NEWSLETTERS - Everest 2014

The Daily Moraine - Everest 2014 #34 June 2014


On Friday, 18th April 2014, a large avalanche swept down the western flank of Everest and over the Khumbu Icefall where numerous Sherpas were carrying loads from Base Camp to C1 and C2.It took the lives of 16 of those Sherpas and as if that wasn’t tragic enough, it left an ensuing melee of arguments, accusations and incompetence - rows which spread from the Sherpas and commercial operators right through to Nepalese government levels... Below is the first of five reports on the Himex site by Himalayan Experience owner and operator Russell Brice.

Mount Everest
Mount Everest

I wonder if I can put any sense to this season?

This is my 20th year of operations for Himalayan Experience and during that time I have operated 19 expeditions to Everest, 11 to Cho Oyo, 5 to Manaslu, 5 to Lhotse, 3 to Shishapangma, 2 to Makalu, 1 to Nuptse and 1 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.

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 Sagarmartha Pollution Control Committee (SPCC), is the body that employs the Icefall Doctors, a small group of hardy souls who install and maintain the route through the Khumbu Icefall.

Interestingly, 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. Last year I arranged for sponsorship of clothing, boots and tents and bought radios and avalanche transceivers for them, which the SPCC paid for. This year I bought them crampons, harness and hardware, helmets, headlamps and ice axes so as to improve their personal climbing equipment, which in turn should help them to be a little safer. From past discussions with the SPCC they are now sending the Icefall Doctors to the Khumbu Climbing Centre (KCC) for training which is an important progressive step. I am also asking the SPCC to look at various photos of the Icefall so as they can try to better understand the flow of the glacier before they start making the route each year. I have often discussed with the Icefall Doctors 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 the future.

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 is used 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. By going to Lobuche Peak 6,119m and camping just below the summit means that my members do not spend time acclimatising in the Icefall. This means that my members 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 boys doing up to 27 rotations. In general my expedition alone will spend something like 4,200 man hours in the Icefall each season.

So 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 number of man hours (126,000) that people are actually in the Icefall which 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, and most of these people will be Sherpa staff. They will spend 2½ - 3 hours going up and then another 1½ - 2 hours coming down. In the past few years only 3 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.

Since 2009, some of us Western Operators along with the Expedition Operators Association (EOA) have been asking the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation (Ministry) to change the Rules and Regulations so as to make it safer for climbers and Sherpas alike. However this seems to land on deaf ears. Part of the reason for this is that the Under Secretary is changed about every 12 – 18 months, sometimes we have a good person who wants to understand whilst at other times like right now we have corrupt people who do not want to be helpful. Having been to several meetings in the past week with the Under Secretary, I am appalled by the lack of understanding, the conceited and abusive manner that this man deals with my staff and others of considerable repute. In the last week I have witnessed him stroking the chin of Tamding Sherpa from my agency in Nepal and yelling at Damber Parajuli the President of the EOA. It is no wonder that nothing progresses within the Ministry.

During the Maoist rule of Nepal, the government was unable to rewrite the constitution so that, in effect, the Ministry had no leadership and no power to make changes to the rules. It has been a sad period of Nepal’s history but now with a new government then maybe, just maybe, there is a chance for change. Despite the fancy name of this department, there appears to be major problems within this organisation, the lack of action concerning the Sherpa demands after the Everest avalanche, and the dismal safety record of aviation in Nepal are only some of the more obvious indicators.

The current undersecretary Madhu Sudan Burlokoti made big news prior to this year’s Everest season by announcing that there would be three Police, three Military and three Ministry people at Base Camp acting as Liaison Officers. We as operators were very pleased with this announcement as we have been asking for this to happen for many years. But in the event on the day of the avalanche there were only 3 Liaison Officers at Base Camp. I asked the Under Secretary why the promised LOs were not there and he told me they could not get to BC because of the bad weather despite the fact that all our members, staff and the like, had all been able to arrive. In fact the Ministry asked the SPCC to house and look after the proposed LOs but only offered a paltry amount of cash to cover these expenses. In the event they never arrived and we were still stuck with the old rules of each team having one LO each. There were 39 teams on Everest this year, so again it was very unsatisfactory that only 3 out of 39 LOs were at BC. Remember that each LO is paid $2,500 plus travel expenses so we as expedition teams have just paid a little under $100,000 for nothing which begs the question as to where did this money actually go?

On the day of the avalanche, the LOs should have been the conduit for the Ministry to gain information about what was happening on the mountain but I am afraid that these gentlemen had no idea of what they should be doing. One LO, the son of Prachanda (the ex Maoist leader) has already been to the summit of Everest, but still could not help the Sherpa or mountaineering community and in fact some rumours even suggest that he might have been involved in agitating the situation at BC. In fact the Ministry in Kathmandu gained its information about the avalanche by looking at various teams and individuals blogs, not a reliable way to gain such important information. Another of the LOs yelled at my doctor, Anne Brants, who had the unenviable job of establishing that each victim was indeed dead, and then tagging and wrapping the body in a tarpaulin. The tag on the outside was an effort to save the body being exposed all the time. The LOs should have been able to then write a letter confirming the identity of the person and that they had died but they could not even manage this.

A similar problem manifested itself nearby two years ago on Manaslu when an avalanche occurred when there were six LOs at BC but by 8 in the morning they had all run away. I put the blame squarely on the Ministry for sending untrained people as Liaison Officers, despite there being very clear guidelines in the rule book about the qualifications of a Liaison Officer.

The EOA along with the Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA) have been lobbying the Ministry on many points including the point about Liaison Officers, but we have also been asking:
* Please reduce the tax on radio permits so as to encourage the use of more radios on the hill.
* Please set minimum wage levels for the Nepali mountaineering staff.
* Please raise the minimum levels for insurance cover for staff.
* Please change the floating charging system for permits to a per person fee rate so as different teams are not combining together. Currently there is a floating payment system for Expedition Permits. For the first seven members of a team the cost floats, but after seven members (which is $10,000 per person) it then stays the same at $10,000 up to a maximum of 15 members on one team. Many teams on Everest have less than seven members, so these small teams tend to join together in order to build up numbers above seven so as to reduce the fees payable. This leads to several teams being on the mountain but effectively without any leader. EOA has been suggesting that the Permit Fee be static no matter how many members might be in a team, so then each team, irrelevant of size will have a team leader who is directly responsible for that team.
* We have also been asking for permission to leave rescue equipment at various places. This in fact was granted this year and we had all hoped to leave various bits of rescue gear at the South Col and Camp 2. Actually the EOA bought new stretchers and new steel shovels this year. At the time of the avalanche these had still not been put into position, but none the less they were soon utilised during the rescue operations.
* We have been asking to leave heavy camping equipment, stored in a responsible manner at C2, so as to avoid the same equipment being carried up and then back down every year. We could probably reduce the number of loads through the Icefall by about 60 – 75%. We can store much of the equipment in plastic barrels which would keep the equipment safe, but would also not be of much environmental impact. Really the only people who actually go into the Western Cwm are mountaineers who are using this equipment in any case.
* Some of us have also been asking to sling loads by helicopter to Camp 1 at the beginning and end of the season. This is all very emotive between operators as we can all see that this can easily be abused. But with strict rules we can also see that this could again reduce the number of loads a Sherpa has to carry through the Icefall. But think about it, if we were able to take loads by helicopter and deposit equipment at C2, it would only be busy for the first year as operators actually get their equipment to C2 for subsequent storage. We are asking that these flights be done very early on during the season before most mountaineers actually arrive at BC. Just the rope fixing material for higher on the mountain is approximately 40 Sherpa loads per year.

Some people say that this would then be taking away the Sherpa income, however I think the general feeling of the Sherpas is that they would rather have this less income but have greater safety. My Sherpa staff are earning about $25 per day plus a bonus of $20 from BC to C1 and another bonus of $10 from C1 to C2. They normally go from BC to C2 and back again in one day, so they make $55 for this difficult and dangerous journey. As opposed to a typical journey from C2 to C4 and back again where they still make $25 per day; a bonus of $40 from C2 – C3 and a bonus of $70 from C3 – C4, in effect making $135 per day, admittedly a more strenuous day, but without the danger of the Icefall.

This year we asked the Ministry for special permission to leave equipment at C2 which was granted. Several operators stored all of their equipment in one place at C2 and removed all other equipment from C1 and picked up dropped loads from in the Icefall by helicopter. I, on behalf of these operators in fact, provided a detailed flight plan to the Ministry in advance in order to gain this special permission. I believe that other subsequent flights have not had permission. But in any case this provided us with some valuable information about flight times and just how much we could safely lift and what it is likely to cost to carry loads from BC to C1. Surprisingly it would only be about 50% more expensive to fly gear as opposed to Sherpa’s carrying it.

There are two things that suggest that this could be a good idea:
1. With global warming we see that there are many unstable hanging glaciers high on the slopes of the West Ridge and on Nuptse which is making the Icefall more dangerous than normal.
2. There are now better more powerful helicopters and better trained pilots in Nepal which makes this safer than in preceding years.

Part 2 follows shortly which covers the day of the avalanche.

Regards Russell

Abbreviations: Expedition Operators Association (EOA), Himalayan Rescue Association (HRA), Khumbu Climbing Centre (KCC), Liaison Officers (LOs) Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA), Nepal Mountain Guides Association (NMGA)Sagarmartha Pollution Control Committee (SPCC), Trekking Agencies Association Nepal (TAAN).