Everest Expeditions in Question After Nepal Quake
Avalanches in back-to-back years may change the way climbers think of Everest for good.
More than a week since an earthquake shook Nepal, with the death toll over 7,000 and still rising, rescue efforts are still focused on basic needs for survival.
But one small slice of the devastation looms large to adventurers around the world: Mt. Everest. For the second year in a row, an avalanche has left many climbers dead, and many questions swirling around the future of climbing the mountain.
"This is probably going to change the way people climb," said climber Ellen Miller, who has summited Mt. Everest.
Tulsi Prasad Gautam, chief of the mountaineering department at Nepal's tourism ministry announced last Thursday that climbing could resume this week. In a controversial move, the government requested a team of Sherpas to fix the route through the treacherous icefall above Base Camp so climbing can resume. But on Sunday news reports said Sherpas in Nepal refused to rebuild a climbing route.
The avalanche swept away fixed ropes and ladders placed in the icefall, making it currently impossible for climbing teams to reach Camp One.
That, plus the fear of further aftershocks, is forcing mountaineering companies to call off their spring expeditions.
The window for reaching the summit of Everest closes at the end of May because of the start of the monsoon season. Most climbers stand to lose $70,000 or more if the mountain remains closed.
Gordon Janow, Director of Programs for Alpine Ascents International, based in Seattle is wondering about the state of the route through the icefall. "Did the avalanche make it more difficult, the same, or more stable? Maybe the route will be more difficult and not for everyone. There's also the north side of the mountain. Maybe the commercial teams go more to the north side."
Although climbers didn't hesitate to return to Everest after last year's avalanche killed 16, the back-to-back tragedies may prompt Sherpas -- local guides who are critical to most Western climbing expeditions -- to reevaluate their role.
"Climbers are stronger and more resilient than most -- their adventures were interrupted. For the most part, life is going to go on," Miller said, referring to Western climbers on expeditions.
For the Sherpas, however, the avalanche swept away more than their summit bids: 8 million people in 39 districts have been affected by the devastation. And on a practical scale, Sherpas may be unable to afford giving up guiding, which brings in far more income than other jobs in the area. But with extreme weather events such as this becoming more frequent, an extremely risky job becomes even more dangerous.
"I think there is certainly concern, people thinking this happened two years in a row, do I want to go back for a third year?" said Gordon Janow, director of programs for Alpine Ascents International.
Sherpas typically get paid $3,000-5,000 a season; the average yearly income is $700. Many, if not most, Western climbers would be unable to summit without them.
"After a second year of trauma, they're really going to have to take stock of these kinds of jobs, and do some deep reflecting on whether it's worth it," Miller said.
Because Sherpas view the mountain through a spiritual lens, Miller said, they may see the avalanche as a message, that perhaps the mountain doesn't want to be climbed right now.
"The Sherpas believe that Mt. Everest is the mother goddess of the earth," Miller said. "That mountain holds a lot of spiritual energy. It puts them in a place of doubt and fear."
Next year is symbolized by the monk on the Tibetan calendar, "a bad year," mountaineer Alan Arnette wrote on his blog from Nepal. "No new buildings, marriages, etc. will begin after the new year in February. This could have an impact on the Himalayan climbing season after (the avalanches in) 2014 and 2015."
The key, Janow said, is for climbers to be respectful and support the Sherpas as they re-adjust to life in Nepal.
"The Sherpas, cooks, porters -- all have higher priorities than supporting climbers," Arnette wrote. "This earthquake is a Nepal tragedy, not a mountaineering event."
A massive earthquake killed more than 3,700 people Saturday as it tore through large parts of Nepal, toppling office blocks and towers in Kathmandu and triggering a deadly avalanche at Everest base camp. Photo: Members of the China International Search and Rescue Team arrive at Tribhuwan International Airport in Kathmandu, Nepal, on April 26.
Officials said the quake was the Himalayan nation's worst disaster in more than 80 years. But the final toll from the 7.8 magnitude quake could be much higher, and dozens more people were reported killed in neighboring India and China. Above, a temple lies in ruins at the Durbar Square in Patan, Nepal.
Tibetan kids eat breakfast supplied by rescue teams in Jilung County of Xigaze City, southwest of Tibet on Sunday.
Photo: Indian bystanders int he city of Siliguri look at a collapsed house following the Nepal earthquake.
Emergency workers fanned out across the Himalayan nation to rescue those trapped under collapsed homes, buildings and other debris. Offers of help poured in from governments around the world, with the United States and the European Union announcing they were sending in disaster response teams. "Deaths have been reported from all regions except the far west. All our security personnel have been deployed to rescue and assist those in need," Bam told AFP. The Red Cross (IFRC) said it was concerned about the fate of rural villages close to the epicenter of the quake northwest of the capital Kathmandu. Photo: Rescuers recover injured from rubble in Nepal's devastated capital city, Kathmandu.
"Roads have been damaged or blocked by landslides and communication lines are down preventing us from reaching local Red Cross branches to get accurate information," said IFRC Asia/Pacific director Jagan Chapagain in a statement. Officials said 10 people were killed when an avalanche buried parts of Mount Everest's base camp in Nepal where hundreds of mountaineers have gathered at the start of the annual climbing season. "We don't have the details yet, but 10 have been reported dead so far, including foreign climbers," Gyanendra Kumar Shrestha, an official in Nepal's tourism department, told AFP. "We are trying to assess how many are injured. There might be over 1,000 people there right now, including foreign climbers and Nepalese supporting staff." Photo: Many neighboring countries felt the earthquake's impact, including India.
AFP Nepal bureau chief Ammu Kannampilly, on an assignment to Everest together with a colleague, was among those caught up in the chaos. "We are both ok... snowing here so no choppers coming," she said in an SMS on an approach to base camp. "I hurt my hand - got it bandaged and told to keep it upright to stop the bleeding." Experienced mountaineers said panic erupted at base camp which had been "severely damaged", while one described the avalanche as "huge". Photo: People work to clear up earthquake damage in Siliguri, India.
"Huge disaster. Helped searched and rescued victims through huge debris area. Many dead. Much more badly injured. More to die if not heli asap," tweeted Romanian climber Alex Gavan from base camp. Kathmandu was severely damaged, and the historic nine-storey Dharahara tower, a major tourist attraction, was among buildings brought down. At least a dozen bodies were taken away from the ruins of the 19th-century tower, according to an AFP photographer who saw similar scenes of multiple casualties throughout the city. "It was difficult to breathe, but I slowly moved the debris. Someone then pulled me out. I don't know where my friends are," Dharmu Subedi, 36, who was standing outside the tower when it collapsed, said from a hospital bed. Photo: A road blocked by a landslide in Gyirong County of Xigaze Prefecture, southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region in the wake of the massive Nepal quake.
At least 42 people were known to have died in India, including 30 in the eastern state of Bihar, while buildings in the capital New Delhi had to be evacuated. The United States Geological Survey said the shallow quake struck 77 kilometers (48 miles) northwest of Kathmandu at 0611 GMT, with walls crumbling and families racing outside their homes. The quake tore through the middle of highways in the capital and also caused damage to the country's only international airport which was briefly closed. Kari Cuelenaere, an official at the Dutch embassy, said the impact had swept the water out of a swimming pool at a Kathmandu hotel where Dutch national day was being celebrated. "It was horrible, all of a sudden all the water came up out of the pool and drenched everyone, the children started screaming," Cuelenaere told AFP. "Some parts of the city fell down, there was dust rising... There were many (rescue) helicopters." Photos: Pedestrians walk past collapsed buildings in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Aftershock tremors could be felt more than two hours after the initial quake. USGS initially measured the quake at 7.5 magnitude and later adjusted it to 7.8, with a depth of 15 kilometers. Nepal and the rest of the Himalayas are particularly prone to earthquakes because of the collision of the Indian and Eurasia plates. The thrust of the India plate beneath Eurasia generates a large amount of seismic activity, the USGS says on its website. Photo: Pedestrians walk past collapsed buildings in Kathmandu, Nepal.
A spokesman for Nepal's home ministry said the government had released around $500 million as emergency funds for rescue operations. India dispatched two military transport planes to help with the rescue and relief efforts and there were similar offers from around the region, including Sri Lanka and Pakistan. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) said a disaster response was being flown to Nepal and that the Obama administration had authorized an initial $1 million "to address immediate needs." In Europe, Britain, Germany, Norway and Spain also pledged support and assistance. Photo: People gather around a collapsed building after an earthquake in Durbar square in Kathmandu, capital of Nepal.
Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a message of condolences to his Nepalese counterpart Ram Baran Yadav and offered to provide assistance. China's official Xinhua news agency said that 13 people, including an 83-year-old woman, were killed in the Tibet region. The area has a history of earthquakes, with a 6.8 magnitude quake that hit eastern Nepal in August 1988 killing 721 people. A magnitude 8.1 quake killed 10,700 people in Nepal and eastern India in 1934. Photo: A collapsed building is seen after an earthquake in Durbar square in Kathmandu, capital of Nepal.