A YORKSHIRE police officer who led more than 100 trekkers to safety during terrible weather conditions that claimed at least 39 lives in Nepal has said he never set out to be a hero.
Sergeant Paul Sherridan, 49, found himself in white-out conditions in the Annapurna range last week and only after he began helping a small party back down to safety did he realise that dozens of stranded and freezing walkers were following him down.
“I never wanted to be the hero,” he told a press conference in Sheffield.
“I wanted to go on holiday. I wanted to come home. I wanted to get back to work and I wanted to look forward to my next experience.”
He said: “I don’t know how I feel to be honest. I’m just pleased to be home.”
Mr Sherridan was speaking as the Nepalese authorities wrapped up rescue operations in its northern mountains, saying all the hikers believed to have been stranded 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, battering the popular Annapurna trekking circuit.
Mr Sherridan, who has been a police officer with South Yorkshire Police for 26 years, said he was a “serious amateur” mountainteer.
He said he ended up leading his group because the Nepalese guides were so badly equipped and inexperienced.
But he believed the badly paid guides were as much victims as the anyone in the tragedy that unfolded.
Mr Sherridan, from Doncaster, said: “I just had the ability to do something that anybody with my level of amateur ability would have been able to do.
“So I don’t think I did anything special in that sense. Had it been someone else, I’d have stood back for them to do it, helped them or worked with them or just followed them. But it just happened to be me.”
The officer described how he had been walking on the Annapurna curcuit for about 10 days when he got caught in the atrocious conditions on the 17,500ft Thorang-La Pass.
As he began to descend he noticed people really struggling in the thigh deep snow and started to advise people to try and get down to mountain.
But he said the conditions deteriorated as he moved down and even working out which routes were uphill or downhill became difficult.
Mr Sherridan said the wind was so bad his guide’s eyelids froze.
“It became apparent that we were descending into worsening conditions,” he said.
“The sky was as white and grey as the ground and everything was featureless.
“The wind was so ferocious that nothing could be heard.
“If you can imagine having a hairdryer blowing into your ears and someone jet washing ice cold water into your face and the spin drift of the snow blowing around and causing disorientation.”
He said he joined a group that was descending but “to my horror, I realised that these people were dropping off one-by-one”.
“As the weather worsened and the wind blew, people disappeared in front of me,” the officer said.
“Some of the people were just walking aimlessly in the wrong direction and I was horrified. That was the point that I saw this guides that I felt was the person who might help save me and might save other people.”
He described how he reassured the guide and they eventually spotted a navigation pole as the scoured the featureless landscape.
“At the point I realised that was the way were going to be saved,” he said.
“I said to the people with us ‘make sure that you can see the person in front and person behind and we’ll stay together. And at least we’ll be safe’.”
He said that after two hours of walking through the snow he thought he was at the limit of his physical ability and finding it difficult to breathe.
Mr Sherridan said he stopped for a rest and told the guide to go ahead and lead the group.
“I turned around and there must have been 100 plus people just coming down the mountain.
“That’s when I realised that, perhaps, it wasn’t just me and four other people.
“It was a lot more. Maybe a hundred. Maybe more than a 100.”
Mr Sherridan said he decided to tell his story to highlight the lack of training and equipment among many of the guides allocated to trekking holidays.
He said: “The Nepalese guides are as much a victim as the people they take up there.
“I sure that there are well qualified and experienced guides but I didn’t see much evidence of that.
“What needs to happen is that people need to be properly equipped, they need to be fully aware of the weather systems, there need to be systems in place that don’t allow people to go onto the mountain in the conditions that we were allowed to go into.”
Mr Sherridan said: “I feel extremely lucky.”
“I rang my wife Lesley and said there’s been a bit of an incident in Nepal and you might hear about it in the news. I might have used up one of my nine lives.
“She said ‘you wait till you get home here, you might lose the other eight’.”
He said: “I thought I could have died. I thought I was going to be on that mountain. I wasn’t ready to die. I was going to fight.
“I was going to do everything I could do. I had lots of thoughts of how the family would be at home. And I felt angry with myself but sad for the others.”
Yadav Koirala of Nepal’s Disaster Management Division said today: “We believe that all the trekkers and guides have been helped and as far as we know there are no more people stranded on the route.”
So far, 35 bodies have been identified.