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"I regard her as a great protector," Tashi Tenzing, the grandson of Tenzing Norgay and a two-time Everest summiter, says of the mountain the Sherpa people call Chomolungma. "We believe that when you reach the summit and come back alive, you'll have a longer life." According to local Buddhist beliefs, though, Chomolungma is not particularly fond of being trod upon. Spirits dwell in her heightsevil forces and the ghosts of those lost on the peak. Any misstep on the mountainslaughtering animals, drinking to excess, burning trash, sleeping with your feet toward the summitcan invite serious retribution.
"You don't want to ask for trouble," says Himalaya anthropologist Jim Fisher. "There is already enough trouble up there." Of all the Everest no-no's, though, perhaps the one that most exasperates climbers is the taboo against having sex"making sauce," in Sherpa parlance. In the zero-privacy zone of Everest, the Sherpas aren't shy about reprimanding those who cross the line.
"Oh, I got reamed," says photographer Didrik Johnck, whose amorous escapades with his visiting girlfriend earned a rebuke from a disapproving Sherpa. "He says, 'I've got something serious to talk to you about. The weather is bad and I think you are adding to it. No taki-taki on the mountain.' "
"They'll come up and rattle your tent, 'You make sauce! Bring bad weather. No sauce-making!,' " says five-time summiter Ed Viesturs, who describes the scene at Base Camp as less than adult. ("Rumors get around; it's like high school.") Not that Sherpas don't let the occasional indiscretion slide, especially considering all the traffic on Everest these days. "They have a sense of humor about it," adds Viesturs, who notes that relationships between Sherpas and women from Western expeditions are fairly common. "They have to. They do it themselves."
But if something goes wrong, as it did in 1996, mountain love may come under closer scrutiny. "Some of the Sherpas were saying that Chomolungma was very angry" that season, says Tashi. "There were couples in the higher camps having sex, and those sorts of things can bring bad spirits or bad weather conditions." "I feel that I have to respect the gods there," concludes Kangshung climber Carlos Buhler. "But the gods are not unreasonable."
Find more Everest history, exclusive interviews, and expedition mysteries in the April 2003 issue of Adventure.
After the Slides
When Charles Bieler decided to sprint up the last few hundred feet of La Traviata's west couloir on January 20, he couldn't have known it was a move that would save his life. He'd seen no sign of the coming avalanche-not here, not anywhere during three days of skiing British Columbia's Selkirk Mountains with guide Ruedi Beglinger. He knew only that the angle of the slopeabout 37 degreesmade him uncomfortable, and that seven skiers were just above him. "I felt exposed," he says.
Seconds after Bieler charged out of the couloir, there was a thunderbolt crack as the mountainside ripped from its moorings. The avalanche swept up the 13 people below him and killed 7-including snowboarding pioneer Craig Kelly-making it one of the most lethal avalanches in the history of North American skiing. Shockingly, this record would be matched just 12 days later and 21 miles away, when a naturally released slide tore down a peak near Rogers Pass in Canada's Glacier National Park. Racing at more than 100 miles an hour, the 1,600-foot-wide avalanche traveled two-thirds of a mile before it struck 14 teens and 3 adults on a school outing, killing 7.
In the wake of the disasters, British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell called for a "comprehensive review" of wilderness safety. The media clamored for restrictions on backcountry travel, and avalanche debates on sites like Telemarktips.com received thousands of hits. The La Traviata slide, in particular, had stunned the backcountry com- munity: How could this have happened to expert skiers who were fully aware of the hazards, equipped with modern rescue gear, and led by Ruedi Beglinger, one of the most respected guides in North America? The answers would prove to be unsettling.
AS SOON AS THE LA TRAVIATA AVALANCHE came to a rest, Bieler and the other seven skiers who'd been above it rushed downhill, dropping, one after another, off the five-foot fracture line. They were an instant rescue party of almost unprecedented size, and the scene became a crucible in which search techniques and equipment would be tested to their limits.
Beglinger helped direct the effort and stayed in constant communication with the seven rescue helicopters he'd summoned by radio. Fanning out across the debris zone, rescuers scanned the snow with transceivers and probed for bodies.
Avalanche probes formed by screwing together ski poles were too short; only standard probes could reach the deepest victims. Plastic avalanche shovels, Alaskan John Seibert recalls, could barely cut into the compacted snow of the settled slide, and one of the tools even snapped.
"There's a difference between the Cool Whip you dig into in a clinic and the cement of a real avalanche," he says. (Seibert says that in the future, he'll only carry a metal shovel; he's also investigating the AvaLung, a breathing device that can help skiers survive longer under snow.)
Five of the thirteen victims had been only partially buried, and soon they were able to join the search. Within ten minutes, the first fully buried skiers were being uncovered. Rescuers tried to revive them as soon as their faces were clear. Heidi Bibera nurse from Truckee, Californiadashed from hole to hole, at times being lowered headfirst to administer CPR to victims, some of whom had inhaled snow. But none of the first six full burials, all found in 20 minutes or less, could be saved.
As the scene became more desperate, some searchers failed to override the automatic function that caused their transceivers to switch from search mode back to transmita feature meant to protect rescuers caught unawares by a secondary slide. The avalanche path pulsed not only with the signals of the buried but also with those of the rescuers trying to find them.
Still, the skiers picked up one crucial signal. Assistant guide Ken Wylie was six feet under when the slide settled, but he'd been left with an air pocket. On his radio, he could hear Beglinger communicating with the chopper pilots, and when the pocket suddenly collapsed, he made himself pass out, hoping to conserve oxygen. He held on for an incredible 35 minutes, waking to find Bieler and Seibert slapping him and yelling his name. Among the eight deep-burial victims, only he survived.
Get the full story of the British Columbia slides in the April 2003 issue of Adventure.
What can be learned from this year's tragic avalanche season?