trek.

Although he was discouraged by the destruction, Pottinger predicts the country will recover and rebuild, especially if foreigners continue to visit. Nepal, one of the poorest counties in the world, relies heavily on tourism.

“The country is now stable and motivated to bring back tourists,” he said. “Everyone should see Nepal; going there makes a big difference, but any kind of donation of time or money on relief efforts would be well spent.”

Pottinger has dreamed of climbing Everest since the second grade and started training seriously in 2007. He grew up hiking in Colorado and was a wilderness emergency medical technician during college, an experience that sparked his medical career.

His passion for climbing is based on working as a team with his fellow climbers and doing things in a safe and thoughtful manner. According to his blog, he climbs “in spite of potential danger, never because of it.”  

Pottinger plans to return to Nepal and Everest next spring.

“It was a very humbling experience,” he said. “I went as a mountaineer and came home with renewed perspective: Family, health, and community are the most important things for everyone in the high mountains, not just climbers.”
Tagged with: Nepal, avalanche, earthquake
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