Everest Tragedy 2014 - Part One: In the Icefall

by Russell Brice Jun/2014
This article has been read 8,782 times

On 18 April 2014 a large avalanche swept down the western flank of Everest and over the Khumbu Icefall, where many Sherpas were carrying loads from Base Camp to C1 and C2. It took the lives of 16 people, the worst single incident in the history of Everest climbing.

The accident left a melee of argument, accusation and counter-accusation, ongoing rows which have spread from the Sherpas and commercial operators right through to the Nepalese government. Whether these events will eventually result in better working conditions for local staff on the mountain is still uncertain. Meanwhile the future shape of commercial climbing on the Nepalese side of Everest remains equally unclear. 

Below is the first of several pieces from an operator's perspective originally posted on the Himalayan Experience website by owner Russell Brice, one of the leading commercial operators on the mountain. Part one looks at the background to the incident, specifically why so many people were in the icefall at the time.


I wonder if I can make any sense of this season? This is my 20th year with Himalayan Experience and during that time I have operated 19 expeditions to Everest, 11 to Cho Oyo, five to Manaslu, five to Lhotse, three to Shishapangma, two to Makalu, one to Nuptse and one to Ama Dablam a total of 47 expeditions. I have had 366 people on the summit of Everest and 633 people on all the various summits, but never before have I experienced such a variety of emotions as I did this year.

+Everest from Kala Pattar, 162 kbEverest from Kala Pattar
© Rob Norris, Oct 2010

I had a great team of members, guides and Sherpas this year, and the acclimatisation progress was good, the weather was great and conditions on the mountain appeared to be normal although somewhat dry on the Lhotse face. My Sherpas reported to me that the route through the Khumbu Icefall was about normal, although they were once again concerned at how far the route went under some of the ice cliffs on the West Ridge, which has been the trend in recent years despite us constantly asking for a more central and safer route.

The small group of hardy souls who install and maintain the route through the Khumbu Icefall are known as the Icefall Doctors, employed by a body called the Sagarmartha Pollution Control Committee (SPCC).

The SPCC gain considerable funds from charging Everest climbers $600 per person for using the Icefall route. Unfortunately all these funds are not used in paying the Icefall Doctors or on equipment for the Icefall. Much of the money goes to help keep the Khumbu area clean, an area used by hundreds of trekkers per year, who pay nothing. We are asking that the SPCC spend more money on the Icefall and seek other ways to find funding for the great job that they do in keeping the Everest area clean.

When I moved my Everest operation from Tibet to Nepal in 2009 I looked at ways to reduce the length of time that my members spend in the Icefall. Going to Lobuche Peak 6119m and camping just below the summit means that my members do not spend time acclimatising in the Icefall. This means that they only go through the Icefall twice up and twice down; one rotation during the second stage of acclimatisation and the second rotation during the summit climb. However I am afraid that my Sherpa staff have to do many trips through the Icefall with some doing up to 27 rotations. In general my expedition alone will spend something like 4200 man hours in the Icefall each season.

+Khumbu Icefall ladders., 158 kbKhumbu Icefall ladders.
© radson, Apr 2008

If the average team is spending this length of time in the Icefall and we multiply this by the 30+ teams that are on the mountain, this comes to an astronomical 126,000-odd man hours. This would add up to about 14 years if it was just one person. On an average day during the Everest season there will be something like 150-300 people passing through the Icefall, most them Sherpa staff. Each will spend 2½ - 3 hours going up and then another 1½ - 2 hours coming down. In the past few years only three Sherpas have been killed by serac fall (the most obvious danger in the Icefall) and one Sherpa was killed by an avalanche coming from the West Shoulder. All other accidents have been people falling off ladders into crevasses and the like, which are personal mistakes. Of course that is up until this year.

So in fact, considering the number of man hours that people spend in the Icefall, percentage wise it is not as dangerous as it is perceived. But can I stress that I still consider it to be extremely dangerous.

On the morning of 18 April my Sherpas had already told our Sirdar, Phurba, that there was a problem with one of the ladders and that we needed to get the Icefall Doctors to make repairs. It appears that there was already a traffic jam in this area at the time of the avalanche, with maybe more than 150 people in the Icefall.  

The fact that this avalanche came from an ice cliff high on the West Shoulder meant that not only did it have a lot of ice blocks but it was also travelling at a very high speed and went a long way down the route. Perhaps it is not surprising that so many were killed and injured.

In the past two years I have been trying to help the Icefall Doctors as I see that they have a difficult, dangerous but thankless task. I have often discussed with them about investigating a route to the right hand side of the glacier on the lower section so as to avoid the “Popcorn “ section and to revert back to the central glacier in the upper section. When I first went to Everest as a two-man team on the West Ridge in 1981 we used this route. I know that it takes longer to travel through the last section, but it does not put us under the West Ridge like the current route. I hope that we investigate this again in future.

 

  • In the second part of this series Russell Brice will look at the rescue and recovery effort following the avalanche.

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