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Nightfall above Everest base camp

After Two Deadly Years, Everest Climbers Gear Up for a Strong Season

Nepal has had the worst year imaginable. But even after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake, political unrest that resulted in a five-month blockade, and the two deadliest years in the history of climbing on Mount Everest, this spring’s expedition season is set to be as busy as ever.

Ang Kami Sherpa, 63, just arrived at Everest Base Camp to lead a team of ten “icefall doctors” to build a safe passage through the treacherous crevasses, seracs, and ice walls of the deadly Khumbu Icefall. This is his 16th season working as an icefall doctor and the first time he’s returned to the mountain since the climbing season tragically ended before it really even began last year.

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Ang Kami Sherpa, a senior icefall doctor who checks the ice and fixes ladders, bridges, and rope trails at Khumbu Icefall for the expedition team, stands at Everest Base Camp in April 2015. The Khumbu Icefall can be seen in the background. Photograph by AP Photo/Tashi Sherpa

Ang Kami miraculously survived the massive avalanche triggered by the 7.8 earthquake in April 2015. Ripping through Base Camp at 180 miles per hour, the avalanche killed 21 people and injured dozens more, breaking the record for the deadliest day on the mountain—the second time in two years. In the same quake, his simple home in the village of Chaurikharka was obliterated, leaving him scraping to find a way to rebuild a house and provide for his five children.

“I think Everest is angry,” he says.

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Bundled for transport, Ang Kami Sherpa was one of three survivors flown from the mountain after the 2015 earthquake triggered a deadly avalanche. Photograph by Andy Tyson

This is the second tragedy that Ang Kami has witnessed and survived. In 2014, 16 Nepali expedition workers were buried when a massive serac obliterated the climbing route through the Khumbu Icefall (see graphic), marking what was then the deadliest day on Everest. The climbing season was canceled, and the only summit from Nepal that year was accomplished in part via helicopter.

What’s more, in the past two years, 38 have people lost their lives on Mount Everest before even reaching Camp I. There’s no question that something—be it climate change, seismic activity, or angry spirits—has made the mountain more dangerous and unstable than ever before.

Yet Ang Kami is already back on the mountain with his team, braving aftershocks and risking his life to build a safe route for the hundreds of climbers who will soon arrive at Base Camp.

Bookings for guided Everest climbs this spring are surprisingly strong. “Clients have already forgotten about the earthquake,” says Jiban Ghimire, managing director of Shangri-La Nepal Trek, who’s preparing for five separate Everest expeditions this spring. “This season will be slightly below average, but if we don’t have any other issues, next year will be crowded again.”

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Sherpas from Thamserku Trekking train clients in basic rope skills, ascending, and rappelling in the middle of the crux climbing section of Island Peak in 2014. Many clients have never touched a rope or used ice axes or crampons before this 20,000 feet peak. Photograph by Aaron Huey

Some climbers have given up on the dangerous route in Nepal but not on Everest itself. The route that traverses the northeast ridge from Tibet is likely to see higher than usual traffic this year. Despite an extremely long summit day, this route avoids the deadly passage through the Khumbu Icefall.

Professional climber and North Face athlete Hilaree O’Neill is planning an ascent from the north without oxygen. Despite having set records on Everest on the Nepal side, she pledged never to return by that route. “I don’t think I could go back and climb on the south side again … The route has a lot more hazards than I’m willing to take on,” she says.

Yet nearly all Tibet-bound expeditions originate in Kathmandu. This requires moving armies of climbing Sherpas and tons of equipment via road to the north side of the mountain. This typically isn’t a problem, but a landslide triggered by the earthquake took out the only border checkpoint between Nepal and Tibet—leaving operators uncertain about how to get their gear across. Dawa Steven Sherpa, managing director of Asian Trekking, a leading local operator, has yet to commit to running an expedition from the north, despite high demand. “I have 15 tons of equipment to send and no border crossing,” he says.

Once the border crossing is opened, some climbers may trickle to the north, but the action will likely always be in Nepal, and the government there knows it. “Earthquakes and crises won’t effect climbers” says Govinda Karkee, director general of the Department of Tourism. “Climbers are crazy,” he adds. “They are not normal. Crazy people climb Everest. Normal people go trekking.”

This year will also draw a number of notable personalities in the mountaineering world. Both O’Neill and Melissa Arnot are planning trips to the north side, along with Cory Richards and Adrian Ballinger. Significantly, Dave Hahn—a nearly permanent fixture at Base Camp, with 15 summits under his belt—will not return to the mountain this year for personal reasons.

With a steady supply of people willing to pay $90,000 or more for a shot at the summit, there’s little incentive for Nepal to make its side of the mountain safer. So far, the Nepalese government’s action plan is to: a) extend 103 permits issued for the canceled 2015 season for another two years, and b) set up a help kiosk at Everest Base Camp.

Life insurance coverage for high-altitude Sherpas on Mount Everest is set at approximately $15,000—a fraction of the cost of even the cheapest guided expedition yet the highest set rate for any group of workers in Nepal. Actual safety on the mountain falls into the hands of a number of local nonprofit and trade organizations and the expedition operators themselves.

This includes the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee, Ang Kami Sherpa’s employer and the sole group responsible for managing the route through the icefall. After all that’s happened this year, why has he returned to the scene of so much tragedy?

“What do you expect me to do?” he says bluntly. “No money, no honey.”

It’s going to take a lot more than two deadly avalanches to keep people off of Mount Everest, and despite the risks, this may not be a bad thing. A robust climbing season will provide thousands of jobs to porters, lodge owners, and high-altitude climbers—many of whom, like Ang Kami, have lost their homes and loved ones and have nowhere else to turn. They have no choice but to once again risk everything, on an angry mountain, for those who do.