Everest 2015: April 18, A Black Day with Lessons for all

Puja BirdIt was one year ago today that a hanging wall of ice fell onto the Khumbu Icefall, the gateway to the south side of Mt. Everest, killing 16 mountain workers waiting for a ladder to be repaired that crossed a deep crevasse.

Today, I’m at Everest Base Camp attempting to use almost the same route to climb Lhotse, the world’s fourth highest peak. After several days of harsh cold and snow, today is warm and sunny.

Throughout today, there will be small memorial services at each camp to honor the dead on what is called a Black Day, April 18th, in Everest mountaineering.

Lessons from Tragedy

A year later, what have we learned from the tragedy?

Actually the news is quite positive but I doubt you will see that sentence in most mainstream publications or outdoor oriented websites or magazines – positive news does not bring readers, or advertisers sadly. Base Camp is teaming with reporters and film crews looking to cash in on last year’s tragedy. I’m sure they can find someone to provide whatever quote they need to support their pre-defined narrative.

One of the reasons I say the tragedy has created change for the good was what I personally witnessed yesterday. The dedicated team of Sherpas who install and maintain the route through the Icefall had lashed together four ladders across a wide and deep crevasse on the climbers right of the Khumbu Icefall. This was a major adjustment to the route that has been used for almost a decade and is designed to minimize dangers.

The four ladder structure collapsed sometime in the night and before 80 Sherpas ferrying loads into the Western Cwm approached it. As soon as the Sherpas saw the route was impassable, they immediately turned back to the safety of Base Camp.

Phil Crampton of Altitude Junkies said:

This morning, 6 of our Sherpas, out of a total of 24 working for the Junkies this spring season, departed base camp at 3:30 AM for a load carry to camp one. Unfortunately, halfway up the icefall there was reportedly some collapsed ladders. It seems as if the route needs to be re-routed to avoid a bottleneck at this section as many Sherpas reported that no ladders had collapsed, but the trail of 80 Sherpas came to a standstill. With this in mind, Dorjee Sherpa and myself instructed our Sherpas to descend immediately and drop their loads at crampon point. The icefall is definitely not a place to stand around and wait for ladders to be fixed. The Sherpas returned to base camp with large smiles and even larger appetites.

Last year, when the Sherpas came upon the broken ladder, they put down their loads and waited directly underneath the so called “objective danger” of the hanging serac for the ladders to be repaired. When it released, they had no chance.

I personally witnessed Sherpas being trained this year on crossing ladders safely, in other words, using the safety line to protect them from a fall off the ladder and to a near certain death into a deep crevasse. It is almost unfathomable that anyone would cross a ladder without using the safety line, but that has been business as usual in the highly competitive world of Sherpa Guiding. The faster Sherpas win admiration from the Sherpa community, safety lines slow them down. This is slowly changing.

I personally watched Sherpas being trained on how to use an avalanche transceivers so that if someone, Sherpa or member, was buried under a snow avalanche (unlikely on Everest) or were to be swept into a crevasse from an avalanche or serac release blast (likely), they could be located quickly thus reducing the rescuers exposure to more potential danger.

Almost every team provides radios to members and Sherpas, this has not always been the case and there are still low-cost teams that cut this safety corner.

Opportunities for Improvement

Almost every non-Nepali team this year are equipping at least their Sherpas with transceivers. Note I say “non-Nepali” as therein lies the problem, and lack of learning from last year’s tragedy with Everest ”guiding”

Most “non-Nepali” guide services keep their teams relatively small, under 15 climbers, a couple double that but having huge numbers is normal for the Nepali operators. Seven Summits Treks has 60 members this year who reportedly paid $32,000 each. This is compared to an average of $50,000 for “non-Nepali” operators.

The difference in price? Primarily, they have no highly experienced Western guides who are trained in medical techniques, member relationships, safety measures, reading avalanche conditions, and more. To be clear there are outstanding Nepali guides who I would trust my life to and have and do, but they are not guiding the same level and it takes an experienced member to create a solid team.

My main concern with a team of 30, 50, 60 or more is the ability of the operator to provide qualified support. This year there are over 400 Sherpas supporting the members. This is a dramatic increase from five years ago and it takes time to train support staff thus some for the largest teams may have Sherpas with none to little experience supporting a member with none to little experience – a deadly combination.

Some of the promises made by the Nepal Ministry have yet to be fulfilled as documented in an article in today’s Himalaya. The only changes implemented by the government were the ones that increased revenue, not the ones that involved expenses. But no guiding company or climber ever really counted on these to materialize. Yet the impact on the long term health of Nepal’s climbing industry still remains in flux.

If Nepal wants to get serious about making Everest “safer” it needs to start with putting minimum requirements on who can call themselves a guide. Today it is a free for all and it is climber beware.

The Guiding Machine

But back to last year’s tragedy and what came of it.

As I mentioned in a few blogs ago, I spoke with Dave Morton and Melissa Arnot of the Juniper Fund, a non-profit dedicated to raising money for the families of Sherpas killed while guiding in the Himalaya. They told me the families of last year’s tragedy have received $15,000 from the Nepal Government, a huge sum of money in this impoverished nation and it created significant ill will towards the Sherpas from other ethnicities throughout Nepal.

The Juniper Fund, in conjunction with the American Alpine Club, through public donations,  gave each family $3,000 and intends to repeat this each year for the next few, as long as the annuity holds out.

But what about the Sherpas themselves, and why are they back this year to guide on Everest again? The simple answer is economics. Guiding Everest is one of the most lucrative job in Nepal, next to being a Government official.

I spoke with many Sherpas directly and a common theme developed: their parents were adamant that they stop guiding on Everest, their spouses share the same desire but not to the same extent and the Sherpas themselves, well they are willing to take the risks for the reward in order to support multiple generations of their families back in their home villages.

A few legendary Sherpas did retire after the tragedy. I spoke with Lakpa Rita directly, he summited Everest 17 times, and he told me his wife wanted him to stop, and he did. But he continues to guide on the lesser peaks and serves as the base camp manager for Alpine Ascents this year.

Our climbing Sidar for Madison Mountaineering, Phurba Sherpa lost his brother in the 2014 tragedy. He is back this year guiding. He simply told me “Climbing is what Sherpas do.”

A young Sherpa told me he would not guide this year because the years lined up with his birth year and this is the year of the Sheep so it was bad luck for him to guide, but he will be back next year.

Others told me they would continue to guide as long as they physically could in order to support their families. Over 400 Sherpas, or mountain workers, are at Base Camp right now.

Last year, there was concern that the tragedy marked a turning point in the relationship between Sherpa and western climbers. I can honestly say I have felt support and a welcome environment form every one I have interacted with this year on Everest, there is no hint of animosity or ill feelings. As I spoke with one Sherpa about the tragedy, he looked down and said, this happens on mountains sometimes.

During our Puja, the ceremony to ask for permission to climb the mountain, our senior Sherpa talked about our entire team as “family” and our Sidar, who leads the climbing Sherpas, spoke of communication and trust. It was clear they viewed everyone as one team with one goal – saftey.

So you see, there is no simple headline that captures the situation.

The Companies Role

And what have the guide companies learned?

First, they have stepped up their safety training and equipment as previously discussed. Some have tightened their requirements for whom they accept to climb Everest. Others have increased their western guide ratio or Sherpa support ratio. All have increased life and medical insurance as mandated from the Nepal Ministry of Tourism.

The team I’m with for Lhotse and their Everest members, Madison Mountaineering, has equipped all Sherpas, guides and members with avalanche transceivers. Himex has been using transceivers for years. Also Garrett Madison has provided over 100 WAG Bags for use above Base Camp for solid waste. These are real and measurable improvements shared by many other companies this year.

Why Climb?

And finally, what about the members? As I asked around base camp, I’m not sure I can report much progress here. As we saw after the 1996 and 2006 years of high deaths on Everest, the next year brought record numbers of climbers. That seems to be the case for 2015. The Ministry reports around 375 permits for Everest, including 114 who returned from 2014 using their permit credit. Add an equal number of Sherpas, we could see a record year for Everest summits around 700.

I remain emphatic that each climber regardless of their goal being Everest or their local crag must be self sufficient and leave home with the proper skills and experience, otherwise they are being irresponsible and unwise.

But what draws these people to climb Everest? The same thing that has always attracted people to any adventure: test themselves, bragging rights, goals and dreams. Are these people, and myself, justified to be here? We think so but the haters are so strong with their venom that the criticism discourages some to even try thus giving up their dreams.

Criticism or Vision?

Mountaineering has a bad reputation. The tragedy in 2014 only amplified it. I have written ad nauseam that mountains are for everyone and the critical view of a few is unfair and judgmental to the many. I have acknowledged the so-called “style” argument but would counter that one person’s view of good style being the only style is narrow minded.

I personally believe that mountaineering’s bad reputation started with Jon Krakauer book Into Thin Air. His account of the 1996 disaster brought the world’s attention to a developing industry of professional mountain guiding. Were there mistakes made by the guides, Sherpas and members? You bet, but did the industry learn and improve, absolutely. However the book that brought millions to Krakauer, set a tone that the industry has never recovered from.

High profile climbers like Reinhold Messner have added to the war of words with phrases like “climbing tourists” but others like Conrad Anker, Pete Athens, David Braeshears and Steve House have used their skills and fame to teach and develop the sport.

Today, there are excellent professional guides and companies that help thousands around the world realize their dreams. To sweep them, and their members, aside with a judgmental sniff of uninformed arrogance is to dismiss the dreams of a 10 year-old who wants to become a professional baseball or soccer player, a 6 year old girl who wants to win an Olympic medal in ice skating, a teenager who wants to show the world peace can be had in her home country between waring factions.

Then there are those qualified climbers who open new routes, climb with little no support; they continue to blaze new trails and show what can be done even in this adventure world where it seems nothing is new.

Yes, mountain climbing is a business with risks. The numbers of climbers on Everest pales in comparison to other popular mountains like Aconcagua, Kilimanjaro, Mont Blanc, or Mt. Whitney. Yet the world’s highest remains the lightening rod for criticism.

Today, I morn the deaths of all. I morn for their family’s loss, the grief, unimaginable loss of a son, husband, uncle, brother. And I celebrate a sport that is resilience, a sport that enables dreams, and a sport that learns from mistakes.

Climb On!
Memories are Everything

2014 Deaths

1.    Mingma Tenzing Sherpa Peak Freaks, died from HAPE
2.    Mingma Nuru Sherpa, , Shangrila Nepal on NBC Everest Expedition, died from avalanche into Khumbu Icefall
3.    Dorji Sherpa, Shangrila Nepal on NBC Everest Expedition, died from avalanche into Khumbu Icefall
4.    Ang Tshiri Sherpa, Shangrila Nepal on AAI Everest Expedition, died from avalanche into Khumbu Icefall
5.    Nima Sherpa, Shangrila Nepal on AAI Everest Expedition,  died from avalanche into Khumbu Icefall
6.    Phurba Ongyal Sherpa, Adventure Consultants, died from avalanche into Khumbu Icefall
7.    Lakpa Tenjing Sherpa, Adventure Consultants, died from avalanche into Khumbu Icefall
8.    Chhiring Ongchu Sherpa, Adventure Consultants, died from avalanche into Khumbu Icefall
9.    Dorjee Khatri, Adventurist Everest, died from avalanche into Khumbu Icefall
10.    Dorjee Sherpa, Adventurist Everest, died from avalanche into Khumbu Icefall
11.    Phur Temba Sherpa, Adventurist Everest, died from avalanche into Khumbu Icefall
12.    Pasang Karma Sherpa from Juving Solukhumbu, Jagged Globe,died from avalanche into Khumbu Icefall
13.    Asman Tamang, Himalayan Ecstasy Lhotse,  died from avalanche into Khumbu Icefall
14.    Ankaji Sherpa, Everest Chinese Dream Expedition, from avalanche into Khumbu Icefall
15.    Ash Bahadur Gurung, Everest Chinese Dream Expedition,  from avalanche into Khumbu Icefall

Missing – Unknown status, presumed d

1.    Tenzing Chottar Sherpa, Shangrila Nepal on AAI Everest Expedition,  from avalanche into Khumbu Icefall
2.    Pem Tenji Sherpa, Everest Chinese Dream Expedition, from avalanche into Khumbu Icefall

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