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."
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.