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Photo: Sunset on Mount Everest seen from Mount Kala Patthar

Mount Everest looms before the sunset-gilded peak of Kala Pattar (file picture).

Photograph by Elena Pastukhova, My Shot

Ker Than

for National Geographic News

Published April 22, 2012

This story has been updated. See new version >>

A Nepali guide on Mount Everest plummeted 150 feet (46 meters)—roughly equivalent to falling from a 15-story building—into an ice crevasse Saturday, a National Geographic team on Everest reported.

Namgya Tshering Sherpa—believed to be 30 and a new father—is the first climbing-related fatality of the 2012 mountaineering season on the world's tallest peak.

 

picture: mount everest base camp

 

At the time of the fall, Namgya was climbing toward Camp 2, about two-thirds of the way up the 29,035-foot (8,850-meter) mountain. Like many others of the Sherpa ethnic group of northeastern Nepal, Namgya was making a living from his high-altitude upbringing, serving Western climbers as a guide and porter. (Related: how some Everest guides learn their craft.)

Namgya's body has been recovered and is expected to be flown off Everest Sunday, according to a blog post from Everest Base Camp by National Geographic magazine writer Mark Jenkins

Meanwhile, at Base Camp, "the Sherpas are subdued and sorrowful, especially since it was an unnecessary death," Jenkins wrote. "His death is a tragic reminder of what a slim margin of error there is in the mountains."

(Pictures: The Sherpas.)

Without a Net

Early reports suggest Namgya hadn't taken safety precautions before crossing one of the many ladders that are laid flat to bridge giant cracks in Everest's ice.

Each climber is expected to clip his or her harness to a safety line before crossing any of the roughly foot-wide (30-centimeter-wide) ladders.

Namgya was a veteran climber who reportedly conquered the peak in 2010 and 2011. But he apparently skipped clipping in, and he fell after one of his crampons (picture)—sets of metal spikes clipped onto boots for traction—caught on a rung. (Pictures: Everest gear, then and now.)

"It is not completely uncommon among Sherpas to skip clipping into the safety line and simply race across the ladder," according to Jenkins, who's currently preparing for a National Geographic Society-sponsored climb to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first U.S. summit of Everest. (The Society owns National Geographic News.)

But why skip a seemingly simple, and potentially life-saving step?

According to U.S. climber Peter Athans, who's summited Everest seven times, "Oftentimes there's a fairly strong competitive spirit between the Sherpas who are there, especially if they're from different villages.

"They could also just be overconfident and a bit complacent, because the guides generally have great athleticism ... and going across the ladder is just not difficult for them," said Athans, who's often called "Mr. Everest."

(Related: "Everest 2012: Pete Athans on the Evolution of Nepali Guides.")

Athans said he understands the temptation to not clip in during a crevasse crossing and has skipped the step himself.

"There're places where you have a short ladder section, and you get pretty confident about it," he said. "And for whatever reason you think it's just a couple of hops, and you feel completely confident in your abilities."

Veteran climbers aren't the only ones who occasionally don't clip in. Novice alpinists sometimes just plain forget, Athans added.

Part of the problem is that, for climbers from other parts of the world, "you don't really get a lot of opportunities to cross crevasses with ladders," Athans said. For instance, "there's only really one mountain that I know of in North America where people do it, and that's Mount Rainier."

Second Death of Everest Season Overall

Crevasse falls aren't always deadly, especially if a crack is relatively shallow or if snow bridges soften a climbers fall.

Sometimes, though, climbers survive the fall but not what comes after.

"We had an issue with a skier on Mount Rainier who fell into a crevasse last May, and by the time we got to him, which was three hours later, he had died of hypothermia from being in the hole so long," Athans said.

With the tragedy of Namgya Tshering Sherpa painfully fresh, Everest team leaders were insisting on Saturday that all climbers clip in to safety lines, magazine writer Jenkins blogged.

Just a few weeks into the Everest season the mountain has made clear that its dangers are multiple.

Three days before Namgya fell, Karsang Namgyal Sherpa died, presumably of altitude sickness, at Base Camp. The 40-year-old guide had scaled Everest several times and was the son of an accomplished Sherpa known as the "Snow Leopard."

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