Paul Devaney & Niall O’Byrnes, Kathmandu, 27 April 2014
It is with heavy heart and a great deal of disappointment that the Irish Seven Summits team confirms the early and unexpected termination of our Everest expedition on 25th April 2014. On Friday we were airlifted from Everest Base Camp and flown away from our goal for reasons beyond our control.
The tragedy of April 18th took the lives of 16 Sherpa and had a very deep imprint on the local Sherpa community without whom many of us cannot attempt to etch our names into the history of this great mountain. The uncertainty, lack of coordinated leadership and subtle intimidation experienced this week at Base Camp has also left a deep imprint on us climbers who have been forced to abandon our goal and leave the mountain.
On Friday we sat with our Sherpa leader and discussed where things stood. By then most of the large expedition companies were officially reporting on their websites that they were leaving base camp and we could see them packing to leave. Some cited the icefall condition; many simply did not have sufficient Sherpa support to proceed. Our safety on the mountain depends on work carried out both in the icefall and in the upper mountain by specially trained teams of Sherpa. The icefall is maintained by a team known as the ‘Icefall Doctors’ while the ropes in the upper mountain are set by a coalition of Sherpa drawn from a variety of well established expedition teams. The Sherpa were not climbing and so those specialist teams were no longer available. The final team to show their hand on Friday was HimEx at which point we decided that we could no continue and so we decided to pack up and head down.
It was unclear throughout the past week exactly what was driving the Sherpa decisions or what the key issue actually was.
If the issue was icefall safety, the decision to stop climbing would have been measurable, immediate and official – It was not.
If the issue was respect for the dead, the decision by Sherpa not to climb would have been immediate and final – It was not.
If the issue was fear of the mountain, the decision by Sherpa not to climb would have been immediate and final – It was not.
If the issue was the Sherpa demands, the decision by Sherpa to climb would have come on Thursday when the ministry met those demands – It did not.
As this week progressed it was clear that other forces were at play in the deliberations on what happens next.
In the end it appears to have been a minority of rebel Sherpa with an alternative agenda who successfully derailed the 2014 season through a subtle process of intimidation and coercion, taking full advantage of the grief, sorrow and apprehension felt by our Sherpa friends and their families as they struggled to come to terms with the loss of so many of their brothers in the icefall. The fact that this minority was allowed to establish influence has also highlighted a failure of coordinated leadership on all sides at base camp. Throughout the week we sat and watched Sherpa meeting after Sherpa meeting taking place 50 metres from our tents with little understanding of what was being discussed, each meeting more vocal than the last. There was little evidence that the same level of engagement was going on between expedition owners and Sherpa leadership to regain control of the situation. Threats apparently issued by Sherpa to other Sherpa aimed at deterring them from going up the mountain, was the straw that broke the camels back, and the real reason why we are all now sitting in Katmandu rather than doing our jobs or following our goals on Everest. Spending days walking around camp trying to understand what was really happening behind the multiple Sherpa meetings, incoming press reports, team movements and ever-circling rumours has left a very bitter taste in many peoples mouths. It is hard not to think that more could and should have been done to better manage what happened here in the days following the avalanche.
We heard reports that in the aftermath of the avalanche a group of rebel Sherpa was pushing their agenda to force Western expeditions off the mountain so that Sherpa can take control and flow more money down through the ranks. The expedition company we used is actually Nepalese, owned and managed by a Sherpa, with no western guides or leaders. This is their first season in operation on Everest, led by an experienced Sherpa with 19 summits under his belt and 9 climbers and 15 Sherpa within his team. We in theory represented exactly what the radicals were trying to achieve. However their threats and intimidation did not improve anything for our expedition company, but rather drove us off the mountain with the rest. The consequence of this is that this expedition company faces financial concerns. Perhaps the radical minority should reflect on that irony!
The tragedy has bought about much needed concessions for the Sherpa through government-agreed demands which represent a significant step forward in Sherpa welfare and care for those left behind in this dangerous business. Those involved in those rational and reasoned negotiations deserve our praise.
Both Sherpa and climber share a common risk when we set foot on this mountain. The icefall is a dangerous place; it has always been a dangerous place, a frozen waterfall of ice towers sitting atop a moving glacier. Our own preparation included months of training aimed specifically at how best to travel quickly through this terrain because we know the risk that exists there. Interestingly, some of our Sherpa traveled through the icefall just yesterday to reach Camp 1 and recover equipment which was placed there for our now-abandoned journey up the mountain. Those who died in the icefall on that fateful day could just as easily have been a team of western climbers or a joint team of climbers and Sherpa – it was fate rather than design that it was one group and not the other. We ourselves were 3 days from being there too and had planned up to 8 passes under the exact location where the serac collapsed. This is a level of risk which climbers accept as part of this dangerous challenge, and which Sherpa accept as part of their dangerous yet lucrative careers on the mountain. Sherpa work the mountain for both remuneration and prestige. Respect within this society is counted in Everest summits. The Sherpa are held in very high esteem here and rightly so. They compete vigourously for summit stats, and ultimately to boast the honour of having the most summits. During our Puja day at Base Camp our Sherpa team were introduced to us in order of summits completed – a meaningful badge of honour. Our team count was 57 summits!
In the end the families in the Khumbu region have suffered personal loss which cannot be replaced or repaid, and climbers who have prepared and saved for years to realise the ambition of a lifetime have been forced to return home due to intimidation and politics with no refund option. The consequence to climbers pales in comparison to the loss suffered by the Sherpa families, but the climbers have suffered and are angry. For many this was a once in a lifetime opportunity and many will never be able to acquire the funds necessary to do it again. Jim from USA who is 68 and attempting to complete the Seven Summits – his journey is over. Ellis from UK whose dream has taken almost a decade to fund and prepare for – his journey is over. The Australian girl who now won’t be the youngest Australian to climb Everest. The Norwegian guy who now won’t be the youngest Scandinavian to climb Everest. There are many many others, dreams, ambitions either on hold or gone forever. All of those folks are angry, and so are we.
We came to Everest following significant preparation with a very strong ambition to complete one of the great human endeavours with the help of the world’s greatest mountaineers and Sherpas. We could not have foreseen the events that would unfold here over the past 7 days, events which have shocked, saddened and subsequently angered us. We would like to acknowledge the expressions of support, concern, and condolence sent to and through us for the families who have been devastated by this year’s tragedy on Everest and who are endlessly in our thoughts. We greatly appreciate the support we have received over the past few days, weeks and months from family, friends, sponsors, followers and the media and are indebted to all who have helped to get us this far. Climbing Everest is a very expensive, time-consuming, dangerous and complex feat and we sincerely thank all those who helped us in our efforts this year.
But we also came here with a goal, and we intend to return and complete it with the help of our Sherpa friends. We are climbers, this is what we do.
Onward and upward!