A lofty goal to climb the world's 10th-tallest peak has transcended to an even higher calling for Spokane mountaineer Jess Roskelley and his expedition since disaster struck Nepal last month.
Instead of climbing 26,545-foot Annapurna, the expedition climbers are using their skills to reach isolated villages as liaisons to aid groups based in command centers.
"After hearing the destruction caused by the earthquakes, our team made the quick decision to abandon our immediate plans to climb Annapurna and return to the valleys below to see how we can help out," the team said in a post on its website last week.
Just leaving the relatively safe haven they'd had at their Annapurna base camp posed significant risk and difficulty given the high demand for aircraft during the ongoing crisis. Normally the trip to the lowlands would be made in a helicopter to avoid exposure to especially dangerous terrain. Instead, the group headed down on foot to Pokhara.
"Our current directive is to travel on foot making our way from village to village to assess needs and then to communicate our reports via satellite phone or two-way radio to a local NGO called Karma Flight based in the Ghorka Valley near Baluwa," said expedition leader Don Bowie of Newmarket, Ontario.
"We send down information and they send up food and supplies to the villages based on our assessments. They have been in the valley for some days now doing amazing work and performing many medical evacuations and delivering tons of food to the villages in the valley.
"Our team of four has now become their eyes and ears in the field reaching some of the remotest areas over some of the most dangerous and unstable ground.
"We must carry all our own food, equipment, medical supplies, solar power, and water and are completely self-sufficient as we go."
The relief effort is a radical change since the first earthquake on April 25 wreaked havoc across much of the Himalayan country, where the death toll has exceeded 8,400.
The team had set out in March on a months-long quest to climb Annapurna while filming an episode for a reality series called Edge of Endeavor. Safely at base camp when the earthquake struck, they filmed their camping pots shaking and avalanches in the mountains above.
The climbers realized they were in a unique position to help. Not only were they already near some of the most affected areas of the earthquake, they also had training in emergency medicine, search and rescue, use of ropes and they had the personal equipment and fitness to get to the high-elevation disaster areas beyond the roads.
From their job history in fields such as firefighting, team members have certifications for incident command, building extrication, industrial rigging, hazmat response and confined space entry.
Roskelley, for example, works for a welding firm in Spokane and was employed for years in Alaska's Prudhoe Bay oil industry, giving him skills in heavy equipment operation and metal and structural integrity, to name a few.
"Our team is motivated, resilient, full of energy and ready to use our skills and resources to assist wherever we can," Bowie said.
The team had an immediate setback on its first mission from Pokhara as they set out in a Jeep loaded with 2,000 pounds of food and supplies for the village of Dhoreni in the isolated Gorkha area. As they navigated an earthquake-damaged road in steep terrain, the vehicle rolled and "was completely totaled," Bowie said.
"Luckily no one was hurt and the team still has possession and use of the second Jeep. We have made it to Dhoreni with the food and supplies and have dug right in and set up a center of operation."