PHOTOGRAPH BY PRAKASH MATHEMA, AFP/GETTY
Published April 22, 2014
"I am always scared there," says Kaji Sherpa from his hospital bed in Kathmandu, Nepal. "But I know I always have to do it. Everybody is scared of the crevasses, but we just try to get through there as fast as possible."
Kaji was at the front of a line of Sherpas on April 18, walking along a narrow path through the Khumbu Icefall, when he didn't get through fast enough. (See "Historic Tragedy on Everest, With 13 Sherpas Dead in Avalanche.")
The men were clipped together along a rope line that had been set earlier by the "ice doctors," a group of senior Sherpas whose job is to set and maintain the always changing rope routes through the perilous area.
At around 6:30 a.m., a tower of ice above the group released with a sharp, detonating bang. Kaji looked up, but before he could move, he was thrown down and half buried by a crushing weight of ice.
He managed to struggle out, gasping for breath and with sharp pains in his chest. Almost everyone behind him, a group of Sherpas who had bunched up in the climb, had disappeared.
Sixteen Sherpas died—all of them behind Kaji—in the deadliest single day in Everest climbing history. Two of the climbers have yet to be recovered from the ice, and the world's most iconic mountain has again become a symbol of nature's unforgiving power. (See "Mount Everest's Deadliest Day Puts Focus on Sherpas.")
A Shaken Community
What took seconds to happen has deeply shaken the Himalayan climbing community, including the Sherpas, a Nepali ethnic group whose acclimation to high altitudes allowed them to support expeditions as porters and guides on Mount Everest since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first summited the peak in 1953.
Since that first climb, more than 4,000 people have scaled Mount Everest. In 2013, 658 reached the top, more than four times the number who summited in 2000.
Last week's avalanche will slow the rush, at least temporarily. (See "Climbing Finished for Season on Everest After Deadly Avalanche?")
Sherpas from the Solukhumbu District, home to many of the dead, have threatened to call off the climbing season a week from now unless the government of Nepal agrees to provide better insurance, better pay, and better relief funds for the families of the dead and injured. (Everest is an important source of revenue for the government of Nepal.)
Kaji Sherpa, a 39-year-old veteran of high-altitude mountaineering, was lucky. He was helicoptered to Kathmandu and has been recovering from a punctured lung and two broken ribs in Norvic International Hospital's intensive-care unit.
Discovery Channel has canceled plans to air a show from the summit of Everest and is bringing their film teams home. Adventure Consultants, a climbing outfit that lost three Sherpas in the disaster, officially announced it was pulling out for this climbing season, which lasts until late May.
"We felt it was respectful, given what had occurred," explains Guy Cotter, CEO of Adventure Consultants. The company is paying its Sherpas' salaries for the lost season.
A Deadly Reminder
For Cotter, the tragedy this week is a deadly personal reminder of the dangers of climbing Everest.
A climber and guide who first reached the peak in 1992, Cotter has gone through the Khumbu Icefall hundreds of times. He was close friends with Rob Hall, who died in a blizzard on Everest in 1996. That tragedy, which claimed eight lives, was recounted in the book Into Thin Air.
Cotter helped in the 1996 rescue effort and took over Adventure Consultants after Hall's death. He knew well many of the Sherpas who died on Friday.
One was a close climbing partner: Phurtemba, 25, who summited two 8,000-meter peaks with Cotter.
However dangerous it may be, high-altitude mountaineering is a major money earner in the desperately poor Solukhumbu District. For two month's work with mountain expeditions, Sherpas can earn up to $6,000, or nearly ten times Nepal's annual per capita income.
The Lure of High Earnings
Ang Kami Sherpa, 30, survived the recent avalanche with deep-tissue injuries to his left leg. Until this year he worked for a trekking company and had never gone above 2,000 meters. But the potential earnings for a young man who had never had formal schooling, and supported a wife and four children, drew him to high-altitude climbing.
There are few career options in Sherpa villages, which consist of small houses that cling to the sides of steep, rock-strewn hills, often located beyond a road network. (See "Sherpas Take Steep Risks for Life-Changing Pay.")
Both Ang Kami Sherpa and Kaji Sherpa (not related) grow potatoes and barley in their terraced fields when they're not climbing. Ang Kami is also a carpenter, making furniture in the village of Kerung.
Mountaineering is a way out of poverty, but it is also a deeply bonding experience—in part because of the dangers.
Everyone who climbs Everest knows the perils of Khumbu Icefall.
In the 1990s, Cotter and other climbers joined the Sherpas in setting rope and carrying gear on Everest, and they chose a more central route away from the danger of ice avalanches.
The alternate route had its own dangers, however, including deep crevasses that could swallow climbers.
Now it's the Sherpas alone who set up high-altitude camps and take the risk of multiple crossings of the Khumbu danger zone.
More Than a Mountain
Cotter says climbers would have long ago abandoned any mountain under 8,000 meters with such a dangerous icefall.
So why do hundreds of climbers keep coming here every year?
"Nothing is more iconic than Everest," says Cotter. "It is a defining term. It means more than just a mountain. It is about achievement, struggle, overcoming hardship, encountering risk, and achieving a goal."
Still, both Ang Kami Sherpa and Kaji Sherpa say they never want to climb Everest again.
Read Donatella Lorch's blog at www.tangledjourneys.com.
For a while there it was looking like everything was going to get better on Everest. For example, I was so pleased to learn of the many clean-up efforts that have taken place in recent years (many of them led by Sherpa guides). However, last week's avalanche in the Khumbu Icefall has once again called attention to the unforgiving and deadly landscape that is Everest.
I have no doubt that many of the big questions that climbers (and the larger world community) have pretty much dodged through the years will finally be addressed in the wake of this tragedy. I am not a climber, but I am familiar with Mt. Everest and its challenges through a book that my students read entitled "Within Reach: My Everest Story." I have kept up with news of Mt. Everest for the past ten years. My heart goes out to the Sherpa guides and their families -- the Sherpas who perished as well as those who survive.
Take action now
Ed'Letter after avalanche from Base Camp, Nepal:
Thank you for the many emails asking if I am OK. I did not get hit by car sized chunks of ice falling from 500 ft above, sweeping 25 Sherpas off a 45 ft ladder into a 200 ft deep crevice, killing 16 and hospitalizing 7, but I was crushed by what I saw and experienced. 3 members of our team were killed, and Ash Gurung, my close personal friend and one of the 3 guides who was to accompany me to Everest Summit was killed and lost under tons of ice. He was in my tent with my other summit guides as he checked his harness and ropes preparing for his climb to set up our tents at high camp 1. We joked and poked fun at his thick figure but knew he was strong and good enough to handle the job at camp 1. I felt he needed some power bars and Cliff bars since he was leaving at 3 AM to make it to the camp site and be back by Noon, and he jokingly hid the bars in his pack while teasing the other Sherpas saying, "See, my god father likes me best". Those bars are still in his pack under tons of ice.
My crampon boots broke and I was waiting for a new set to come in that morning, April 18, and I was to start the trek to go across the Kumba Ice fall at 7 AM since the sun heats up the glacier ice and causes avalanches in the afternoon. At 6:45 AM I felt the shock and heard the thunder of the ice give way. It was such a large avalanche, there was nothing they could do and all I could do is watch the side of the mountain come down on those poor men. We had a tripod with powerful binoculars but all you could see was a white mist cover the route of our friends.
The search and rescue team was up and working but only few survivors were helicoptered down swinging over our tents to the clinic 100 meters away, but none were from my team. The next day was even worse, watching the helicopters bringing down body after body hung from long lines and flying directly over my tent to the helipad and stacking the dead up to be taken down to Kathmandu. I tried to take photos of each body bag slung under the copters out of respect of the dead, by after a dozen, still no Ash. His body was not found because he was swept into the deep crevice and will be under the crush of the glacier forever, depriving his family of closure.
The Sherpas have voted to cancel all summit attempts of Everest this year as a memorial to the worst Everest disaster yet. I, along with many other climbers, believe this to be a proper memorial even though I have been working on this summit for 2 years, I am willing to abide by their decision since I am only a guest here. However, although the big American commercial tour operators have agreed to follow the vote of the Sherpas, they are working everyday to change the vote and wait until they think the Sherpas will get over it.....sounds so familiar. I am shamed by our greed and embarrassed by our lack of compassion.
Sorry, but this is very emotional for me, especially when I think of Ash and his 1 yr old son and 3 year old daughter having to live their lives without a truly great young man. I get emotional when I think about him almost falling while saving my life last year while climbing Yala Peak. I get especially emotional when I think of my insisting on Ash joining our team at the summit of Everest since it would be such a great career step for him and for his resume......and what did I ultimately do? I killed him. He would be home with his family tonight if it wasn't for me.
So, I am setting up a fund to provide for Ash's family so they can live a humble but good life without their wonderful man. However, no money can replace a man that could always make you happy smile when he entered a room or tent.
His brother Tolshi and I cried when they confirmed his death. By the way, I learned I don't have to summit Everest to "know the knower", none of us do.
In the future, the companies that hire the Sherpas could and should provide some type of life insurance policy to help reduce the loss to the Sherpa families. The premiums could easily be taken out of the enormous fees charged by the Nepal government to the foreign hikers.
"In the 1990s, Cotter and other climbers joined the Sherpas in setting rope and carrying gear on Everest, and they chose a more central route away from the danger of ice avalanches."
Now days, the rich foreigners who climb Everest sleep in their tents in Basecamp all warm and cozy while the Sherpas face more danger cutting the trail through the Khumbu and setting ropes and ladders. Whatever happened to 'teamwork" from the 90s and before where *everyone* who climbed helped to get there?
My late husband who was in the Peace Corps in Nepal told me a story about how he and two others, one being a Sherpa I would guess, were going to climb one of the high peaks there , the name I can not remember,and one in the party went back to the goat herd to get some yogurt and there was a freak snow storm and he was buried for two days and Gene and the Sherpa went back for him and his feet were frozen and he could not walk, so Gene carried him down 5,000 feet to safety. The man only lost a few toes.
@Heidi Morgan Wow, amazing story...
Feed the World
National Geographic explores how we can feed the growing population without overwhelming the planet in our food series.
Latest Photo Galleries
Summer’s almost gone, but beaches are forever.
The Portuguese man-of-war is infamous for its painful sting, but one photographer finds the beauty inside this animal's dangerous embrace.