"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.