Sherpa guides count avalanche dead and prepare for next Everest climb

Guides killed in Everest avalanche are reminder of the risks this Nepalese community faces

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 April, 2014, 11:37pm
UPDATED : Monday, 21 April, 2014, 1:29am

The rescuers moved quickly, just minutes after the first block of ice tore loose from Mount Everest and started an avalanche that roared down the mountain, ripping through teams of guides hauling gear.

But they could not get there quickly enough. No one can move that fast. Not even people who have spent their lives in Everest's shadow, and who have spent years working on the world's highest peak.

By yesterday, Nepal had called off the search for three local guides still missing after the deadliest accident on Mount Everest, which killed 13 of their colleagues, a tourism ministry official said. Four survivors had been flown to hospitals in Kathmandu, Nepal's capital, where they were in stable condition.

For the Sherpas, the once-obscure mountain people whose name has become synonymous with Everest and whose entire culture has been changed by decades of working as guides and porters for wealthy foreigners, it was a brutal reminder of the risks they face.

The mountains are a death trap. But we have no other work

"The mountains are a death trap," said Norbu Tshering, a 50-year-old Sherpa guide.

"But we have no other work, and most of our people take up this profession, which has now become a tradition for all of us."

The avalanche happened early on Friday morning at about 5,800 metres as the Sherpa guides were hauling gear through the Khumbu icefall, a treacherous terrain of crevasses and enormous chunks of ice. The men were near an area known to climbers as the popcorn field because if its bulging ice, when an enormous chunk broke away from a high glacier and came tumbling down the mountain, setting off an avalanche of ice, according to the website of International Mountain Guides.

Nepalese tourism officials said the guides had been fixing ropes - using clamps and special screws to attach kilometres of nylon cord used by the streams of climbers who begin heading for the summit this time of year. But guiding companies said the ropes had already been laid down, and the Sherpas were carrying loads of tents, oxygen tanks and other gear to the higher camps used by climbers as they approach the summit.

Special teams - known as the icefall doctors - fix lines and aluminium ladders through the Khumbu.

A day after the disaster, many Sherpa guides spoke of their work in ways that reflect the complexities of poor people working in a deeply hazardous place.

The work is dangerous - a year rarely passes without at least one death on Everest - but the Sherpas, who were once among the poorest people of Nepal, also now have schools, cell phones and their own middle class.

While the average annual income in Nepal is just US$700, a high-altitude Sherpa guide can make US$5,000 during the three-month climbing season. Climbers can easily pay US$100,000 for a chance to reach the summit.

"The risks for Sherpas on the mountain are twice that of the Western climbers," said Nima Tenzing, a 30-year-old guide who also runs a shop for trekking gear in Kathmandu.

Still, he shows no resentment.

"Death and injury on the mountain is part of our lives now. We have lost many of our people to the mountain. But we have to pull ourselves together and continue our work."