Everest avalanche a reminder of annual risks Sherpas face

By Binaj Gurubacharya and Tim Sullivan
Associated Press

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KATMANDU, Nepal (AP) – The rescuers moved quickly, minutes after the first block of ice tore loose from Mount Everest and started an avalanche that roared down the mountain on April 18, ripping through teams of guides hauling gear.

But they couldn’t get there quickly enough. No one can move that fast. Not even the people who have spent their lives in Everest’s shadow, and who have spent years working on the world’s highest peak.

By the next evening, the bodies of 13 Sherpa guides had been taken from the mountain. Three more are missing and presumed dead. Hospitals in Katmandu were treating four survivors of the avalanche for broken bones, punctured lungs, and other injuries.

It was the deadliest disaster ever on Mount Everest.

Survivors recalled scenes of panic and chaos, describing how they dug through snow with their hands and ice axes in hopes of finding their friends alive.

For the Sherpas, the once-obscure mountain people whose name has become synonymous with Everest, and whose entire culture has been changed by decades of working as guides and porters for wealthy foreigners, it was a brutal reminder of the risks they face.

Many gathered at the Boudha Monastery in Katmandu, where prayers were said for the dead.

“The mountains are a death trap,” said Norbu Tshering, a 50-year-old Sherpa and mountain guide who now lives mostly in Katmandu. With his white hair and dark, wrinkled skin, he looked far older than his age. In hands roughened by years of tough work, he worked a string of Buddhist prayer beads.

“But we have no other work, and most of our people take up this profession, which has now become a tradition for all of us,” he said.

The avalanche happened early in the morning at about 5,800 meters (19,000 feet), as Sherpa guides were hauling gear through the Khumbu icefall, a treacherous terrain of crevasses and enormous chunks of ice. The men were near an area known to climbers as the “popcorn field,” because of its bulging ice, when an enormous piece broke away from a high glacier and came tumbling down the mountain, setting off an avalanche of ice, according to the website of International Mountain Guides, an Ashford, Washington-
based company that had a team that witnessed the disaster.

Nepalese tourism officials said the guides had been fixing ropes — using clamps and special screws to attach miles of nylon cord used by the streams of climbers who begin heading for the summit this time of year. But guiding companies said the ropes had already been laid down, and the Sherpas were carrying loads of tents, oxygen tanks, and other gear to the higher camps used by climbers as they approach the summit.

Special teams — known on Everest as the icefall doctors — had also already been through the Khumbu, fixing lines and rigging aluminum ladders over crevasses. They were quickly called back after the avalanche to start building a new path, though climbing had been halted for at least a couple of days.

International Mountain Guides said on its website that many climbers had been pleased by the icefall doctors’ work this year, since lines had been fixed in an area “that is normally not so exposed to the frequent slides.”

When the avalanche hit, dozens of climbers and guides raced from the base camp — the mini-city of nylon and prayer flags and nightly parties built every year for its hundreds of temporary residents — in search of survivors, said Prakash Adhikari of the Himalayan Rescue Association, which has a medical team at the camp.

But while the icefall is barely 500 meters (547 yards) higher than base camp, it can easily take a couple of hours to reach the popcorn field, even for the strongest climbers.

It’s unclear whether any of the dead could have been saved, even with immediate rescue. Many probably died instantly, hit by blocks of ice that can easily be larger than a car.

A day after the disaster, many Sherpa guides spoke of their work in ways that reflect the complexities of poor people working in a deeply hazardous place.

The work is dangerous — a year rarely passes without at least one death on Everest — but the Sherpas, who were once among the poorest and most isolated people of Nepal, also now have schools, cell phones, and their own middle class.
All that is the result of the economy of Mount Everest, which brings tens of millions of dollars to Nepal every year.

“We have no problem with what we do. It is a job which helps feed our families, sends our children to school,” Dawa Dorje, 28, a mountain guide from Everest’s foothills, said in Katmandu, where he was picking up equipment for clients.

“We make more money than most of the people in the country. If the foreigners did not come, then we would be out of a job. They need us and we need them — it is a win-win situation,” he said.

While the average annual income in Nepal is just $700, a high-altitude Sherpa guide can make $5,000 during the three-month climbing season. Climbers, meanwhile, can pay $100,000 for a chance to reach the summit.

And some of what happens on the mountain, Dorje noted, comes down to sheer luck.

“There have been concerns why so many Nepali Sherpas were killed in the avalanche. But they were there at the wrong time. If the avalanche had struck a few days later (when climbing teams begin working their way up Everest), then there could have been many foreign fatalities, too,” he said.

However, on well-traveled, high-prestige climbs like Everest, the Sherpas are the ones who go first up the mountain.

They break the deep snow, lay the fixed ropes, and carry the heaviest loads. They face avalanches, altitude sickness, lack of oxygen, and brutal cold.

“The risks for Sherpas on the mountain are twice that of the Western climbers,” said Nima Tenzing, a 30-year-old guide who also runs a shop for trekking gear in Katmandu.

Still, he shows no resentment.

“Death and injury on the mountain is part of our lives now. We have lost many of our people to the mountain. But we have to pull ourselves together and continue our work,” he said.

In the days following the avalanche, several Sherpas already have quit while others are still deciding whether to boycott climbing following the avalanche, said Ang Tshering of the Nepal Mountaineering Association.

Funerals began April 21.

“After losing so many of our brothers and friends, it is just not possible for many of them to continue,” said Pasang Sherpa, who was not among those caught in the avalanche. “So many of us are scared, our family members are scared and asking us to return.”

The Sherpas have expressed anger that there has not been a bigger response from Nepal’s government, which profits from the permit fees charged to the climbing expeditions.

The government has announced an emergency aid of 40,000 rupees ($415) for the families of the deceased climbers.

On April 21, Deputy Prime Minister Prakash Man Singh said the government is working to help the Sherpas.

“It is not true the government does not care,” he said. “We have been working with rescue from the very beginning. We will do what we can, keeping with the standard practice to provide compensation.”

Tshering said there were about 400 foreign climbers from 39 expedition teams on the mountain and equal number of Sherpa guides, along with many more support staff, such as cooks, cleaners, and porters in the base camp.

The Tourism Ministry, which handles the mountaineering affairs, said it has not been told of any cancellations by expedition teams, said Maddhu Sunan Burlakoti, head of the Nepalese government’s mountaineering department.

Without the guides, it would be near impossible for the expedition teams to continue.

According to the Himalayan Times, the Sherpas are demanding the following:

• Increment of immediate relief announced for avalanche victims

• Provide Rs 1 million each to families of deceased and to those critically hurt who cannot rejoin mountaineering activities, and cover all expenses for treatment of the injured

• Set up a memorial park in the name of the deceased in Kathmandu

• Set up mountaineering relief fund with 30 percent of royalty collected from issuing permits to different mountains

• Double the insurance amount to the mountaineering workers

• Provide additional chopper rescue to mountaineering support staff if insurance fails to cover the cost

• Provide perks and salaries, except summit bonus, through concerned agencies to Sherpas if they want to call off climbing this season

• Manage chopper to bring logistics and equipment from different camps if mountaineers decide to abandon climbing this season

• Don’t take action against SPCC icefall doctors if they refuse to fix ropes and ladders on the route this season

• Let the expedition members to call off this season’s climbing if they wish so
Attempts to reach the 8,850-meter (29,035-foot) peak of Everest were expected to start next month.

Nepal’s tight-knit climbing community has been left reeling and struggling to make sense of the disaster — an accident the climbers say could have happened to any one of them.

Hundreds of people, both foreigners and Sherpas, have died trying to reach the world’s highest peak. About a quarter of them were killed in avalanches, climbing officials say.

The worst recorded disaster on Everest had been a fierce blizzard on May 11, 1996, that caused the deaths of eight climbers, including famed mountaineer Rob Hall, and was later memorialized in a book, “Into Thin Air,” by Jon Krakauer. (end)

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