The man who survived Mount Everest’s deadliest day. Then went back

Jim Davidson knows what it’s like to shelter in place following a once-in-a-lifetime catastrophe. His introduction to this type of resilience came not through the Covid-19 pandemic, but six years earlier, on Mount Everest.

Davidson, a veteran mountaineer, was making his first attempt to summit the world’s highest peak in 2015. On the morning of 25 April, he and his team were at 19,700ft at the Camp One site – a narrow glacier situated between two towering ledges. Then they heard an increasingly loud rumble come down from the west shoulder of Everest, several hundred yards away. Then came a second rumble, from the opposite direction.

“Two major avalanches at the same time – that was not right,” Davidson tells the Guardian in a phone interview. “[The second rumble] got louder and louder as well. We wanted to get out of there.”

Davidson knew the situation was dire when his tent started to hover eight inches off the ground. “It dropped back down and then up again,” he recalls. “I knew it was an earthquake. We would be in extremely serious trouble at some point.”

After five minutes the initial tremors stopped and Davidson and the other 180 or so climbers camping on the glacier found that they were all unscathed. Yet they learned from base camp that others on Everest needed urgent medical attention. As for Davidson and the others at Camp One, the tremors had blocked their lone escape route.

The next morning, a snowstorm hit, temporarily ruling out evacuation by helicopter. They had enough food, but fuel was running out, which would make it impossible to melt snow into water – a necessity against dehydration in high altitudes. Davidson, a trained geologist, also feared the effects of potentially deadly aftershocks.

“We were right in the crosshairs,” he says. “We couldn’t go anywhere.” All they could do was “accept uncertainty, sit tight, take care of ourselves”.

Davidson pays tribute to the Nepalese sherpas “tried to be reassuring.”

“They, like all of us, were surprised by the earthquake,” he says. “They did not expect this scale.”

Only after Davidson was finally evacuated by helicopter, 40 hours after the quake, did he begin to grasp what had happened. It was the deadliest day in the history of Everest: 18 fatalities by that evening, with a 19th death afterward. In Nepal overall, the 7.8-magnitude earthquake was the worst in more than 80 years, killing about 9,000 people. Davidson revisits the tragedy in his new book, The Next Everest, ahead of the six-year anniversary of the tragedy.

Scarred by the experience of his first climb, Davidson wrestled with the decision to return to the mountain.

“Mentally, I knew how serious it was to climb Everest, having survived [the first attempt],” Davidson says.

He notes: “I had been through tragedy before,” referring to a devastating loss on Mount Rainier in 1992 when he and his climbing partner Mike Price fell into a crevasse in a glacier. The accident killed Price and badly injured Davidson, as chronicled in Davidson’s first book The Ledge.

In the months after his first attempt on Everest, he doubted he would try again. “I definitely had to steel myself a little bit to go back into the arena,” Davidson says. Yet, he adds, “tough challenges make you more resilient.”

He had the support of his wife, Gloria, and their two children. He also remembered lessons he had learned as a teenager working for his father’s painting company in Massachusetts, where the future mountaineer climbed ladders to paint church steeples and electrical towers.

“I was inspired by what my dad told me about big goals – go for it with everything you’ve got,” Davidson says.

Davidson gradually warmed to the idea of another go at Everest. He felt a bond with Nepal and its people after fundraising for earthquake recovery from his home in Colorado. Meanwhile, he followed the 2016 climbing season on Everest. After that season, he thought, “maybe I should go back.”

He prepared by “stacking” workout days so that one hard day was followed by an even tougher one. He mixed trail running with weight lifting and box jumps while improving his diet, all with an eye toward avoiding Everest’s deadly icefalls and reaching its summit.

“Everything I had done was amped up,” he says.

By the spring of 2017, at age 54, “I was in the best shape of my life,” he recalls, “the most mentally prepared for a serious climb. I felt I was ready to go.”

As the climbers gradually worked their way up the mountain, they found that debris from the 2015 earthquake still remained. Near the top, Davidson had to walk past corpses of fallen climbers. In another tragedy, the renowned Swiss climber Ueli Steck died on a nearby peak at the same time as Davidson was making his attempt on Everest.

Davidson was able to see his dream though to the top of Everest after about two months on the mountain. “I’m very grateful I was able to make it this far,” he says. “I’m very lucky to survive the sort of disaster I experienced on Everest … To me, it’s a very humbling experience.” And, he says, “it’s majestic to see the view with the sun coming up over the plains of Tibet … dawn-up on some of the highest, [most] majestic peaks in the world.”

Davidson encourages his readers to seek out big goals themselves – their own “next Everest,” to quote the book’s title.

“I think the important thing is, pick a goal within your passion,” he says. “For me, it’s mountains. Everybody can pick a goal that resonates with them. I think the key is [it being] big enough to scare you.”

As he explains, “if you’re a casual runner who’s done a 5k race, a four-mile race is not going to scare you. You’re not going to do more. Maybe you’ve never run a 10-mile race or marathon. It’s probably going to make you quite nervous – ‘I have to do more, become more, than I ever did before.’ If you don’t do more, become more, you will not grow.”

What is Davidson’s own next challenge now that the world’s highest peak is off his agenda? He said that when the pandemic ends, he will look to tackle high peaks again, “probably Mexico and California with my regular climbing partner.”

“There’s always a ‘next Everest,’” he says.