Friday 18th April: On the day of the avalanche we were climbing Leboche East (6119m) as part of our acclimatizing process in advance of our first trip through the icefall to Camp 1 scheduled for three days later. The climb began at 4am and took us up fixed ropes onto an impressive plateau overlooking Everest Base Camp and the infamous Khumbu icefall which stands between EBC and Camp 1. As we smiled for photographs in front of the iconic backdrop we were blissfully unaware that beneath us just two hours previously, a large group of Sherpa had found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time as a large serac fell from above their position killing most of them as they attempted to reach Camp 1 during one of many routine icefall crossings. A group of western climbers were just 30 minutes behind them while more climbers were just ahead at Camp 1. As the dust of the serac fall settled it was revealed that 16 Sherpa were killed, 3 Sherpa were critically injured and half a dozen Sherpa sustained injuries. This was the worst disaster in Everest history, and we stood above it all completely oblivious to the drama unfolding below us!
Later that evening we returned to the small village of Leboche situated 5 hours from EBC to the breaking news of the disaster. We didn’t believe it, the number seemed ridicules, nobody dies from avalanche on Everest anymore… do they? That evening we would discover that the uncle of one of our Sherpa was among the dead and many of those who had been killed and injured were good friends of our lead Sherpa. The looks on the faces of our Sherpa team said it all, this was big, this was different, and this changed things!
Saturday 19th April: Our team reached Everest Base Camp and after an opportune meeting with an Irish trekking team for photographs and congratulations we descended into the inner camp and into an environment of grief and uncertainty. The number of dead and missing was changing hourly and seemed to converge on a total of 13 dead, 3 missing and 3 critically injured by the end of Saturday. The icefall and the mountain was now closed in practical terms as the entire Sherpa and Climber community struggled to come to terms with what had happened and how to move forward. As the sun set and the snow fell on Saturday night, we settled into our tents at the base of the icefall finding it hard to imagine the drama that had unfolded the previous day just above our location. The recovery of bodies had taken place before we reached EBC and great credit must go to those who coordinated this recovery activity.
Sunday 20th April: We were on day 3 of a 4-day shutdown of the mountain, which would soon increase to a one-week shutdown. This was the grief and mourning period and amidst the frequent drone of helicopters in and out of base camp we were hearing further detail of what happened including which teams were affected and which villages the Sherpa had come from. The expectation was that affected teams and their Sherpa would be going home. We also learned that on the day of the avalanche the Sherpa had been traveling through the icefall to Camp 1 (which is perfectly normal) when a lead group came across a broken ladder spanning one of the many cravasses. A bottleneck formed as Sherpa attempted to fix the ladder and just as the now larger group crossed the cravasse a large section of ice came loose above them. We were informed that a decision was imminent on whether to close down the season or progress.
Our tents within Base Camp were located at the base of the icefall, and less than 50 metres from the Nepalese Government office (SPCC) tent. The first of many mass meetings took place there on Sunday as Sherpa gathered to decide what would happen next. As the week progressed we watched a number of large crowds of Sherpa and some westerners congregate there for extraordinary outdoor meetings to debate and decide how best to move forward. Most meetings were held in Nepalese so it was impossible for us to get an accurate gauge on what exactly was happening. The early meetings were punctuated by loud cheers, we interpreted this as positive progress but that would subsequently prove not to be the case. At one point we clearly heard someone as a question in English to help establish clarity on what was being discussed and agreed. They were met with loud and very tangible derision by the crowd. Was the situation and the general mood moving away from us all?
Monday 21st April: We hiked up to Camp 1 on Pumori at 5600m – a neighbouring peak with impressive views across base camp. This was part of our acclimatizing process but also an attempt to get away from EBC and the rumours and confusion for a brief time. As the day developed it was apparent that grief was turning to anger, mostly vented towards the Nepalese government, and mostly relating to compensation offered to the families of the dead Sherpa. We were told that the government had offered USD$400 per person to the grieving families, and this was causing tension within the Sherpa community. To give some context here, each western climber pays the Nepalese government between $10,000 and $12,000 for the Everest climbing permit each season, so with upward of 400 climbers on the mountain the Nepalese government had collected approximately $4m in permit revenue for Everest 2014 season. It was not difficult to empathize with the Sherpa outrage… $6,400 from $4,000,000 seemed an unreasonable gesture given the gravity of the event.
Monday was also the day when our first rotation through the icefall to Camp 1 was due to take place – a journey which would have taken us directly underneath the area of the fallen serac and on to Camp 1 for overnight acclimatizing before progressing to Camp 2 and returning through the icefall to base camp. This rotation and all subsequent pushes up the mountain were now on permanent hold as Sherpa, the Nepalese government and expedition leaders decided on the best way forward. This seemed appropriate, we were all mourning after all.
Tuesday 22nd April: Another Sherpa meeting on the hill next to our tents. The Sherpa position as we understood it was that the icefall was no longer safe, that some Sherpa no longer felt comfortable climbing ‘Mother Goddess of the Earth’ as the mountain is known in Nepalese, and that the deaths had uncovered serious discrepancies relating to safety and Sherpa welfare which now needed to be addressed.
The Sherpa demands which were presented to the Nepalese government included…
- $10k Lump sum to be paid to the family of each Sherpa killed on 18th April
- % of Climbing Permit money to be placed into a Sherpa fund
- Memorial to be set up in honour of those killed on 18th April
- Pension Fund to be established for Sherpas
- Life Insurance total to be doubled.
- If no climbing takes place in 2014, Climbing Permit for Everest to be repaid
On the issue of the icefall condition, we were hearing conflicting opinions, with some experienced Sherpa telling us that it was no worse now than in any other year. What was really driving the decision here – it was getting harder and harder to tell. We were also informed that a group of up to 300 Sherpa had signed a commitment not to climb this season. The omens were not good; it looked like the season was moving away from us all at this point. We were all prepared to accept if the Sherpa were afraid to progress, or spiritually unwilling to climb following the deaths, but if the list of demands were holding things up then why not get the leaders of all expeditions together and help find a solution to it? That just didn’t appear to be happening.
Wednesday 23rd April: We all attended a Puja Cermony to honour the dead Sherpa as the hill filled with climbers and Sherpa alike linked in chanting and prayer in memory of the fallen Sherpa. This was followed immediately by speeches in Nepalese and English by lead Sherpa and a number of western expedition leaders after which a list of Sherpa demands were read to the crowd (the full list was read in Nepalese, only some was read in English). The Nepalese speaker was quite clear that Sherpa did not wish to climb the mountain. A number of expedition leaders stepped forward to offer condolences and comments on how best to work together – intimating that there was still clear opportunity to find a resolution to work together and move forward this season. One leader spoke of observing a woman who walked from Shomare to Dingboche on Friday to plant potatoes in a field, unaware that her husband was dead. Those around her were waiting for her family to come to her in the field to impart the dreadful news and help to lessen her grief with familiar faces. He also spoke of the grief of the families of the 3 Sherpa who have not yet been recovered – their families unable to cremate them so that their souls can be released and reborn, forever trapped in the ice and snow. A quote was offered from one of the officers on the British Expedition of 1922 which had witnessed the largest loss of Sherpa life in avalanche before this years tragedy… “If only one of us had lost our lives so that those left could understand that we shared in their loss”. There was a very evident sense of brotherhood and togetherness. However throughout the ‘demands’ discussion that followed it was very difficult to establish whether we were moving towards a solution or converging on a permanent shutdown. A positive note came later on Wednesday as we heard that Russell Brice (HimEx) and Phil Crampton (Altitude Junkees) were heading down to Kathmandu via helicopter to talk with the Nepalese ministry. Russell had spoken brilliantly during the meeting and surely this would unlock the stalemate, surely this was our Rubicon!
As Wednesday came to a close we got word that the Sherpa demands had not been addressed by the Nepalese Government and therefore Sherpa were no longer willing to support expeditions on the mountain. Then came rumours that major expedition teams were leaving, names such as International Mountain Guides, Mountain Trip, Alpine Ascents, Adventure Consultants, Jagged Globe. It was impossible to tell truth from rumour at this point, so we set off across camp to see if some teams were actually staying or going. I was very saddened to see my friends at IMG packing to leave, and spoke briefly with their leader. His priority was the care and wellbeing of the Sherpa, they were fearful and so the season was over for IMG.
Then more disturbing rumours started to percolate through camp. It appeared that some militant younger Sherpa were threatening any Sherpa who might decide to proceed up the mountain should the demands on government be met. We started to hear murmurs of Maoist related agitation within this rebel Sherpa minority, particularly among younger and less experienced Sherpa who may not be receiving as big a wage as others on the mountain. These threats seemed to be affecting the decisions of Sherpa to return to expedition teams. I later received direct confirmation that threats were received by Sherpa from one of the larger teams on the mountain and this was the reason for that team’s decision to leave.
By this point, and with many large expeditions either gone or preparing to leave, we decided that of the remaining teams on the mountain, if the largest of those (HimEx) led by Russell Brice were to announce they were leaving, then we would leave too. HimEx represented to us the last opportunity to help secure sufficient icefall and rope team integrity for groups progressing up the mountain.
Thursday 24th April: The ministry flew to Base Camp to address the Sherpa and their demands. We were informed post this meeting that all of their demands were being met which bought a bright glimmer of hope that we may have a solution which helps everyone at camp – after all this was the last real blocker, right? The minister confirmed that the mountain was open and that if clients wished to climb then they should be able to do so. I encountered both the minister and deputy minister on my walk back across camp and both were eager to greet me with smiles and handshakes. I found it curious that they would care to do so; I am just a climber in a sea of climbers. Perhaps they knew the effect the agitation would have and that the season was converging to an inevitable end and were trying to project a shiny image before we were forced to leave, I don’t know! As the morning progressed however it became obvious that irrespective of the Sherpa demands being met, there were other forces at play here, instilling fear into the Sherpa teams, internal forces bent on intimidation and coercion. We met again as a team and again re-iterated that the HimEx decision (expected on Friday) would dictate our fate.
Friday 25th April: After breakfast we received confirmation that HimEx were leaving having failed to gain support of their Sherpa to progress. Therefore with heavy hearts we decided that Everest 2014 was indeed over. We packed our bags and were airlifted from Base Camp via helicopter on Friday afternoon, spent the night in Lukla and returned to Katmandu on Saturday morning to plot the return journey to Ireland.