Training is never useless. Making the deliberate decision to get stronger by enduring temporary pain usually weaves in perfectly with the tapestry of our lives, and sets us up for pursuing worthy thoughts and quests.
That’s especially true for Utah-based cardiologist and big mountain climber Ellen Gallant, who just happened to be at base camp on Mount Everest when the 7.9 magnitude earthquake rocked Nepal on April 25, 2015, killing over 8,000, and injuring 19,000 more.
On her second attempt of the world’s tallest mountain in consecutive years, Gallant, 49, put her physical and medical training to the ultimate test by treating those who suffered head injuries as a result of the massive avalanche that was triggered by the earthquake.
Leaving 19 dead, Mother Nature’s unpredictable left hook caused the largest disaster in Everest history. The disaster shook Gallant’s equilibrium and hit a high note on her emotional Richter scale for many reasons, but like the unrelenting aftershocks that reverberate and continue to instill fear in Nepal, Gallant is trying to keep the relief coming to the area, too.
The itch to get up
Always an athlete, Gallant grew up in Boston — far from any significant sky-reaching mountains — cycling, swimming, running, and even a member of the rowing team during college. She went to medical school in New York, then moved west to California to complete her last year of training in interventional cardiology.
Enjoying the open space and large mountains that the west have to offer, Gallant was never pulled back to the northeast.
Her interest in climbing was sparked in 2002 after reading Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, a New York Times best seller about the worst disaster in Everest history prior to 2015 — a 1996 catastrophe that claimed the lives of 12 people.
Simply wanting to go see and step foot at base camp of the 29,029-foot magnificent mountain she had read about, Gallant made the trip to 17,598 feet that spring. She never considered trying to reach the summit before she met the first American all-female team to ever summit Everest as she was on her way back down from base camp. For over an hour at breakfast, Gallant talked with the pioneer climbers.
“I came back to the U.S. and said, ‘I want to try this climbing thing,'” Gallant said.
Later that year, she climbed Mount Rainer — her first technical climb, which required crampons and an ice axe. She was hooked.
“I like the mental challenge of it,” Gallant said of climbing. “I like the physical challenge of it, and I like the fact that I get to go places that a lot of people don’t. You put the work in, and it gets you to these amazingly beautiful places that people around the world would like to see.”
After that, every single climb, on some level was about getting ready to go back and do Everest. Gallant climbed in Alaska, Tibet, South America, Antarctica, and all over the mountain west.
After 10 years of gaining valuable experience on technical climbs all over the world, Gallant decided her time for Everest had come. Years of performing angioplasties, doing stent work, and tending to cardiac emergencies at McKay-Dee Hospital in Ogden, Utah was important and fulfilling work for Gallant, but she yearned for a greater adventure, and a break from the grueling over-night shifts in the hospital that were difficult to sustain. So, she exited stage right; she resigned from her job to train for and make the trip to Nepal, with the hopes of reaching the pinnacle of the world in May of 2014.
“I knew that 10 years down the road, if I hadn’t tried, it would be a regret,” Gallant said.
More than machines on the mountain
The reaction to someone climbing Mount Everest tends to be weighted, either conveying complete awe and admiration or expressing harsh criticism for commercializing the mountain.
“A lot of times, people talk about the people who shouldn’t be there — the ones with very little experience and are essentially paying their way up to the summit,” Gallant said. “However, most people are like me. We’ve put in the work and put in the time, and we’re humbled by what it takes to stand on the top of that mountain.”
As much as Gallant trained and acclimated her body as best she could before the trip, there was no way she would complete the entire climb safely without the help of Sherpas.
The climbing Sherpas are the ones that summit with expeditions. They climb through the Khumbu Icefall (a particularly dangerous stage of the climb) and make sure all equipment is properly set up. They also carry oxygen tanks, rope, and a lot of heavy gear. Another group of Sherpas stay at base camp to cook and ensure a stable high-elevation home base, if you will. Then, there are the porters (or the carriers), who make as little as $5 a day from many of the expedition companies.
The problem is that Sherpas aren’t always fairly compensated for what they do. The western companies pay Sherpas very well, but a lot of the local outfits that are based in Nepal don’t pay Sherpas their worth.
“One of the things that is really important to me is knowing that the Sherpas that work with us are being appropriately paid and have appropriate life insurance,” Gallant said.
A new starting line
With a solid team of six climbers and many more Sherpas in place, Gallant set off for the Himalayas in 2014. Having been drawn to Buddhism on her first trip really upped her excitement level about returning and learning more about the culture.
However, in mid-April, still with a month of climbing and acclimatizing to do, a major ice release occurred on the west shoulder of Everest.
Gallant and her team had already done a rotation through the Icefall, and wanted to do another the day of the release, but had decided to wait until the following day. That morning, she was in her tent sleeping when a large crash woke her up around 6:30 a.m.
“When I heard the crash, the first thing I did was run over to the Himalayan Rescue Association (HRA) tent. I knew they were going to need doctors,” Gallant said.
A number of Sherpas had been carrying loads through the Icefall that day, and there was a ladder that was out. The Sherpas were tending to the ladder, and the Icefall was getting backed up with people. That’s when the massive ice release happened.
Sixteen men were buried in the accident, and Gallant helped triage five critically injured patients that had been helicoptered to the HRA tent.
“I like to be useful, and when I’m being useful and doing my thing as a doctor, I can do it no matter how ugly the scene is, but it was sort of after the fact that things started hitting me,” Gallant said. “When I went back to my tent is sort of when I fell apart.”
Aside from helping the injured, she had been asked to help with body identification.
“There’s a belief in Buddhism that the family needs the body in order to allow for proper reincarnation,” Gallant explained. “Many western climbers and other Sherpas put their own safety in jeopardy to retrieve these bodies.”
Thirteen bodies were recovered, and three could not be found, and are still in the Icefall. The accident, along with some politics, shut the mountain down, making it the first time in close to 30 years that no one summited through Nepal.
Gallant wasn’t ready to go back to working full-time.
“I was still a bit traumatized, Gallant said. “I was so physically ready for that summit. I had trained hard. I just felt like I didn’t get the chance that I wanted. My training had been spot, and I wanted the feeling of going for it in the ‘death zone.’ I just didn’t get that chance. I wanted to know if I was ‘worthy’ of this mountain.”
It was Buddha who said, “No matter how hard the past, you can begin again.”
Again, Gallant trained her tail off, cycling, running, pulling truck tires, and even carrying 40-pound packs of kitty litter on her hikes.
She selected a different climbing expedition company than in 2014, but it was another strong team. They had already been there for a month, with one last rotation through the Icefall remaining. They even climbed and slept on the summit of Lobuche peak, a nearby 20,000-foot mountain. It was then merely a matter of waiting for summit day.
“We had done 80% of the work at that point,” Gallant recalled.
The day the avalanche was triggered was a “rest day” for the team. Gallant was inside a domed 20-person tent with a book cracked open. Then the tent started shaking, so she ran outside to see what was going on.
“The largest avalanche cloud I had seen in my entire life was coming straight toward us,” Gallant said.
She ran back inside the tent, and threw herself on the ground with such force that she chipped a tooth.
“I remember thinking I’m going to die today. This is it. I hope it’s quick and painless,” Gallant said.
When it was over, Gallant emerged from the tent unscathed other than the tooth.
She saw that the area of camp that was most devastated with injuries and deaths was the middle section. She was just below that by about 50 meters in the lower section of camp.
Like the year before, her first thought was, “What can I do to help?”
A greater devastation
In and around Kathmandu, tent cities are erected more than a month after the earthquake due to structural damage. The older building are in rubbles, villages are “wiped off the map”, and world heritage sites have been lost.
“What happened to us at base camp is minor compared to the rest of the devastation in Nepal,” Gallant said.
So much of the relief focus has been on Kathmandu, which is great, but not a lot of help is being provided to the smaller villages. With roads destroyed, and very few helicopters in the Nepal, there are still a great number of people suffering.
The race to comfort
Back at base camp, Gallant’s focus was far from the summit attempt. She was trying to figure out how to best share her strengths in order to ease the burden of others.
The IMG expedition company allowed onsite medical workers to use a dining tent for long bone fractures and internal injuries. An army-style supply tent, where Gallant was stationed for the night, was the designated area for people with head injuries.
As the guys on her team went through every single base camp tent to check for injured or dead bodies, Gallant had to rely on her humble medical training, rather than fancy western medical diagnostics, on Everest.
I made sure they had pain meds and their IV’s were running,” Gallant said of the nine head injuries she saw. “I gave them medication for intracranial swelling, but mostly I changed bandages and held their hands. That’s all we could do. I think a lot of what we do as doctors is to just provide comfort. In those basic conditions, there’s very little you can really do. My main job was to provide comfort and kindness to these amazing men. Most of them were Sherpas, and they were there mainly because of us.”
During rounds in the evening, one young Sherpa had the “look of death,” so Gallant opened up his IV fluids, gave him another dose of decadron, and just held his hand. Within 30 seconds, he died. No one knew who he guided for.
“In the United States, when you confirm a death, you do an EKG to make sure there’s no cardiac activity, but we didn’t have that,” Gallant said. “I listened to his heart with my stethoscope; no heart beat. I handed my stethoscope to another doctor, who confirmed. We put this young man into a sleeping bag, duct taped the end closed, and wrote the time of death and ‘unknown male.’ I learned a day or two later he was a guide for a local operator and had four kids.”
By 4:00 a.m., Gallant was finally able to rest on the carpet of the tent.
“All I could smell was wet blood,” Gallant said. “I couldn’t even stand it. The carpet was completely blood filled. I couldn’t take it for 5 minutes.”
The redeeming thing about the devastation was the occasional moment of grace found in the chaos.
“The thing that was so beautiful in a sense about that day was that everybody wanted to help,” Gallant said. “There were so many act of heroism that night from non-medical people.”
A farmer from the London area stayed up all night just to help the injured urinate into a Nalgene bottle.
Many survived the night, and started being helicoptered out by 6:00 a.m. the following morning, despite the very moody skies. By noon, about 50 people had been flown out for further medical attention.
Climbers and companies started abandoning the once previously “safe” base camp. Gallant stuck around for a few days.
At one point in the aftermath, she walked up the glacier to see the devastation.
“Someone told me that the air blast in front of the avalanche that hit that middle section of camp was the equivalent to one-seventh of the power of the atomic bomb that we dropped on Hiroshima,” Gallant said.
On the glacier, Gallant saw everything from crampons to ice axes to trekking pole. She even found the unexpected.
“The thing that touched me the most was I found a driver’s license sticking out of the snow,” Gallant said. “It’s like a needle in a haystack. I picked it up and thought, boy this person looks kind of familiar. My thought was I’ll be funny and mail it back to him when I get back to the States. It turned out that the reason I was familiar with him was I climbed with him last year. He was one of the Americans that died this year.”
Money worth sending
Nepal clearly needs rebuilding money, but the problem is because of a shifty government in place, not all money being donated is being funneled to where it’s supposed to go.
Gallant’s favorite climbing-specific organization is the Juniper Fund.
“They provide relief specifically to families of Sherpas who have either died or been injured on the mountain,” Gallant said. “One challenge last year was the amount of life insurance that the Sherpas were getting from the Nepal government was low. It was the equivalent to $500. With a lot of lobbying, that was increased to $15,000. The Juniper Fund is matching that $15,000 for five years after any death or accident, and the money is delivered directly to the family.”
There are also other organizations like the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation, which teaches Sherpas climbing skills Khumbu Climbing Center in Phortse.
“We know these amazing Sherpas are going to keep climbing,” Gallant said. “We know there’s always going to be that industry, but we want it done safely.”
Non-climbing groups where relief money is going directly to earthquake survivors include One Heart World-Wide, where maternal and child health is tended to, and the DZI Foudnation, for more general relief, including the rebuilding of 20 schools.
Looking ahead and overseas
Two years of sacrifice and hard work weren’t quite enough to get Gallant to the top of the world; it turns out that a little luck is needed, too. With yet another summit attempt in the books, a third isn’t in the cards quite yet.
“I know the tragedy here is the men who died at basecamp, and the other 8,000 people in Nepal. The country will be rebuilding for years,” Gallant said. “On a selfish, small scale, this really is something I’ve wanted to do for over a decade. I just wanted my 15 minutes at 29,000 feet. I’ve imagined that moment for a decade and it’s a hard dream for me to give up, particularly because we were so close this year. In a sense, it’s like childbirth in that there’s a lot of unpleasant stuff before the beauty of the birth.”
“I wouldn’t feel comfortable committing to next year,” Gallant added. “I need to see a smooth climbing season to go back again.”
Even though Gallant didn’t reach 29,000 feet, those close to her felt that she had a bigger victory.
“When I finally did get online after the accident, I was overwhelmed by the incredible messages that friends sent me,” Gallant said. “The thing that struck me was how a lot of really good friends said that they were way more impressed with what I had done this year than had I actually summited. That meant a lot to me, and is very healing.”
Fulfilled in a different capacity than she had anticipated, Gallant will shift her life to Jackson, Wyoming this summer, where she will work as a non-invasive cardiologist.
Next spring, she will direct her attention to Afghanistan. A ski mountaineering race is calling her name, but so is Fawzia Koofi, the first female vice president of the Afghan parliament. Koofi has asked Gallant to stick around the area to provide healthcare for women.
“Part of what I need to be happy in life is to feel like somehow my life matters,” Gallant said. “I try to embed that into any adventure that I have. I’m never going to be some famous person making some big impact, but I guess I hope that on some level, when I die, that I’ve had a positive impact somewhere.”
That’s something Gallant favors training for, summit or no summit.