In the wake of the death of 16 sherpas in the Khumbu Icefall on the south side of Mount Everest last Friday, Base Camp is in turmoil.
"Whether the climbing season on the Nepal side of Everest is over is not yet clear," says Dave Morton, filmmaker and Everest veteran, from Base Camp.
But it appeared to be in jeopardy after six expedition teams announced they were abandoning their attempts to summit Everest. Leaders for Adventure Consultants (which lost three Sherpas in the accident), Alpine Ascents International (which lost five Sherpas), Alpenglow Expeditions, Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. (RMI), Peak Freaks 8000, and International Mountain Guides, one of the largest Everest guiding operations, all said they were pulling their teams off the mountain. Asian Trekking, one of the few Sherpa-run outfitters, is also said to be considering leaving. (Related: "Climbing Finished for Season on Everest After Deadly Avalanche?")
More than 30 different expeditions comprising roughly 900 people are gathered at Base Camp on the south side of Everest, with roughly 300 climbing clients and 600 Sherpa support staff. The climbing clients have each paid between $40,000 and $100,000 for a chance to summit the world's tallest mountain. Meanwhile, most of the Sherpas rely on income from working on Everest—ranging from $2,000 to $6,000 a season—to support their families in the impoverished Khumbu region of Nepal, a country where the average income is around $700 a year.
Discussions With Sherpas Ongoing
Leaders of two of the largest guiding services, Himalayan Experience and Seven Summits, are working closely with Sherpas at Base Camp to determine whether, after the tragedy, they still want to continue.
"The scales could tip if the larger outfits pull out," says Morton, "but uncertainty and confusion abound at Base Camp right now."
The big guiding operations provide the most Sherpas, and the most experienced Sherpas, for fixing the lines high on the mountain. If they abandon Everest, the smaller guide services may have to follow suit because there won't be enough Sherpas to put in the ropes that their clients rely on to get up the mountain.
There is also the question of whether the "ice doctors," the Sherpas who specialize in setting ropes and ladders through the Khumbu Icefall—where the 16 Sherpas died—are willing to go back into this treacherous jumble of jagged ice to replace the lines. If the ice doctors leave, the season is definitely over.
Morton declined to speculate on the ultimate fate of this year's climbing season, but he did indicate that there was friction among different factions of Sherpas at Base Camp.
Some Sherpas say the climbing season should be called off for a variety of reasons—to honor the dead, to make a statement about their importance to the lucrative Everest climbing business, and to pressure the Nepali government to improve working conditions for climbing Sherpas and invest more money in the Khumbu region. Others say they want to stay on the mountain and earn much-needed income. (Related: "Everest's Sherpas Issue List of Demands.")
Some of the guiding operations have allowed Sherpas to temporarily return to their villages to grieve and sort out their personal affairs. Russell Brice, leader of the Himalayan Experience team, is reported as having concerns about the possibility of violence among the various Sherpa factions.
In an email from Base Camp, Adrian Ballinger, leader of the Alpenglow team, said that some "Sherpas are convinced that the mountain doesn't want them there this year." Ballinger said that he felt the Sherpa community could not handle another tragedy and therefore decided to end his team's attempt. (Related: "Injured Sherpas Recall Deadly Avalanche.")
"The sorrow and grief at Base Camp are so bad right now," said Ballinger, although he acknowledged the tragedy had a political side that had the potential to get ugly.
In a recent dispatch from Everest Base Camp, Dave Hahn, leader of the RMI team, said they have called off their expedition. Hahn said that after meetings with a number of team leaders, Sherpas, and sirdars (Sherpa leaders), it was decided that the "right course was to give up Mount Everest for Spring 2014. Following the accident, our list of serious obstacles for an Everest summit was always significant, but we believed it worthwhile to continue looking for some way forward." But now, "we'll start heading for home soon."
Climate Change Part of the Problem?
Tim Rippel, leader of the Peak Freaks 8000 team, also announced on his company's website in the past few hours that his team was leaving. "The route in my professional opinion is NOT safe ... and we've cancelled expeditions before to save lives." Rippel mentions that climate change may be playing a role, stating that what he sees on Everest this season is exactly what he's seen on nearby mountains, 22,493-foot (6,856-meter) Ama Dablam and 23,494-foot (7,161-meter) Pumori.
"We no longer climb those mountains due to global warming, the ice is melting, the glue that holds them together," he wrote. (Glaciers have been receding worldwide, with ice melting so rapidly in the Alps that many of the mountains are disintegrating. For example, some of the routes on Mount Blanc are no longer considered safe to climb and the Eiger is now often climbed in winter, rather than summer, because the ice is vanishing.)
Rippel goes on to say that the political environment at Base Camp is "getting more complex and anger is developing. There seems to be two tribes forming and this makes for a dangerous situation in an already unstable mountainous environment ... This is not how we climb mountains!!"
Story updated on April 23 at 5:45 p.m.