Israeli survivors of Nepal avalanche return home 'lucky to be alive'

Army helicopters scoured for survivors on parts of the trail at an altitude of more than 5,000 meters. Soldiers fanned out through some of the most treacherous terrain, where helicopters cannot land.

October 20, 2014 01:52
4 minute read.
A Nepalese porter walks with his load from Everest base camp in Nepal

A Nepalese porter walks with his load from Everest base camp in Nepal. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The Israelis who made their way out of the Nepal blizzard and back to Israel for treatment are lucky to be alive and thankful they had one another to count on, said Eitan Edan, a survivor being treated for frostbite at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer.

“All we had was one another, when the blizzard started our guides were stunned, they were speechless and didn’t know what to do,” said Edan, relating how the hikers on the Annapurna Circuit had no prior warning that the storm was on its way and that the blizzard descended upon them with terrifying speed.

“The snow is very thick and the rescue teams are finding it difficult to pull the... bodies out,” said K.P. Sharma, an administrator in Dolpa, a district of glaciers and ravines, who referred to the ongoing search.

Army helicopters scoured for survivors on parts of the trail at an altitude of more than 5,000 meters. Soldiers fanned out through some of the most treacherous terrain, where helicopters cannot land.

Edan, 31, from Petah Tikva, described the Israelis hiking to safety as mainly having been strangers before they met on the trek, and that quickly they became close as can be, counting on one another to survive.

He disputed some of the reports in the media of porters abandoning the hikers or taking their money and locking them out of teahouses. He said they weren’t left to die. Rather, the porters and the Israelis got separated and the teahouse had been abandoned when the storm hit.

He also rejected reports that the Israelis were traveling without guides or permits, saying that they had paid hefty sums to hike the trail safely, but the weather was just too powerful.

At one point, he simply could not go on, Edan said, and he came to the decision that he would die, sitting behind a boulder on the trail.

His friend Nadav Shoham refused to leave him behind, but eventually Edan convinced him to push on while he gathered his strength in the snowstorm. Not long after, on his way to shelter further down the path, Shoham froze to death.

The three hours he spent behind the boulder may have saved Edan’s life, as he said they allowed him to regain his strength and push on. That said, he added that the short respite wasn’t the only thing that helped.

“I thought of my mom’s macaroni and meatballs, and I realized that if I’m excited about that I’m probably doing well.”

After long hours of panic and fear, and with the knowledge her son could face a long recovery from the frostbite he suffered in the Nepal blizzard, Nurit Edan said she mainly found reason to smile.

“I feel like I was given a gift, I got my son back,” she said Sunday, sitting outside the burns unit where her son was being treated on Sunday.

She said when she first heard about the blizzard last Tuesday night, she couldn’t reach Eitan and the family feared the worst. After a long, difficult night, just before Simhat Torah began Wednesday evening, the family received a call from the Foreign Ministry, telling them Eitan had been found and was being treated at a hospital in Nepal.

Like every Simhat Torah, the religious family made its way to synagogue and celebrated, while also mourning the loss of Eitan’s close friend, Nadav, whom Nurit said “was like a member of our family.”

A total of seven Israelis landed in Israel in the early hours of Sunday morning from Nepal to receive continued treatment.

Another three – Lt. Tamar Ariel, 24, from Masuot Yitzhak, Agam Luria, 23, from Kibbutz Yifat, and Nadav Shoham, 30, from Hoshaya, died in the storm, and a fourth, Michal Cherkesky, 36, from Givatayim, is missing. Dozens of people have been killed in the storm, and more than 40 remain missing.

“We are not clear where the missing people are and whether they are safe or not safe,” Yadav Koirala, the chief of Nepal’s disaster management authority, said in Kathmandu.

“We can only hope and pray that they are not dead.”

The Israelis form part of a group of 230 foreign survivors who have been rescued. Since Wednesday, rescue teams have recovered 30 bodies and identified nine more from the air.

The dead include Canadian, Indian, Israeli, Japanese, Nepalese, Polish and Slovak trekkers. Survivors said many victims died trying to descend from the trail’s highest pass in freezing, whiteout conditions.

On Sunday morning, just hours after landing from a 14-hour flight from Nepal, Eitan Edan and another injured Israeli ignored their doctor’s pleas and traveled up North to attend Shoham’s funeral.

Edan and the other two survivors at Sheba Medical Center suffering from frostbite could face a long recovery, maybe a month or more of hospitalization, but doctors expressed optimism on Sunday.

“We are working on saving the fingers and toes that have been hurt, and keep them from losing them,” said Prof. Eyal Winkler, head of the plastic surgery department at the hospital.

“We are optimistic; we don’t have any reason to throw our hands up in the air. It’s clear they went through something very difficult, but I hope that with their spirit and our training, we can succeed,” he added.

The incident was Nepal’s second major mountain disaster this year.

Sixteen guides died in an avalanche in April on Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak.

This week’s disaster was the worst since 42 people died in avalanches in the Mount Everest region in 1995, army officials said.

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