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A photo of a Nepalese rescue team rescuing a survivor of the avalanche on Mt. Everest.

A Nepali rescue team helps a survivor of the avalanche on Mount Everest on April 18. The men who died in the avalanche were among a large party carrying tents, food, and ropes ahead of the main climbing season, which begins later this month.

PHOTOGRAPH BY PRAKASH MATHEMA, AFP/GETTY

Mark Jenkins

for National Geographic

Published April 19, 2014

The first thing you hear is the roar. It's a terrifying sound, instantly recognizable. Your head jerks up, and you see the thundering cloud of ice blasting toward you. There's no time to do anything but race to the nearest house-size block of ice and dive for cover behind it. This is certainly what happened at 6:45 a.m. yesterday to the 20 to 25 Nepali mountaineers caught in that deadly avalanche.

Many of those of us who have climbed Everest have had this experience, in exactly the same place in the Khumbu Icefall. Usually, if you're lucky, the chunks of ice are no bigger than pebbles, and the wave of ice and snow blows over your trembling body. But not this time. Yesterday a hanging glacier above the Khumbu released apartment-size blocks of ice. The climbers didn't have a chance.

At least 16 mountaineers died in what ranks as the worst single accident on the world's highest peak. Thirteen bodies have been recovered, and three are permanently entombed in ice. No Western climbers died. Almost all of those who perished were Sherpas. As a helicopter flew four of the injured to a hospital in Kathmandu on Friday, the thumping of its blades echoed off the slopes above base camp.

Diagram outlining how avalanche happened on Mount Everest.
Mapping the killer path of Friday's Everest avalanche.
Juan Velasco, NG Staff. Photograph by Mark Jenkins

"It has been devastating up here," said Todd Burleson, owner of Alpine Ascents International, one of the more successful guiding operations on Everest. "It's just a very sad, sad affair," he said by phone from Pheriche, a small village just below Base Camp in the Khumbu Valley. "Everyone is of course at a loss for what to do, how to handle it."

At present it's unclear whether climbing will go ahead on the mountain this season. It's still early in the season, and some teams will most likely want to continue their ascent. But for now, the hundreds of people at Base Camp are still in shock.

Alpine Ascents International lost five Sherpas in the accident, four of whom have been recovered. Burleson and his top Sherpa, Lakhpa Rita, flew all four bodies via helicopter to their respective villages.

"Now the process begins," said Burleson. "The process of grieving."

A photo of people carrying a victim of the Mount Everest avalanche.
The body of Nepali mountaineer Ang Kaji Sherpa is carried to the Sherpa monastery in Kathmandu.
PHOTOGRAPH BY NIRANJAN SHRESTHA, AP

Death on the Mountain

This is nothing new in Sherpa culture. Because of their extraordinary spirit and adaptation to high altitudes, Sherpas have been used as porters on Mount Everest from the beginning of mountaineering there, and they have been dying on the mountain since the first serious attempt to climb it by George Mallory and his team in 1922, when seven Sherpas were killed by an avalanche.

A photo of a family mourning victims of the Mount Everest avalanche.
Relatives gather for the arrival in Kathmandu of the bodies of those who died on the mountain.
PHOTOGRAPH BY PRAKASH MATHEMA, AFP/GETTY

It should be noted that Sherpas are not dragooned onto Everest. They choose it. The average income in Nepal is about a thousand dollars a year. A Sherpa can make $5,000 in three months of work in one spring. Sherpas are mountain mercenaries, in part through economic necessity. They know the risks. All of them have lost friends. They are like volunteer soldiers: They know they could die, but they still see humping loads on Everest as the best way to support their families.

Sherpas practice the most ancient form of Tibetan Buddhism, the Nyingma, "the old school," which is founded on early translations of scripture from Sanskrit into Tibetan over 1,200 years ago. Nyingma is a mystical version of Buddhism, the power of nature embodied in protective gods. Jomo Miyo Lang Sangma is the resident deity on Everest, a goddess who rides a red tiger. To many Sherpas, it must feel as if Chomolungma, goddess mother of mountains, has taken her revenge once again.

Most of the dead will likely receive a traditional Sherpa funeral. Lamas are called immediately to be close to the body and pray for the soul of the deceased. The body is later cremated, the ashes mixed with clay, and a small sculpture formed, called a tsatsa. This sculpture will be placed in a monastery, or chorten, where it can be visited by family and friends.

During this process, prayers are said for the deceased by the family and by lamas, and every evening an offering of tsampa is put on the coals of the hearth. After 49 days, the soul of the deceased will have passed through the time and space between lives, and according to the Nyingma, shall be reborn.

A photo of a family member mourning victims of the Mount Everest avalanche.
Clutching prayer beads, the mother of Nepali mountaineer Ang Kaji Sherpa waits for his remains to be brought to the Sherpa monastery.
PHOTOGRAPH BY NIRANJAN SHRESTHA, AP

A Bad Omen

Certainly some Sherpas will see this tragedy as a bad omen in the short term, and will leave the mountain for the rest of the climbing season. And no doubt some climber clients will come to the same conclusion, abandoning their hopes for ascent and hiking out. How this will affect individual teams is yet to be determined, but there will undoubtedly be attrition and consequent consolidation.

"It is too early to predict what will happen," said Jiban Ghimire, owner of Shangri La Trekking, a company that works with guides and outfitters in Nepal. "No one is up on the mountain right now. Everyone is back down at base camp reassessing."

For those clients, Sherpas, and guides at base camp who intend to stay and climb, the current discussion is about whether the track up the Khumbu should be rerouted-and if so, where? This has been a contentious topic for years. Presently the ropes and ladders are strung up the left-hand side of the icefall, where there is a relatively smooth path through the crevasses and seracs.

A photo of a family member mourning the victims of the Mount Everest avalanche.
A Buddhist monk lights candles in front of the casket for Ang Kaji Sherpa at the monastery in Kathmandu.
PHOTOGRAPH BY PRAKASH MATHEMA, AFP/GETTY

This particular track is exposed to fewer dangers in the icefall itself-looming, apartment-size seracs and wide, 100-foot-deep (30 meters) crevasses, but has the distinct disadvantage of passing directly beneath the hanging glaciers that are suspended from the West Shoulder. It was the collapse of a gigantic serac from these hanging glaciers that caused the recent tragedy.

Over the past 50 years, there have been other routes up through the Khumbu Icefall, an obstacle that must be overcome in order to gain the Western Cwm, the upper mountain, and the summit via the Southeast Ridge. The route through the icefall cannot pass along the right-hand side, because it too is exposed to constant falling ice from above.

The only other option is a treacherous, zigzagging course directly up the middle of the glacier. This route has been avoided the past few years because of the 50-foot-wide (15 meters) yawning crevasses that must be bridged and the enormous ice walls near the top of the glacier that must be surmounted.

Neither the icefall nor the hanging glaciers above it, nor the entire mountain itself, can ever be tamed. It is a merciless mound of ice and stone strictly governed by the principles of tectonics and climate and most of all gravity, the ultimate equalizer. The icefall will always be a perilous and completely unpredictable battlement on Everest. If you want to climb Everest from Nepal, there is no way around it. (Note: Some have talked of a future chopper service that would jump climbers over the Khumbu, from Base Camp up to Camp 1.)

A photo of family members mourning the victims of the Mount Everest Avalanche.
The daughter of Nepali mountaineer Ang Kaji Sherpa cries after the death of her father.
PHOTOGRAPH BY NIRANJAN SHRESTHA, AP

More than 4,000 people have summitted Everest (fewer than 200 without supplemental oxygen), and about 200 lives have been lost on the mountain. This tragedy, just like all the previous tragedies, will not stop climbers from around the world from coming to Everest, nor will it stop Sherpas from choosing a very dangerous livelihood. Which means, indisputably, that death will always be part of the highest mountain on Earth.

Mark Jenkins is a contributing writer for National Geographic magazine and writer-in-residence at the University of Wyoming. As a member of a National Geographic Society-sponsored team, he climbed Mount Everest in May 2012.

54 comments
Supriya Chakraborty
Supriya Chakraborty

We had experienced the avalanche in Khumbu Icefall during 1992 Everest expedition. A thundering snow cloud covering 1/3rd of Ice fall came down to the base camp, wiping off everything on it's way! Fortunately, avalanche was off the climbing route and it was resting day for us. So no casualty happened in Ice fall on that day. 

My sympathes to all the sherpas. May all rest in peace. 

Paul Mazur
Paul Mazur

I believe there is a mistake in the diagram showing the climbing and avalanche paths up the icefall.  If you watch the videos that captured the actual avalanche, you will see that the avalanche was on the south side of the Western Cwm, i.e. on your right as you approach Lhotse face (you will see Lhotse face straight ahead in the video) while the diagram in this article suggests that the avalanche came from the left or Northern side--the opposite side.

Harish Nittam
Harish Nittam

Couple of points here that I would like to share since April 18:-

1. My (My Family's) Deepest condolences to those brave Men (Sherpas) who lost their Lives that Friday while giving their best to make a route for the foreigners to climb the summit so that their dear ones can live a healthy and peaceful life.


2. This is really unfair treating Nepal as a Low Economic Nation and thus taking advantage of this and Playing with the Lives of those Sherpas who really don't have any other choice apart feeding their families. Ofcourse they will always say this is their passion till they have any other option.


3. Nepal Government should understand the Lives of these Sherpas and increase their remunerations and Insurance Policies so that they can live a peaceful life after few seasonal climbings and don't have to do this job and risking their lives again and again.


4. This statement might be pretty Rude but Taking a sum of some 50-60K $ from the foreigners and just paying 5K $ to the Sherpas is very Unfair! Afterall they are the ones who carry your luggage, cook food for you, Laugh and entertain you and make your climb memorable! Should Salute the Special bond these foreigners share with the Sherpas! This is something special. :)


5. Respect the Mountain (Seek Blessings from the Goddess herself) and the Sherpas, Understand the difficulties and do help those poor people staying in this Mountain Region, Afterall these are pretty small things to ask post your Everest Summit!  The Successful climbings to the Top of Everest should only be credited to the Sherpas first and foremost, And then comes the Clients/Foreigners.


6. @Khumbu Icefall :- Im watching, One day I will conquer you! with your permission. 


7. Mapping the killer path of Friday's Everest avalanche was very helpful and the Best part I liked about this article apart from the rest.


Keep up the Good work and Let your Spirits Fly High. :)

barbara brower
barbara brower

Come ON, National Geographic! We are well past the era when commentary by western "experts" is as good as we've got. Where are the Sherpa voices in your coverage? (Or Gurung or Tamang voices--not just Sherpa men died playing sherpa so foreign climbers could skip the hard and dangerous parts, those repeated trips through the Khumbu Ice Fall, to claim Everest). Seek out the reflections of those who have lost not mere expedition acquaintances but uncles, fathers, brothers, sons. And ask harder questions:  in what other sport do we assign most of the risks to hired help, sparing the paying participants the real challenges? Is this true mountaineering, this high-elevation tourism, in which a very few reap the main benefits from paying clients--in money and adulation as they tour the country with their books and their stories--while the hired help does the heavy lifting, and takes the risks? And let's hear from the wives and mothers! I don't know a single Sherpa woman who wants a dear one working on Everest.

NISHANT NISCHAL
NISHANT NISCHAL

The sherpas are the real unsung heros, they are the life-line of any climbing expedition in Nepal and they are the only reason why so many people are conquering the world's highest peak now days. This is very very painful. 

sandeep Rokaha
sandeep Rokaha

Rest In Peace to all the Sherpas who lost their lives making a way for foreigners to the top..


Fred Bacher
Fred Bacher

Great balanced article on the Everest tragedy.

Katherine Chatham
Katherine Chatham

Is it possible to discharge small blasts aimed at the serac that overhangs the ice falls in order to cause the ice to fall prior to the sherpas entering into the ice field.  I know that this technique is used to clear the side of mountains in order to keep the risk of avalanche down...

Jeanne Ainslie
Jeanne Ainslie

Love the mountain; respect the mountain, and leave in peace.

Tina Fotherby
Tina Fotherby

A very informative and well balanced article with stunning photography.  Thanks for the diagram.


I have been lucky enough to have trekked to Everest Base camp and will never forget the wisdom, skill and friendship of the Sherpas and their colleagues. 


Rita Kenion
Rita Kenion

Respect the mountain.  go home.  It is no longer a hot item on your resume.  It just says that some sherpa led you by the hand, and that your garbage is all over the mountain..

Steve Frank
Steve Frank

I understand wanting the ropes set up before you start climbing. That needs to be done by these pros ahead of time to save time etc and you want it to be done by someone you can trust.. But to have men carry your stuff from camp to camp is not really climbing. 


Every time you see someone smiling on the summit like they conquered  the world remember that another man carried their gear, cooked for them and sometimes short roped them up there. 

Tan William
Tan William

R.I.P. May peace be upon to those Sherpas who perished in their noble role albeit not dragooned but chosen destiny to bring food to the table for their families. 

Namo Buddhaya! Namo Dhammaya! Namo Sanghaya!

mirko p.
mirko p.

Thanks for sharing.Sympaties for losses.

Darshana Vel
Darshana Vel

This is really bad! Any person interested in climbing the Everest must seek the permission of the Nepal Government and must pay an advance to the sherpas before hiring them and putting their lives under risk.

Anup Aryal
Anup Aryal

As a Nepali person, it is both a gift and a curse to have a mountain that everyone wants to climb. These poor Nepali have benefited from having the mountain there at the same time, their lives are not valued. The cost of being poor is that you get to trek up the mountains to carry supplies to make a living while climbers get to claim that they accomplish something monumental. While the government of Nepal hasn't done enough to help the locals find a way to survive without putting their lives at risk.

It is also very difficult understanding the motives of people who try climbing the Everest as it has been climbed by so many to the point that it is more of a recreational destination rather than an adventurous one. People climb it because it is there. Sherpa guides climb it because they need the money. Tragedies are treated as cost of doing business. So we will be outraged. Someone will write a book about it. It will be made into a movie and life will go on.

Death is sadness and sometimes living is sadness as well. Especially for the less fortunate ones.


Rory Strange
Rory Strange

Sharing this in my Fb timeline, not only for the well written article but of course for the amazing photography that accompanies the story. Love N.G.! RIP to the hard working Sherpas who perished. Without them, it would be impossible to climb that beautiful but foreboding highest mountain in the world!

Chen Lewis
Chen Lewis

Sympathies and Condolences for the tragic loss of lives,may they rest in peace. 

shabnam singh
shabnam singh

Deeply saddened by the loss of life. I hope the families of those died are compensated  well by their employers, for loss of livelihood. Losing their breadwinners will drive them further into poverty. 

Xin Jin
Xin Jin

rip. 

They choose it. Sort of.

 

"It should be noted that Sherpas are not dragooned onto Everest. They choose it. The average income in Nepal is about a thousand dollars a year. A Sherpa can make $5,000 in three months of work in one spring." 

prue smith
prue smith

The Himalayan Trust, the organisation set up by Sir Edmund Hillary more than 50 years ago, has launched a fundraising appeal to help the Sherpa families impacted by the recent tragedy on Everest.

Funds raised will provide scholarships to the children covering educational and living expenses – ensuring they have a guaranteed schooling despite the loss of their father’s livelihood. 

The tragedy is a reminder that while Everest has increased in popularity and accessibility over the last 60 years, Nepalis have continued to bear much of the risk involved in summiting.

We would hugely appreciate your support.

https://www.givealittle.co.nz/cause/AvalancheAppeal2014 

Janice Coombes
Janice Coombes

OUR Sympathy , to the families of the brave sherpas. They all will be missed.

Prashant Joshi
Prashant Joshi

My deepest sympathies and condolences for the families of these brave men. "on the shoulder of giants" rest the expeditions. May these departed souls find peace and their families courage in the wake of the tragedy and loss.

Lets us learn from such incidents for prohibition is not the order of the day but prevention is.

Timothy Wik
Timothy Wik

Terrible accident.  Goes to show even after all the successful hikes on Mt. Everest, you never know what can happen.  RIP for those who lost their lives and my condolences to the families and friends involved.

Ajit Kumar
Ajit Kumar

For all of them who died in Everest's Deadly Avalanche

R.I.P

f wargacki
f wargacki

My deepest sympathy for the families of these brave men. The fact of the matter is native Sherpas for thousands of years had no reason to risk their lives by climbing  

Everest. The vainglorious pursuit of  the summit by bored Westerners and the pursuit of profits by the companies that have sprung up to provide these wanna be Hillarys, who 

himself owes his accomplishment to a Sherpa, is proof of the foolishness of men. 

Jodi Lehman
Jodi Lehman

Saying that the Sherpas "choose" the risks is only sort of true. The paying climbers choose what they do freely, as do the climbing companies. Most of the Sherpas choose that work only because it's the best pay they can get (still not very much in Western terms). Ethically, the situation parallels sweatshops in the developing world. I'm not against climbing, and I enjoy reading about it. But there's something very wrong about taking advantage of the economic inequalities here, especially when paying Western clients get to claim achievements that are based on the risks and labors of the Sherpas, who are actually better climbers and deserve the records far more.

Mar Ja
Mar Ja

The risk is always there

Marilyn Harlin
Marilyn Harlin

Informative and sympathetic article Mark. Thanks for your insights.

Virginia R.
Virginia R.

a few points to make:

1. the article asks if things will change on everest. then half way through answers itselt by telling us people in basecamp are already discussing whether to alter the route this season.

2. saying the locals take sherpa jobs by choice is like saying people eat out of dumpsters by choice. 

3 i greatly respect these men because they do risk their lives so their wives & children will not starve or freeze to death - but is not a choice it's that they have no choice.

4. nothing will change on this mtn. the season will go on.  as usual the wealthy will get what they want regardless of how many die to make it possible.

5. using helicopters to cross the the khumbu is the ultimate in laziness - outrageous! if you don't have the stuff to make the trek then stay the hell home

Kyle Umbach
Kyle Umbach

I will pay my respects to those brave men when I arrive at base camp in may.

Labrys Moore
Labrys Moore

Sincere respect and sorrow for the lost Sherpas and their grieving families.  

Michael L.
Michael L.

The Sherpas are the true heroes of the mountain - deep respect.

Nandan K
Nandan K

@Jodi Lehman  

This year we're trekking in Sikkhim. There's not much risk involved but we are hiring sherpas to carry the heavy things (at most 30 kgs). I feel guilty they get more work but my mom says they also need it for a livelihood. 

Katherine Chatham
Katherine Chatham

@Virginia R. I agree to a level...I suggest the helicopters be used by the sherpas only to lift supplies up the mountain.  Have you seen the youtube video....climbing Everest with a mountain on your back?  I know they use sherpas to put the ropes and ladders in place...but they make many trips just taking supplies up the mountain.  The risk of death for them would be drastically reduced if the equipment was transported by helicopter...The people that came to climb...need to do the climb...not helicopter.  Also of note, if you do not like the ice falls...then come in through Pakistan...no ice falls to climb.

Meenakshi Mishi
Meenakshi Mishi

@Virginia R.  you are right.... i mean, when i will see someone using chopper for the most treacherous part of Everest climbing... i will never have the respect for them as successful summiter....  why dont they use some kind of chopper that will directly take them to the top.... 

jennifer robison
jennifer robison

@Meenakshi Mishi @Virginia R.  What?  You need to school yourself on the physics of high altitude before you post ridiculous comments.  You will never see anyone "using a chopper for the most treacherous part of everest climbing".  The altitude is too high and the air is too thin for the rotor blades.  The only time you will see a helicoptor is to take lazy tourists to basecamp and back and for rescue.  The highest rescue attempt was near Camp 3....it was only done once in history because of the danger. IF you took a helicopter to the top, you would die within 4 minutes of acute hypoxia.  This article was not about what you commented on.  Its about SHERPA DEATH....not taking helicopters.

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