I was in excruciating pain…so much pain, I couldn’t even scream. I was disorientated and couldn’t work out the source of the pain. I tried to sit up but trying to use my legs brought waves of pain crashing through my body, and I also realised that what I thought was up was down. I had fallen down and tumbled about 5 metres, where the safety line had caught on an ice anchor and brought me to a stop. But I was hanging upside down which was why I was disorientated. Gravity was now trying to force my rucksack over my shoulders, and the waist belt was cutting into my diaphragm which was why I couldn’t breathe, let alone scream.
Just as I was comfortably making my way to base camp, the ice under my left foot had given way. My ankle had collapsed under the weight of my body, and my safety line had spun my body. I had tried to steady myself by stepping onto my right leg, but with all my weight thrown onto my right ankle, and my body still spinning, my right leg very quickly gave way, throwing my body down the slope.
I couldn’t tell if my ankles were broken or just sprained and I wasn’t about to undo my boots to check as they acted as natural splints. Doing a quick body check, I knew that I had no head, neck or spinal injury, but the safety harness around my waist was causing about half the pain I was in. The leg loops were askew and had managed to trap certain parts of me underneath the webbing. Supporting my whole body weight, with organs designed for reproduction, was causing the overload in pain messages and why I initially couldn’t narrow down the source of pain.
Two French climbers who were above me on the ropes were able to assist me very quickly, and I was able to radio for help soon after. According to my tent mate, I sounded so calm, she thought I was saying I had left something at the summit! I may have sounded calm, but I certainly didn’t feel it. I knew I had taken a bad fall, and not only would I need rescuing, but much more depressingly…this would be the end of my attempt on Everest this year. Just the thought of having to do the past month again, to get to the point where I was ready to climb Everest again, was enough to make me cry, but I had little time to worry about that as getting to safety was now the priority.
My recovery was going to be a problem. If I was able to stand or hop, with assistance, I would be down to high camp by the afternoon, and a possible helicopter evacuation. If I was unable to help in my rescue, then they would need to stretcher me out, which would take 6 Sherpas and another 2 days…
Initially we tried to have 2 Sherpa either side of me, and to hop down the hill. My left leg was able to bear weight, although my right was too tender for any movement. Progress was so slow and painful that after 15 minutes we had only moved 10 meters and I was begging for an alternative. I suggested I was strapped into a sleeping mat, and lowered/tried to slide down to crampon point, where the ice and snow gave way to rock.
By now, it was clear that I was unable to help my rescuers, and I would have to be stretchered out. We were still far too high for a helicopter pick up , and the terrain was unsuitable for an attempted landing anyway. And that is when Phurba Tashi stepped in. As mentioned before, Phurba Tashi is the Sirdar, or head Sherpa, and has 16 ascents of Everest, the third highest by an individual, and is immensely respected by everyone. He met us at crampon point, and realising how long all the alternatives would take, constructed a “rope bucket”, and essentially used that to piggy back me all the way down to high camp.
Once at moraine camp, the team decided that a helicopter rescue from Lobuje base camp would be easier and that I had to be carried across the difficult terrain of huge boulders. Pemba, who has become famous for carrying the 110kg generator from Lukla to base camp, took over from Phurba Tashi. “Compared to the generator, Nabil is pretty light,” a smiling Pemba said.
While all this was happening on Lobuje East, Russell and his team at Everest base camp were coordinating a helicopter rescue, which seemed rather difficult as the weather had closed in and the winds had picked up at noon. Russell was in constant contact with the pilot, and together they were convinced that they could pull this off, which became increasingly necessary with me being in more and more pain, despite the cocktail of painkillers.
Unbelievably, within 12 hours of falling at over 5,500 m, I was in a hospital getting X-rays and medical attention, a fitting testament to the efforts of the Himex team! I am so grateful to Phurba, Pemba, Adrian and Russell for doing such a great job in getting me out, but lying here in hospital, my thoughts are constantly on the unfinished business I have hanging over me, like a grey cloud on the slopes of the Himalayas…