Note and Update 4: Changed the headline of this post to be more accurate as the mountain is not “officially” closed whatever that means. That said, all the major teams have left leaving a few tiny ones and perhaps the Russians but who knows how they will climb with no support in the Icefall. Not impossible but very, incredibly difficult and time is running out with the monsoon season approach at the end of May. Not a lot of time to acclimatize.
This situation has been the most difficult I have ever covered about Everest since 2002. There are lies, manipulation, misdirection, confusion … I did my to keep track of it and apologize when I got it wrong, but corrected it as soon I found out.
I have updated this post by striking through the incorrect parts as of April 27, 2014. Also, I have added emphasis on the subtle points that deserve more attention. But this statement I stand by:
My view is Everest is like an airport with the terminal open but the runways closed.
Update 3: The final large #Everest2014 teams that might have climbed declare the end: Himex and Altitude Junkies.
Update2: I knew this would happen and I apologize. The Ministry of Tourism issued a press release saying the mountain is open and everyone is welcome to climb. (see at bottom of this post).
Teams are packing even after this release. The future climbing plans all have to do with the Icefall Doctors and if they will stay and mange the route through the icefall. They have been threatened, their families have been threatened if they stay and they have told other teams they are leaving. This could change if the military comes in but it still leaves their families at risk.
I have heard of no teams planning to climb and at least 10 have said they are leaving officially including: AC, AAI, IMG, JG, AT – these are the largest teams with the most Sherpa who do all the real work, without them, the season is over. The remaining wild card is Himex and Altitude Junkies who have not said anything official but it would be tough for them to go on their own, but not impossible.
Update 1: Of note, just as I published this, a few people said the mountain had not been closed and we still have not seen official statements from some remaining teams including Himex, Altitude Junkies and Asian Trekking. I guess there is always a tiny chance something might change … this is how it goes on Everest.
A representative from Nepal’s Ministry finally came to Everest Base Camp on Thursday April 24, 2014 after several teams announced they were ending their seasons to
officially close say Everest is open and everyone is welcome climbing from Nepal. He made an offer to honor climbing permits for five years.
Even without this
‘official’ closure, the mountain was effectively shut down anyway. The reasons are a bit more complicated than a sound bite or headline. And the long term implications are unknown, real and frankly disturbing for mountaineering in general.
In this post, I’ll try to provide the big picture based on my knowledge of the situation at Everest, my own experiences and my own judgment. These are my opinions and no one else’s.
There are three reasons that brought a halt to the Everest 2014 season from Nepal: safety, respect and money. Let’s look at them individually before looking at the future.
The ice serac that collapsed on April 18 had been identified as an objective hazard for years. In fact it has released ice into the Khumbu Icefall almost every season in recent memory. In 2012 it narrowly missed many climbers. But knowing about it and doing something about are two different things. It is simply impossible to ‘remove’ the danger so all you can do is try to avoid it.
This year, the Icefall Doctors took the route more to the center than they had for years tying to anticipate a collapse. Sadly it was not far enough. This is also difficult as taking it too far away from the West Shoulder moves the route closer to Nuptse which also has seracs and avalanche danger. Plus that side of the Icefall has very deep and dangerous crevasses. So no good solution exist.
The Icefall itself seems to be more unstable, especially the upper part where it tips over from the Western Cwm. In this area, the ice blocks are huge, teetering and ready to collapse at any moment without notice. Again, there is little to do about this only to get through the area as fast as possible.
So when you put all of this together, given the recent collapse, it was reasonable for everyone to be wary of returning to this area right now. In the end, many people , but not all, felt it was simply too dangerous to keep climbing and there are no real alternatives this late in the season such as using helicopters to bypass the Icefall.
Mount Everest is a sacred mountain to the people of Tibet and Nepal, with special significance to the Sherpa people. The Tibetans call Everest, Chomolungma or mother goddess of the universe. The Nepalese call Everest, Sagarmatha, goddess of the sky. When you summit Everest you do not stand on the very top as it would be disrespectful so you claim the summit a couple of steps lower.
Many in the Sherpa community feel Chomolungma is angry and saying not to climb this year.
With 16 Sherpa deaths in an area every person would have to pass through to reach the Western Cwm, there is a matter of respect for the fallen. There are still missing Sherpa who have not been found in that area, presumably.
Out of respect for the mountain and for their fellow Sherpa, some in the community felt it would be disrespectful to continue climbing this year.
This is probably the most distasteful part of this season. The Sherpas from porters to cooks to climbing Sherpa to Sidars often felt their pay was not commensurate with their risk. They had made this case to operators and Nepal’s Ministry of Tourism for years.
As the skills of the climbing Sherpa have increased through efforts like the Khumbu Climbing Center and simply climbing for years beside certified professional western guides, some of the climbing Sherpa have earned International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations (IFMGA) certification after personal investments and years of tests. Many felt they should be paid the same as guides working for western companies.
The issue of life insurance has also been around for years with an uneven application by some western and Nepalese guide services. Previously the benefit was $4000, barley enough to cover burial costs and the annual remembrance ceremony that are customary in Nepal. It left families without their primary earner to depend on others to survive in an already difficult part of the world. For 2014 it was increased to $10,000, still insufficient for the remaining family.
Overall, the issue of compensation took center stage with the deaths of so many. To add to the situation, the Nepal government takes in over $3 million in permit fees each year for Everest and little to none of that money makes it way to the people and villages in the Khumbu.
Summarizing all this, some in the Sherpa community felt this was the time to take a stand to get the attention of operators, the government and the world. They gave the government a list of demands, the government agreed but the Sherpa didn’t believe them. After a heated series of meetings in Kathmandu, the government agreed to send a representative to base camp presumably to negotiate. He arrived and
promptly shut down the mountain.
Independent and well before the government closure, looking at all three of these areas, apparently a few vocal leaders in the Sherpa community felt they had no choice but to stop climbing. During meetings, it got ugly with hot debates on both sides. Some worried about their future if the climbing stopped, others worried they would never make progress if the climbing continued.
Threats were made to Sherpas who didn’t agree to stop climbing – threats against them and their families. This has happened before when the Maoists were more visible in Nepal threatening those who didn’t make payments for protection or to do what they were told. This history is real and recent.
Once again the Nepal government responded too late by trying to send the military to maintain control. They tried but were stopped by altitude issues. Missing in all this was the government office the Ministry told the world they would set up to maintain control from the start of the season. A continuing trend from previous years, few officials and liaison officers were present to do their job.
Looking at threats, safety, respect and money; many Sherpa felt they had no choice but to stop climbing.
The commercial teams are 100% dependent on the Sherpa to fix the route through the icefall, to carry loads to the high camps and support the foreign climbers on their summit pushes. In the end, the commercial operators were left with no choice. Even the couple of independent teams assumed the Icefall would be fixed with ladders thus were also thwarted in their attempts.
Climbing in Nepal has changed forever. Some western guides are questioning if they will ever return to Everest based on safety. Others are wondering if they can trust the political environment ever again. I have not heard one operator question the loyalty of their Sherpa as almost anyone looking at this situation feel they are the loser with lost work and income.
Without a doubt, climbing Everest can be made safer but it will change the way the mountain is climbed. Using helicopters to ferry gear above the Khumbu Icefall is one way. Previously the Ministry refused to allow this but now are considering it.
Guides will have to dig deep in reviewing their programs as to who they take on as clients, their experience, and skills. The price will almost definitely go up, perhaps significantly thus further reducing the number of climbers on Everest, not a bad thing.
I don’t know what will happen, obviously. 2015 will be a milestone year. Will we see more talk and no action? Will the changes be real to improve safety and reduce crowds? Will Everest lose it’s magic?
Personally, I don’t think Everest will ever lose it’s magic or it’s magnetism. It is the world’s highest mountain deserving all the respect she demands. The question is how and if the climbing world can meet those demands.
I’ll keep working hard to update everyone on the continuing story plus follow the climbers on the North side. So stay with me, it’s not over.
Memories are Everything
Personal Update – Climbing K2
At the end of each Everest season, many of my regular followers ask if I will cover the climbing season in the Karakorum. Well, I’m going to do better than just cover it for 2014, I’m going to attempt to summit K2 this summer. I plan on covering like it’s never been covered by being there myself, and invite you to join me in a unique, fun and rewarding way.
As many of you know, my passion is climbing and my purpose is Alzheimer’s. So with that cause, I will climb the world’s hardest mountain to raise awareness and funds to fight the world’s hardest disease. Be my hero and join the climb, join the fight. K2 as you’ve never seen it. More details on May 1.
Nepal Press Release