Editor’s note: “Bringing it Home” runs weekends in The Aspen Times and focuses on state, national or international issues that have ties to or impacts on the Roaring Fork Valley.
On April 18th, a massive chunk of ice called a serac broke loose above the Khumbu Icefall on Mount Everest and crashed onto the slope below where approximately 50 men were climbing upward. The falling ice broke into pieces and hurtled toward the climbers like cars rushing down a freeway. Of the 25 men hit by the falling ice, 16 died. All of the victims were Nepalese working for guided climbing teams.
The tragedy is the single deadliest climbing accident in the mountain’s history.
The disaster hit home for many local climbers in the Aspen area that have been through the Khumbu Icefall themselves. The Khumbu Icefall is a chaotic cluster of unstable ice that sits directly above the climber’s base camp at 17,600 feet above sea level. The victims of the recent avalanche were approximately 1,000 feet above the base camp when the serac broke.
The icefall is considered one of the most dangerous stages of the South Col route to Everest’s summit, which also is the most popular route to the summit. The Khumbu Glacier that forms the icefall can move 3 to 4 feet a day, depending on the weather. Crevasses are known to open with little warning. The large towers of ice that surround the area are known to break off and fall suddenly.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, dozens of Sherpa guides and porters packed up and left Mount Everest’s base camp on Wednesday. The deaths of their friends and colleagues brought to light the resentment shared by many Sherpas over their pay, treatment and benefits.
“I’m fully aware of just how dangerous the Khumbru Icefall area is,” Aspen resident Steve Marolt said. “I would absolutely never go through that icefall, and it’s the only way up the south side of Everest. If you make it through there, it’s an act of God.”
Marolt and his twin brother, Mike, are two of the most accomplished high-altitude skiers in North America. The brothers have had six ski descents from above 7,000 meters. They do it without supplemental oxygen, and they carry their own gear. Twice they attempted to summit Everest from the north side, which is accessed through China.
“We went on the north route of Everest because of Khumbru Icefall,” Steve Marolt said. “I’ve seen many icefalls, but none as dangerous as the Khumbru. It’s a horrifically scary place. If you go that route, you have to go through the belly of the beast.”
Marolt considers the use of oxygen, dosing with dexamethasone or using Sherpas as similar to cheating your way up the mountain. Dexamethasone is used to counter the effects of high-altitude cerebral edema, a medical condition where the brain swells with fluid because of the effects of traveling to a high altitude.
“It’s just our personal philosophy,” Marolt said. “Using oxygen is like taking a performance-enhancing drug.”
Despite not using Sherpas himself, Marolt is in full support of the Nepali guiding community. He sees the Sherpas and porters used to carry most of the guided climbing tours equipment and set routes up the mountain as rock stars in their communities. The recent avalanche only reinforces his belief that the local guides should have more compensation for the dangers they have to endure on the mountain.
“This tragedy could be the catalyst for them to organize and take back their mountain from the guide companies, who make a tremendous amount of money from climbing fees,” Marolt said. “This situation seems very similar to what steel and coal workers went through in America as they unionized.”
The walkout by the Sherpas could carry a double-edged sword. Aspen resident Jeremy Oates is a former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Special Forces. He was part of the 10th Mountain Special Forces group, the only Army branch with a mountain and cold-weather focus. He retired from the military in 2012, but not before spending considerable time on Everest and living in Pakistan for two years.
While in Pakistan, Oates was able to access many of the highest peaks in the world through the Gilgit-Baltistan area, that includes five peaks higher than 8,000 meters and more than 50 peaks above 7,000 meters.
While Oates was in the Gilgit-Baltistan area, he saw a vibrant climbing community that financially fed the local economy. As the threat of potential military action in the area increased, access to the area was cut off to most westerners. Just last year, militants killed 10 climbers and their guide in their Gilgit-Baltistan base camp.
“Once most the money from the climbing community went away, that area fell into poverty, and is now destitute,” Oates said. “If the climbing community were to somehow leave the south side of Everest, the local peoples there would likely suffer a similar fate to the Gilgit-Baltistan area.”
Pete Athans is an athlete who works for The North Face company based in Seattle. He’s considered one the world’s most accomplished high-altitude climbers and has summited Everest seven times. He also works with the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation that provides support to people who live in remote regions of the world. Through the foundation, Athans has worked with the Khumbru Climbing Center to provide technical guide training for many Nepalese climbers.
The avalanche last week hit close to home for Athans after working with many of the Everest guides. What he’s hoping is that the tragedy opens up discussions with the Nepalese government to make some positive changes concerning their relationship with the local guiding community.
“Looking for a villain in this situation won’t help right now,” Athans said. “There isn’t really a great understanding at the Nepalese government level as to just what the Sherpas and other local workers do on the mountain. They don’t realize the significant risk these people take over and over. Most of the mountain workers are fairly invisible to the eyes of their government.”
Since the majority of climbers that come to Everest through the guide companies are amateurs at high-altitude ascents, the Sherpas are expected to do most of the grunt work. That work includes setting the miles of fixed ropes, setting ladders across crevasses and up dangerous inclines, carving paths through the snow and ice, carring most of the equipment and oxygen, and sometimes even attaching ropes onto the weaker climbers to literally pull them up the mountain.
After the avalanche, the Nepalese government said it would pay the families of each Sherpa who died 40,000 rupees, or a little more than $400 for funeral expenses. The Sherpa’s reply was that they deserved far more compensation and gave a list of 13 demands to their government. The government did agree to some of the Sherpa’s requests, but the overall counter-proposal from the government didn’t come close to what the Sherpas had asked for.
Athans would like to see more representation for the Nepalese people who work with the guiding companies, from the Sherpas to the porters and all the other local peoples who help make the ascent possible for the paying customers.
“The government has an opportunity to make some real positive changes for the local people who work on the mountain,” Athans said. “Hopefully this crisis will lead to improved working conditions and a fair compensation package for the Nepalese climbing community.”