After stepping up amongst the prayer flags, I dropped my pack and settled myself against a rock to let my breathing steady as I looked out at the view afforded to me by the 5420 metres. The day was calm with just a breeze at the top and a few clouds flirting with the upper limits of Amadablan. Walking down the valley shadowed by the magnificent towers of land on either side I felt like a small insignificant blip on a vast and incredibly awe-inspiring terrain. I felt like I was the only person in the entire world.
The mountains here tower above even the imagination. There is no limit to their greatness, their beauty, their sheer presence. The rounded snowy tips carved by relentless winds hide the sharp, jutted mass of rock that form their cores, and in as little as 10 minutes, ice sparkling in the sun can be covered by a veil of clouds that have appeared seemingly out of thin air. It’s not enough to inspire awe, these mountains demand respect, for they can be unforgiving.
Arriving into Lobuje we started hearing whispers of an avalanche. 13 lives lost. All Sherpa. Some bodies not found. 100 people stranded above Camp 1. Everest, it seemed, had proved her mastery again and the 18th April 2014, would be remembered as the day of the single biggest disaster the mountain had seen yet.
At 5364 metres altitude, Everest Base Camps sits on the toe of the great mountain. Stretching just under a kilometre up from there lies the treacherous Khumbu ice-fall – virtually a frozen waterfall – consisting of large walls of ice that move anywhere from 90-112cm a day. Climbers must make their way through this moving maze of ice cliffs in order to reach Camp 1, situated not far from the top.
Each climbing season Sherpas are employed to carry out the task of assisting major expedition companies, by way of load carrying, cooking, and setting up (and maintenance of) fixed lines across the ice-fall and progressively up the mountain. In order to set up each of the four camps, the Sherpas must traverse the moving ice walls as many as 30 times in a season. However dangerous it may be, ultimately it was not the ice-fall that claimed the lives of the climbers.
After 20 minutes stuck in a train of load-bearing yaks we wandered down into the sprawling ‘metropolis’ of Base Camp. A far cry from how I imagined it would have been half a century ago, small groups of brightly coloured yellow and orange tents dotted themselves for a kilometre alongside the stretching glacier. Large satellite dishes and masses of solar panels were thrown amongst the mini villages. People bustled in and out of mess tents with mugs of steaming tea, and countless socks and underwear were stretched over rocks in the hopes of drying in the strips of sunlight filtering through the clouds.
We moved closer towards the start of the ice-fall for a better view and noticed a small buzz of activity around what turned out to be the helipad. We had noticed the helicopters travelling back and forth up the valley but having been cut off from social media and news reports for the entire time we were in the mountains, we hadn’t grasped the extent of the disaster. As one approached us we were sternly warned not to film or take photos. It wasn’t until it took off again chopping through the thin air, rope attached beneath it, that we realised what was going on. We watched as it relayed between Base Camp and Camp 1 and brought down the body and belongings of one of the climbers. All 16 casualties were Sherpas. They managed to reclaim 13 bodies, but three remain missing – assumed to have fallen into a deep crevasse.
I couldn’t help but feel for the Sherpa community. A community that has in many ways flourished thanks to the tourism in their back yard, but are so dependent on it that their work conditions involve such phenomenal risks. A community that is losing sons, brothers, husbands.
Being the fastest, strongest, best worker is crucial for being rehired the next season. A single season working for an expedition company can bring in up to $8000 – 10 times the annual income in Nepal. But the event has pushed many Sherpas to strike putting an early end to the climbing season. While it comes partly out of respect for the dead, there are politics involved as well. The Nepalese Government receives $3.5 billion from climbing permits (expedition companies charge around US$60,000 a head) little of which comes back to the Sherpa community. They have demanded a greater share to help fund rescue efforts and better compensation to the families of dead or injured climbers.
But, as another climbing season dawns, the mountain will once again see the presence of the Sherpas – the often overshadowed champions of any expedition team – as this is their livelihood, their place of work, their ‘outdoor office’. We can only hope that they are not risking their lives in vain.
For a touching insight to the Sherpa community and its ties with climbing Everest check out this piece from local woman Jemima Diki Sherpa