Monday, April 21, 2014

The Everest Ice Fall Incident 2014

Written Friday the 18th, but not published until I have 3G access in Gorak Shep today:

Wow, this is so bad. This is the worst mountaineering disaster in the history of Mt. Everest. It will take some time to figure out (I’m thinking Mt. Rainer avalanche in like 1986, or some of the early avalanches like 1950 Annapurna, and Manaslu 2012) if it is the worst, but it’s bad. There may be as few as 5500 Sherpa people in the Everest valley, and that is where the majority of climbing Sherpas come from. As of 4:30 PM Nepal time Friday, the confirmed death count was 13, with three still missing (missing = really really low chances of survival). Added to that there were several critically wounded and a number of walking wounded. One Sherpa even broke his femur and then still managed to descend 200 meters on his own power. 

Heros for the day include Jason, the high altitude helicopter pilot who flew a constant 7 or 8 hour day at altitudes from 17,000 to 20,000. You try doing that. Also, Melissa Arnot, who was transported to the scene of the disaster and helped triage the wounded and transport the deceased. 

This affects everyone. I have heard that on one of the small teams three of their six Sherpas died. On two larger teams five Sherpas both died. Our team, Asian Trekking, Eco-Everest 2014 came through totally unscathed, physically. Mentally, 16 people just died while I was drinking hot chocolate this morning in the same location I was supposed to be on Saturday! Honestly, it’s easy for me. I didn’t know any of the deceased. But for the Sherpas, all of the Sherpas, this is a little valley, everyone knows someone affected. Roughly .3% of the valley, let alone the 20-40 year old male portion of the valley, just died. 

What happened, as I have heard is that there was a ladder crossing a crevasse or ascending  something, and there was a queue of people waiting at the bottom of the ladder. A serac fell, and boom, just like that it was over for many of them. We heard the avalanche in base camp, but to be honest, didn’t think much of it aside from the fact it was in the direction of the ice fall. However, as I was talking with Melissa and other teammates, a radio call came through and the paramedic that she is left the dining tent, not to return until the middle of the afternoon. 


After lunch I walked up to the helicopter pads and watched. Yes, I took a few pictures and some video. You are not going to see any of it. The video I took next to the helicopter, when I was 20 feet away and they put a body in, I turned around and walked away crying. Another video, the high altitude helicopter pilot was carrying a body on a rope below the helicopter and the man’s arms and legs were splayed out. It was sickening. 

Written Monday the 21st around noon:

I am sure you have heard by now, 16 people died due to a serac falling, with three unrecovered. While we may call it an avalanche, this is about as far from a US powder avalanche that you can get. Think of a ten story building, made of solid ice, that falls over. For those people under it, that's it. 

We all knew this could happen eventually. The Kumbu ice fall is a deadly place and people die in it all the time, but never 16. This is the worst disaster in Everest history. Period. 16 people die on April 18th. 

Not to be callous, we 8000 meter climbers are maybe type T personalities. Death happens. It affects us, but we keep going. However, there is an interesting dynamic at play right now. We clients, western climbers, are here by choice. We pay to come here and test ourselves. The Sherpas, the people that carry our loads, set up our tents, cook for us, set up the ropes on the mountain, they are here because they are paid 10-15 times the average annual Nepali salary to do this for two months. When a tragedy like this happens they are justifiably concerned that their loved ones are not taken care of. There is no $200,000 life insurance policy for these workers. 

The comment has been made that it would have been more appropriate that it was an even mix of Sherpas and western clients. I certainly won't argue with that thought, but in a way this is the defining event for the climbing Sherpa community. 

Just so that I acknowledge it, the incident last year [that may have painted Sherpas in a negative light] in my mind was due to a couple of people [both western and Sherpa] in stressful situations that had tempers flare and said and did things that in the moment seemed like a good idea. Haven't we all done things we regretted the next day when we were stressed?

Now, I may not have all the story, but from what I understand Easter Sunday the Sherpas had three meetings, with up to 300 climbing Sherpas attending and they came up with a list of 13 requests. One of which was that 30% of the climbing fee be dedicated to a life insurance and retirement pension fund for the climbing Sherpas. Considering I paid $10,000 for the fee to climb Mt. Everest and next year it is going up to $11,000, and, I am not sure where that $3,000,000 goes every year, I totally agree with the Sherpas. 

It's worth saying that when we had news of the avalanche, probably 60% of the people in base camp were asleep in their tents. I was awake, but I have been waking up around 5:30 AM without an alarm. So using the word, "escaped" to describe what was a dull murmur 1.5-2 miles away from me, and most of us at base camp, is not the best word. Had the serac fallen the next day… well I might have been under it along with a slew of other western climbers. I have always known, since probably 2002, before I even decided I wanted to try Everest, that the Kumbu ice fall was an unpredictably deadly place. In my opinion life in the US is so sanitized and safe, that we have lost some appreciation and acceptance of risk. I certainly don't seek risk, I think bungee jumping is stupid. I don't even speed when I drive most of the time. I rarely rarely check my phone when I drive too because I've swerved seemingly every time I do check it. Sorry, I'm rambling. 

 What does the future hold this season on Everest? I have no idea. Climbing is closed through Friday. Those of us on the Asian Trekking Eco-Everest 2014 that did not go climb Lobuche East are going to do that tomorrow. If possible I think Adventure Consultants has some tents near the top (about 20,000 feet) that we might use. This probably means I'm out another grand, but what else are you going to do? (Well I did just demolish the speed record on the Kalla Pattar weather station by 11 minutes. 1500 vertical feet from 17,000 to 18,500 in like 32 minutes. It's on Strava if you want to check, average heart rate 174!)

We are all stunned that this happened so early in the season. 16 people dying on April 18th. I have some pictures and video, but I'm not going to share it. It's not gore, but it's personal. There were people that were probably laughing eating breakfast early Good Friday. We climbers sometimes talk of the brotherhood of the rope. When you tie in with someone, you are seriously trusting your life to them. It creates a strong bond. Even if I didn't know any of the people killed or injured, they were my friends. I'm tearing up just writing this. 

Everest From Kalla Pattar Weather Station April 21, 2014
So things are in flux. Buying that inReach was a good idea, I like sending satellite texts from wherever I am. So I will keep you updated on where I am. Again, I think this is a defining moment for the true workers on Everest. When every single person that dies, is a Sherpa… It's not a good situation.

While we western people are being encouraged to be patient and stay out of the discussion at the moment, I want to make a difference. Melissa Arnot, one of the people I view as a hero in the situation, although she would never say she is, started a charity a few years ago, The Junpier Fund, to educate the children of workers killed on the mountain. Just imagine, 16 bread winners in one day, 17 Sherpas so far this season, have been killed on the mountain, and many, if not most of them have wives and children. I encourage you to give something to The Juniper Fund. (On a side note I am trying to get a charity started, Sustainable South Sudan, but it takes a lot of work to get a charity off the ground.) 

This mountain is different than any other mountain I have climbed. Normally, I do the climbing, I carry the gear, I set up the tent, I use the stove, I place the gear. Here we have 20 climbing Sherpas and 14 cook staff, plus a team doctor and expedition leader, all for 15 client climbers. I never directly asked for this system, but I paid for it with my checkbook. We had Sherpas just 30 minutes ahead of the serac fall in camp one, they escaped while I had hot chocolate in base camp. Talk about guilt.

Well, I'm still here. I would still like to climb this mountain, but there are things at stake more important than my selfish, arrogant, and egotistical summit ambitions.  I have not planned to return to work in Iowa until Monday, June 9th so I'm here. If you donate to The Juniper Fund, thank you! This is very much a story in progress. Thank you for your prayers! There is nothing more important. 

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