Nearly a week after a surprise blizzard hit Nepal, killing some 40 trekkers including four Israelis, one backpacker recalled his desperate hike alongside Israelis Nadav Shoham and Tamar Ariel, and described his decision to press on without Ariel, who, like Shoham, would die in the snow.
Eitan Idan told the Galei Yisrael radio station on Monday that Ariel, a 25-year-old Israeli Air Force navigator, had expended her energy early on assisting other hikers who were plodding through the snow, and soon could not walk herself.
While Idan and another friend, Shani, took turns helping Ariel, Shoham was the one who assisted her the most, lifting her up as she toppled repeatedly into the snow drifts, Idan said.
“I remember that Nadav didn’t stop; he kept on catching her. She fell, and he caught her, and she fell, and I’m helping him from the front, and you reach a point where you closely follow the person clearing the snow from the path so as not to waste your own strength clearing it,” he said, speaking from his hospital bed at the Assaf Harofeh Medical Center, where he was being treated for frostbitten hands.
Ahead of them was a group of French backpackers with a GPS unit, he said, and the Israeli hikers desperately tried to keep pace with them for direction; however, due to Ariel’s condition, they were soon left in their wake and found themselves alone in the swirling drifts.
“I remember that at one point she just fell headfirst in the snow, and I just told Nadav: ‘We have to continue, there’s no choice. We’ll lose the group walking ahead of us, we’re also getting tired, and we we won’t be able to continue… We’ll have to leave her, and continue by ourselves.'”
Shoham was silent, he said. “He is a special person, the kind of person who would never leave anyone unless someone else came along and told him to. And he just accepted it, and I told him, ‘I’m making the decision, it’s on me, we’re leaving.'”
After another half hour of walking, Idan said, he felt his strength ebbing, and told his friends to leave him behind, too. But he managed to make it through the night in the bone-chilling cold, and hours later was relieved to see flashlights heading his way. However, rather than a rescue crew, it was his friend Shani, who came back to inform him that Shoham had frozen to death overnight.
“Imagine the disappointment when you think they’re coming to rescue you, and suddenly you learn that your best friend has died,” he said.
Idan maintained that he didn’t regret his decision to leave Ariel behind. “I don’t see that what I did was a mistake; it’s not black-and-white. There’s no correct or incorrect [decision], no right or wrong; it’s a moment, an instinct.” In that moment, he said, “it was clear to me that if we stay, we die.”
The hiker described his admiration for Ariel’s resilience, even as she was keeling over with exhaustion.
“The whole time it was difficult for her, and she fought and even pressed on,” he said, “far more than any other person would have continued, which revealed her strength.”
Shoham and Ariel were two of the four Israeli hikers killed in the storm on the Annapurna Circuit, along with Agam Luria and Michal Cherkasky. Ariel was the first female Orthodox combat navigator in the Israeli Air Force.
Ariel and Luria will be buried Tuesday in Israel. Shoham was laid to rest on Monday. Cherkasky’s body was recovered several days after the storm and her funeral date hadn’t been announced as of Tuesday morning.
Nepal wrapped up rescue operations in its northern mountains Monday, saying all the hikers believed to have been stranded on a trekking route by the series of deadly blizzards are now safe.
At least 39 people, including trekkers from Canada, India, Israel, Slovakia, Poland and Japan, died in the blizzards and avalanches that swept the Himalayas last week, buffeting the popular Annapurna trekking circuit. Nepalese officials said they rescued 407 people, 226 of them foreigners.
AP contributed to this report.