The scope of the Nepal earthquake tragedy is a huge human disaster yet the climbing community is consumed with Icefall Doctors and helicopter rescues on Everest.
I believe it is good to question and understand major life events yet I am sometimes dismayed how the climbing industry seems to literally consume itself with criticism that lacks information, prescription indictments without evidence and a vision that is sometimes based on past achievements that, while admirable, is exclusive and unwelcoming to the next generation. All this seems to be occasionally fueled by organizations, media and personalities that make a living off the sport itself.
I guess I fueled it for my readers with my one recap comment (see full post) about the Icefall Doctors so let me try to give my perspective as someone who was there, involved and rescued. Obviously, I have no corner on the truth, only on what I saw with my own eyes and felt in my heart thus I submit this for your consideration and information only.
When the earthquake and associated aftershocks occurred, I know our team understood it would take days, if not longer to repair the route in he Khumbu Icefall in order for us to down climb to EBC – there was little thought of helicopter rescue at the onset.
World class professional mountain guides including Damien Benegas, Jeff Justman and Justin Merle spent the day after the initial quake searching for a new route down, starting from Camp 1. Others, sorry don’t know their names, did the same climbing up from EBC. They worked up to the point when the third aftershock and the warming of the day made the Icefall more unstable thus putting their lives at risk and they failed to find a suitable new route. I personally listened to the radio conversations.
The Icefall Docs who knew the route because they had studied photographs and spent the previous five weeks putting it in and maintaining it were not part of this initial team.
They had reed to Gorak Shep as their camp had been destroyed by the blast. To my knowledge they didn’t ask other camps to host them similar to what other teams did in order to stay and support their climbers still on the mountain. This was similar to 2014 when violence at EBC sent the Docs to Gorak Shep thus effectively closing the Icefall for the season.
The Icefall Doctors are funded through part of the $11,000 climber permit fees with $600+ going to the Sagamartha Pollution Control Committee (SPCC). This totaled $215,000 for 2015 with 358 climbers. It is estimated the eight (8) Icefall Doctors are paid about $2,500 each for the season with the rest of the fees ($195,000) staying in Kathmandu.
All Everest/Lhotse/Nuptse expeditions are required to allow the icefall route to be installed and maintained by the SPCC and have little to no choice as to where, when and how the route is maintained.
To be clear, I and I assume most everyone, fully understood their top priority was the safety of their families. I personally gave my sat phone to Sherpas for them to call home but the cell service through this part of Nepal was down for days thus families were unreachable. It was a two to five day walk for them to get to their villages and some left EBC immediately with the full support of team members and expedition leaders.
The “disappointment” with the Docs comes from the simple fact that they had the knowledge, skills and access to evaluate the route for repair, and sustainability after the quake, yet they left.
If you are still reading this, here is the analogy. You want to build a home with a sprinkler system to protect it from fire yet the city tells you don’t do it because there is a fire station next door, and you pay for it with your taxes – you don’t have a choice. One day, your home is on fire you call for help and are told they won’t come because the weather is bad.
You had a contract, counted on it with people who agreed to it and when you needed it the most, it wasn’t available.
I appreciate what the Docs do for climbers, their job is hard, physical and dangerous. And it is not always easy.
The other area of controversy is why were helicopters used to rescue climbers in the Western Cwm and not used to rescue Nepalis in the impacted parts of Nepal. Fair question. Again, I was there and these are my observations.
Like it or not, choppers have become part of the climbing fabric, especially on Everest. They are routinely used to carry people to base camps, resupply expeditions and perform medical rescues. This is not up for debate as it is the reality and will probably never change.
On the day before the quake multiple choppers were working Everest plus taking ill trekkers out from Gorak Shep and below. The day of the quake the weather had closed in and visibility, at least in the Western Cwm was virtually zero. Some of the choppers had been grounded in Lukla, normal so they can quickly access the upper Khumbu.
Let me pause to say the obvious, the helicopter services run a business and a lot of it is funded by insurance paid for by the climbers and trekkers. It should be no surprise they go where the money is … Ten years ago, helicopter rescues were run by the Nepal Military, similar to Pakistan today. It was cumbersome, slow to respond and ineffective at times. Also the financial investment to high altitude helicopters like the modern Aérospatiale B3 helicopter at ~ US 3 million each is a far reach for a poor country like Nepal.
The private services have saved many lives since taking it over. Think back to the amazing 1996 rescue performed by Nepal pilot and army captain, KC Madan with his rescue of Beck Weathers and Makalu Gau via a stripped down helicopter, a B-2 Squirrel A-Star Ecuriel helicopter, that barely flew in the thin air of the Western Cwm. This is routine today and saves many lives – foreign and Sherpas alike each season on Everest and other Nepal mountains.
OK, back to the rescues. As the aftershocks made the Icefall impassable (see previous discussion), teams were forced to either wait for something to change, e.g. the route to get fixed before they ran out of food and fuel plus risk injury, illness or death from avalanches off Nuptse and Everest’s West Shoulder onto Camps 1 and 2; or call for helicopter evacuation while the weather was suitable.
Please remember that all of this was occurring after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake, one the largest in almost a century in this area. Aftershocks were common and in fact China subsequently closed Everest on their side to hopefully avoid similar death that had occurred in Nepal. Also to suggest there was clear command and control throughout Nepal at this point is interesting theory.
With the helicopters already near Everest – Lukla or closer – the helicopter companies made the decision to focus resources for one morning to evacuate 170 people from Camp 1. Yes, I do believe and understand there were calls for other organizations to use the helicopters in other parts of Nepal to also rescue people and save lives.
So the decision came down to: do you use resources that can have an immediate impact – save 170 lives in a four hour period, or risk coming back later – timeframe undetermined – or count on the ability of those 170 to save themselves with dwindling provisions, unstable mountain terrain and variable weather.
When I say no teams was “stranded and starving”, that was true, however most teams had brought provisions for only a few nights during this first acclimatization rotation, nothing sufficient to last for more than four or six days.
As the helicopters came to Camp 1, they operated with precision and skill. The choppers had been stripped of all seats, cargo and had limited fuel to save weight in order to fly at 21,000 feet with two passengers. They landed for 30 seconds or less while two people jumped on board with their backpacks. The helicopter flew directly to EBC, unloaded and returned. I am estimating they spent less than four hours in this operation.
I estimate over half of the rescued from the Cwm were Sherpas. Once completed, all helicopters were sent to other parts of Nepal while one stayed to service the Khumbu including injured Sherpas, climbers and local residents.
Of note, there were 120 injured and 19 dead at EBC, the vast majority were Nepali cooks, staff and Sherpas as they were at EBC during the quake. Lost in the discussion is that these injured Nepali at EBC were just like those other Nepalis hundreds of miles away.
Finally as to the point that the climbers rescued out of the Cwm should of had the skills to down climb the Khumbu Icefall in any condition, I invite anyone with that perspective to view this video I took as we flew out from C1. Pause between 20 and 30 seconds in the clip and view the width and depth of the crevasses. I leave it to you to select the climbers you judge capable of overcoming these obstacles with the ever-present risk of magnitude 5+ aftershocks much less in a stable environment.
Let me finish by expressing my gratitude to the pilots, helicopter companies (Simrik and Fishtail), insurance combines (Global Rescue), and guide companies. No climber ever expects to be in this position. When I was planning Lhotse, the word “earthquake” never entered my mind.
Again, my deep condolences to everyone in Nepal and elsewhere with families impacted by this natural disaster.
Memories are Everything
Thanks all for your comments and debate. It is time to move on and focus on the survivors across Nepal.
As the author, owner and dictator 🙂 of this Blog, I get the last comment on this post.
I fully respect the different opinions, viewpoints, expectations and experiences, however My meaning was misunderstood by many. So let me try one last time.
– No sane person expected them, or the commercial guides, to give up their lives by trying to reestablish the route given helicopters were on standby
– I, and my fellow climbers, fully respect the Docs and supported them going to aid their families – full stop.
– That is not what they did. They went to a village to stay in a teahouse (good and bad reasons for this decision).
– They had unique route knowledge that could have allowed for the route to be re-established if conditions allowed thus allowing the use of rescue helicopters for more urgent needs.
Finally, the Nepal Government announced on April 30, the Icefall Doctors have been told to “fix the Icefall route” through Camp 2, per their contract with the permit holders of Everest/Lhotse/Nuptse. This in spite of USGS predictions of another 6+ aftershock within the week and China closing their side of Everest due to the potential aftershocks.
Alan – I very much respect what you have accomplished as a climber but respectfully disagree with your expectations of what the Ice Docs were supposed to do. This earthquake was an extraordinary event and you cannot expect the ice docs to simply forget their families and continue to work on re-establishing a climbing route. They were never hired as emergency personnel but as “construction” guys setting up the route through the ice fall. Also, as a climber you know that it is your responsibility to return back home safe and sound without support from anybody but your climbing partners. I never dare question the difficulty of down climbing the ice fall (looking at your video) but in the end you cannot expect other people like the ice docs to come to your rescue. As a climber myself I know that it is up to me and my climbing partners to stay safe and survive.
Climb on – I admire your determination and love reading your reports!
It’s always “them Sherpas fault”, isn’t it? Never mind that tice doctors camp got obliterated and 3 among them lost their lives in the process. The colonials in C1 and C2 need you to put your life on the line for them, after all you get $2500 per season which is a gazillion per Nepal standard of living.
2014 deja vu
You all know darn well that if workers who perform vital services walked off the job during 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, or any other major disaster to hit America, then there would be government inquiries, job terminations, and non-stop media scrutiny. Every first responder in those situations probably wanted to go home to their family, but they stayed on the job because they made a commitment to be there when needed no matter how tough the situation got.
So, no, I’m not giving the Icefall Doctors a free pass. Plenty of people sacrifice being with their family to continue working during an emergency. If you are unwilling to make that sacrifice, then don’t take the job. If your organization can’t be counted on to maintain operations in an emergency, then it’s time to seriously question why it should continue to have a monopoly over the route.
Alan, thank you for your insight. I’ve enjoyed your Everest/mountaineering coverage for over a year now, and hope the critics don’t discourage you from blogging.
First off, the Ice Doctors did not sign a contract to work in the middle of an 7.8 earthquake with continual avalanches and aftershocks.
“I invite anyone with that perspective to view this video I took as we flew out from C1. Pause between 20 and 30 seconds in the clip and view the width and depth of the crevasses. I leave it to you to select the climbers you judge capable of overcoming these obstacles with the ever-present risk of magnitude 5+ aftershocks much less in a stable environment.”
How would expect the Ice Doctors have the ability to reestablish a route through Khumbu given Alan’s comments?
Western Media is criticising the focus on westerners especially the climbers of Everest while ignoring the plight of the Nepalese people throughout Nepal
The most destruction occurred NE of the epicenter shifting Kathmandu 3 metres to the south putting pressure on the fault line west of the epicenter which could cause another destructive earthquake in the region.
I believe RMI Guide said it best
“We’ve come to the inescapable conclusion that Everest summit for 2015 is out of reach for our team.
Besides the rather obvious and glaring philosophical difficulties of pursuing a recreational venture in the midst of a national -and local- disaster, there are the on-the-ground mountaineering realities that will not permit us to look upward again.
We have no viable route through the Khumbu Icefall and the Earth is still shaking. We couldn’t think of asking anyone to put themselves at the risk required for re establishing that route under such circumstances. The effort at this advanced stage of the season would normally be focused on building a route to Camp 4 rather than to Camp 1, nobody will be able to say when the aftershocks will end, but it will -without a doubt- be too late for fixing the upper mountain and stocking camps before the normal advance of the monsoon.
We’ll put our efforts into an organized and safe retreat from the mountain. Nobody harbors illusions that travel in this stricken and damaged country will be simple, but we’ll head for home now in any case.”
RMI Guide Dave Hahn
and API as well
“With Kathmandu, and villages down valley in chaos, the best place for us right now is in base camp.
Over the next week we will do our best to get climbers homeward bound, and to assess what we can do down valley to help our Sherpa communities.
In the coming weeks, months, and years there will be a consolidated effort from Alpine Ascents to help rebuild in the Sherpa villages.
Climbing Everest seems pretty trivial compared to the destruction, and loss of life that has affected this amazing region. It reminds us all that despite how much we may want to climb a mountain, the most important part is the human aspect.”
Also one must take in the culture and the superstitious aspect of the Nepali people as outline in in several excellent articles in the National Geographic concerning Pemba Sherpa worrying about the Tibetan calendar and westerner’s attitudes vs. the Sherpas
If there are duplications, I apologize as I was having dificulty posting from my location
Thank you Dan for saving me the time of writing a long response. The comparisons to other natural disasters so far have been apples and oranges. I haven’t read all posts but aside from mine, yours is the only other one I’ve see to address superstition which surely has an impact.
Have a look at my post Mary Ellen. We’re on the same page. It’s certainly a way of life, and thanks for seeing the big picture.
What a relief ! I knew I probably missed someone who addressed the relevance of their culture & the role it may play.
After the last 2 seasons I’d be thinking maybe the Mountain is shaking people off it’s flanks like a dog shakes water off it’s back.
Nice words Dan. I thought the Heli recovery was a great effort and a success story. Dealing with disappointment is small compared greater losses. Best thing we can all do is to return to enjoy these great mountains, and the people who call it home. That’s longterm though as more pressing issues are at stake. Safe travels and hope you find peace in your journey. Your right when you say recreational climbing hast be put aside to deal with more pressing needs.
I don’t know if your experience can back this up Alan, but others are reporting that three of the icefall doctors lost their lives in the avalanche: http://www.jonkeverest.org/blog/2015/04/30/Post-166-Full-Summary-of-Earthquake-Avalanche-Everest-Season-Over.aspx
If true, that’s certainly another factor to take into consideration.
I’m curious how much people think they would have made a difference? I understand they are a specialized group, but I don’t have a grasp on whether their expertise would have significantly contributed beyond what all the professional climbers, guides, and other Sherpa could have brought to bear on the icefall. Also, there is the question of equipment: were there enough ladders left-over to rebuild the route?
Finally the whole argument seems moot – even if the route could have been repaired, the aftershock risk made it too dangerous to traverse. In that sense this debate feels like arguing whether or not the docs should have engaged in a pointless activity.
Indeed, there should probably be more discussion about the decision to send guides into the icefall the day after the earthquake, to be honest. My understanding from reading the reports is that this was a nobly-intentioned exercise that was reminded by a mid-day aftershock of how dangerous it was. One has to wonder if team leaders shouldn’t have expected strong aftershocks to make the ice fall highly dangerous and argued against anyone going into it at all, knowing that the helicopter rescue option was there and was always going to be the safest choice.
The Himalaya’s need a break. From what I have read, the climbing community has absolutely trashed Everest beyond simple repair. Fecal matter litters the mountain above base camp. Base camp hauls the feces and dumps it into an active watershed which is used down stream by villagers. Oxygen bottles, Ripped tents and other gear litter C2, C3, C4, and above…Nepal shouldn’t have to hire local Sherpa’s and put them at risk to clean up after pigs. Unfortunately, Nepal has to put up with these climbers because they have no industry. The climbing community has a stranglehold over Nepal. Shame on you….
You have read inaccurate articles written by people who’ve never been to Nepal. The mountain is not trashed and certainly not “beyond repair”. Nepal (pre-earthquake) had trash everywhere, Kathmandu being the worst. It is a poor third world nation and that is just the reality of their economics. Everest is DRAMATICALLY cleaner than almost anywhere else in the country. All the responsible teams (which means most of them) dispose of their human wast properly. It is transported to Gorak Shep and buried. There are scraps of old tents frozen to the ground at C4 but they are very old and would be virtually impossible to recover given the extreme altitude. I searched for an oxygen bottle as I wanted one for a souvenir and couldn’t find any. Nepal doesn’t hire any Sherpas to do anything; all employment is done privately. The single biggest income source for Nepal is expat Nepalis sending money back home. The climbing community is very respectful of Nepal and its environment and has done tremendous good for the country. Don’t believe everything Al Gore and his sort say. 🙂
Every thing you have said is untrue! Don’t believe everything you read on the internet. Everest is not “beyond repair”. Feces is carried in drums down to Gorak Shep and is buried, not tossed into the river (although the locals do that!). I searched for an old oxygen bottle and couldn’t find any, as high up as the Balcony. There are a few very old shredded tents permanently entombed in the ice at C4 but they are impossible to remove at that extreme height. Nepal doesn’t hire anyone on the mountain – every staffer is privately employed. Every climber I’ve seen on Everest is very respectful of the environment and the people. Don’t forget that Nepal is a dirty third world country. Kathmandu is absolutely squalid. Everest is one of the cleaner places in the whole country.
“Nepal is a dirty third world country. Kathmandu is absolutely squalid” and locals “toss” feces into the river.
Wow, you are an ambassador for the Everest climbers.
Davis, I didn’t mean to denigrate Nepal. I absolutely love the country and her people. I’ve been there 12 times and spent over a year there in total. I have two adopted Nepali daughters, care for eight more kids in Kathmandu and three others in villages. Hopefully my actions speak loudly of my love for the country. But, the reality is that I spoke the truth about the hygiene there and in any third world country. When your next meal is in doubt you don’t worry about the environment quite as much as people born into richer countries. Nepali people routinely decry the trash and odors in their country.
What I’m really trying to do is answer the uninformed opinions routinely tossed around by people like algore who’ve never been to Everest or likely even to Nepal. Pretending that things aren’t the way they are (good or bad) is not helpful.
Don’t believe what you read in the media about the tons of garbage on Everest. Of my two months on Everest in 2009 I saw less then half a pound of garbage at C2.
I looked down from Kalapattar on empty basecamp in Nov 2014, and was on Mera and Imjatse in 2000 and have a few observations. As you know, the Swiss chose the safer, flatter Gorak Shep area in 1952 for basecamp. From 1953 to currently, basecamp has been further up the glacier on the outer curve, and conveniently nearer the Icefall where the real work begins. There are other potential lines of fire, for example the Lho La, and the West shoulder. Avalanches could come off of there without an earthquake, like in 2014. I doubt a move will happen for several reasons, but moving basecamp back to Gorak Shep might seem safer. I do not know if that was the Swiss thinking in 1952.
Anyone who will attempt Everest in the next two years must “not” live in earthquake country or they have a death wish. It is not uncommon for large aftershocks to occur in area’s for some time after a major event..I have lived in so cal my whole life…I lived through the Sylmar quake and the Northridge quake (about a mile from the epicenter of the latter) and aftershocks became the norm for at least a year after each of those events. This 7.8 was 300 times stronger then the Northridge quake. This Napal event is far from over… The avalanche / rock slide danger just increased many times..Magnitude 5, 6, and possibly 7 aftershocks will occur. If this event put more pressure on other faults, they could let loose as well.
The Japanese Earthquake in 2011 that caused a major tsunami and subsequent nuclear meltdown in Fukushima continued to cause 7.0 aftershocks all the way until late 2013. Two years later!
Robert Kay: I was as far north as Machermo and heard that many lodge owners in Gokyo were leaving due to danger of flooding from higher glacial lakes. The concern paws from water seeping to surface in the village area. I don’t know about structural damage. In Machermo, only two of 15 buildings were habitable. Sorry I don’t know more.
Thank you Ann. What a shame about Machermo. Do you recall if any of the lodge(s) were among the two remaining buildings? If lodges are still standing, which ones? Thanks.
Great post with some real insight. Thanks Alan. I must admit to being shocked by how little of the $600 fee goes to the men doing the work. Life is so hard in Nepal.
Everyone, especially the haters, needs to send a generous donation to the reputable charitable organization of your choice to help ease the tremendous suffering. Rather than bemoaning climbing styles, four hours of helicopter use or any of the other topics that don’t matter in this current situation, now is the time to provide real help to Nepal.
Don’t really understand the “disappointment” with the Ice Docs. I know that if I, personally, were faced with the choice of helping family and loved ones versus strangers who knowingly and deliberately put themselves into a situation where serious injury or death are possible outcomes? The decision would be a no-brainer. There are no guarantees on Everest. People need to stop acting like there are.
As for the climbers who are even considering continuing with their summit bids this season? Absolutely appalling. The terrible devastation and suffering in Nepal make such a course of action nearly incomprehensible in its selfishness.
Glad you are safe. I’m in Lukla awaiting flight to KTM. Gokyo and other villages were so damaged.
Do you know how much damage the Gokyo Namaste Lodge sustained? Are Tenzing and his family okay? Thanks.
Alan, your coverage is by far the most thoughtful of any I’ve read. I’m strictly armchair but I have dealt with people under extreme stress, so feel free to call me on lack of knowledge about climbing, or to ignore me if I’m way off base.
I do want to sugges that in a disaster people behave in very different ways and also have a tendency to assume others will think like them. This is not to minimize your respect and love for the Sherpa people, which is clear in everything you write; it’s just to say it’s hard enough for people with similar upbringings to communicate under stress, let alone people from very different cultures. There seem to me to be rifts between cultures and even within cultures that are only getting wider as one bad year on the mountain follows another.
I can certainly see why the climbers would feel abandoned, especially in that situation, and why they would emphasize the contract. But has anyone asked the Icefall Doctors why they went to Gorak Shep? They are the only people who can say, and when they do, they and the climbers can see where communication needs to improve and expectations can be negotiated anew. It could have been to try and get news of home. It could have been because they wanted that news and also wanted to honor their commitment to work, so they got far enough to find out what they needed to know but no farther. It could have been because they already felt helicopter rescue would be a better option, because of PTSD from last year, because they felt the Icefall was completely unsafe, because they felt the mountain was telling them to get away, or many other things we can’t know unless and until people ask and listen and talk and listen some more.
People on a dangerous job the year after a disaster and a labor dispute saw a far bigger disaster happen, one that might have wiped their homes and families. Everybody has a breaking point. Maybe they hit theirs.
From my admittedly non-climber perspective, I have a harder time with the idea that a few people were still talking about going on with their climbs despite the devastation in Nepal, aftershocks, and the greatly increased chances of being killed in rockfalls and avalanches, not to mention completely unknown changes farther up the mountain and in the Icefall, rather than getting everyone down in the safest possible way as quickly as possible because who knows how much worse it’s going to get.
I’m not judging the helicopters at all–they seem to me the safest and fastest option. It’s resource-intensive, sure, but briefly so.
Thanks Alan for your astute and honest observations. The outspoken are often the most criticized. Unless one has experienced or truly come to understand the minutia of how things work on the south side of Everest, it’s very hard to gain perspective. You nailed it when you said that “the climbing industry seems to literally consume itself with criticism that lacks information”. I have several friends who were up at C1 and C2 that day, and pleased that the helicopters were able to get them back down before any other deaths occurred in the icefall.
Thanks for sharing your experiences of April 25th and beyond. My gut says that if any teams do choose to go back up the mountain for a summit attempt, any criticism will soon be pointed in their direction.
Initially, I blanched at the use of the word “disappointed” as well, but taking a step back…
I don’t know, if I had listened to all those radio conversations while in the middle of a bunch of aftershocks on a mountain, with the physical health to get out of the situation I was in but not the geophysical ability to get out without help, I might be pretty disappointed as well. It’s not a rare human emotion, after all, even if people disagree that one should actually admit to having felt that way.
Many people wouldn’t be able to be as measured with their words, either, even if they knew they were going to have to defend their every action and word to a bunch of people on the Internet less than a week after said event happened.
Here are some thoughts in relation to your post and more general comments.
Comparing a massive earthquake to bad weather is ridiculous and makes little of any serious point that could be made.
And what of it if the doctors didn’t want to go into the icefell, there were aftershocks and avalanches frequently. They have families that could have be dead or dying, and that of course takes higher priority. Pointing to some contract with some organization is irrelevant. And many times have we heard that climbers had to ignore an injured or dying person because helping on Everest is too dangerous, and well, they knew the risks.
Saying that the doctors (all?) went to Gorak Shep for no reason and implying that they (all?) stayed there is not credible, but very easy to say when none can defend their actions.
And if you claim to have climbed Everest, you should be capable of climbing it all.
I noticed that many climbing blogs blame everything on anyone except climbers, no criticism of their attitudes is acceptable.
There is a selfishness and callousness amongst climbers that I can’t understand, here is a quote from one climber (I’m not going to post his name) – “if this year is cancelled again, I don’t know how I would react, but it would hit me hard.” This was after he posted that there were people buried under tents after the avalanche and others severely injured.
The idea that going home two years running would hit a person ‘hard’, gives no indication of whether s/he is assisting in the rescue efforts, gives money to The Juniper Fund, lost friends in the avalanche, mourns deeply, has PTSD from two significant tragedies…. I personally know numerous people who are coming home two years running. Selfish and callous are not words I would use to describe any disappointment that they are feeling at this very moment.
This is a perspective issue… and I would urge one to step into the role of the person leaving for home feeling a myriad of emotions and grief, and, yes, disappointment. Going home early hit me ‘hard’ last year. But, it was patently obvious that canceling the expedition was the right thing to do, and a very easy decision indeed.
I returned to the Khumbu less than two weeks after the avalanche in 2014 to visit families that had just lost a husband/son/father, making donations (albeit modest), to show in some small way the gratitude that not only I, but all of my team members, feel toward the people that make possible such pursuits as climbing Everest. Frivolous as it may seem, the death of a person climbing Everest is no less tragic than it is when a Sherpa is lost. However, we do go there understanding the inherent risks of our pursuit.
As it happens this person I quoted stayed at EBC. Posting about trying to continue climbing for a few days, “rebuilding” for the climbing season and getting back to the icefall.
How is this anything but selfish, given what is happening in the country. Expecting to continue climbing, presumably with sherpa assistance and potentially drawing helicopters away from people who are in danger elsewhere.
I wholeheartedly agree… While I don’t want to draw attention to myself any more here than just to clarify my point, the entire climbing community often suffers as a result of the actions of a few. I put a post up on my personal FB page imploring any climbers to reconsider, to abandon any hopes of climbing this year, as it will reflect negatively on the entire climbing community, not just themselves. Thanks for keeping the dialogue decent, and cheers from New England.
A massive earthquake vs. bad weather also sounded way off to me – so much so that I thought he may be in big shock & grieving so snagged a quick comparison. For me a “better” comparison still wouldn’t be enough.
Benefit of the doubt?
I agree, to claim the Everest climb I do think at the very least how it was climbed should be noted. On one hand there’s collecting your team carrying loads, setting fixed lines & arranging food, logistics…. If one chooses a professional outfit it is a different sport.
Same mountain but wholly different animal. Maybe it’s like the rock climbing difference between trad., sport climbing. free soloing.
Is this extreme adventure tourism for really fit climbers? & for anyone who thinks this comment is personal or “negative” it’s just pointing the obvious difference in these two approaches – they are different endeavors. Same summit.
Alan…keep up the wonderful work…incredible that you can produce this blog in the mist of all the danger, chaos and uncertain conditions. Thank you for keeping us abreast of what is “really happening” in the Khumbu and I appreciate your insight and love of the Sherpa community.
“One day at a time!” Climb on!
I’ve been reading all posts with interest and an increasing awareness of increasing frustration and/or slight negativity on Mr. Arnette’s part. This began far before the earthquake as climber’s began their sojourn to EBC. There was reference to “media” lining up to find headlines in the wake of the 2014 tragedy.
Mountaineering is inherently dangerous and all mountaineers know this. The “climbing” industry mentioned strkes me as a a bit broad. I would say it is the Everest climbing industry…and it is an industry for Nepalis and for non-Nepalis. The use of Icefall “doctors”, while perhaps not being limited to Everest, is the most high profile (forgive any puns).
I am a believer in honoring contracts however to borrow Alan’s quote, “One day, your home is on fire you call for help and are told they won’t come because the weather is bad” …. the “weather” in this case wasn’t just “bad” ….. the entire ice fall was/is a disaster in progress. One only needs to track global earthquakes (USGS) to learn of the high increase in magnitude 6+ earthquakes recently to see how unstable the entire planet is.
Regarding the use of helicopters, I think it’s great that mountaineers can be saved…and even more wonderful of Nepalis are saved. Why the emphasis on the Nepalis? Because this is how they earn their living. Yes, they don’t have to earn a living this way but it yields the highest income available to them. Mountaineers are there by choice, not because they need to earn a living. Who should be saved first? That’s a very tough decision but because climbers know the inherent risks of climbing, which include the possibility of being stranded, injured, falling prey to all sorts of high-altitude physical conditions and death…well…in a triage scenario, the climbers would be a bit down the list of priorities. Then what of the Nepalis on the mountain? I love the Sherpa people….their kindness and gentleness is unsurpassed by any people I’ve ever encountered…but I might posit that although they have families waiting for them they might opt for their fellow countrymen, buried in rubble, might be saved first. This theory then may give more information as to the Icefall Docs remaining in Gorak Shep. Perhaps more than avoiding an extreme high risk scenario but maybe, just maybe, not wanting resources to remain on the mountain when they could be used elsewhere. Preemptive action.
Bottom line for me is this: mountaineering is a sport. Living is not.
I would not dream of directing negative comments at Alan. As an armchair Everest junkie, I follow Alan’s blog because it’s the one where I know I’ll find the most information coupled with the most respect for the culture and people of the places he visits.
I silently had the same questions Alan’s addressed here, so I’m glad to see them addressed.
Alan said the people in the Western Cwm were never in danger, but it struck me from my perspective at home that storms, serious aftershocks, and medical emergencies such as HAPE were all possible dangers. So I was really relieved when Alan got out.
Alan, just one thing about your analogy of the fire station… it seems to me more like a situation where one day, your home is on fire you call for help and are told they won’t come not because the weather is bad, but because the firefighters’ own homes are on fire.
Again as an armchair Everest reader, I feel like the treatment of local employees with regard to rescues always seems more fair and equitable than the pay they receive. I get that it’s a lot of money in Nepalese terms, but it seems so small compared to what the climbers are paying. And Alan, what you’ve said about the difference between what climbers pay for the Icefall Doctors’ services and what the Icefall Doctors actually receive is appalling.
It’s also not at all out of tune with other ways in which the richer nations compensate the labor of the developing world. It’s just more visible. We are all involved in this.
As long as we’re discussing these issues, there’s another thing. I’ve been reading about Sherpa who are interested in continuing to climb this season. The loss of two consecutive climbing seasons must be a huge financial blow to immediate and extended families.
It would be good if insurance would cover this kind of financial loss for the Sherpa.
And for that matter, for the climbers as well.
For the record, since it seems to matter, I am not a real climber though I climbed many mountains when younger, and I have made a large donation to an NGO for Nepal earthquake relief.
Insurance for Sherpas, cooks, etc increased significantly after last year’s death. Also the Juniper Find directs donations to families … http://www.thejuniperfund.org/
Alan, I know about the increased insurance and that’s great, but I guess I’m thinking about something more akin to unemployment insurance. It seems like it would reduce the stress and damage done to the Sherpas’ families by a canceled season, rather than by a death.
Hey the “Icefall Docs” got their 600 us so no need to go and risk their lives. Unlike their members their is no real benefit for them in playing the hero. There is no moral obligation . Now if the fee paid to the helicopter companies was instead paid to the Icefall Docs i am sure they would be there risking their lives. But this of course would not be acceptable because they already got their 600 usd. This is where the “dreams” of the “climbing community” collide with the “dreams” of the local communities (sherpa and other). Sometimes the Everest Myth has to bust !
Thank you for being so accessible and open – even if some comments seem a little cranky! Your blog has provided an extraordinarily thorough account & I appreciate your knowledge, insight & candor.
In my brief post yesterday I wondered if I was “missing something” when I posited “why would the IceFall doctors ‘stay'” under the circumstances.
I now think I missed not much, not enough to change my view.
>The “disappointment” with the Docs comes from the simple fact that they had the best knowledge, skills and access to evaluate the route for repair, and sustainability after the quake, yet they left.
>You had a contract, counted on it with people who agreed to it and when you needed it the most, it wasn’t available.
So, the contract says no matter what, even a catastrophic act of nature – which exponentially ups the risk of losing one’s life, one still has to perform the job. Even firefighters don’t run into buildings whose integrity is compromised excessively. The contract that expects this extent of sacrifice is baffling.
So if the IceFall doctors did stay and work in the unstable conditions, were unlucky & died honoring the (interesting) contract, climbers do realize a dead Doctor is no Doctor at all.
I don’t think the prof mtn. guides are equal in this scenario as they have a much different agenda driving them – their contract with their members is different than the one with their hired experts.
Tangent: Aren’t the Sherpa superstitious? This would be such a message from the mountain especially after last year.
Ultimately I believe in personal responsibility. So, yes, even on a guided trip be prepared to save yourself. And climb to your ability. That’s just me. I guess I prefer not relying on guides. No judgement – it’s really none of my business what people do.
The helicopters seem fine if you have the money – I expect people would budget for that.
I hope I wrote my thoughts in a respectful kind manner despite them being at odds. If not, please know I tried hard to gently posit my queries as well as my view.
Not sure why all the negative comments are being directed at Alan. He makes many valid points – including the need for the Icefall Docs to be available to help those at C1 and above. It’s not like if all the cooks left and you had to cook all of your own food. These Docs have specialized and life saving skills that everyone counts on. It would be more like if you went to a hospital in an emergency and the facility electrician was going to operate on you – that’s not good.
Well said and done thoughtfully.
Hard to believe it was only a year ago that the horrible accident in the Khumbu happened.
That accident directed conversation and actions to helicopter use to Camp 1 to reduce the climbing Sherpa’s time through the icefall.
Glad you are safe and thank you.
People very quick to blame ‘western climbers’ for anything that goes wrong in the Himalaya. Just a point but there are possibly more ‘Eastern climbers’ there these days (Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian, Indian & many from Arabic countries).
It is a very lazy journalistic term – ‘western climbers’ – but a convenient one at which to lay the blame for almost anything it seems.
On the Icefall Doctors – if they’d gone back to their villages I don’t think anyone could have questioned that but as Alan said they only went to Gorak Shep (for shelter I presume?) – this is maybe 3-4 hours from EBC at most. I would perhaps give them the benefit of the doubt in that they felt the comms may be better from GS than at EBC – so they could try to contact family. But Alan is right they had a contract to fulfill also.
I hope everyone gets back home safely.
Peter, like you I’m sure you would break your contract if you thought the task you were asked to complete put your life at risk. The Doctors did a fine job rectifying their poor route selection that had evolved over the previous years. The threat of aftershocks and with that more Serac avalanches, is a tipping point worth taking note of. Your right about comments like “Western Climbers” “aspirational climbers” might be better as they do come from all over the world. It’s worth noting that despite multiple “Puja” and ongoing rituals every morning the mountain spoke. Us “aspirational climbers” have to factor in local custom/religious practice when we climb in different countries it’s not just the weather and altitude we have to adjust to!
I follow your posts, I think it is a very valuable source of information for people who would like to follow Everest news but this time, I really have to say, this is too much. Climbing industry, we can be against it for good reason and we can follow it because climbing Everest is still an amazing achievement.
> Thanks Steph, I’m all for conversation, debate and improvement, thus this dialog 🙂
No one has the right to blame the icefall doctors, they have family, they have their house down in the valley (even further) and when a disaster such as this one happened, it is entirely normal that they want to be there. They have no contracts towards the climbing community, no contract towards the western climbers. You said, you were disappointed because they are the only one who know how to cross the icefall…right. Why then to make such an untrue and sad analogy.
> I said the Icefall Docs had the best knowledge, never only knowledge, this year based on arriving in mid March, a month of work and research with individuals like Pete Athens and David Braeshears. They did have a contract with the SPCC to install and maintain the route and the SPCC had a contract with the permit holders where they paid $600 each.
Secondly helicopters… in so many news there are so many discussions about those… It is right to save the wounded people, it is right to save the one stuck in camp I and camp II, there is nothing to say about it.
But the rest of the people, if they are ready to climb Everest they can walk down to other districts… maybe it will take them one week… that doesn’t matter (though the way to Jiri, I am not sure if it is advisable, Dolakha has been hit severly, to check the state of the road Jiri-Kathmandu).
> I agree!
There is one thing I must say about this blog and especially about the posts regarding Nepal is how surprised I am everytime. Your knowledge about this country and this people are so few. And maybe this is the major problem of the climbing industry, it is its lack of knowledge. Earthquake in Nepal is an every day fear. Last big one was in 1934 and last important one in 1988, but since then, people felt eartquakes in Kathmandu and other parts (especially the eastern part) several times. A few years ago, a few people died in Nepal due to an important earthquake in Sikkim. Within scientific and development community a big one was awaited since years. This should have been known within the climbing community, Himalaya is growing every year, one reason why it is so unstable.
> I believe most, if not all Himalayan climbers understand Everest, etc are growing by plate subduction with earthquakes as a result so this one was not a surprise in that sense. Perhaps the magnitude and impact on EBC given decades of relative quiet took us by surprise. As you note, the last major one in this area was 27 years ago …
I am surprised how we can react so selflishly about Nepali people, they are struggling every day in villages to meet ends, they are leaving the country to be able to feed and educate their family. In Solukhumbu, they leave less, they go to the Everest. It is a job, it is not a passion like for the climbers, so please consider this simple fact, it is just a job.
> Hmm, not sure how you reach the “selfish” conclusion but I’ll respect your opinion. That is simply not how I see it nor what my actions have reflected since my first visit here in 1997.
All the best on the way back home!
an official of the ministry of tourism, Tulsi Gautam, declared yesterday, Expedition on Everest is not closed and can continue ? Could you confirm or not ? how many people are still in BC and camp I and II ?
Yes, just like last year, the airport is open but the runway is closed. The Nepal government will always save face. Himex is still at EBC and a few others taking a wait and see approach. 99% sure no one is above EBC now. I wish them the best.
I haven’t seen all the comments but I don’t see the Doctors departing as a bad thing as it created the best option which was rescue via Heli. Pretty slick bit of flying from the Pilots. Glad the insurance company came to the party, that’s what it’s meant for. This recovery effort is one of the success stories of what is a true tragedy. Looks like everyone needs to get back to their families, where ever that is. Thanks for your post.
Indeed. The fact that they could get so many climbers down so quickly in the helicopters and apparently with no accident or serious harm to anyone is amazing and a credit to the operators. So it certainly turned out well instead of another disaster on top of everything else. Be grateful to the pilots!
I have been following your every word on your blogs for five years or more now and thoroughly respect you for your fabulous achievements in mountaineering and moreover the tireless work you do to raise money for Alzheimer’s.
I find your comments on the Icefall Doctors though “disappointing” to use your own analogy, and feel compelled to say why:
> Thanks Chris for your comments, I’ll try to address you comments but respect we may agree to disagree.
1. You started your post by saying you would report ‘the facts’. To use such a subjective opinion (however qualified) at this point distorts massively any facts you may then use.
> Not sure I said “facts” in this post but rather “Obviously, I have no corner on the truth, only on what I saw with my own eyes and felt in my heart thus I submit this for your consideration and information only.”
2. The Icefall doctors don’t give you a “contract” as you claim, and you know this full well. Again you are distorting the facts here.
> The SPCC who manages the Docs do in fact give a “contract” when they promise a service in exchange for money ….
3. I am very sure that had 99.9% of us been in the position of having our own camp at EBC destroyed, and family and friends killed in what was one of the biggest catastrophes the country, if not the world, has ever seen, then we too would have begun the primary objective of beginning that ‘two to five day trek’ to get to see if said family was even still alive. They didn’t have the benefit of helicopters to rescue them!
> They were free to do this and no one would have criticized them, similar to other Sherpas, staff, cooks and porters. But just went to Gorek Shep and not home, that speaks for itself.
4. The rescue of the climbers in the Western Cwm happened anyway, and I don’t think anyone ever thought that was in doubt. No-one there was (to my knowledge and I think you said so yourself) even hurt, or even in any real danger so ultimately what’s the big problem here?
> The problem is the people responsible left their jobs at the moment when they were needed the most and let others who had less knowledge step in. But you are correct, that everyone believed – note believed – they would get out via chopper or down climbing at some point. However, as you know the mountains have a way of not meeting our beliefs.
I understand your feelings, but honestly feel that you have let yourself and many readers of your blog down somewhat, and think that you should atone for this and retract your disappointment. I may have no right to even ask that, but since this blog invites comments then that is mine. As I said earlier, this is from someone who massively respects you and all that you do.
I wish you very safe travels back down to Kathmandu, and a safe trip home to your own family and friends.
While I know the questions you refer to are being asked, sometimes with tones of judgement and second-guessing, let’s not be too quick to damn the ‘climbing industry’ or the climbing community. I believe any experienced and mature climber is hugely saddened by the massive loss of life and infrastructure throughout Nepal, and, while also saddend for those fellow climbers who lost their lives at BC, have the sense to not judge what happened after, but rather be glad more didn’t perish there.
What I’m trying to say – ‘real climbers’ aren’t asking these questions, we’re looking for ways we can help the country, and your posts are very useful in that regard. Thanks for keeping us up to date during this tragedy.