Sadness on Mt. Everest

800px-Mt._Everest_from_Gokyo_Ri_November_5,_2012_CroppedThe sun peeks over the horizon one beam at a time. It is 5:30am and the Sherpa guides are already up on the ice setting ropes for the busy climbing season ahead.

As they work, things begin shifting above their heads.

Snow billows off the summit triangle and into the sunlight unseen. The wind rages unheard and the snow and ice move while the tiny line of humans negotiate the dangerous slope.

Near 6:30am time seems to slow. House-sized blocks of ice begin grinding down the mountain. A freight train of sounds flood the ears of all base camp.

In moments, the avalanche is over and Mount Everest is silent again. Giant swirls of snow obscure the view. Sixteen Sherpa are gone.

Everest cannot hear the cries of mourning from below for the dead and injured that were taken from the Khumbu Icefall in this one awful moment on Sunday April 18th. But those of us who love adventure can hear and feel them.

The mountain sees its best weather of the year in May and mountaineering fans wait to follow the climbers up each year. Climbing Mt. Everest is a dream for more people each year. It is 29,000ft of pure adrenaline. Do people climb it to stand above everything in the world, for the thrill, bragging rights, to test themselves, or the experience?

800px-Nepal_-_Sagamartha_Trek_-_186_-_Khumbu_Icefall_(plus_climbers)_(497684556)

Photo of the Khumbu Icefall and base camp on Mt. Everest from Wikimedia by McKay Savage

The hope of ever seeing the breathtaking summit rests on the backs of the Sherpa guides who are employed to decide which is the best route to climb the mountain, set all the ropes and aluminum ladders, and spend more time in the danger zones than any of the other mountaineers. They accept risk and the mountain moves. This year, so many Sherpas were taken that the climbing season has come to a halt.

The Nepali Government has released a statement encouraging climbers to continue with their expeditions. The Sherpa are angry though, and don’t want to climb. They are threatening to strike because they think the Govt. should give more money to the families of the fallen men and they want to respect the dead by not walking over where their bodies are lost. Three of the dead have not been found.

This brings up so many avenues for debate. Should be so many permits issued to climb the mountain each year? If the life insurance the Sherpa are required to have isn’t enough to support the families of the fallen men, should the government help? We can even debate whether everyone at base camp that day should have left the mountain out of respect or if we should honor the dead in our way – by living to the fullest?

The last few years have been full of controversy on Mt. Everest, including a physical altercation last year between a Sherpa and a western climber. The mountain is changing and so is the attitude towards what goes on there. I think there are some important points worth discussing.

At what point is the risk to the Sherpa and climbers too great? In 1996, the most tragic year on Everest until now, Jon Krakauer was on the mountain. He wrote the book Into Thin Air about his experience. In a recent article for the New Yorker, Jon Krakauer reiterates that the Sherpa on his expedition were required to make thirty trips through the Khumbu Icefall to his eight. The pay these men earn as a high-altitude Sherpa makes it an elite profession but one that carries with it a high death rate. And if you climb the mountain because the Sherpa did most of the work, does that mean you really earned it? How good can it feel to get to the top by riding on others’ hard work?

I was shocked to find out that climbers sometimes acclimatize themselves before even reaching Nepal by using Hyperbaric chambers. This seems like another shortcut. Usually you must spend days going from camp to camp to acclimatize. During this time, climbers can figure out if they are really strong enough to be there or even if they can handle the mental challenges. Will the death rate go up because this will allow more inexperienced climbers on the mountain?

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Photo of a climber in the Khumbu Icefall from Wikimedia by Uwe Gille

Many people will say no, money is the real evil here. I think money is just the scapegoat. It is an easy thing for people to focus on. It is not even the fact that Nepal gives too many permits to climb that make the mountain dangerously crowded. What makes the mountain dangerous is that many of the mountaineers don’t earn their place there as the Sherpa do everyday.

Money is there to allow you to do what you love as work and trade it in an easy and standardized manner. It has meaning. It is not just paper. There are some things that money just can’t buy. It can buy your gear and your plane ticket and the food, oxygen and Sherpa help to get you to the summit, but it should not take away a large part of the most difficult work of getting there.

Perhaps, as adventurers, we should choose our adventures more carefully. For now, whether it is out of respect or because the mountain is too dangerous this year, we can take this moment of silence on Mt. Everest to breathe and heal… and then live, climb, and celebrate the lives of these amazing men.

If you want to help, go to SherpaFund, a website put together by Everest photographers to sell their prints in order to aid the families of the dead climbers.

About the Sherpa culture:

Sherpas: Religion and the Printed Word

Sherpa Religion and the Printed Word

Sherpa Religion and Expressive Culture

Perspective from those that were there:

Tim Mosedale & Co. – Intimidation, Lies & Deceit on Everest

Peak Freaks 8000 – Everest Unofficial Closure & the Future

Everest & The ToenailHere you will find the names of the fallen Sherpa

4 thoughts on “Sadness on Mt. Everest

    1. znara Post author

      Thanks, Annie! Last weekend was fun 🙂 I am glad you enjoyed the post. Climbing Mt. Everest has never been something that I wanted to do myself but it is an amazing achievement that couldn’t be done easily without the Sherpa. I am always moved by the stories coming off the mountain.

  1. Renee

    I think I agree with your assessment that many of these mountaineers don’t “earn their stripes” before tackling the Himals. Too many inexperienced folks *are* using their morning to get a berth on these tracks without knowing exactly what they are doing. It’ll be interesting to see what results, if anything, from this tragedy.

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