Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Everest Icefall Tragedy April 2014

Everest and the Khumbu icefall 
An abbreviated version of this article appears in The Hindu Business Line Blink on May 9th 2014

" No part of the South Col route was feared more by the climbers than the Icefall... the mass of ice splinters into a jumble of huge tottering blocks called seracs, some as large as office buildings... each trip through the Icefall was like playing  a round of Russian Roulette: sooner or later any given serac was going to fall over without warning" John Krakauer in Into Thin Air

One sunny day in June 1922, George Mallory from the second British Everest expedition was leading a team of climbers and sherpas up to the North Col of Everest.  Around six hundred feet below the Col, the slope suddenly gave way without any warning and within seconds seven expedition sherpas had lost their lives.  None of the British climbers died in the avalanche. The disaster prompted Howard Somervell, an expedition member, to comment “Only Sherpas and Bhotias killed- why oh why could not one of us, Britishers, share their fate?" The expedition leader, Colonel Bruce, paid Rs 250 each as compensation to the families of the sherpas!

On April 18th 2014, just after dawn, another deadly avalanche swept down the west shoulder of Everest and entombed sixteen sherpas in the Khumbu icefall. The sherpas, part of a team known as “icefall doctors”, were maintaining the route though the deadly Icefall, a job which Outside magazine claimed as being twelve times more dangerous than a U.S. soldier in the Iraq war!  This was the worst disaster on Everest in the history of the mountain. Compared to foreign clients who would possibly pass through the icefall a few times, an expedition sherpa makes around thirty terrifying trips throughout the climbing season.

On 20th April 2014, after receiving the news that the Nepal Government would pay only  US $400 to each family of the deceased sherpas for funeral expenses, the Sherpas en-masse went on strike. The irate sherpas made a thirteen point charter of demands including increase of funeral expenses to US $1000 per family, US $10,000 compensation to disabled climbing sherpas, doubling of insurance from US $10,000 to US $20,000 and creating a permanent relief fund for the injured sherpas out of the Everest fees collected by the Government.   

 The disparity in pay between the Western guides and the sherpas has also been a bone of contention for the sherpa community and this again resurfaced after the calamity. The sherpas earn around US $6000 or so for an Everest expedition whereas a Western guide would be paid three to four times more.  Ed Viesturs, one of the few men to have climbed all fourteen 8000 metre peaks commented “ Personally, I think the Sherpas should be paid what they think they're worth, and if it means significantly increasing the cost per climber and less people go to Everest, maybe that's not a bad thing.”  There seems to be wisdom in Viesturs words considering that most of the difficult jobs on Everest like maintaining the icefall route, fixing ropes right through the mountain, carrying heavy loads from camp to camp, major rescue operations usually at night, are done by the Sherpas, who often climb in the rarefied “death zone” without bottled oxygen.

After some of the demands had been considered by the Government, the climbing teams were looking towards returning to the mountain, when a series of unsavoury events unfolded at the Base Camp. Certain militant factions with possible political patronage amongst the sherpas started to threaten climbers and sherpas if they returned to the mountain The Nepalese Tourism Minister, Bhim Acharya,  arrived at Base Camp, oxygen mask in hand, to assure the climbers and sherpas that the mountain was “officially open” but this amounted to mere eye wash. Tim Mosedale, who was a leading a small team of clients said that “a tale of intimidation, lies and deceit unfolded” which resulted in all the big teams abandoning their attempt and heading down to Kathmandu.  The Government's promises of better security with police and military presence and a more active participation of the liaison officers seems to have come to naught.

Sadly the spring season 2014 has come to an end and has shattered the “Everest dream” of hundreds of climbers.  

But, what of the future?

Climbers pay anything between US $30,000 to US $80,000 for a chance to stand on the summit of Everest. This money is now gone - as Mark Horrell, an Everest summiteer, and part of  the Altitude Junkies expedition to Lhotse wrote that " it was the most expensive trek to Base Camp ever!"

Many of the climbers had mortgaged houses, quit jobs, encashed all their savings to climb Everest. Would they make the same costly decisions one more time? On the other hand, the Everest industry also provides a livelihood for hundreds of sherpas, porters, lodge owners, trekking companies every year who would now be hard pressed to earn a living this season.

But, more importantly, the safety of the South Col route also seems to be in question sixty one years after it was first climbed by Hillary and Tenzing.

Tim Rippel, who leads the well known climbing company Peak Freaks, commented after fresh avalanches hit the Khumbu icefall in exactly the same area where the sixteen sherpas were killed, “What I am seeing here is exactly why we no longer climb Ama Dablam and Pumori (neighbouring peaks). We no longer climb those mountains due to global warming, the ice is melting – the glue that holds them together”. Could global warming render Everest from the south as unclimbable? 

Interestingly, in the summer of 2012, Russell Brice, another experienced Everest leader called off his climb from the south side due to avalanches thundering down from the hanging glacier on the west shoulder of Everest. It was the same avalanches which killed sixteen sherpas on April 18th 2014.

With the possibility that more climbing teams would try from the north side of the mountain in 2015, the multi-billion dollar Everest industry in Nepal seems to be threatened.

The Nepal Government has been raking in more than US $3.5 million in revenues from Everest every year.  Hence permits to most commercial expeditions have been granted freely and has resulted in overcrowding on the mountain including human jams on the Lhotse Face and a major bottleneck on the Hillary Step, both compromising the safety of the climbers and the sherpas. The obvious solution would be to cap the permits in a season to a maximum number and perhaps raise the permit fees per team so that the Government would not lose revenue.  However, nature has its way of bringing in equilibrium and given the safety issues and the 2014 shut down, one may well see fewer applications for the South Col route next year, notwithstanding China’s uncertain policy of issuing permits for Everest attempts from the north side.

Expedition leaders have proposed that the groups be allowed to air lift equipment and supplies to Camp One on the edge of the Western Cwm, so that frequent load ferrying through the Khumbu icefall can be avoided. There was also a proposal to install a permanent ladder on the Hillary Step so that traffic jams in the “death zone” can be eased!  It remains to be seen if any of these measures are introduced for the 2015 season, distasteful as they may seem to the purists!

But in this big money circus on Everest, it is apparent that the true essence of mountaineering has been lost many years ago. The guided expedition has led to the creation of a new breed of climber for whom reaching the summit is the ultimate goal at any cost. Camaraderie, fair play, rescue of fellow climbers, once the very back bone of mountaineering, has been consigned to the back burner.

Interestingly, mountains have a strange way of striking back. It would do well for all climbers attempting Everest to remember the words of Everest legend Eric Shipton “We had forgotten that the mountain still holds the master card, that it will grant success only in its own good time. Why else does mountaineering retain its deep fascination?”


  1. An excellent summation of the controversial issues that have been growing around the commercialization of climbing Everest over the last couple of decades.

  2. I re-read this article after your recent post on Facebook and once again it set me thinking : what are the real motivations behind the desire to climb big mountains like Everest? When I look at the commercial guided trips on the 8000m peaks (perhaps K2 being the exception, but for how long?) I have to concede that the clients do seem to be on some kind of a gargantuan ego trip where the loss of huge amounts of money or possibly loss of life and limb to both themselves and their paid guides and support staff seem to be risks worth taking. The fact that it is also a massive billion dollar industry worldwide is a reflection of the times that we live in. Recently I went ice climbing in Alberta with Cherring Sherpa who hails from the village of Beding in the Rolwaling Himal and at the age of 27 has already ascended Everest 7 times! He is a certified UIAGM mountain guide (from the second batch graduated from a joint Nepal-French initiative) and has also led clients up McKinley and Aconcagua. When I asked him why he had become a mountain guide he surprised me with his honest answer : "Because I could not finish my education due to family financial problems". He was very clear in his head that if he had had the opportunity to continue his education he would rather work in some other field rather than risk his life on peaks like Everest for paying customers. The courting of risk for it's own sake is a very Western cultural ethos which has evolved due to the unique nature of its civilization and the values that it has promoted. When you compare that with most Oriental cultures it is apparent that they view the grandeur of mountains with a more holistic and even spiritual perspective. However, since globally the benchmark of "progress" seems to be the material affluence achieved by the West, it is indeed small wonder that the trend to seek thrills at whatever cost is becoming universal.



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