Close Call of the Week: When an Earthquake Becomes An Avalanche

Footage from the 2015 earthquake on Mt. Everest, the deadliest disaster its history, and what to do if you get caught in an avalanche, too.

Photo: Jost Kobusch

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On April 25, 2015, hikers in Everest base camp felt the ground shake. About 100 miles away, there was a MW 7.8 earthquake in Nepal, and before trekkers or climbers knew it, a tidal wave of ice from the mountain above took over the sky, and they had to run for their lives. The earthquake triggered an avalanche starting on the ridge between Pumori and Lingtren, around 3,300 feet above base camp. Falling ice generated a “hurricane-force wind blast” that flattened tents and medical centers at base camp and launched several people to their deaths, according to a report written by five doctors who survived the earthquake at base camp. 

With at least 60 climbers injured and 24 dead, this was the deadliest disaster on Everest to date. One survivor, German mountaineer Jost Kobusch, caught it all on tape. On his YouTube channel, he wrote that “the ground was shaking from the earthquake, and as soon as we saw people running, we were running ourselves to save our lives.”

How To Survive An Avalanche

It’s easy to panic or get disoriented in a massive avalanche like this. Control your breathing. Keeping your mind calm in this situation is perhaps the best survival tool you can have. Move far from heavy, loose objects, like machinery, and grab onto something solid, like a tree or stable rock to avoid getting swept away. 

If you’re swept into the avalanche, try to stay as close to the surface as possible and swim your way to the side of it. It might feel like you’re stuck in the current of a fast-flowing river. Orient your feet so the lower half of your body takes the impact—this protects your head. Prevent asphyxiation by keeping your mouth closed and teeth clenched. People have been recovered from an avalanche burial with their mouth full of snow because they kept their mouth open during an avalanche.

Once the snow settles, it solidifies like concrete, so it’s futile to try and worm your way out. Aside from hitting a tree or rock mid-tumble, suffocation once the snow settles is one of the biggest dangers in an avalanche. A little over 9 in 10 avalanche victims can be successfully recovered if they’re dug out within 15 minutes. After that, chances of survival drop drastically. After 45 minutes, only 2 or 3 in 10 are rescued alive. After two hours, almost no one survives. How can you be found? Keep an avalanche beacon on your person, so someone above ground can probe your signal and dig to your safety. 

Hear More About The Disaster

When Svati Narula agreed to spend a season as part of a communications team at Mt. Everest base camp she thought she would have a buffer from the perils of Everest’s high slopes. But she would find there was no safe distance from the worst disaster in Mt. Everest’s history. Listen to how she survived on an episode of Out Alive, “A Deadly Earthquake on Mt. Everest,” from October 2022.

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