The climbing season on the Nepali side of Mount Everest may be over, according to those on the scene. "I think it's likely, but not definitive," said Dave Hahn, a veteran Everest climber at Base Camp.
Hahn helped with body recovery in the Khumbu Icefall debris today and yesterday. On Friday, 16 Nepali mountaineers were killed in the the single deadliest accident on the mountain. The accident occurred when boulders of ice broke away from the mountain as a group was carrying gear and supplies from Base Camp to Camp 1 and higher. (Related: "The Aftermath of Everest's Deadly Avalanche.")
A group of Sherpas at Base Camp was reported to have met on Sunday and created a list of concerns for the government to address. A seven-day suspension of climbing was requested.
"It's been such a horrific accident for the Sherpas. I don't think this push to end the climbing season is a protest; rather, the Sherpas don't want to dishonor their dead.
"It was like a war zone up there, bodies strewn all over," said Hahn. "The Sherpa community is in utter shock. I don't know if any Sherpas will want to continue climbing, although I think some might. Right now, everyone in Base Camp is still just trying to come to grips with the magnitude of this tragedy."
Without Sherpa support, the expeditions on the south side of Everest will indeed end. Sherpas are the backbone of all guided expeditions to the mountain. Not only do they carry equipment—tents, stoves, food, fuel, oxygen bottles—to higher camps, they also fix the lines all the way to the summit. Without these lines, the vast majority of guided clients could not climb Everest at all. (Read "The Sherpas" in National Geographic magazine.)
It is not clear under what conditions Sherpas are willing to continue working on the mountain. In the coming few days, a contingent of the Sherpa climbers are planning to meet with Nepal's Ministry of Tourism, the government agency that oversees Everest and the region, to discuss financial compensation for the deceased as well as remuneration for a season cut short. Hahn confirmed that there were 16 deaths, with 13 bodies successfully removed from the mountain and 3 buried permanently under boulders of ice.
"This is a very, very difficult time for everyone," said Guy Cotter from Geneva, Switzerland. Cotter, owner of Adventure Consultants, a successful worldwide operation that guides expeditions to Everest, as well as to other major peaks, is en route to Kathmandu. Adventure Consultants lost three of its Sherpa guides in the accident, the first deaths the company has experienced since Cotter took it over in 1996.
"A whole lot of options are being put out there right now," said Cotter. "I suspect that some teams, after a period of reassessment and grieving, will carry on. I know that some Sherpas will want to keep working—it's their livelihood after all, just as it is for the mountain guides."
Cotter solemnly acknowledged that he knew personally more than half of the climbers killed. "We're all just trying to process this tragedy at this stage," said Cotter. "Everyone knows everyone in the Sherpa community, so everyone is affected."
Compensation for the families of the dead Sherpas was raised this year, from 400,000 rupees ($4,000 U.S.) to 1 million ($10,300 U.S.). Most of the families will use this money, and more, to pay for a funeral, or puja (a Hindu word for devotion). Elaborate pujas, with many lamas paid to pray for the soul of the deceased, are a sign of status in Nepali culture.
Perhaps all teams will pack up and head home, but it is just as likely that some teams will regroup and recommit to climbing Everest. For those few who do, the dilemma of how to surmount the Khumbu Icefall, a conundrum that has vexed mountaineers since the early ascents in the 1950s and '60s, will be the first order of business.
A Dangerous Trek
For almost a decade, "ice doctors," Sherpas specifically hired to find the route up through the Khumbu Icefall and put in ropes and ladders, have placed the route along the left-hand side of the icefall. This is the smoothest, most natural path through the jagged ice, and yet this particular route has the distinct disadvantage of passing directly below the hanging glaciers suspended on the West Shoulder of Everest. On a hot day, these hanging glaciers regularly calve, pouring apartment-size blocks of ice right down onto the route. (See pictures: "Climbing Everest Through History.")
At night, when the mountain has refrozen, the route is a little less dangerous. This is why climbers try to pass through the icefall by headlamp very early in the morning, preferably before dawn. It is the calving of one of these hanging glaciers, almost 2,500 feet (610 meters) above the Khumbu glacier on the West Shoulder, that killed the 16 Sherpas two days ago.
"We knew they were loaded; we could see it from Base Camp," said Hahn. "Even now, only a portion of the ice has fallen. They're still loaded, still ready to explode."
This part of the passage through the icefall, directly below the hanging glaciers, has been a feared and well-known threat for years. "It was a ticking time bomb," said Cotter, "and this time it went off."
In the 1990s, the route through the Khumbu Icefall was put in by guides and climbers, not Sherpas. Even back then, the hanging glaciers on the West Shoulder were calving and a clear hazard. For this reason, the route typically weaved up the center of the icefall, trying to stay clear of the ice avalanches on the left and on the right. The path was slow and arduous, and required crossing gaping crevasses spanned by narrow aluminum ladders. Plus, at the top, a 100-foot (30-meter) vertical wall of ice had to be overcome.
In the past decade, the "icefall doctors" rerouted the path along the left-hand side of the glacier. Their reasoning for this change was sound. Along the left, the going is easier, and thus faster, which meant Sherpas and climbers spent much less time in the icefall. Less time in the icefall, less time in danger zone, less death.
In 2012 when I was on Everest, I remember climbing up through the Khumbu with Danuru, our team's strongest, swiftest Sherpa, a giant of a man who had summitted Everest 14 times. When we reached a point directly below the hanging glaciers, a place we dubbed the Ballroom of Death, Danuru looked at me and said, "Now we run!"
We were at 19,000 feet (5,800 meters), carrying 50-pound (23-kilogram) packs, on a very steep, icy slope when Danuru dashed away, sprinting up the hill like a mountain goat. As for me, not having one-tenth the strength of Danuru, I slogged uphill as fast as I could, eyes fixed on the enormous Swords of Damocles looming above me.
Those who remain in Base Camp and still want to climb will certainly be trying to decide whether using the standard left-hand route is still the best option, or whether a new route somewhere up the middle, as was done in the '90s, is safer. Neither alternative is ideal. Both have mortal hazards.
However, there is another option, which Cotter and several other prominent guides have pushed for: slinging loads via chopper from Base Camp up to Camp 1, just above the Khumbu.
"This would obviously reduce the number of trips Sherpas must make through the icefall, which would dramatically reduce the risk," said Cotter.
Since this section is only a matter of 1,000 feet (305 meters), out of 12,000 vertical feet (3,650 meters) of climbing, the Sherpas that Cotter spoke with agreed with the plan.
"The Sherpas want less time in the icefall, naturally, even if it means a small reduction in pay."
But the Ministry of Tourism rejected Cotter's idea. He even suggested that the choppers sling the loads before the teams arrived in the spring, which would reduce the noise and improve the aesthetic experience, but the Ministry of Tourism flatly rejected any and all options.
After the recent tragedy, perhaps the ministry will look closer at this alternative. Choppering equipment and supplies over the Khumbu would obviously be a step forward in terms of increasing safety on Mount Everest. Whether it is a step backward, in terms of mountaineering ethics, is a topic for another discussion.
Mark Jenkins has been on more than 50 expeditions around the world, including a dozen to the Himalayas.