National Geographic News
Team decends through the "popcorn" in the Khumbu ice fall.

A team descends through the "popcorn field" in the Khumbu Icefall.

PHOTOGRAPH BY ANDY BARDON, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Mark Jenkins

for National Geographic

Published April 18, 2014

The worst accident in the history of Everest mountaineering occurred Friday morning at approximately 6:30 (Nepal time) on the south side of the world's highest peak. Thirteen Sherpas are reported dead, with at least three missing and several injured. The Sherpas were killed in the notorious Khumbu Icefall by an avalanche that fell from the hanging glaciers along the West Shoulder.

According to eyewitness accounts, the avalanche swept across the Khumbu Icefall at about 19,000 feet (5,800 meters), in an area called the "popcorn field," so named for the huge blocks of ice spraying across the snow. The Sherpas were ferrying loads for the client climbers when the accident occurred. (See "Mount Everest's Deadliest Day Puts Focus on Sherpas.")

Ang Kaji Sherpa was one of 12 climbing guides killed Friday in an avalanche on Mount Everest. He was working with a team of elite Sherpa, who were setting up ropes to prepare the way for their clients to follow in the days to come. In 2012 he served as a guide for of the National Geographic/The North Face expedition to Everest and was the first member of that team to reach the summit.

Every year, over 300 climbers attempt Everest by the standard Southeast Ridge route pioneered by Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay in 1953. For every one climber, typically a client who has paid up to $50,000 to attempt Everest, there are at least two Sherpas carrying loads.

The Khumbu Icefall, stretching from 18,000 to 19,000 feet (5,500 to 5,800 meters), lies just above base camp on the Nepal side of 29,035-foot (8,850-meter) Mount Everest. Anyone who wants to climb Everest from the south side (the standard route up the north side, in China, is via the North Col route) must pass through the Khumbu Icefall.

Because the Khumbu is so dangerous, guides try to reduce the number of trips through this gauntlet for paying clients, which increases the number of times a working Sherpa, portaging tents, food, ropes, and most important, oxygen for the climbers, must pass through this danger zone.

Whereas a paying climber may pass through the Khumbu only six to eight times while climbing Everest—going up and down for acclimatization—a Sherpa can easily make the mortal trek 30 to 40 times in a season.

Map of Mount Everest’s main trail.
Friday's avalanche happened at 19,000 feet (5,800 meters) in an area known as the "popcorn field."
NG STAFF. SOURCE: GERMAN AEROSPACE CENTER

"It's such a horrific tragedy," said Conrad Anker, world-renowned mountaineer and the leader of the North Face/National Geographic expedition that climbed Everest via the Southeast Ridge in 2012.

"Most Dangerous Place in the World"

"It was just a matter of time," explains Anker. "The Khumbu is probably the most dangerous single place in the climbing world. You can just sit at base camp during the day and watch avalanches roar down right over the climbing route. It scares everyone."

Crossing through the Khumbu is usually done at night via headlamp, between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. This is when the ice blocks and the hanging glaciers are most stable and avalanches least likely. During the day, as the sun warms the mountain, the hanging glaciers begin to avalanche, and the ice in the Khumbu starts to crumble.

"Sherpas bear the real burden of climbing Mount Everest," states Anker. "They're the ones who take the biggest risks."

One of the dead is Ang Kaji Sherpa, who was one of the strongest Sherpas on the 2012 North Face/National Geographic Everest expedition. Kaji, father of six, was a veteran of over half a dozen expeditions to Everest. In 2012, he was the first person to summit Everest that spring and put up the climbing ropes for all the subsequent climbers. When he came down from that summit bid in 2012, he was greeted with enormous applause, but humble and smiling, he simply said he “wasn’t that tired.” Later in the expedition, when the Nat Geo team members first arrived in the Death Zone at 26,000 feet (7,900 meters), Kaji ran around hand-delivering hot bowls of steaming soup.

A photo of climbers crossing a bridge above a crevasse on Mount Everest.
A climber steps across a bridge of aluminum ladders lashed together above a crevasse in the Khumbu Icefall.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ANDY BARDON, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

The Sherpas, an ethnic group of 80,000 in Nepal that moved south from the Tibetan plateau some 300 years ago, have been used as labor on mountaineering expeditions since the very beginning. Genetically adapted to high altitude, Sherpas are stronger, faster, and naturally fitter above 23,000 feet (7,000 meters), where most Western climbers begin using bottled oxygen. Sherpas have also been dying on Everest from the very beginning—on the first serious attempt of Everest, in 1922, seven Sherpas died in an avalanche.

Although statistically a client climber is more likely to die attempting the summit on Everest, a Sherpa is more likely to die in the Khumbu Icefall.

"It's essentially a game of Russian roulette," says Anker. "There is nowhere to run, nowhere to hide."

Passage through the Khumbu Icefall is so notoriously dangerous that sometimes guides simply stop their expedition if the icefall is deemed too dangerous. In the spring of 2012, Russell Brice, owner and operator of Himalayan Experience, the largest and most successful Everest guiding operation in the world, halted his expedition because he felt the Khumbu and the avalanches were simply too dangerous, particularly for his Sherpas. (Read "Maxed Out on Everest" in National Geographic magazine.)

Currently, the mountain is shut down for rescue operations. The confirmed dead are Dorjee Sherpa, Ang Chiring Sherpa, Mingma Sherpa, Ningma Sherpa, Ang Kaji Sherpa, Pasang Karma Sherpa, Lakpa Tenzing Sherpa, Chiring Wankchu Sherpa, Wangele Sherpa, Khem Dorjee Sherpa, Furwa Temba Sherpa, and Aasamn Tamang Sherpa. Their bodies are being removed from the mountain.

117 comments
Faisal Afaq
Faisal Afaq

i think main reason of this Accident is wrong time to pass Khumbu icefall. The Suitable time for crossing Khumbu icefall is in between 2:00 a.m  To 5:00 a.m.  This accident occured at the time of 6:30 a.m. At this time, ice starts to melt, and Avalanche start. Doctor Faisal Afaq from Pakistan.

J  R  FRANCIS Jr.
J R FRANCIS Jr.

Is   it   the  norm   that   the   supplies   for   the   climber   should   be   carried  by   Sherpas  only ?   Why    there   cannot   be   an   alternate    arrangement ?

It   is   totally   absurd   that    the  precious   lives   of    Sherpas   are   sacrificed   for    the   joy/ glory   of   the    tourist /climber.My heart    goes   out   with   those   families   which  lost   their  dear  dad / husband /brother.....

Susan Massara
Susan Massara

So very sad to hear of the losses of such great men! I will pray for them and their families and know that they are not alone. Namaste!

Laurelyn Sayah
Laurelyn Sayah

All my compassion to the families and friends who have lost loved ones.  In addition to being genetically adapted to high altitude, it is my my experience that Sherpa are also exceptionally culturally adapted to being some of the kindest and bravest people on the planet.  Sagarmatha has taken some very fine individuals.

Marishka Xgl
Marishka Xgl

Nepal government's subsidiary was only 400 usd for each family who lost their dad and sons. Really sad to hear this news. God bless them and R.I.P

Larry! Langford
Larry! Langford

Who wrote the book yrs ago when guides died Grisham 

christel cornilsen
christel cornilsen

They shouldnt have died for a TV SHOW! DISCOVERY needs to compensate the families. Did their insurance cover the fact that there is a high risk sending sherpas with 90kgs each of camera gear strapped to their backs, in a hurry to make it to the deadline for MAY 11. Too many people are dying in the name of wingsuit and base jump videos. Do not put any more sherpas in harms way. They need the money but hopefully they will realise Mother Everest is spewing some mad juju over at the Discovery team. She doesnt want to ou jumping off her and putting her people in harms way anymore so STOP

Matthew Brooks
Matthew Brooks

Condolences to the sherpa community & the mountaineers affected.

Afshin L.
Afshin L.

God bless them, may they rest in peace. It's a big tragedy on Everest mountain. peace and patient for their family

Cassie Black
Cassie Black

My thoughts are with the women and children left behind with no father or bread winner.

Years of heartache…….

Anu Radha
Anu Radha

I don't understand why/who deleted the comments that I posted earlier. These Sherpas' families are compensated very little, and therefore, I created a gofundme fund for the families of the lost Sherpas. http://www.gofundme.com/helpthesherpas My goal is to reach $15000 for the families of 15 Sherpas. Can we make that happen?

Doug Turnbull
Doug Turnbull

Every one that follows Everest expeditions are extremely saddened.rest in peace

Celia Lang
Celia Lang

Nat Geo has always been my choice of window to the world.  My Dad (d. 1986) built a set of 4 wall-wide shelves to hold every bound edition of Natural Geographic since 1945.  


My prayers are making their way now for the entire world family as we mourn our losses.  Tragedy moves us to feel hearts broken as at the same time much love fills us with joy.  We are joined in the rhythm of life that is eternal.  We carry on. Peace. 

Passionate Traveller
Passionate Traveller

Not many Sherpa would get through the icefall 30-40 times in a season, that's an exaggeration. Clients need not go through the icefall more than 2 return trips with operators who acclimate elsewhere before ascending on Everest. True, the ratio is much higher for Sherpa but lets get perspective. For years leading operators have been looking at ways to try and reduce the required numbers of trips through the icefall. Currently there is no option of leaving equipment used annually building C2 for example on the mountain, each season everything is carried up and back down as per government requirements. Slinging helicopter loads to C1 / C2 is a double edged sword, doing Sherpa out of desired income, risk to helicopter crews, adding to Everest's circus-like image perhaps? Climbing around the world evolves, look at Chamonix for example. Technology and infrastructure has been aiding climbers for many decades there. Ski planes on Denali are the norm, but once would have been seen as a lavish and superfluous luxury. Nothing can reduce the hurt of this tragedy. They were my friends up there, I've been avalanched more than once in the icefall. These men love their jobs, they love the people they meet on these trips. Yeah some clients are rich, most aren't. They are more often mountain lovers, like the Sherpa taking the opportunities of work that provide for them and their futures. You see them smiling in photos because they love this expedition lifestyle. Some companies may exploit their staff, it hurts to see that. The big, and yes Western operators who many of you think have tents made of gold, are actually fantastic employers. They will support the families of the fallen for years to come. If you do your research you will know who looks after their staff in ways you can be proud of. If you ever visit Everest you will see which companies provide identical equipment and training for staff, be them western or Nepalese. If you want to take a stand supporting these amazing people, put your money where your mouth is. Or even better get off the couch and see if directly employing a local porter on a trekking trip in Nepal is exploitation, or if he/she has a great time with you, doing what they do for a living.

Andy O'Rourke
Andy O'Rourke

You want to summit - first you pay a BIG insurance premium that benefits the Sherpas and their families in case of death. Second - YOU help fix ropes, set routes and haul your own s*** up (and bring your garbage down)! You can't or won't do this? NO summit for you…. This whole situation is appalling, makes me ashamed that human's actually profit from this!

Ariana P.
Ariana P.

My condolences to there family's.... 


Pankaj Gupta
Pankaj Gupta

MY condolences to family members.......These families must be compensated adequately .Most of them are poor people....

toni lugger
toni lugger

Oh Mani Padme Hum Peace to my friends that passed in this unlikely event....Peace be with your families...


manu Mathur
manu Mathur

I want to know if there are funds  where we can all contribute for their families ?


Joy Saldanha
Joy Saldanha

Climbers not only endanger their own lives, but those too of the loyal sherpa's who do not really want to do this,but must!. Reading the above article made the hair on my neck stand!  I never could understand this almost 'a devotion' to climbing, a most dangerous mountain.Count here allmost any other mountain. And one has to risk  life, that of  yours and others. j.e.s....... 

David Powers
David Powers

Interesting how in the article mention was made of how Himalayan Experience deemed a previous attempt to climb was too dangerous to be made, and, according to the article, a decision was then made to stop the ascent. How many more times were similar conditions noted on the mountain, and climbing continued anyway? Seems to me there is a bit of PR included in this article for Russell Brice and his company.  Could Brice be a friend of the author of this article, perhaps?  BTW the "McDonalds-ification" of summitting Mt. Everest and other peaks lies squarely with Brice and others of his ilk, who provide a false sense of safety and security to climbers while the real work, at incredible risk to themselves, is done by the sherpas.

Mayang Simbahan
Mayang Simbahan

The avalanche - could this be an effect of climate change?



Bernadeta Hodkova
Bernadeta Hodkova

Another modern way of exploiting the poor by the rich ends up in a disaster - for the poor again. The sherpas living with the mountains must have been aware of the danger, they are part of the mountains. Yet, they had to go into it, pushed by the industry of money, for the sake of someone else's dream.  It is very very sad. 

Rizz Wann
Rizz Wann

They are the unsung heroes of Everest...Rest in Peace warriors!

Peter Bowers
Peter Bowers

How about the Nepalese government starts charging 1,000,000 dollars for anyone wanting to climb Everest and stop this exploitation of Sherpas for the benefit of a few testosterone laden "climbers" who expect to be carried to the summit a la Sandy Pittman.

Given that people nowadays are willing to pay absurd amounts of money to acquire their rubber tomahawks, the 1,000,000 climbing fee will probably not be a deterrent. Then, one would hope, these funds would be distributed amongst the Sherpas in a more egalitarian way for the absurd risk / reward circumstances they are being taken advantage of.

Chomolungma has spoken and it is saying "quit f****** with me"

May you rest in peace brave Sherpas :-(

Radha Vasam
Radha Vasam

Totally at a loss as to what to say about these money paying expeditions and the tragedy. Wish Nepal would end these money generating expeditions for the tourists, who really don't get the idea of mountaineering. Each time I hear about Sherpas, I feel totally bad for them and their families, and they are the true sons of the mountains. Bless their souls.

And these majestic Himalayan mountains, a Shiva's abode, is full of trash …, 

T Claire O'Connor
T Claire O'Connor

Has anyone set up a fund for the families of the lost Sherpas? If so, please post here, as I would like to contribute... and I would invite others to do so, too.

Ewan B
Ewan B

@J R FRANCIS Jr.  Typical comment of someone who doesn't know what theyre talking about, and who thinks that there's some kind of colonial attitude or that the Sherpas are exploited. They're not exactly forced to. The Sherpas earn 3x the national annual average for Nepal in 2 months work.  They are NOT SACRIFICED. Get your facts straight before you post nonsense about the plight of local people due to the "joy/glory" of the "tourist/climber". 


For a start, the Everest Sherpas are all world famous, you can easily look most of them up. They are well paid, and they are probably the best mountaineers in the world. The entire climbing community knows this and universally look up to them,  it's just ignoramuses like you who belittle them by looking on them as charity cases. How sanctimonious, ignorant and condescending.

Briana Layn
Briana Layn

Why are you hung up on Russel Brice? He's a genius forecaster who has kept countless people on the mountain alive and out of mother natures fury. What about the expeditions that come from other countries with little knowledge of the feat they aim to undertake and put their own lives as well as the lives of others at risk for glory. Even those naive groups Brice has tried to help.

Passionate Traveller
Passionate Traveller

@David Powers And for the record David, how many times have you visited Nepal? How many close friends have you that are Sherpa? How many trips through the icefall have you made? How many magazines do you subscribe to that add much more to the McDonaldising of Everest and other mountains? Are wealthy clients the only ones paying Sherpa to risk their lives, not too the photographers and US celeb climbers that frequent this magazine? Get some perspective. Also have a think about what effect a magazine like NG publishing that a guiding company cancels an Everest expedition, while all others stay and summit safely does to that business' reputation. Mr Brices actions seemed supported in this article, but were they so well received at the time he risked it all playing by his tight rules? I don't think you could state these guys as friends. The Nat Geo sponsored team carried on in that season didn't they? Effectively you were paying the wages of their Sherpa by buying this magazine. Blood on your hands perhaps, not just those of all the supposed and reported gazillionaires that seem to be only people that climb Everest these days if you sit in your comfy armchair and subscribe to adventure magazines.

Erica N.
Erica N.

@David Powers  I don't think mentioning Brice is a PR stunt.  Can you explain why you think it is?  Brice didn't allow his team to summit.  Those people paid $50,000+ to climb, and he decided for their safety and his Sherpa's safety to stop the climbs due to the higher-than-usual danger in the Khumbu icefall in 2012.  A decision like this makes Brice's 'stats' of successful summits lower.  How is that a PR stunt?  I don't think Brice gives a false sense of security.  A false sense of security would've been if he pursued the climbs in the 2012 season while telling everyone, 'don't worry I'm a pro'. 


Lorretta Rollinson
Lorretta Rollinson

@Mayang Simbahan  

please ,

at least Google "avalanches " before promoting to this claim 

these are real people with family who have been killed to satiate others excess.

Maggie Steyn
Maggie Steyn

@Radha Vasam  I agree!  It is the sherpas that do all the hard work and the tourists take all the glory!!  What's the point of claiming victory when ladders are placed for you to cross and climb?

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