National Geographic News
Photo of a portrait of Ankaji Sherpa and prayer flags.

A picture of Ankaji Sherpa, who lost his life in the April 18 Everest avalanche, is displayed next to a prayer flag during a cremation ceremony for Sherpa climbers in Kathmandu.

Photograph by Navesh Chitrakar, Reuters

Mark Jenkins

for National Geographic

Published April 25, 2014

One week after the deadliest day ever on Mount Everest, the climbing season on the Nepali side of the mountain is over. Sherpas, clients, and guides are packing up and heading home with no thrills or conquests to speak of—only grief, anger, and dashed dreams.

Falling blocks of ice the size of buildings crushed the 16 Sherpas who died last week. Thirteen bodies were recovered, and three remain entombed on the mountain. More ice collapsed this week when the danger zone was empty of climbers, and some reports blamed fresh avalanches for the final end to the Everest climbing season in Nepal.

"That's ridiculous," responds Adrian Ballinger, leader of the Alpenglow team, speaking from Kathmandu. "I would say only a very small percentage of teams canceled due to fear of increased danger in the icefall this season."

Avalanches in the Khumbu Icefall "are almost a daily occurrence every season," says Ballinger. "Small and large avalanches and collapses occur regularly. I have not seen myself, nor heard from any of my Sherpas, that there has been an increase in the frequency or severity of avalanches or icefalls this season—although obviously one slide had much greater than normal consequences."

Photo of a meeting between Nepalese government delegation and Sherpa mountain guides.
A Nepali government delegation meets with Sherpa mountain guides near the Everest base camp.
Photograph by Adrian Ballinger, Alpenglow Expeditions/AP

Changing Climate Conditions

Still, it's clear that overall conditions are changing over time. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, global mean temperatures have gone up almost 1 degree Fahrenheit in the past century, and some studies show that temperatures in the Himalaya have jumped three times that amount.

Jeff Kargel, a hydrologist at the University of Arizona, who is leading a mapping project on Himalayan glaciers, yesterday told the Associated Press that "glaciers are changing, and the danger is shifting."

Photos of Everest from the 1950s and 1960s show a mountain heavily covered in snow and ice. Photos today reveal a mountain of black rock comparatively barren of snow.

But those are long-term changes, and they did not have a direct impact on the final decision to leave the Nepali side of the mountain this year. (Climbers are still heading for the summit on the north side of Everest, in China.)

A Vengeful Mountain

"There were three primary reasons for ending the season," says Alan Arnette, an American Everest veteran who operates a much followed website about the world's tallest mountain (alanarnette.com): "Safety concerns around the icefall, respect for the Sherpas killed in the serac release, and the ongoing negotiations for improved insurance and compensation between the Sherpas and the Nepal government."

Going through the Khumbu Icefall is always dangerous, but many Sherpas were clearly shaken by the deaths of 16 of their friends and colleagues. The more religious Sherpas believe the mountain is taking revenge—that Sherpas are being punished, perhaps for the excesses of the past on Everest—and they don't want to go back up out of fear and respect.  Others simply feel that continuing to climb would dishonor the dead.

And finally, politics are at work. There is an apparent struggle between younger Sherpas who work for low-end operators and older, respected Sherpas who work for well-established, high-paying operators, says Dave Morton, a veteran of many expeditions to Everest. The younger contingent is flexing its muscles, aiming to show that Sherpas control Everest from the south side, and can shut down business if they so choose.

A 13-point petition presented to the Nepal Ministry of Tourism three days ago highlighted the Sherpas' demands: They want 30 percent of the $3.5 million the government collects in permit fees to return to the mountain and fund future rescue operations (the government agreed to 5 percent); they want the current $10,000 death benefit doubled to $20,000 (the government agreed to $15,000); they want better compensation for Sherpas who are injured on the mountain and to build a memorial to the Sherpas who died (the government agreed to both requests).

Whatever the eventual resolution is, it seems certain that crowds will be lining up again to summit Everest in 2015 and that Sherpas will again risk their lives to help climbers achieve their dreams.

13 comments
kevin graves
kevin graves

Sean Nolan; you take Ballinger's comments out of context. Avalanche danger is a constant on Everest; yes this one was worse and the timing was more consequential but avalanches especially in the icefall is a fact of life that both Sherpas and climbers face on every carry. It may have nothing to do with Ballinger's priorities. I suspect that while he runs a guiding business that will suffer this season; he is still saddened intimately by these deaths. 

Richard Watkinson; your comments seem to imply that it is a good thing to regulate climbing by only allowing the super wealthy to attempt to climb Everest. The majority of talented climbers are not wealthy so this runs totally counter to the culture of climbing. I think lotteries might be a better way to serve both. After all if you were a Sherpa, would you prefer to work for a strong climber who has great experience in the high mountains or a rich, self satisfied and egotistical socialite who just wants bragging rights?

I support the Sherpas but let's be objective and look for reasonable ways to improve the situation as opposed to knee-jerk solutions. 

Chui Chui; there is a Mt Climbing School called the Khumbu Climbing School which is set up already to train climbers. I believe Alex Lowe was instrumental in setting this up.

Kuno Schulz
Kuno Schulz

Greed and fear, the two driving forces of many human activities, are celebrated here to perfection. No mercy to the individual! If a big mountain acts merciless - it is just it's nature. There is no reason for mankind to act alike - or is it? Is it power? Is it money? Is it the fact that we are facing to die after a few years of existence on this planet? To put everything in the small window of life not mentioning the cost? The problem might be, that mankind has lost the respect for the creator and the creation. It is time to turn back to our creator and to read his advise how to act and to follow his guidelines. Where to find? In the pages between Genesis chapter 1 and Revelation chapter 22.

Haroldo Pereira
Haroldo Pereira

Global Warming consequences.

Men continue to disrespect mother Earth !!

Chey Cobb
Chey Cobb

You can never create significant change without causing some suffering but I am very happy to see that the multiple problems surrounding Everest conquests are finally being addressed. I am sorry for the loss of life and income for those who depend on the expeditions, but I am sure that the next climbing season will see a fairer and more ecologically sensitive program put in place. I can't say it will be "safer" because I think it's preposterous to even suggest that a climb to Everest can be called "safe".

Rk Upadhyay
Rk Upadhyay

Disappointing news for the sincere adventurers who were preparing them selves for months together to touch the highest peak in the world! However my condolences for the departed brave Sherpas!!!

Sean Nolan
Sean Nolan

BTW Is Ballinger  trying to airbrush the deaths of of the sherpas out of mind by the following section of his statement. "  I have not seen myself, nor heard from any of my Sherpas, that there has been an increase in the frequency or severity of avalanches or icefalls this season—although obviously one slide had much greater than normal consequences."

Time for him to get his priorities in order !

Sean Nolan
Sean Nolan

Best news i heard this week, Hopefully they will be far better paid next season !

RJ Fleming
RJ Fleming

Our company guides Everest and works in the region regularly. The Sherpas deserve and earn what they are requesting. What they do every day is incredibly dangerous, and their demands are reasonable. Without the Sherpa community and climbing guides there would be very few successful Everest climbs and less overall safety on the mountain. Our company founded the EON Charity (Education for Orphans of Nepal) specifically to take care of Sherpa orphans, and the recent tragic event (and others) shows the dangers these individuals face as they support their families. 


We hope every climber, trekker, tourist and the Nepalese government better understands this situation as a result of this particular tragedy, and supports the Sherpas' demands.


RJ Fleming, Board Chair

EON Charity (www.eoncharity.org)

MatterhornNepal-GuideSource Treks & Expeditions Ltd

Kathmandu Nepal - Geneva Switzerland

www.guidesource.com

Richard Watkinson
Richard Watkinson

Its a really good idea to increase the permit fees and raise cost of climbing the mountain. The money raised can be used for benefits for the Sherpa people and also to clean up the area. At the same time not so many people will be able to afford to make the climb and the overcrowding on the mountain will be reduced.

Chui Chui
Chui Chui

I am glad that these poor misused and abused  brave people  have put their foot down. I am an old time mountain climber for my days with the Outward Bound System , where  the first law is you carry your own equipment, food, clothing and what ever is needed. No porters . Guides were older previous members , all volunteers , who appreciated  the  joy and experience to persevere and able to teach character building and team effort. That is what I learned during my youth, and those were indeed some of the happiest days and memories to cherish. What  Nepal need  is to establish a Mt. Climbing " School " . With set guide lines that will also provide work for these Mt. people.  I hope that that these rich countries that waste so much money on other useless wars, military misadventures and other madness will see to  come up with $100 million to start and set up such a place and also institute and implement that no climbing garbage will left any where on the Mountains. The real secret is one never conquer the mountain and should  be  appreciative that mother nature is accommodating.  and the people that take up the venture are humble.  

RC Lee
RC Lee

@kevin graves  A lottery makes a lot of sense. The fees now are such that it is difficult or impossible for anybody who isn't wealthy or sponsored to climb the mountain. Summitting Everest is a crap shoot anyway (due to conditions, weather, etc.), so adding a lottery won't make much difference in the individual probability of success.

Share

Feed the World

  • How to Feed Our Growing Planet

    How to Feed Our Growing Planet

    National Geographic explores how we can feed the growing population without overwhelming the planet in our food series.

See blogs, stories, photos, and news »

Latest Photo Galleries

See more photos »

Shop Our Space Collection

  • Be the First to Own <i>Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey</i>

    Be the First to Own Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

    The updated companion book to Carl Sagan's Cosmos, featuring a new forward by Neil deGrasse Tyson is now available. Proceeds support our mission programs, which protect species, habitats, and cultures.

Shop Now »