There were signs from the beginning that the Everest 2012 season would be different when Sherpas establishing base camp at the foot of the Khumbu Icefall reported that the upper mountain looked “dry”.
Once climbers started moving up higher, urgent requests were made to the Icefall Doctors to move the route in the upper Icefall away from Everest’s West Shoulder where a huge snow and ice serac sat waiting to drop, potentially killing climbers and Sherpas making their way to the Western Cwm. Thus the tone was set.
The risks were abundant, more so than in other recent years. As teams discovered them, they evaluated each according to their own limits, some choose to leave, others to change, some pushed on. Similarly individuals saw the risks up close and some choose to leave, other modified their approach and, sadly, some simply refused to acknowledge the obvious and paid a heavy price.
Everest attracts attention only when there is drama and there was plenty this season but what was not reported were the huge successes, the joys and satisfaction felt by hundreds who accomplished their dream or successfully worked another season to provide a better life for their families.
Setting the Stage
On the cusp of the season, two big public announcements were made by world-class companies. They focused on the 1963 climb of the West Ridge of Everest that served as a milestone in mountaineering and remains a benchmark for ambition today. That 1963 expedition saw two teams aiming to meet on the summit with one climbing the dangerous West Ridge and the other climbing the Southeast Ridge. It was an epic of success and danger if there ever was one. Perhaps an omen for 2012.
The plan was to recreate the summit dual climb event. One team was sponsored by National Geographic and The North Face and another separate effort through Eddie Bauer, all with ties to the original effort. They made their announcement and invited people to follow along with special websites and applications. I joined the excitement of following world-class climbers striving to accomplish something special.
Even with this special event, 2012 looked to be a “normal” Everest season coming off a relatively quiet 2011 season with over 500 summits. Everyone settled in for the next two months.
The Early Signs
The season got underway as every season does with the Sherpas arriving in mid March to establish base camps, climbers finishing training at home, saying goodbye to families and left for the annual migration through the life-changing Khumbu. One by one, team after team arrived at the base camp on the South or by Land Rover at the Chinese Base Camp on the North. The new climbers simply stared in awe, in anticipation; the veterans smiled inside; their stomachs churned.
The teams on both side held their pujas with local Lama’s reading from 300 year-old Tibetan prayer books asking the mountain Gods for permission to climb Chomolungma. They asked for forgiveness for the damage to the sacred mountain from the climber’s sharp spikes and tools and finally for their safety that they might return home to their families; Sherpas, porters, cooks, climbers – everyone.
As usual, the North was quiet as the standard communications difficulties prevented frequent updates but we followed their progression to Advanced Base Camp and on to the North Col. The winds kicked in early and never let up. It was cold. It was the North side of Everest. Nothing unusual
However, something was different on the South. It was windy, very windy, but also there were rocks falling down the Lhotse Face and the upper Icefall was a jumbled mass of house sized ice blocks, organized so that if one fell, they all might fall. The Sherpas, always the first to see the real Everest, began to talk. They didn’t like what they saw. Their decades of experience spoke to them in the night. The dangers were real, their tones were hushed.
But the progress continued. Camps were established in the Western Cwm. Thousands of pounds of tents, stoves, fuel, and food were carried on the backs of the Sherpas. Stepping back, this demonstration of human strength stands as an annual proof that anything can be done in this modern age without technology.
And then it began, the rockfall hit the Sherpas first. Reports emerged of broken arms, concussions, near misses. The expedition organizers grew increasingly concerned as the realization sunk in that Everest was not normal. Long time Everest climbers and observers let out the call that climate changes had finally taken place, melting the massive mountain, receding the glaciers; others simply said it was a low snow winter preventing the normal snow amounts that keep the loose rocks in their place. Objective observers noted that low snow winters are not uncommon, most recently occurring in 2008 when rock fall was also common above the South Col.
Regardless of the explanations, the high winds combined with little snow allowed rocks, small and large, to become deadly missiles on the Lhotse Face. Leaders stayed up at night wondering what the upper mountain must be like and the dangers for their teams – if they made it that far.
But something else was happening, Sherpas were dying. First was long time Sherpa, Karsang Namgyal Sherpa who died at base camp. Then Namgyal Tshering Sherpa fell from a ladder crossing a crevasse near Camp 1 into the abyss. As many Sherpas do, for many reasons, he choose not to clip into the safety lines and it cost him his life. And the third Sherpa death over several days occurred when Dawa Tenzing suffered a stroke in the Icefall. He was rushed to Katmandu but later died. The Sherpa community felt something was amiss on Sagarmatha.
A New Route
As the anxiety increased, the Sherpas continued carrying loads higher but now the leaders began to make choices. It was obvious the direct route up the Lhotse Face used for over a decade could be suicide. The South side experts directed their teams to investigate a safer alternative to the right of the Face, onto the Shoulder of Nuptse where they would be safer from the rockfall. The thought was that until the normal snowfall started, as they always have in May, use the natural cover of the snow and ice ridges on the Lhotse Face to protect the route from the rockfall. This was how it was done in the late 1990’s and maps even showed this was the route back in 1953.
The new route was put in and Sherpas began to use it for their carries to Camp 3 high on the Lhotse Face. Rocks continued to fall and a few misses occurred but the safety factor was dramatically improved. However, the route was longer, taking more time, using more energy. The Sherpas had mixed emotions as this fixed one problem but not the hanging serac teetering above the upper Icefall or those fragile ice blocks silently waiting to pounce. And they didn’t know what secrets the upper mountain held.
In spite of the winds not letting let up, teams pushed their way higher into the Western Cwm. But a bad surprise was in store. Camp 1 located at the end of the Western Cwn near the top of the Icefall had been the subject of avalanches in the past but usually from the West Shoulder of Everest. In response, the Camp was moved closer to the high, sloping wall of Nuptse.
On April 28, the avalanche occurred. It came from Nuptse and hit many of the tents at Camp 1. Tents were lost and one Sherpa was swept into a crevasse. Only the fast action of guides, climbers and fellow Sherpas saved his life. He was evacuated by helicopter to Kathmandu where he recovered from broken ribs. The site of the Fishtail Air high altitude helicopter was becoming quite common this year.
Russell Brice declared something was terribly wrong and pulled his team back to base camp declaring a “hold” on further climbing. IMG and Peak Freaks had their teams reevaluate plans to spend a night at Camp 3.
The winter and spring of 2012 had been eventful around the world with record snows in dry areas, drought in rainy ones, early tornados across the US and spring firestorms elsewhere. The Himalayas was no different. On peaks close to Everest, heavy snows created avalanches, stopped climbs and created havoc. In western Nepal a glacial dam broke killing hundreds.
On Everest proper, climbers began to wonder when the reliable summit window would emerge. The jet stream seemed to have taken a chair on the summit of Everest and was quite comfortable, thank you very much. Climbers posted reports of hearing a freight train roar above Camp 2.
Now halfway through a typical season, climbers were getting nervous. Many had not spent a night at Camp 3, usually viewed as required for their summit bid and proper acclimatization. The ropes had not been fixed on the Lhotse Face and the weather forecast was down right depressing.
Talks of the latest summit on record of May 21 in 2005 made for interesting dinner talk. Others added that Tenzing and Hillary summited on May 29 and some sniffed that the earliest was April 4 back in 1984. Some just ate dinner staring at their food.
But the unspoken concern was that if the weather shortened the season and compressed the summit days from the normal range of 6 to 16 (average of 11 since 2001) down to 4, the crowds would become a problem with hundreds of climbers with a wide range of skills all competing for the same real estate.
Climbers on the North spoke of feeling “trapped” not wanting to give up their hard earned high camp spots but wearing down quickly with sleepless nights in cold, tortuous winds.
The famous West Ridge teams became very quiet. No news was posted on their progress because there was not much progress. Not only were they dealing with winds but also very dangerous icy conditions.
Climbing with Hope
As the winds began to let up and the snow started to fall, teams began to move again. IMG sent up almost 20,000 feet of rope to Camp 2 in preparation for fixing the line to the summit once the weather allowed.
On May 4, over 50 climbers used the new route on the Lhotse Face to reach Camp 3. Some slept there but most were pleased to tag it and return to the safety of Camp 2.
A Big Decision
Rumors leaked over the weekend of May 5 that the best known Everest guide, Russell Brice, was pulling his entire team off the mountain. Rising to fame through the television series “Everest: Beyond the Limits” Brice’s public image was of a hard nosed man who demanded, and got, his way.
His critics loved to blame him for all the problems of Everest, his supporters were loyal to a fault. He had put climbers on the summit from both the North and South for over a decade never losing a client but had lost two Sherpas. This season, one of the early Sherpa deaths was one of his own.
With the rockfall and avalanches increasing, Brice consulted with his Sherpa Sirdar, Phurba Tasi, a man of immense experience and respect on Everest. The Sherpa told Brice “this is just too dangerous for me and my Sherpas.” Brice was forced with a decision. He poured over the weather maps trying to glean if the May snows would really come. He talked to other expedition leaders to understand if the new route was materially more safe; if a new route could be constructed in the Icefall.
He looked into the eyes of his clients who had spent $55,000, and years of their lives to climb Everest with this legend. The clients had trusted their lives to this man’s judgement. A team of British wounded soldiers had trained with Brice on Manaslu the prior year were now the focus of the UK as they prepared to climbed the highest. All eyes were on the “Big Boss”.
He took his time, lost sleep and then made one of the most significant decisions in the history of commercially guided Everest expeditions; cancel all the climbs – Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse; over 100 people from climbers to Sherpas to cooks and porters would leave the mountain ASAP.
In the end, I believe, Brice put the safety of his Sherpas above anything else – current business, future expeditions and his reputation. He simply pulled the plug.
He told the world on May 7 “I am no longer prepared to take that risk. Of course, there is the possibility that many other teams will reach the summit this season but we at Himalayan Experience are very concerned that a major accident could happen if we carry on moving through the icefall.”
The clients reacted predictably, some with outrage, others with understanding, all with extreme disappointment. There would be no refunds, the majority of the funds for an Everest expedition are long gone by the time climbers reach base camp. But Brice suggested if they wanted to return, they would receive a discount. He confirmed his intent to continue running Himalayan expeditions.
And they left.
The whispers began that Russ was too quick on his decision. The second guessing began.
As the Everest community digested Himex’s decision, the leaders continued with the business of climbing. Ropes needed to be fixed to the summit and the clock was ticking. First it was the rockfall, now it was high winds and heavy snow that stopped the Sherpas from getting the safety line in; the backlog was growing.
Normally a team as large as Himex provides much of the manpower to get the ropes set. Without them the teams went back to the model they used before Brice came to the South side in 2009 from his years on the North. On May 9, the leaders met and recommitted themselves to a safe season.
They started working like they rarely do with ten teams contributing Sherpas to carry the heavy ropes and anchors as high as the South Col. They got the line to the South Col before the winds and snow returned on May 10.
The extra time built into an Everest expedition was being eaten away day by day. Knowing the season would stop at the end of May when the Icefall began to melt and the ladders removed; the talk shifted from Himex, rockfall and weather to crowds.
The largest concern for most climbers and operators are the bottlenecks on both sides of Everest at the well known spots – the 2nd Step on the North, the Hillary Step on the South, the entire Southeast Ridge. If the weather only allowed for a few summit days, cooperation be damned, it was everyone for themselves.
But this was a well known situation, nothing new to Everest guides. With total respect to the Reinhold Messner who in 1980 climbed Everest solo from the North, it takes a lot of people today to climb the highest mountain in the world. Even in 1963 when the coveted West Ridge was climbed, they used 900 porters, 37 Sherpas.
But one picture became the icon for Everest 2012. A line of climbers standing in single file seemingly stuck between Camp 3 and the Yellow Band. This picture went viral along with the outcries of over crowding, lack of adventure, sport gone wild and misguided thrill seekers. The press ate it up. They were deaf to the suggestion that this happens almost every year and crowds rarely were the cause of death on Everest. As long as there are sufficient summit days, the mountain is big enough to handle the load.
Demands were made that the Nepal government should limit the number of climbers like they did before 1993 when it was one team per route. But the reality is that Everest is a money maker. In 2011, Everest brought in $9M to the Nepalese economy; a country with a per capita income of $473.
But with the press came the misconstrued warning that crowds would bring death, just like 1996. The stage was set.
The Window Opens
The magicians who forecast the weather put forth a prediction: There would be two windows: May 18 and May 25. Teams began to make their decisions. The early window was short, and windy but closer; the other was longer, and stable but further away. With the uncertainty and drama of the season thus far, many took the bird in the hand versus the two in the bush; as the saying goes.
With May 18, 19 and maybe the 20 being days of low winds, perhaps a bit high, but close to most leaders’ limit of 30 mph on the summit; teams got ready. Base Camps on both side took on new energy and excitement. Their time had come.
Teams returned from their R&R down valley back to the individual tents at base camp. They climbed the Khumbu Icefall once again, hoping it would be their last trip up. They arrived at Camp 2 and took a rest day and then climbed to Camp 3 sleeping on oxygen for the first time.
On their climb to the Camp 3, a small ice avalanche hit Camp 3 destroying several tents and injuring a Sherpa. He was evacuated to Kathmandu.
The whispers began that Russ might have been right. The second guessing continued.
The warning cries of crowds grew louder. The climb from Camp 3 to the South Col took an extra two hours as some climbers struggled from the Yellow Band to the top of the Geneva Spur. The anxiety grew as this window had a short life, maybe 48 hours. Teams planed to get up on the night of the 18, summit the 19; repeat 19/20 and back down. Oh and one more thing, the fixed lines still had to be set to the summit for the safety of all but the most skilled and experienced.
On the North a similar scenario was emerging with a large Chinese team dominating the slopes creating a similar concern of bottlenecks.
A team of Sherpas set out the evening of May 17 to set the route to the summit. This team of skilled Sherpas came from IMG, AAI, Peak Freaks, Chilean, 7 Summits.
On their heels was a Chilean team, 20 strong, lead by Chilean legend Rodrigo Jordan. They along with the rope fixers plus Ulei Steck who tagged along, umm, without supplemental O’s I might add, all summited the morning of May 18 – the first of the season.
The race began.
The next night, May 18, more than 200 climbers left the South Col knowing the windows was short and the winds would be picking back up. It was a successful night with the most experienced Sherpas getting their climbers out early, climbing fast and getting down to avoid the crowds. Reports of lines at the bottlenecks emerged. Also reports of unexpectedly high winds. But something else happened high on the ridges of Everest.
May 19, Saturday night, the last of this first wave of climbers left again. Same race, same track, different horses. But this time the winds and snow were brutal. Shortly after leaving the South Col, some turned back. Some team didn’t even try deferring to the judgment of long time guides who felt the night was too risky between the crowds and the winds.
It was a stressful night for those back home but those climbing – it was beyond imagination. Pictures of climbers on the summit that night showed jackets impelled by snow, faces covered with ice, the strain came through in their posture. Their views obscured by cloud and fog.
As reports came in from the weekend, the line at the Hillary Step was reported between 1 and 2 and half hours – unacceptable by any dream. Slow climbers slowed down the rest. Leaders refused to turn back. The slow got slower, their oxygen ran low, their energy supplies depleting fast. Yet they refused to be turned back or to turn back themselves. Personal responsibility took a back seat to summit fever.
The successful teams got to the summit and back, climbing as a tight knit group; moving deliberately, checking in often with one another. They climbed as one, summited as one and descend as one. They validated the model of commercial guiding on Everest in difficult conditions. They confirmed that with proper experience, training and support, Everest could be manageable in trying conditions. And they felt they had dodged the worst.
As climbers went higher, they saw bodies from the previous night. As they descended they saw more from their night. Some were cut from the lines to allow the living to past. Horror stories once again emerged from Everest and it was not just on the South. The North was experiencing its own horror show. This is not how it is supposed to happen.
Beyond the Rational Limits
Anyone can climb Everest, there are no rules, no requirements. If you can get a permit from an organizer, you can climb. The warnings are all there in the fine print but the lure, the magic, the seduction is compelling. A test against nature, to prove yourself, to make a statement. The motivations take people beyond the rational.
Experienced is required, but not demanded by some organizers. “I trained while acclimatizing.”; no; you train for years before coming to Everest. Putting on your crampons is in your muscle memory, changing gloves is a system, not a conscious thought. You arrive at Everest with the mental toughness to push hard but the discipline to turn around.
As the climbers clipped into the fixed ropes, slowed down by the crowds, so did their chances of survival. Some turned back, other pushed on. Desperate warnings to turn back were ignored. Their oxygen supplies went fast as summits occurred late in the day. The lessons of late summits in 1996 were ignored.
Others simply pushed beyond their personal limits, often without knowing. They didn’t do anything wrong, it just happened. The obscure warning signs of fluid build up or altitude sickness hidden in the slow, methodical walk of down covered anonymous humans in a place where humans cannot live. Everyone assuming everyone is fine, no one asking, no one telling, everyone pushing – the walking dead – until it is too late.
On the North a climber refused to retreat in spite of dire warning, even begging from Sherpas and random climbers. He had a history on that side, everyone knew it. Yet he remained, stubborn, determined or worse. Eventually a rescue squad retrieved him at much risk to them. He immediately said he wanted to go back up.
Climbers do not ignore climbers as is so often told after these events. 2012 will yield the same stories of selfishness, of inhuman behavior, of immoral acts above the death zone.
What will not be told as effectively are the stories of lack of high altitude drugs carried by the person in need, the knowledge of those with them to effectively use those tools, emergency injections failing due to broken hair-thin needles against frozen skin, of no radios carried by teammates, of no contingency planning by the low cost organizer, of …
But the drama will win over the reality.
Could these deaths have been prevented? Not for me to say, I was not there. I have seen deaths in the high mountains, buried teammates, feeling helpless knowing there was nothing that could be done. Death in the mountains is not trivial, it is not fodder for the evening news. It is real, it is devastating for families. The search for blame, for understanding, for answers will drive the calm into the frenzied.
Yet more people will climb and the same mistakes will happen again.
Climbers back in base camp watched and listen as the events of the weekend unfolded. Rumors spread of the deaths, the body count unknown. Those on the North heard the rumors, those on the South of the North. A big mountain but a small community.
Television stations scrambled to talk to someone live on Everest, get video of the long lines. The headlines read of another death march in the second window. “Why don’t they stop?” Himex was held up as an example of leadership – if everyone had acted so responsible, then no one would have died.
But the deaths had nothing to do with why Brice left. The dead died from their own ambitions, not from rocks or ice or falls. They died because they took a risk of being where humans are not designed to be; and they lost. Harsh but the truth.
The Second Window
The weather window for May 25 was as good as it gets on Everest – low winds, no snow. Again the climbers got in position. Tweaked by the past weekend, the organizers stationed extra Sherpas at the South Col with emergency oxygen, manpower ready to help their climbers.
But this wave appeared more experienced, the smaller outfits had gone first, and some paid the price. This round some looked out their tent on May 24 and went back to bed. The luxury of a long and stable weather window.
In the midst of all this South Side drama, both West Ridge efforts were called off. The conditions up the already dangerous ridge were deemed icy and too dangerous to attempt.
As the evening of May 24 unfolded, climbers climbed fast, almost too fast arriving on the summit before the sun rose in the East. There were no lines. The conditions excellent. It is how Everest was supposed to be these days.
May 25 was similar but even better. Climbers said there were no waits going up or down. The sensational headlines proved to be wrong, update on page 47 …
Fearing the Icefall, and warnings of warming conditions creating unacceptable contains late in the season, teams returned to the Western Cwm preparing for the final journey to base camp. The upper Icefall was different from the first sorte’ in April. The ice blocks had moved, the seracs has released, ladders had to be repositioned. But the return was uneventful for most. They are safe. They are home.
Climbing Everest provides an opportunity to stand out and a few did this year. 73 year old Japanese Tamae Watanabe who broke her own record for the oldest female summit. She climbed from the North. She said she felt “old” on the summit.
Ngim Chhamji Sherpa, born 11/14/95, now 16 became the youngest female to summit Everest this season around noon on May 19. Miss Ming Kipa Sherpa at 15 remains the youngest female ever, summiting from the north in 2003. There were many to be the first from their country, climbed without supplemental oxygen, and other distinctions but I shy away from mentioning one and not all so congratulations to each and everyone.
There were many summits of Lhotse this year, I don’t track Lhotse, the fourth highest at 27,940′, but probably over 50. This was a challenging year climbing the rocky summit gully, taking courage and determination.
Also under the radar was a climb of Nuptse, 25,971′, which forms the South side of the Western Cwm. On May 17 Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner and David Göttler reached the summit climbing the long and difficult North Ridge Scott route. Kaltenbrunner is the first woman to summit all 14 8000m mountains without using supplemental oxygen.
The final Everest summit list will not be available for many months. It takes a long time to certify each summit, to unravel the Sherpa names to ensure the correct “Dawa” receives the credit due. The Nepal Ministry of Tourism and the China Tibet Mountaineering Association maintain the list but private efforts from Ms. Elizabeth Hawley’s Himalayan Database is the gold standard. Also Eberhard Jurgalski’s 8000ers.com is an outstanding resource for 8000 meter summits.
My very rough, unconfirmed estimates: Total climbers at both base camps: 446 westerners plus 500 Sherpas totaling 946. 548 combined summits from both sides 57.93% summit to attempt rate. 10 total deaths.
With that, let’s not lose the fact that over 500 people reached the summit safely. My sincere congratulations to each and every climber regardless of the result..
Lessons from Everest
Mountains are for Everyone. I say this often and believe it deeply. Mountains are not a place for more regulation, more oxygen, more lines or more guides. They are a place of sanctuary; the highest ones for climbers who have earned the right through learning the skills, having the knowledge, committing themselves to saving them for future generations, an opportunity to demonstrate personal responsibility.
Let’s learn from Everest 2012, not as an industry, but as individuals and commit to helping one another be better climbers.
Memories are Everything
A Personal Note
As I wrap up this season coverage I want to thank everyone who followed through my website. Your comments were generous, kind and engaging – thank you. My mountain climbing, blogging and coverage since 2007 has been on behalf of Alzheimer’s. My Everest summit was in honor of my mom, two aunts and all the mom’s with Alzheimer’s around the world. Please join me in helping to educate, raise awareness and funds to rid the world of this horrific disease. Please visit this page for more information on why I do what I do .. and again, thank you all.
I will continue to keep you updated on mountaineering news around the world. If you have subscribed you will continue to receive notification of new posts and from my own adventures – next up for me is the 19,511′ Alpamayo in Peru.