Exercise Khumbu Commando was the only authorised Royal Navy / Royal Marines expedition to the Himalayas in 2017. The plan was for 14 Bootnecks to travel to the Everest (Khumbu) region of Nepal to trek for 23 continuous days (total yomp distance circa 350 km) over the region’s three highest alpine passes (Renjo La, Cho La, Kongma La), culminating in an attempt to ascend Imja Tse (Island Peak) at 6189m, and deemed High Risk and Remote by JSAT. What could possibly go wrong?
It aimed to provide a unique opportunity for Royal Marines Reservists to test themselves against the most austere and challenging conditions the Himalayas has to offer, using all the attributes of the Commando Spirit: Courage, Determination, Unselfishness and Cheerfulness. As it transpired, we would need to draw upon all these qualities and training to deal with an emergency situation high in the Himalayas.
The team was selected by a meticulous selection process; involving a written application, interviews, leadership tests and mountain assessment and training weekends in Snowdonia. The expedition team represented a wide range of ranks, age and military & mountaineering experience. After a couple of days orientation in Kathmandu, with visits to the British Embassy and Himalayan Rescue Association (HRA), we flew to Tenzing Hillary Airport at Lukla to begin our trek into the Khumbu Valley. Over the following days we trekked higher into the mountains, careful not to exceed 500m of vertical ascent a day to allow our bodies to acclimatise to the thinning air. We progressed well and even as temperatures dropped to -18, the team felt strong as we arrived in Lumde at just below 5000m.
The next morning at 4am, 7 members making up the high altitude team left Lumde to cross the Renjo La Pass whist the remainder stayed to act as a support team. Carrying all our necessary climbing kit and safety stores our bergans weighed heavy on our backs as we ascended the narrow rocky mountain paths guided by the moonlight. As the sun rose above the distant peaks we felt the temperature and morale increase as we arrived at the final lake before the pass headwall. Our reward for climbing the final steep 400m stretch was a spectacular panoramic of Everest and it’s surrounding peaks, shrouded in snow and ice it looked very imposing as it loomed over the frozen Goyko Lake far below.
After summiting the ridge at 5405m and taking the obligatory team photos, we began our descent to Gokyo village which would be our evening destination. The route took us down a steep path leading to a frozen tarn high on the mountainside, this stretched far across our path covering the small valley we had descended into. To proceed we would have to cross this and traverse across an unseasonably low frozen outlet from the tarn to descend further down the mountainside to Gokyo Lake. We paused as Lt Peris Roberts (AML) and CSgt Chris Marlow (ML1) proceeded to check the conditions; even with the midday sun the temperature was still far below freezing and the tarn had been frozen for several weeks so it was rock solid. After their recce we all donned and practiced in crampons, then proceeded down towards Gokyo. As arctic trained Commandos and keen winter mountaineers we were all experienced on ice in crampons, and we’d also taken advantage of the icy conditions lower down in Lumde to revise these principles. As we approached the mouth of the outlet where in summer water would freely run off into the lake below, we could see the effects of the cold weather. In the harsh winter the undulating water run off had frozen and spread, entirely covering the footpath with large icefalls.
In alpine style long swathes we hugged in and out of the frozen terrain, using our ice axes and crampons to stabilise us. Maj Dave Hartley (OIC Expedition) was a couple of places in front of me progressing well when suddenly his foot went through the ice causing him to momentarily lose his balance and fall sideways. We watched in painstaking slow motion as he fell and slid down the run off, following the pinball like channel down the mountainside before stopping against a pile of rocks embedded in the ice. No sooner had we seen him stop I heard a shout and as I turned back to look at the team I saw Lt Roberts also crunch through the ice and follow Maj Hartley’s route. Trying incessantly to perform an ice axe arrest to slow himself as he fell, we could see the pick of his axe bouncing off the verglas below. Also channeled by the flow of the frozen run off, Lt Roberts now ricocheted into Maj Hartley taking them both over the edge and out of eyesight.
Coming to terms with what we’d just seen, the two officers-in-charge disappearing out of sight and in an unknown condition, we simply stared after them for a long few seconds. Lt Roberts was our mountain guide and one of the most experienced and qualified on the expedition, having him suddenly taken out of the picture was an alarming prospect. CSgt Marlow immediately took charge, directing us until we came to a path which followed the ice flow all the way down to the lake below. From here we raced down searching desperately for any sign of our colleagues, as we came across them some 300m below none of us could believe how far they’d come. Maj Hartley had managed to grab hold of a pile of rocks in the verglassed terrain and was perched precariously against this; Lt Roberts was some 25m below in a similar position.
We had rehearsed crevasse rescue techniques meticulously in the UK prior to deploying and I had recently completed my Summer Mountain Leader assessment at the Joint Service Mountain Training Centre in Wales. This course incorporates rope rescue techniques in a variety of conditions; we were now going to put all this training into practice, alone at 5200m in freezing conditions. All the heavy contents of our bergan which we’d been cursing for the past few days were about to prove invaluable. It was an incredibly stressful situation but with CSgt Marlow’s calm manner and quiet confidence our training kicked in and we set to work.
Under the direction of CSgt Marlow we deployed the ropes and I set up an anchor high above Lt Roberts, who appeared to be in the worse condition with blood all over his face. Maj Hartley was in a slightly better position and had even managed to retain his bergan and pull out his warm down jacket to put on. CSgt Marlow traversed across the ice to Lt Roberts and tied him into the rope; with the support of the rope with me belaying above we managed to drag him off any ice and onto the relative safety of an island of rocks to the side. The other team members Mne Chris Carmichael, Mne Tom Rawlins and Mne Kieran Davies then immediately started delivering first aid. We repeated the process and managed to retrieve Maj Hartley to safety as well. On initial inspection they were pretty beaten up and clearly very badly injured but had both miraculously managed to survive!
Maj Hartley had badly dislocated one ankle (which he put back in place himself on the rocks) and thought his other ankle was broken, along with pain in his back, so was unable to move at all without severe pain; Lt Roberts had bad lacerations to his face which were bleeding heavily and a suspected broken femur and was similarly immobile. Whilst we busied ourselves stabilising them and covering them in as much warm kit and sleeping bags as we had, Mne Carmichael rang through to the Duty Watchkeeper at the Headquarters in the UK via satellite phone to inform them of the casualties and our location. At high altitude in the freezing cold the comms proved difficult and we couldn’t successfully get through to the British Embassy to arrange a helicopter rescue. CSgt Marlow made the decision that myself and Mne Davies would have to make best speed down to Gokyo village to raise the alarm, whilst the rest remained looking after the casualties. Mne Carmichael promptly pulled out his sleeping bag and settled down next to Lt Roberts, refusing to leave his side, caring for him with a mixture of mocking and poking fun at him, with an equal measure of compassion that could only come from a Royal Marines medic.
Our route took us steeply down the mountainside following the ice flow before contouring round the lake and to the village below. The distance cannot have been more than 3 km but at an altitude in excess of 5000m and after being on the go since 4am, it was probably the longest 3km of our lives. We arrived at the lodge in Gokyo breathless and exhausted, the Sherpa who owned the lodge came out to greet us and immediately fetched us water. Using a mixture of slow English and wild hand gestures we managed to explain our situation to him, and soon he grasped the severity of our predicament and pulled out his mobile phone and rang his nephew who as a turn of fortune happened to work for the Himalayan Rescue Association (HRA). The HRA was formed in 1973 and operate rescue helicopters and rescue services in the Everest Region; ironically Lt Roberts had been working with the HRA for some months before and we were now calling in every favour he had built up. The HRA were obviously equally concerned when they realised it was one of their friends in peril, but they explained it was unlikely they would be able to launch a helicopter into the high Himalayan mountains that afternoon due to the poor weather conditions. Now facing the prospect of two casualties with severe injuries on the hill at 5200m overnight, with no rescue until the next day, it’s fair to say the situation was looking bleak.
As it was the off-season and Gokyo village was in shutdown for winter little was open, there wasn’t even any yaks or horses around which we could use for transport. There was only one other party staying at the lone open lodge and, once we explained our situation to them, their Sherpa guides agreed to come back up the mountain with us to try and carry our casualties down whatever way we could. We ‘procured’ a ladder from a lodge and with our additional guides we headed back up to the casualties. We passed Mne Rawlins en route who was on his way to Gokyo with the satellite phone to recharge the now frozen batteries. It was late and by the time we arrived back at the accident site it was dark, due to the altitude and our sheer exhaustion the climb back up was horrendous. Maj Hartley was in the worse position so the decision was made to carry him down first, it was clear he was in considerable pain and with the ever decreasing temperature he was beginning to really suffer. We strapped him to our new ladder with the ropes and with the help of the two Sherpas we began the awkward descent. The pace was painstakingly slow and aware of how painful it must have been for our casualty with a possible spinal injury, we gingerly moved down the mountain negotiating the winding icy footpaths by the light of our head-torches. Casualty evacuations practiced in the field on exercise have got nothing on this!
At the base of the mountain where we hit the lakeside we were joined by more people from Gokyo, a mixture of Sherpas, Porters and their clients. Thanking Maj Hartley for the extra ‘phys session’ we gratefully swapped stretcher bearer duties with the Sherpas. Mne Davies returned with them carrying Maj Hartley to Gokyo whilst CSgt Marlow and I turned back to ascend the mountainside once more to prep Lt Roberts for either a helicopter rescue or for the Sherpa team to return. We found him where we’d left him with Mne Carmichael still by his side and together we watched the distant group of head torches far below contour the lake and descend into Gokyo with Maj Hartley. After an hour or so it became clear neither the helicopter nor the Sherpa group would be coming for us, Lt Roberts broke the grim news that the HRA helicopters don’t have any night vision capabilities so are unable to fly at night.
It was decided CSgt Marlow would return to Goyko to help treat Maj Hartley and better co-ordinate the rescue the next day and myself and Mne Carmichael would stay with Lt Roberts overnight. The prospect of bivi’ing out overnight at 5200m was particularly daunting; we had sleeping bags and bivi bags with a group shelter loosely shrouded over us so we would be firmly in the survival setting instead of comfort. I had been ‘benighted’ before overnight in the mountains, but that was in Scotland in summer, not in the Himalayas at -20 degrees. We settled down for the night, shamelessly huddled together with Mne Carmichael constantly checking on Lt Robert’s condition throughout the night. At some point during the early hours, our two Porters arrived with Mne Rawlins bringing the welcome treat of hot lemon tea and noodles and extra blankets. They’d made the difficult climb in the dark to bring us vital supplies and it was a surreal but morale-raising appearance. The porters and Mne Rawlins made the wise decision not to try and descend in the dark and they too stayed out on the hill a small distance away.
At first light after catching sporadic moments of sleep we saw the sunrise over Everest high above us, this awe inspiring sight will stay with me for some time (sadly my camera had frozen so it will have to stay as a memory). Around 9am we heard the wonderful sound of a distant helicopter, it came into view flying low into Gokyo to land and prepare for the rescue. In the morning sun and with the appearance of a helicopter things were looking up for the first time and a short while later the helicopter made passes over our position checking the thermals. After landing in Gokyo village and stripping all but the bare essentials from the helicopter, a ‘long line rescue’ cable was attached complete with an incredibly brave HRA member dangling from it. The helo flew in to our position and with an expert hand, the pilot carefully lowered the HRA member into place a few feet away from us. Under his direction we transferred Lt Roberts into a stretcher before the helicopter returned and both Lt Roberts and his rescuer were attached to the long line cable and rose above us out of sight. After a short stop at Gokyo to put the doors back on the helicopter, Lt Roberts was evacuated to Kathmandu and followed shortly after on a separate helicopter by Maj Hartley.
From here we made the final descent into Gokyo, carrying what remained of the two casualties’ equipment. The team was beyond exhausted; we had run ourselves into the ground the previous 24 hours making numerous trips up and down difficult terrain at altitude before remaining there for one very cold and uncomfortable bivi. The next day we trekked the 25km down to Namche Bazaar to link up with the support team led by Maj Tony Ward (2IC Expedition) and CSgt Stu Beeston. We shared stories and although we’d been alone on the mountainside we discovered just how much effort had been made by them during the night to help with the rescue.
Without Lt Roberts’ AML qualification we were unable to continue with our original plan, we remained in the Khumbu region and once the team had recovered we progressed once more into the Himalayas, albeit at a lower altitude. We returned to Kathmandu to recover, enjoy a well-deserved beer and purchase questionable t-shirts. The team enjoyed the much needed R&R with the highlight being CSgt Marlow losing his glasses and being forced to read everything through the magnification bubble of his Silva compass, perhaps the most ML thing I have ever witnessed. It is fair to say the team has unfinished business in Nepal and hopes to return in the future. Maj Hartley and Lt Roberts are recovering well in the UK and already competing over who has the most significant injuries. Even though we didn’t complete our original expedition aims, I and the other team members gained a tremendous amount from the expedition. The challenges we faced were unlike any before and coming through it as a team, working together in those conditions and pushing ourselves to the limit was incredibly rewarding.
Finally, and by no means least, an enormous thank you to the Ulysses Trust for the financial support they gave to the expedition. The expedition would have not been possible without their financial assistance. The RMR, Unit, and team are extremely grateful for being afforded the opportunity to bring all the tenets of the commando ethos together in a once in a lifetime opportunity.