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Monday, May 12, 2014

Recap Day 4 - 4/23 - The rumors swirl, climbers get conflicting reports, and the media circus begins

I take up where I left off last time with five days post-avalanche.  Note, I fixed the dates in my post titles to reflect the real days.  In my haste, I put in sequential dates but the days did not follow linearly.  The fourth day of my recap lands on 4/23 - the date that many people finally figured out that the climbing season was over.

We awoke and had our usual breakfast fare along with an alert from our expedition leader that today we would head out of EBC to go acclimatize on another peak.  That peak, we knew, was Lobuche and featured a nice approach through the Khumbu valley.  We retraced our steps to Gorak Shep and then eventually the town of Lobuche where we stayed the night.  Before our departure, several of us posted an update on the SummitClimb website and Facebook page.  That update included an annotated picture of icefall along with approximate locations of the slide.  
Edited picture taken by me and annotated by Sam Chappatte.

While taking and editing the picture, I realized the slide took place far to the left of the icefall.  Dan mentioned that there were various rumors that the route through the icefall was known to be dangerous this year.  Several expedition leaders apparently questioned the safety of the route and even suggested alternatives.  We had no confirmation of those rumors but it certainly seemed rather odd that the icefall doctors would run the route so close to an area that constantly slides.  I'm no Everest expert but I know a fair bit about the backcountry and avalanche terrain.  Nobody in their right mind plans routes under unstable terrain - no matter what hill the route sits upon.  Please note I am not blaming anyone; I am merely pointing out the discussion that took place at this time.  We all wondered why the route was placed in such a dangerous area.  Dan and I carefully worded the SummitClimb update to reflect the uncertainty that surrounded the route.  

We wrote:
"We have been studying more about what caused the tragedy in the icefall on 18 May, which, it is now stated, took the lives of 16 Sherpas at 6:40 am. It seems that the ice which buried the Sherpas originated from the West Ridge of Everest, which looms far above the Khumbu icefall on the left side as the viewer faces it from below, to the right and above the Lho La. The location of the event can be seen approximately 1200 metres / 4000 feet as "the crow flies" from our location at base camp.  There exists an enourmous hanging glacier which clings to the face of the West Ridge, and on the morning of Friday, 18 April, a piece of this hanging glacier "calved" away from the main glacier, tumbling at high speed down the steep face, shattering into many ice pieces and burying the victims in its awful wake. Some people have said that if the climbing route were located more toward the center of the Khumbu icefall, rather than being on the left side, beneath the hanging glacier, then perhaps there might be less chance of climbers travelling within the trajectory of such calving events. Moving the route to the center of the icefall, however, introduces other risks.  Thus, the route always involves some form of risk balance.  While route changes posssibly could save lives, of course "hindsight is 20/20" and no amount of conjecturing will bring back the sad loss of our dear friends."  Copied directly from the SummitClimb website

Those discussions lead many of us to believe that the icefall doctors would re-route the icefall to a more safer area and climbing would begin soon enough.  Dan kept reminding us that they were not going to close the mountain.  I admit, he was persuasive because I thought closing a mountain sounded preposterous so I kept a positive outlook on the climb.  In accord with our shared outlook, we pressed on with our acclimatization schedule.  The previous day included hikes up to Pumori ABC and ample rest to adequately recover between these hikes.  Today, we left of Lobuche with the idea that climbing Everest was still on.  

Meanwhile in EBC, the tensions among all climbers - Sherpa and Westerners alike - built throughout the days.  The same happy folks were no longer smiling.  You could cut the tension in the air during some chats.  We had no hard feelings toward one another but we all felt odd about the situation.  Everyone had skin in this game.  Well, I say everyone but the reality is that only the Sherpa and the paying climbers had skin; the expedition leaders and the Nepali government made their money already.  Regardless of the outcome, they get paid.  We - the Sherpa and climbers - get short-changed.  That situation made us all uneasy.  We all wanted to climb but the ramifications for climbing this year seemed too dear.

We heard rumors that a small Sherpa faction threatened any Sherpa who entered the icefall.  Those threats were never substantiated but they sure gained momentum.  Our leader went so far as to detail the threat issued to our Sirdar (head Sherpa) should we proceed with our climb.  The threat was graphic enough to make us all worry about the climb now.  Teams were pulling out in droves.  First Alpine Ascents and then IMG pulled out; Himex and Seven Summits held on to the bitter end.  The big guys were falling and we held out hope that some of the larger, more experienced and equipped teams would remain.  We were too small to rely on our Sherpa to fix ropes above the icefall.  Our Everest climbing hopes were tied to others now; we had to wait and see what happened.

The day ended for us after a long hike to the town of Lobuche where we were able to unwind and talk about the past few days.  We crashed there and slept while the world talked about us (in general sense).  Not all of the talk was positive.  We - the climbers - were portrayed as exploiters of the poor Sherpa.  I had no clue about the actual media circus but I got a hint of it over conversations with my family.  Headlines such as "The Disposable Man: A Western History of Sherpas on Everest" became reblogged and cited as gospel.  My family members restrained themselves as they read comment section after comment section portraying us climbers as "rich" and "unfit."  Sure, there are people on every mountain who probably do not belong; perhaps Everest has a higher proportion just because of the challenge.  Regardless, the media and the public commentary turned a difficult situation into a much worse situation for us all.  

My bid to climb Everest officially ended the next day 4/24.  I will recap that day in its entirety tomorrow.  Tonight, I get to sit down with my friend Scott Sehon.  He plans to record our interview and post it to his website.  Stay tuned for the next installment and expect an update with Scott's podcast site tomorrow.