Surviving Disaster: The Avalanche on Mount Everest

At 11:56 a.m. on April 25, 2015, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Nepal, killing nearly 10,000 people and injuring more than 23,000. As the earthquake grew in power, the violent shaking caused an ice cliff between Mount Pumori and Mount Lingtren—two peaks that tower over the southern base camp that is used by climbers attempting to summit Everest—to shear away, triggering a massive avalanche. Minutes later, a wall of snow, rock, and ice hundreds of feet high swept through the southern camp. When it was over, 19 people were dead and more than 60 were injured, with many more stranded at higher elevations.

Michael Churton, a documentary filmmaker, was at base camp when the avalanche struck. He recently spoke with LaCie about that day and how he survived the horrific disaster.

The beginning of the trip was a whirlwind. I had put in my leave of absence from NBC on Friday afternoon. Three days later, I was on a plane to Kathmandu. My plan was simple: embed with an expedition that had an eye on summiting Everest, and spend the next two months documenting everything I saw. Little did I know what lay in store.

This wasn’t my first time on Mount Everest. In 2014, I had been to base camp as part of the NBC/Discovery show,“Everest Jump Live.” And from that experience, I knew just how difficult it was to film in those conditions. The trek to base camp alone would be eight long, grueling days, and much of my gear would have to be carried by pack animals — yaks and mules. Not the best place for such delicate equipment. Even though my plan was to stay at base camp while the team did their acclimatization rotations and eventual push for the summit, the camp was still about 17,000 feet above sea level.

I planned on shooting for approximately two months, which meant that I would need a storage solution that was robust enough to handle ice, snow, and subzero temperatures and large enough to store all of the footage I planned to film. Ultimately, I ended up taking 4 TB of storage. With me at all times were two LaCie Rugged 500 GB SSD drives, which I carried in my backpack with most of my sensitive cameras and audio gear. The rest of my gear, including the remaining 3 TB of LaCie Rugged SSD drives, extra batteries, tripod, and GoPro mounts, would travel by yak.

The trip started well. A small twin-engine plane took us to Lukla, a mountain town sitting at an elevation of 9,383 feet. From there, we began the trek to base camp, which took us through the absolutely gorgeous Khumbu Valley. The footage I was getting was stunning, and at the end of the day, I would back my footage up on two of my LaCie drives — one that I’d carry with me at all times, the other with the rest of my gear.

The drives performed flawlessly in the challenging conditions. While my MacBook Pro would sometimes have trouble waking up in the -10℉ degree temperatures, I never had that problem with my LaCie drives.

I made it to base camp on April 13, and began to settle in while the rest of the team prepared for their final assault on the summit. A few days later, the climbers pushed off for higher elevations, while the rest of the team and I stayed behind and prepared for their arrival. The camp was a tiny tent city of hundreds, and had supplies, communications, even a communal dining tent. Even at that elevation, it felt as comfortable as being in my apartment back in New York City, except with a much better view. April 25 changed all that.

I’ve spent time in L.A., so when the tremors started, I knew exactly what was happening. But this was unlike any earthquake I had ever experienced. The shaking was so violent that it quickly became hard to stand. I remember pointing my camera toward Everest and filming as ice fell throughout Khumbu ice fall, kicking up massive plumes of snow. Turning back toward camp, I was struck by the faces of the Sherpas, these men who had seen everything the mountain had to offer and then some. They were as shocked as we were. And then, beyond them, I saw the wall.
A deluge of snow and rock hundreds of feet high was headed for base camp, and was incomprehensibly fast and powerful. I stared, dumbfounded for a second, as hundreds of tons of rocks and boulders rushed down the mountain, each battling with the snow to be at the leading edge of the onslaught. I shouted and yelled for people to get down, looking around for any form of shelter. There was none. And six seconds later, the avalanche hit the camp.
The impact decimated everything in its path. Just about all of our gear, and almost every one of the dozens of tents that had made up the camp was gone. Eventually, we’d find our gear buried under huge mounds of snow up to 200 meters away. But immediately after the avalanche swept through, we had more to worry about: tending to the injured and finding the missing. And I was among the injured. I had suffered a facial injury serious enough that it would eventually require my evacuation back to Kathmandu. But with resources stretched already and the devastation that the camp had suffered, I decided to join some team members who were leaving on foot and headed to the closest town. All we had were the clothes on our back. And for all I knew, I’d never again see the footage I had spent weeks gathering.

I never did make it back to base camp. But after communications were re-established, I made contact with those still at camp and asked if any of my gear had been found. It had — at least, parts of it. Much of my expensive equipment was destroyed. All that was left of my MacBook was a small aluminum panel. But against all odds, all four of my drives, containing 25 days of irreplaceable footage, had been found intact. Now, I just had to wait to see if they worked.

It took a long time to get the drives off the mountain. Initially, they were sent down with other gear — terabytes of data packed into a bag filled with wet clothes, carried by yak. But heavy snowfall impeded the pack animals’ progress, and as they waited, days stretched into weeks. Thankfully, a crew from Dateline NBC, who were there to do a story on the earthquake and avalanche, would eventually volunteer to pick up the stranded footage. When they called to report in, my heart was hammering in my chest. Had I lost everything I had worked for?
All of the drives were working. I still had my documentary.

You back up your critical data to prepare for the worst but usually “the worst” means something like losing a drive. “The worst” is not supposed to be anything life-threatening. But the LaCie Rugged drive was prepared for the worst. It was prepared to head to Kathmandu and be transported by pack animal, both to and from camp. It made the eight-day trek up through 8,000 feet of freezing temperatures, dangerous crevasses, and deep snowbanks. It performed without a complaint at a camp that was 17,000 feet above sea level. And it sat unprotected in subzero temperatures for days, buried under deep pockets of snow, and after surviving a natural disaster that left absolute destruction in its wake.

I’ve always felt LaCie’s reliability was unmatched. But after seeing their drives survive some of the most extreme conditions that exist on planet Earth, all without losing a single second of footage, it’s clear that choosing LaCie was the best investment I could have made.

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