I am back safely in Kathmandu after a very trying, tragic and complicated trip to Everest.
Before I explain all the ins and outs, I want to give this tragedy the respect and perspective it deserves. Fourteen wonderful Sherpa, one Tamang and one Gurung were killed. (To clarify, Sherpa is a people group just like Navajo or Apache and not a job description. Tamangs and Gurungs are additional people groups from Nepal.) In total, there are 16 human beings who don't get to go home to their families. There are wives who are now widows and children now orphans. An incalculable number of birthdays, anniversaries, weddings and family celebrations will have a hole in them. These were dedicated men who got out of their sleeping bags in the middle of a very cold night, shouldered their heavy loads and struggled through the thin air to support their families. This is the worst single disaster ever on Everest and the entire climbing community mourns this terrible loss.
Now the details as I understand them to be. Our Altitude Junkies team flew from Kathmandu to the village of Lukla on the morning of April 3. We were excited to start what we hoped would be the biggest adventure of our lives. We trekked first to Phakding and then to Namche Bazaar. After two nights there to acclimatize just a little, the rest of the team used the traditional route to Everest Base Camp while Scott Bigelow and I took a lesser used route up the Gokyo valley and over the 17,800' high Cho La (La is Sherpa for pass). We had a fantastic time seeing truly world-class scenery and enjoying many hours with the famously hospitable Sherpa people. We eventually rejoined the team at Everest Base Camp on April 12. Scott then left for his own adventure, successfully climbing Lobuche East in a team of two - he and his Sherpa guide. Lobuche is about 150' lower than Mt McKinley and this was Scott's second climb in his life. I'm impressed!
Meanwhile, our team settled into life at EBC. This means waiting until about 7:40 am for the sun to hit your tent before daring to crawl out of your sleeping bag, breakfast at 8, a two to four hour hike to maintain fitness and accelerate acclimatizing, lunch at 1, happy hour at 4 and dinner at 6 before crawling into your tent for 12 hours of lonely cold darkness. This doesn't sound like much fun as I write it from our hotel in Kathmandu but believe me when I say that it is actually pretty good. Of course, a great team, great leadership (Phil Crampton), fantastic Sherpas and magnificent scenery all help things along.
Phil decided that we would take a trip into the Khumbu Icefall on April 18. We were to deliberately leave late so that we wouldn't be in the way of the Sherpas carrying loads. We began the 35 minute walk from our camp at the low end of EBC to the high end where you enter the Icefall at 6:30 am and intended to go as far as the first ladders before returning for lunch. At about 6:45 am I heard a roaring noise and looked up to see an avalanche coming off the west shoulder of Everest and directly into the Icefall. I knew this could be a bad situation but had no idea how bad it would become, or quite why.
I have since been told that there was a large crevasse that needed two ladders to descend into. From there the route crossed the bottom and used three more ladders to climb up the other side. My understanding is that two of these ladders were damaged, forcing a bottleneck of Sherpa to form while they waited for replacements to arrive. It was at this worst possible moment that part of the hanging glacier on Everest's west shoulder broke free and roared through this area like a runaway train.
There were both clients and Sherpa below the impact zone and several of these people were wounded. Those capable of walking made their way down and some appeared to be in shock as they retreated. Meanwhile, those in the immediate vicinity who escaped relatively unharmed began to search for their comrades and dig them out of the suffocating ice and snow. In addition many others from base camp mobilized as fast as possible and raced up into the carnage bringing rescue and first aid equipment. Phil plus six of our Sherpa were among those who raced up to the scene and did all they could to help the injured.
We spent many hours watching as people placed their own lives in danger to do all they could to rescue the fallen and also watching helicopters fly between the accident site and EBC, first with the wounded and eventually with the deceased. Base Camp became a very somber place as we slowly realized the enormous scope of the tragedy.
But then things started to change. Grief turned to anger for a vocal minority of mostly younger Sherpa and by the end of the day we watched a mob form and start to parade through EBC demanding that all the other Sherpa join them in their demands. Eventually they drew up a list of 13 demands and presented them to the Nepali government. Most of the demands were quite reasonable and in fact were already being met by the more responsible guiding companies such as our own Altitude Junkies. These demands were for things like helicopter rescue, medical and life insurance, etc. The grievances became unreasonable (in my opinion) when they demanded that no one be allowed back on the mountain. Everyone agreed that any Sherpa staff member who decided he was unwilling to climb should be free to make this decision without any repercussions. The problem was that many of the Sherpa, and 100% of the Altitude Junkies Sherpa staff, still wanted to climb but they and their families were directly threatened and intimidated into not doing so. We rapidly went from a scene of mourning to a union vs management feeling.
Phil Crampton and Russell Brice (of the Himex team) chartered a helicopter at their own expense - $12,000 - and flew to Kathmandu for an emergency meeting with the Ministry of Tourism, the governmental department that controls everything to do with Everest, along with several other important players. These officials looked Phil and Russell in the eye and told them that they had agreed to every demand made by the Sherpa and would fly to EBC to tell them so. They were to bring a document to this effect with them and have an official signing and then require everyone to get back to work. The delegation appeared as promised the following day but reneged on every agreement, saying that they would negotiate things at the end of the season. This was the beginning of the end for 2014.
Various smaller teams began withdrawing one by one and then International Mountain Guides, one of the biggies, decided to cancel. I am friends with their head guides and spoke with them about it and they said they feared for their Sherpa's safety and I believe they meant not only safety from more accidents but also from retaliation from the mob threats. It quickly became obvious that the minority had won by threatening the safety of the families of any Sherpa who dared challenge them.
Our team held out hope for a week but finally realized we could not continue. We packed our gear, walked four hours downhill to the village of Pheriche and after a brief delay, caught helis to Kathmandu. Phil stayed behind with our dedicated and brave Sherpa staff to pack everything up and wait for porters and yaks to carry our camp back down the mountain. We are hoping that he will be able to leave camp by tomorrow (April 29).
There has been a lot said about the economic differences between Western climbers and the Sherpa who make an Everest climb possible. This event has also proven for everyone beyond any doubt that it is the supernaturally strong Sherpa people who make an Everest climb possible for the rest of us mere mortals. I don't want to get into editorializing things at this time but rather just report the facts as I believe them to be. I do want to go on the record as saying that I love to climb with our Sherpa staff, that I appreciate and respect them as highly as I possibly can, and believe they should be treated and paid not as equals, but as our betters. There is a small, vocal, media-savvy group that has caused this situation to escalate out of control, the guide companies and their local agencies know who they are and most, if not all of them will find themselves unemployed in the years to come. This is a classic case of the 1% making the 99% look bad.
The big question really is what sort of effect will all of this have on Nepal's future and in particular, will people return in significant numbers to climb Everest next year? There is a huge ripple effect from all of this that wasn't well thought out. If climbers fail to try Everest next year there will be the immediate loss of income for the climbing Sherpa, but also for porters, yak herders, tea house owners and even charities as so many come here to climb but leave wanting to help the gentle Nepalese people. There is only one biggest mountain in the world, Nepal has it and now her reputation has been harmed. The tragedy just compounds.