It’s a “Black Everest Year”

sherpas on Mount Everest, climbing accidents, inauspicious climbing season 2014, Mount Everest, mountaineering,

As the 2014 climbing season got underway, the worst accident to date on Mount Everest occurred on friday/18 april when an avalanche killed 13 Sherpas (and three still missing) in the dangerous Khumbu Icefall at about 5,800 meters (19,000 feet). The Sherpas were busy ferrying loads for clients when the accident took place.

According to National Geographic, Sherpas, an ethnic group of 80,000 in Nepal, have been used as labor on mountaineering expeditions since the very beginning. Genetically adapted to high altitude, Sherpas are stronger, faster, and naturally fitter above 23,000 feet (7,000 meters), where most Western climbers begin using bottled oxygen. Without these elite mountaineers, summits for both early and current expeditions may have never been achieved. Which is only one small reason that this accident is so tragic.

In the past two decades, expeditions have booked many clients with little experience, but lots of money. This has further complicated the Sherpas role on an increasingly-crowded Everest. They have put their own lives at risk to help ill-prepared clients summit, or have helped rescue those in trouble.

What do Sherpas at Mount Everest do?

sherpas on Mount Everest, climbing accidents, inauspicious climbing season 2014, Mount Everest, mountaineering,

The Sherpas do the heavy lifting, literally, along with taking risks unimaginable to many elite climbers. The mountain is their backyard – Sherpas both revere the mountain and know its vibes. Their jobs include:

  • Assisting with the logistics for the expeditions on the mountain
  • Fixing ropes and ladders, while climbing up and back from high camps numerous times over the season
  • Portaging heavy gear: tents, food, oxygen
  • Guiding climbers at high altitude
  • Setting up camps
  • Cooking for the team at base camp, carrying food to upper camps

This great article from The Washington Post details the lifestyle of the Sherpas on Mount Everest. Sherpas set the ladders to help clients cross dangerous traverses. Take a look at this video of a climber crossing a crevasse at high altitude.

An inauspicious sign

At this writing, climbing has been suspended to retrieve the bodies and for the Sherpas to mourn their dead. Most Sherpas have made the decision to abandon the climbing season this year. Many have already left the mountain, while others will pack up over the next week.

But for some, it’s a tough call. The climbing season provides enormous income ($4,000 – $30,000, relative to the standard monthly pay of about $48) for Sherpas and their families. Without this seasonal income, many will struggle to care for their families.

And for Nepal, climbing has become big business – worth millions. Climbing and filming permits, and other fees bring in huge income for the country. If the climbing season is canceled, fees will need to be refunded.

This is an unprecedented situation,” the Nepalese tourism ministry spokesman Madhu Sudan Burlakoti stated.

Listen as NPR’s The Takeaway provides insight into the lives of Sherpas. The story begins at 36:37.

Photo: Kevin Frayer/AP from The Two-Way/NPR; Photograph by Aaron Huey/National Geographic

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