BILLINGS - Darren Rogers was almost literally on top of the world. He had raced through the Khumba Icefall, one of the most challenging stretches of Mount Everest, on the morning of April 25.
Then it all came crashing down.
Rogers, a 45-year-old who lives in Sheridan, Wyo., was resting in Camp 1 when a devastating 7.9 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal, killing more than 7,000 people and triggering avalanches on Mount Everest that killed 20 people and injured several more in base camp.
“We were just thrown into the air,” Rogers said during an interview at his girlfriend’s home in Billings. “The rocks were cracking. You could hear it coming.”
Camp 1 sits on the edge of a serene-looking snow-covered area often called the Valley of Silence, about 2,000 feet above base camp. Rocky slopes tower on both sides.
Fog and snow had already created near whiteout conditions. Rogers and a woman with whom he was sharing the tent threw on their boots and ran about 25 feet.
He passed a tent where they could hear Sherpas, an ethnic group who often serve as guides and porters, chanting.
Rogers was slammed from behind by a powder blast, a strong burst of air and fine snow that precedes avalanches.
“I doubled over holding my elbow close to my knees thinking of trying to maintain an air pocket while fully expecting to be engulfed by an avalanche(s),” Rogers wrote in the days following the earthquake. “After an unknown time passed, maybe 10-15 seconds, a second powder blast slammed into me from the front. Both blasts created a swirling effect that coated the entire body in a wet, heavy snow.”
Camp 1 is located in a slightly elevated area compared to the rest of the valley; the avalanches rampaged through ravines around the area, but the tents were spared.
At first, climbers in Camp 1 hadn’t realized that there was an earthquake. They thought the shaking and noise could have been caused by the avalanche. They radioed base camp.
“That’s when we knew everything had gone to hell down there,” Rogers said.
Snow and ice had crashed through the camp, wiping out swaths of tents and leaving behind bloody chaos.
Rogers was climbing with International Mountain Guides, a company whose tents were largely spared. Dining areas became emergency rooms. Over the radio, climbers in Camp 1 could hear background chatter about gruesome injuries.
Roger’s tentmate, an emergency room doctor by trade, wanted to return to base camp as soon as possible. But the shaking rendered the already-treacherous icefall impassable.
Weather made helicopter flights impossible, and aftershocks continued through the night. The next morning broke sunny and clear — “absolutely beautiful” — but a powerful aftershock loosed another round of avalanches, again sending a powder blast through Camp 1.
Down in base camp, dozens of injured climbers were being flown by helicopter to a medical outpost in Pheriche, a small village nearby. But there weren’t yet solid plans to evacuate climbers stuck above the icefall.
For someone who spends so much time climbing up and down, Rogers is remarkably even-keeled. He speaks with a steady cadence. His 120-pound frame seems unassuming.
Rogers grew up in Alamosa, Colo., nestled in mountains that nurtured his love of the outdoors. As he got older, he started to pursue climbs across the world. After climbing Cho Oyu in the Himalayan Mountains — the sixth highest peak in the world — he felt like Everest was not only possible, but could be done in a compressed time frame.
“My body does well at altitude, better than most,” he said.
He trains in Sheridan, knocking out sets of 60 pushups and 20 pullups, running intervals and practicing on ladders. He’ll sometimes hike with a 60-pound backpack. He may be small, but he packs a punch.
Everest wasn’t a trophy for Rogers, something to check off a bucket list or place on a mantle.
“It was never a goal,” he said.
It was there, and Rogers thought he could do it. He may now roam farther than the mountains around Alamosa, but his motivations remain the same.
“It’s about experiencing nature, other things that are out there,” he said.
That doesn’t mean that expeditions are all fun; Rogers refers to nights spent freezing in a tent, exhausted from climbing and eating MREs as “misery management.” Conquering those obstacles requires as much mental toughness as physical prowess, but it’s worth it for him.
“When you get on top, it’s electrifying. It’s very emotional,” he said. “That’s why you go through the misery.”
He planned to trim about two weeks from a typical eight-week Mount Everest excursion, banking in part on his talent for acclimating quickly to higher altitudes. His bosses gave him time off and wished him good luck.
Journey to Everest
He worked with International Mountain Guides to tailor a trip where he could climb along with Mingma Tenzing Sherpa, the brother of the man who helped him ascend Cho Oyu, instead of the usual larger group. (Sherpas commonly use “Sherpa” as part of their name.)
He left the U.S. on April 7, arriving in Katmandu, Nepal, on April 9. He traveled to Pheriche the next day and, on April 12, was in base camp for Lobuche, a common warm-up climb for Everest — if you can call ascending a peak more than 20,000 feet high a warm-up. He reached the summit of the mountain April 14.
Over the next couple of days, he traveled to Mount Everest base camp, where he battled a sinus infection. But climbing schedules aligned with his improving health.
His April 25 ascent to Camp 1 wasn’t part of the final summit push; the original plan had been to go back to base camp so his body could acclimate in small doses.
He left just before 2 a.m. with Tenzing Sherpa to climb the icefall, a glacier that is sliding down the mountain at clip of about 3 feet per day. The duo reached Camp 1 by about 7 a.m.
Rogers adopted a simple tactic.
“The technique that I use is ‘following my Sherpa,’” he said. Rogers prefers to climb at a quicker-than-usual pace, but at one point found himself completely left in the dust by his partner.
“They’re just so strong,” he said.
Sections of the icefall require horizontal or vertical ladders to cross deep crevasses or sheer faces. Over one crevasse, Rogers paused to take a good look into its depths, wanting to know what he was up against.
“I wasn’t sugarcoating anything,” he said.
Rogers had been at Camp 1 for only five hours before the earthquake hit on April 25. Nearly 48 hours after his arrival, helicopters began to transport the stranded climbers to base camp.
Rogers caught one of the first flights at 6 a.m. and saw the devastation in base camp for the first time.
“It was surreal,” he said. “Everyone had the same look in their eyes of ‘What just happened?’ You walk by a stack of bodies, it really hits home.”
Tents had been ripped up or flattened. In one spot, the avalanche ripped away almost everything but a pair of flip-flops from a campsite, somehow passing the sandals over.
By then, most of the injured had been evacuated. Rogers heard that Everest climbers — not known for small egos — had banded together for a tremendous initial triage effort.
Helicopters continued racing between camps until all 170 climbers remaining on the mountain were in base camp by around 2:30 p.m.
Over the coming days, Rogers stayed in several Nepalese villages as he made his way back to Katmandu. He had to patch together about a half-dozen flights to make it back to Billings, were he arrived late Thursday night.
On a dreary Saturday, it was hard to picture mountainous expanses of snow and ice while tucked cozily away indoors. But Rogers’ love for climbing hasn’t been shaken. He plans to mount another Everest attempt next year, when Nepalese experts known as “ice doctors” will likely establish a new route through the icefall.
“Mentally and emotionally, I’m OK,” he said.
The avalanche killed more people than any single disaster in climbing history on Mount Everest, surpassing the death toll from a 2014 avalanche that claimed the lives of 16 Sherpas in the Khumba Icefall.
Some reports have speculated that April’s disaster will spur many experienced guides and porters to give up climbing. But tourism remains a key component of a Nepalese economy facing a steep recovery.
Rogers has accepted the fact that climbing some peaks is a dangerous pursuit.
“There’s always the objective hazards,” he said. “That’s mountaineering in general. That’s Everest.”