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!”
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 wasn’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 were fully acclimatised and had 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 happened, 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 headed up the Icefall immediately. Our expedition leader Phil Crampton radioed back to camp to try and rouse more of our Sherpa team to help. They had returned from the Icefall only the day before and were having a well earned rest, but four of them, Pasang Ongchu, Kami, Kusang and Samden, put on their climbing gear and arrived only minutes later. Phil headed into the Icefall with them but his main priority was to pull them off the mountain if it became too dangerous up there. He knew they would be carrying out the bulk of the work.
I walked up onto a ridge of ice and stood to watch for the next two hours. Initially things seemed quite hopeful. We could see figures emerging from the ice. Dozens of them appeared near a section on the skyline known as the Football Field, precisely where we saw the snow billowing. Ones and twos appeared lower down, heading downwards. There could easily be 40 or 50 of them and they were all moving, if only slowly. It seemed a miracle!
But there was bad news as well. Radios were crackling all around us, and we heard that four Sherpas from the Discovery Channel expedition were missing, and another Sherpa was critically injured.
At nine o’clock I wandered slowly back to our camp, where I removed my climbing gear, washed myself and sat down to watch with the rest of our team. Everyone, including our other Sherpas, many of whom had friends and family up there, could do little else but stand outside and watch events unfold.
The tragedy was deepening. Somebody said 13 Sherpas are now dead or missing, we couldn’t be sure. At ten o’clock the first helicopters appeared. One of them landed up on the ice of the Football Field and brought down some casualties. Then hundreds of people watched in horror as body after body was brought down, swinging beneath one of the helicopters on a long line. It was relentless, and we lost count of the number of times the chopper returned to the Icefall. Every so often we imagined the body moving on landing, and hoped it was a survivor, but mostly they were motionless.
At lunchtime Phil returned 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 haven’t been here and looked up into the Icefall with their boots on, ready to go up. They don’t understand the motivations of mountaineers (both Sherpa and westerner) and the calculated risks we all take to do what we enjoy, and nor do they 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 fixes 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.
Did you enjoy this blog post? This post also appears in my book Sherpa Hospitality as a Cure for Frostbite, a collection of the best posts from this blog exploring the evolution of Sherpa mountaineers, from the porters of early expeditions to the superstar climbers of the present day. It’s available from all good e-bookstores and is also available as a paperback. Click on the big green button to find out more.