Footsteps on the Mountain blog

Connect
Follow me on TwitterLike me on FacebookFollow me on TumblrSubscribe to my RSS feeds
Watch my YouTube channelFollow me on Google+See my Amazon profileSee my Goodreads profile

Footsteps on the Mountain

April 20, 2014 6:30 am, by Mark Horrell<< Return to blog home

The Sherpa sacrifice

I don’t know whether this is going to post successfully, as we have been without meaningful internet communications since we arrived at Everest Base Camp over a week ago. I have wandered down to Gorak Shep in search of 3G or wifi to try and send it from my iPhone. It may not work, but I have to try, because too much has happened to remain silent, and we need to provide our story before the facts are swallowed up by media hyperbole.

On Friday morning we awoke early to make our first short foray into the Khumbu Icefall. We didn’t intend to climb far, perhaps for 2 to 3 hours before returning to our camp for lunch. At 6.45am I was wandering slowly through the sprawl of Base Camp, lost in my thoughts, when Jay, walking behind me, gave a cry.

“Hey, Mark, have you seen that? Take a look up there!”

Back in Kathmandu Edita lights butter lamps for those who died in the April 18 avalanche

Back in Kathmandu Edita lights butter lamps for those who died in the April 18 avalanche

I looked up in time to see a giant mushroom cloud on the skyline, one of the biggest avalanches I have ever seen, swallowing up the entire width of the Icefall. Up ahead of us Ian, Robert, Kevin and Louis were walking together when they heard a loud crack and looked up to see a huge section of ice collapse off the West Shoulder, triggering the avalanche we saw sweeping across the Icefall.

“Man, this is bad news. There’s people up there,” said Robert when we arrived at the base of the Icefall, where we had intended to put on our crampons.

It wan’t until our sirdar Dorje arrived a few minutes later that we began to realise the scale of the horror that was about to unfold.

“How many Sherpa?” I asked him, pointing up the Icefall.

“Maybe 40, 50,” he replied.

It became immediately obvious our foray would be off. It would take us many hours to reach the avalanche site, and we were not acclimatised. We would only get in the way of any rescue. The Sherpas are much stronger than we are; they are fully acclimatised and have been carrying loads up the Icefall for days to help establish our higher camps. It was Sherpas who were caught up there in the avalanche, and it will be Sherpas who will carry out any rescue (or as it happens, assist in the recovery of bodies). For the most part we western climbers would be helpless witnesses to the biggest tragedy in Everest history.

Dorje and Ang Gelu head up the Icefall immediately. Our expedition leader Phil Crampton radios back to camp to try and rouse more of our Sherpa team to help. They returned from the Icefall only the day before and were having a well earned rest, but four of them, Pasang Wongchu, Kami, Kusang and Samden, put on their climbing gear and arrive only minutes later. Phil heads into the Icefall with them but his main priority is to pull them off the mountain if it’s too dangerous up there. He knows they will be carrying out the bulk of the work.

I walk up onto a ridge of ice and stand and watch for the next two hours. Initially things seem quite hopeful. We can see figures emerging from the ice. Dozens of them appear near a section on the skyline known as the Football Field, precisely where we saw the snow billowing. Ones and twos appear lower down, heading downwards. There could easily be 40 or 50 of them and they are all moving, if only slowly. It seems a miracle!

But there is bad news as well. Radios are crackling all around us, and we hear that four Sherpas from the Discovery Channel expedition are missing, and another Sherpa is critically injured.

Crowds gathered at the helipads and watched in disbelief as one by one the deceased were brought down on long lines. The helicopters returned again and again, and we lost count of the number of journeys they made.

Crowds gathered at the helipads and watched in disbelief as one by one the deceased were brought down on long lines. The helicopters returned again and again, and we lost count of the number of journeys they made.

At nine o’clock I wander slowly back to our camp, where I remove my climbing gear, wash myself and sit and watch with the rest of our team. Everyone, including our other Sherpas, many of whom have friends and family up there, can do little else but stand outside and watch events unfold.

The tragedy is deepening. Somebody says 13 Sherpas are now dead or missing, we can’t be sure. At ten o’clock the first helicopters appear. One of them lands up on the ice of the Football Field and brings down some casualties. Then hundreds of people watch in horror as body after body is brought down swinging beneath one of the helicopters on a long line. It’s relentless, and we lose count of the number of times the chopper returns to the Icefall. Every so often we imagine the body moves on landing, and have hope it’s a survivor, but mostly they are motionless.

At lunchtime Phil returns with our six tireless Sherpas. Dorje and Ang Gelu supervised while the other four did much of the digging out of bodies. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like up there.

We now believe 14 Sherpas are confirmed dead and 3 more are still missing. If all these deaths are confirmed it will be an unprecedented disaster in the annals of Himalayan mountaineering. In 1937 sixteen members of a German expedition were wiped out in an avalanche on Nanga Parbat, but the losses were shared between Sherpas and westerners. Eight westerners died in a storm on Everest in 1996, and in both 2006 and 2012 there were around a dozen deaths in separate incidents across the season.

In 1922 seven Sherpas died in an avalanche below the North Col. George Mallory and Howard Somervell both survived that avalanche, and in his diary Somervell lamented the fact that no “sahibs” died, so they could have shared the loss in the same way they shared the risk. The first person to die in the Khumbu Icefall was an American Jake Breitenbach in 1963, when a serac collapsed as he was helping to establish a route through.

In those days westerners shared much of the risk, but it’s different now. On Friday we shared neither the loss with our Sherpas nor the risk. We were to make our first short journey into the Icefall, but our Sherpas had been through twice already.

Our lack of internet access means we are happily protected from the media storm that I’m sure has accompanied this tragedy. I’ve seen enough in the past to be able to predict the headlines, though. Rich western tourists send Sherpas to their deaths to satisfy their egos and tick off their bucket list by climbing Everest. While there is an element of truth in this it’s only a tiny fraction of the full story. Journalists who write these headlines have neither been here and looked up into the Icefall with their boots on, ready to go up, understand the motivations of mountaineers (both Sherpa and westerner) and the calculated risks we all take to do what we enjoy, or have an appreciation of the historical background that has led to Sherpas becoming the tigers of Himalayan mountaineering.

Many Sherpas moved to Darjeeling in the early 20th century to gain work with mountaineering expeditions. They quickly became indispensable, and there have been few Himalayan expeditions since in which they haven’t played an integral part. On Everest a team of Sherpas known as the Icefall Doctors fix the route through the Khumbu Icefall every year. Sherpas fix the route up the Lhotse Face and take great pride in it. Far from being forced to do it by westerners, they will not allow others to trespass on what they see as their territory.

After this latest tragedy some teams will remain on the mountain and others will pack up and leave. These decisions will be based on the wishes of the Sherpas, as we all know we cannot climb the mountain without them. Chomolungma belongs to the Sherpas and it’s only right they have an increasing say in what happens here. But the history of Everest has involved Sherpas and westerners working hand in hand, and the future of Everest will be better if this remains the case.

We are lucky in the Altitude Junkies team. We will have a few days of rest now to come to terms with what has happened. We will probably hold another puja to appease the mountain gods, and then we will continue with what we came to do. Our Sherpa dining tent is normally out of bounds, but on Friday night they invited us in to share rum and Tuborg. There was no “us and them”. We have different roles and of course they work much harder than we do, but we are a team working together.

This is the way Friday’s sad events should be treated, not by apportioning blame, but by trying our best to share the loss some of us feel more keenly than others.

You might also like:

Tags: | | | | | | | | | | | |

| << Return to blog home

Please help me raise money for education in Nepal ...

sponsor me for CHANCEIn my spare time I am a trustee of CHANCE, a UK charity who strive to give young people in Nepal better opportunities in life by providing teacher training, and inspiring them to take part in the Duke of Edinburgh's International Award.

If you enjoy this blog it would be fantastic if you can give me a big thumbs up by making a donation. You can also help by getting sponsored for an event or travelling to Nepal with their partner trekking agency. Here are the other ways you can help.

If you prefer not to then that's OK too. I enjoy going on expeditions and writing the blog, and will continue to do both of them anyway.

Comments (15)

  1. jyotika negi said:

    Very tragic n heart broken incident in the history of Everest .May their soul rest in eternal peace

  2. Tad said:

    Thank you Mark for your balanced and somber account of this tragic event. Our thoughts and prayers are with perished Sherpas families, the injured ones and those who stay at Everest to do their work. We feel for all of you who witnessed it too, I hope you’d be able to carry on regardless.
    Your comments about some of the media people are so right, unfortunately.
    Keep up your spirit at the Junkies, pls say hallo to Margaret, Edita and Phill from us here.

    Best regards
    Tad

  3. Kenny Robbo said:

    Sorry to hear the news Hozza, as usual a great report. I’ve taken note the lack of reports from yourself. So take care and hoist a prayer flag for me.

  4. John Quillen said:

    You are a balanced and respected voice and I am glad you are there to bear witness to events. However, remember to listen to the mountain my friend. I pray for your continued safety.

  5. Donald Walker said:

    Glad to hear your ok Mark but thoughts and prayers go out to the Sherpas and their families.

  6. Beth said:

    Thank you Mark for this most interesting post from your viewpoint…it posted successfully and our prayers go out to you and Jay Beaudoin and all those on gods Mt Everest. You are fearsome and we live vicariously through your energy because of the written diaries and blogs.

  7. Pingback: Climb for Memory

    […] At this point I think it’s hard for anyone to NOT have heard about what recently transpired on Everest. While I am not there this season, a lot of my good friends are (both Westeners and Sherpas). Thankfully none of them were caught in the massive collapse that occurred on the 18th near the top of the notoriously dangerous Khumbu Ice Fall (Although Mark Horrell and the Altitude Junkies team were on their way to the base of the Ice Fall when it happened. Read here). […]

  8. Lisa Gibson said:

    Thanks for this post Mark. It explains the depth of the tragedy without skewing the facts. Glad you are safe, my prayers go out to those who died.
    Stay safe!

  9. Ben Clark said:

    Glad you are safe and sound mate. I thought you were climbing a different mountain at the moment and didn’t realise you were at Everest base camp. Great to read a clear and balanced report on what was a tragic event.

  10. Eric Welch said:

    I’ve been surprised at how little coverage there has been here about the tragedy. In general it’s been quite muted and consistent with what you report. It does seem to me, as someone who loves reading about climbing, but would never consider actually doing it, that the trek to the top of Everest has lost much of its luster. When 4,000 people have done it, most of whom could only have done it with pre-positioned oxygen and pre-installed ropes that whatever purpose one might have ascribed to the effort (not to mention bankroll) has been diminished. When someone now says they’ve climbed Everest the reaction tends to be more of a yawn than anything else.

    The differential between what clients pay and what Sherpas earn is extraordinary. Perhaps it’s time to find a better way for these extraordinary people to earn a decent living without having to put themselves at such extreme risk.

  11. Kate Smith said:

    Once again thanks for a well balanced blog Mark.As Eric says there has only been muted reference to the tragedy on the news bulletins probably because other tragedies have been the top news stories.You have known some of the Sherpas personally and are amongst people who were related to the men and are grieving which must make the atmosphere at base camp very somber.I suppose what happens next will be decided between the Sherpas and the authorities.I join you in thoughts and prayers for the families and friends of the close community of the hard working Sherpas.Cheers Kate

  12. Alan Arnette said:

    Thanks Mark. Difficult time for everyone. The global community grieves in this loss.

  13. Thanks for sharing your mind with your blogpost.
    Found your post via Pasang Sherpa who seems to be part of your “Altitue Junkies” team. With Pasang’s father and a friend of mine I’ve climbed Mera Peak 2012.

  14. Vera Guinan said:

    The Sherpa tragedy in Nepal highlights how highly-skilled, dedicated, respected climbers Sherpa climbers can be treated like workhorses, and low man on the totem pole.

    I think that more meaningful support from the climbing community should be forthcoming, both in terms of dealing with the government, establishing a fund and sharing the wealth. Lots of people in the climbing community are expressing condolences, where action and support are what’s needed. What are the families of those climbers going to do in ten years, while climbers are still “conquering” Everest? Time to take responsibility climbers.

  15. Will said:

    Looking forward to hear your comments on all that has transpired this week. Guessing you have a few things to say. Sorry you can’t finish your Lhotse dream this season. I do hope you have the chance to find your roots in walking and take advantage of your unexpected time to find something new to see and maybe climb another mountain.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Lively discussion is welcome, but if you think your comment might offend please read the commenting guidelines before posting.

Enter your email address

Latest comments

  1. “Hahahahahahaha, always good to have some banter with my Kiwi chum. Which reminds me, I must get round to watching …”

  2. “Nice write-up Mr Horrell. Looked like a fun scramble, in an interesting part of the world and lucky you had …”

  3. “[…] They are Mulanje’s equivalent of the giant groundsel and giant lobelias found in other mountainous areas of Africa, or …”

Archive

Elbrus By Any Means by Mark Horrell, available as an ebook here