I’m back in Kathmandu again at the end of what has effectively been a very expensive Everest Base Camp trek. All expeditions have been cancelled, and there will not be a single summit from Everest’s south side this season.
This has been without a doubt one of the most bizarre experiences of my life, and I’m still in a state of shock trying to make sense of it all. I wanted to climb Lhotse this year because I climbed Everest from the north side two years ago, and I wanted to sample the south side experience without having to climb the mountain for a second time. Lhotse shares its route with Everest for much of the way up. Where Everest climbers continue across the Lhotse Face to the South Col between the two mountains, we were intending to divert up the face to Lhotse’s summit.
I wanted to sleep in the grand amphitheatre of Everest Base Camp, surrounded by impossibly precipitous peaks – Pumori, Lingtren, Khumbutse, Nuptse and Everest’s West Shoulder, which appears as an imposing peak in its own right from there. I wanted to climb through the ice towers and seracs of the Khumbu Icefall, and stand in the Western Cwm, named by George Mallory after the hills of Snowdonia and christened the Valley of Silence by the Swiss team who first stood there in 1952. I wanted to climb up the Lhotse Face and look across the South Col to Everest. These are places I have read so much about, and I would love to have seen them for myself, but it didn’t happen.
But I also wanted to sample the south side Everest experience because it receives so much negative attention in the media, and I wanted to find out for myself whether it’s as much of a circus as people make out. I found the answer to that. Boy, did I find the answer. Never in my wildest nightmares did I imagine it would be like this. One thing I didn’t expect was a circus built by Nepalis rather than western climbers.
I am posting this having not read a single sentence of what has been written in the media about this year’s Everest season. I will read all that soon enough I’m sure, but for now these are my thoughts alone. My phone has been switched off, and only once did I wander down to Gorak Shep to send a blog post and check messages. I have been scribbling furiously in my diary about the events I have witnessed, but at times it’s been difficult to find the words. It’s certainly too early to make sense of it all. I have plenty to say, but for now I will keep it brief.
A small number of militant agitators have chosen to exploit a terrible tragedy to pursue their own agenda, and a corrupt and ineffectual government has stood by and watched. This has magnified the tragedy and made it more likely those Sherpas caught in the avalanche of 18 April died in vain. It has also ensured we are all losers here: Sherpas, government, western climbers and mountaineering operators.
I expect a lot of people are coming in for criticism at the moment, so I would just like to stick up for a few people.
Since the very hour of the tragedy our own thirty-strong Sherpa team from Altitude Junkies have been solid as a rock. They have stood squarely beside us, remained friendly, loyal and cheerful, stayed out of the politics and waited patiently for the opportunity to climb. They are honest, humble folk who are here to support their families and continue the rich tradition of Himalayan mountaineering that has made the Sherpas prosperous and world famous. We know many of them from previous expeditions and they remain our friends. Our sirdar Dorje Sherpa is a legend in the Khumbu region, and a hero in the eyes of us all in the Altitude Junkies team. Wizened and wise, we all look up to him, Sherpas and westerners alike. If only there were more like him the militants would never have been able to get their way. It’s likely Everest will be quiet next season, but all our guys deserve to find work.
Our expedition leader Phil Crampton is also an unsung hero. He has invested a great deal in Nepal over the years and taken great financial risk. He does not make millions out of mountaineering here. It’s no coincidence that eight of our team are repeat Junkies clients. We know he runs one of the best expeditions on the mountain, but also one of the cheapest. Events have proven that he also has the most loyal Sherpas.
Phil flew to Kathmandu at his own expense last week to negotiate with the government and try to save the season. They let him down. He was promised much, but given nothing. Like all operators he has hundreds of kilos of equipment stuck up in the Western Cwm. Yesterday eight teams each sent a Sherpa up there by helicopter to gather it together. It will stay up there, frozen in and moving with the glacier. Perhaps it will be retrievable next year, if any of them decide to come back here.
But Phil doesn’t seem to be worrying about his own losses. He worries about his Sherpas, some of whom may not be able find work if he has to pull out of Nepal. And he worries about us – his clients, who have paid him a great deal of money and haven’t even left base camp. We feel like we’ve been stitched up, but not by him.
It started as a terrible, random tragedy, with no blame and no villains, but it has become something else. From what I have seen westerners have behaved appropriately. I don’t know what has been said to the media, but around camp we have been silent, patient and sensitive. These are people, many of whom have saved up and trained for years to be here, mortgaged their houses, quit jobs, made career and relationship sacrifices, all for nothing. A few operators who have accepted their money and employed militants have actions to take in the coming months.
I believe the biggest share of the responsibility lies the government. The militants are mostly kids who haven’t considered the consequences of their actions. They will harm themselves and their community in the long run. The government talk endlessly about what they intend to do here, and end up doing nothing. Long before the season began they promised police and army at base camp to avoid a repeat of the fight that occurred here last year. Had that happened the intimidation that has prevented people climbing could have been avoided. To great fanfare they announced we would each have to carry eight kilograms of trash down from the higher camps, but now there are several tons of additional equipment lying on Chomolungma’s slopes.
I’m going to stop ranting now. It’s still too early and emotions are raw. The last week has felt like a year. So much has happened that it’s easy for me to forget that I watched sixteen people lose their lives in a hideous, unparalleled tragedy that but for a few hours or a few more metres of climbing might have taken me as well.
Wasn’t that enough?