AFTER THE APRIL AVALANCHE THAT KILLED 19, THE ONE-YEAR DEATH TOLL ON THE WORLD’S HIGHEST MOUNTAIN ROSE TO 35. WITH NO SUMMITS SO FAR THIS SEASON, THE COST OF CLIMBING EVEREST MIGHT FINALLY BE TOO HIGH.
ALAN ARNETTE of Fort Collins, Colorado, was on Everest on April 25 when the earthquake struck, triggering an avalanche that swept through basecamp, killing 19 people. The deaths added to Everest’s grim statistics by making this day the deadliest in the mountain’s history—topping last year’sKhumbu Icefall tragedy that claimed the lives of 16 sherpas.
In 2012, Arnette wrote about his experience on Everest as a client. See “Everest Deserves Respect,” No. 205. Besides his Everest climb, Arnette summited K2 last year on his 58th birthday, and has climbed Manaslu, Ama Dablam and Alpamayo, also raising funds and awareness for Alzheimer’s Disease.
Here, he recounts the moment on Everest when the 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck, the aftermath of the avalanche, and what may or may not change on the world’s highest mountain.
ROCK AND ICE: Where were you during the earthquake?
ALAN ARNETTE: We were climbing as a team, Madison Mountaineering, between Camp I (19,500 feet) and Camp II (21,500 feet) in the Western Cwm [the broad valley at the base of Lhotse, adjacent to Everest and a feature on the standard route up Everest.] It was our first acclimatization rotation, and we were one of the few teams that high on
AA: A low cloud bank had formed, almost like a fog, so when we heard a huge roar to our right, we knew it was an avalanche off Nuptse, not unusual, but then we heard an equally loud noise to our left. It was a different avalanche off the West Ridge of Everest. Having concurrent avalanches all around was very unusual, and then I felt the ground drop about two inches, followed by another drop a few seconds later. That’s when I knew it was an earthquake and the reason for all the avalanches.
I had been in this area 18 times before and had never experienced anything like the avalanches. Or the earthquake.
RI: Did you think you were in danger?
AA: Not at that moment. We were far enough away from both avalanches that it would have taken an incredible air blast to reach us. However, two hours later a major aftershock hit us at Camp II and gave everyone pause for concern.
My immediate thoughts went to the condition of the Khumbu Icefall, which I know is a bunch of ice blocks leaning on one another like dominoes. It was later that I learned of the tragedy back in base camp.
RI: Did you see the avalanche that struck base camp?
AA: No, I was in the Western Cwm at the time, but at base camp in 2003 I had seen avalanches off Pumori and even experienced an air blast from Pumori. So once we got the details, I could imagine the horror.
My teammates back at BC said it was like a huge cloud that moved in immediately after the earthquake. They had little warning and could only run behind rocks or back into the tents.
As the air mass, including snow and ice, fell down from Pumori and the connecting ridge to Lingtren [a 22,142-foot mountain five miles northwest of Everest], it gained speed. The valley or dip that separates Pumori from BC usually stops avalanches, but this volume was so large that it instead picked up speed, compressed and shot out towards BC with the force of an F5 tornado. As it moved, it picked up rocks and boulders, turning them into projectiles. Tents never stood a chance, nor did anyone standing in the direct path.
RI: Did people at that point still think their climbs could, or should, continue?
AA: Our first thought was to get to Camp II, where we had tents, food and fuel; also it is safer than Camp I, as it is well protected from normal avalanches. Then we began to understand the severity, and thoughts turned to base camp, our friends, teammates and sherpas. It wasn’t clear in the first few hours the severity of the damage at BC or throughout Nepal.
After the second aftershock, which was in the 4-5 range, I felt the season, not just our climb, was over given the instability in the Icefall, and out of respect for the lost lives. There were people who felt the season should continue even at this point. It still could have been pulled off, but it would have taken a lot of cooperation among all the teams. But all these thoughts were prior to learning the scope of the disaster.
RI: When did you find out the extent of the tragedy in base camp?
AA: The first radio reports said BC was destroyed, nothing left. Radio reports said all our tents were either gone or blown hundreds of meters away. The large cooking, communications and dining tents were gone. We thought all of our personal gear was gone. Reports said they had searched and found nothing. This proved to be incorrect.
Then we were told that our team doctor, Eve Girawong, was in critical condition, and there were multiple injuries and casualties at BC. All of a sudden we knew this was a major event that we might not recover from. But we took it hour by hour, day by day, knowing first reports are often wrong. However, the deaths and injuries were real enough to make everyone step back.
RI: Your teammate Marisa Eve Girawong, 28, the base camp medic, died from injuries. What was she like?
AA: Eve was a tiny, petite young woman with a huge heart. As our team doc, whenever someone coughed, she was on it. She let nothing go by. At dinners, she insisted on helping serve the meals. Once she surprised us by spending all day making homemade crepes for dessert that night.
She was unselfish, compassionate and giving. And she was having a great time at BC.
AA: She was in the dining tent with three other team members when the quake hit, according to one of the members. They all went outside to see what was happening. When they saw the cloud hurtling towards them, they all ran in different directions. Some hid behind rocks, others went back into the tent. Eve was swept off her feet.
RI: Last spring’s serac collapse in the Khumbu Icefall killed 16 sherpas, and there was a big movement to engineer a safer route through the Icefall, but did anything change? What was the new route through the Khumbu like?
AA: Yes, serious effort was put into moving the route, with Pete Athans and David Breashears (GlacierWorks) consulting.
The new route was about 100 feet towards Nuptse and away from the fall line of the hanging serac on the West Shoulder. The lower part was direct and fast with no ladders. But the upper part ran into the same jumble of huge ice blocks, some the size of houses and cars. Also there were significantly larger crevasses than in prior years.
But the crux was two vertical ice walls, perhaps 100 feet tall, where the Doctors had put vertical ladders lashed together, four and six ladders, respectively. This became a bottleneck from day one, as it took the sherpas five minutes to climb each one. The Docs added a second ladder to one of the walls, but not both.
Overall the new route was a bit shorter, by maybe half an hour. It seemed safer, as it was away from the West Shoulder.
RI: Is there a contradiction where the Nepal Tourism Ministry would allow 170 climbers and sherpas to helicopter down from CI and CII, but not allow gear and supplies to be helicoptered up to avoid so many dangerous trips through the Khumbu by the sherpas?
AA: It’s not clear to me that the Ministry gave official approval for the helicopter rescues. They might have, but with so much else going on, it might have just happened. Remember that the flights were paid for primarily by rescue insurance from firms like GlobalRescue, and these were private companies, not state owned.
The Ministry seems to be random about how helicopters are used—not for ferrying gear, but last year the Chinese mountaineer Wang Jing flew to C2 with her sherpas and continued to the summit. Last year, they announced a policy that helicopters to BC were to be used only for medical emergencies, but clearly that, along with many other policies, was not enforced.
The premise that the Nepal government was in full control of the private helicopter companies and had a clear understanding of what was needed, and the ability to communicate those priorities, is questionable at best.
AA: Most people were in a state of shock either from losing teammates or encountering a near miss. Many had helped with the injured and dead.
I spoke with members and team leaders who described the carnage in graphic detail. They said they were now having trouble sleeping. They compared it to last year’s tragedy in the Icefall. Many of the deaths [then] were from suffocation, but this year, they were from blunt-force trauma from flying rocks.
As everyone began leaving BC, some people wanted to stay and continue to climb. They felt the Icefall would become stable, aftershocks would subside and the Icefall Doctors would return. None of this would happen.
RI: Could base camp have been located in a safer place— why was it exposed to such a massive avalanche?
AA: The location of the 2015 base camp has been a safe place since the Swiss used it for the first south-side expeditions in the early 1950s. There have been avalanches off Pumori, but never to the extent created by this earthquake.
International Mountain Guides (IMG) posted on their blog:
“The base camps farther down the glacier (like the IMG camp) were untouched. It is worth noting that over many expeditions we have never seen an avalanche from this area that was even remotely of this scale. It was truly a freak event caused by a tremendous earthquake.”
RI: Will base camp be re-established where it was, or will it move to a less exposed location?
AA: I expect BC to be located lower down the Khumbu Glacier in future years. Himex and IMG already put their camps off the glacier due to their size, but access to clean water is also a consideration.
RI: Will the sherpas at some point consider guiding on Everest too dangerous and stop guiding?
AA: I don’t believe the sherpas will stop guiding. It is simply too lucrative and they have few other options. The ones I spoke with at length before the earthquake viewed last year’s event as an act of nature. I think they will see the earthquake the same way.
But yes, like last year, some will quit, pressured by their families. They may take up guiding trekkers, but the pay is minimal compared to Everest.
Finding qualified sherpas to support 400-plus foreigners each year is becoming more of a problem, especially when some companies supply two sherpas for each climber. The Khumbu Climbing Center trains sherpas, but not everyone goes through their courses.
One Nepali company had 60 clients, mostly from India, China and Nepal. That implies another 40 to 80 sherpas to support them, and there are not enough qualified sherpas at this time. Combine this with unqualified clients and you have a deadly mix.
RI: Will more climbers move to the objectively safer north, Tibetan, side?
AA: There is a lot of talk about moving to the north, but few people actually do. Only one major company made the move for 2015, Alpenglow. Other Western companies like IMG and Altitude Junkies used to guide on the North, but moved to the South.
China is unpredictable, granting permits randomly or revoking them based on which country the Dali Lama last visited. The North is cold, windy and harsh, and doesn’t have the trek through the Khumbu that many people like. But it does have the history of Mallory and Irvine and is considered more technical than the south, so it has its attractions.
The north was gaining popularity in the [early] 2000s until China closed it in 2008 to take the Olympic torch to the summit. It never recovered.
Crowds [would] shift from the Hillary Step on the south to the Second Step on the north once you get 300 or 400 climbers on that side.
AA: History has shown that after each disastrous year, the next year is a record year. Everest is the world’s highest peak, so if that is your goal, you have no choice—obviously.
I was disturbed to see many very young people (under 25) on Everest this year with very limited experience—for example, only having the walk-up of Kilimanjaro on their climbing CV. They were mostly guided by Nepali outfits, not the longtime Western ones, so this is another trend on Everest; sadly, if you have the money, you can get on a team. This is a further disaster waiting to happen.
I do get a sense from more seasoned climbers that they will move to Makalu, Annapurna or even K2, and leave Everest alone for now.
RI: Would it make sense to raise the cost so instead of paying $60,000 to $100,000, climbers paid a multiple of that? Would a higher price reduce the number of climbers, alleviate the problem of too few sherpas, and keep the revenue stream steady?
AA: Raising the Everest permit fee would simply encourage those with means to climb, thus making Everest even more of a “club” than it is today. Also it would remove any hopes of those with big dreams but no cash to even attempt the mountain. But more to the point, it would hurt the local Nepali guide services as they cater to a price sensitive, emerging middle class of India, China and Nepal who often pay about $30,000 (total) compared to Westerners who often pay upwards of $50,000. I believe greatly raising the fees would be unacceptable to the Nepali government and guiding industry.
RI: Will you go back to Everest or Lhotse?
AA: I don’t know. I want to support the sherpas and villages in the Khumbu, but I will do it directly rather than through climbing for now. There are many great mountains to climb outside of Nepal.
ALAN ARNETTE, 58, has climbed K2 and Everest.
This article was published in Rock and Ice 228 (August 2015).