Back to Everest in 2015?

Six months after killer avalanche, Sherpas and Western outfitters look to next year’s climbing season.

The deaths this week of at least 28 people, including eight or more foreign trekkers in snowstorms in central Nepal, have focused the world's attention once more on the potential hazards of mountaineering in the Himalaya.

It was six months ago this week that 16 Nepali mountain workers died in an avalanche on Mount Everest, the worst accident in the peak's history. Looking ahead to a new Everest climbing season next spring, veteran climbers and guides are voicing concerns.

Lakpa Rita, a Himalayan guide with 17 Everest summits to his credit, was in his tent at Base Camp on April 18 when he awoke to the news that the avalanche had struck a team of mountain guides in the treacherous Khumbu Icefall.

"I knew we had several Sherpas in that group," he said. The team had been moving gear through the icefall to higher camps in advance of the parade of high-paying clients who would soon follow.

"My brother and I got up there as fast as we could. It took us a couple of hours," he said. "Other Sherpas who had survived had already dug out two of the bodies. We dug out 11 of the dead that day. My team lost five Sherpas."

Of the avalanche victims, all but three were ethnic Sherpas, a community that traditionally is the backbone of the work force that makes climbing the world's highest mountain possible.

Sherpas die every year on Everest, but the magnitude of this year's tragedy sent a shock wave through Nepal and the wider world of international mountaineering. The Everest climbing season was shut down after most Sherpas refused to continue working on the mountain out of respect for their lost comrades and their families.

As the stunned commercial expeditions dismantled their camps, heated debates raged in climbing circles and the media over the risks Sherpas face, the compensation they receive, and the future of climbing on Everest.

So with the 2015 climbing season six months away, where do things stand?

Business as Usual?

"I think some Sherpas may be nervous, but most climbing Sherpas want to work," said Lakpa Rita, who at 49 is among the most experienced Sherpa guides in the Himalaya. "They rely on the money. They don't have a lot of choices, so they will climb."

Guy Cotter, CEO of Adventure Consultants, an outfitter with two decades of Everest guiding experience, concurred. "I don't want to sound callous, but I think for the most part it will be business as usual," he said from his native New Zealand. "We have clients booked for Everest this year, as I'm sure most of the large guiding companies do. Risk has always been part of the equation on Everest. And it certainly hasn't dampened its allure."

Cotter emphasized that he hoped the tragedy would put a new focus on safety and mitigating risks. Last year he applied to Nepal's Ministry of Tourism and Aviation, which oversees the Everest climbing industry, for permission to use a helicopter to ferry gear over the icefall. The idea was to reduce the number of trips Sherpas would have to make through what is arguably the most dangerous section of the standard route on the Nepal side of the mountain.

"I was denied," he said. "Instead, we used the helicopter to retrieve the bodies of those killed in the avalanche. But I will ask for permission again this year. It's pretty clear that the fewer trips Sherpas make through the icefall reduces their risks."

Risking Sherpas' Lives for Espresso

Others say the focus should be on what Sherpas carry. Several outfitters pointed out that many loads include unnecessary comfort items, such as large tents with steel poles, heated carpets, chairs, tables, and espresso machines.

Some of the gear is for media spectacles. Five of the Sherpas killed last year were carrying equipment related to a Discovery Channel show that planned to chronicle a wing-suit flyer's attempt to BASE jump off the summit. (Discovery canceled the project and donated money to a fund to aid the dead Sherpas' families.)

Another issue is the large number of oxygen bottles required by many novice climbers to get up to the top and back down to lower camps. Each cylinder has to be carried on the back of a Sherpa.

"We need to revisit what it means to climb this mountain," said Conrad Anker, a professional climber for The North Face. Some of that is the responsibility of climbers, he said. "But a lot of it has to do with the outfitters and who they choose to guide and how they choose to do it."

Adrian Ballinger, founder of Alpenglow Guides, agreed. "It is a question of whether asking workers to make dozens of trips through the icefall in its current condition is an ethical business practice. I believe the answer is no."

Ballinger said he believes the Nepal government should regulate outfitters, requiring them to employ internationally certified guides and submit proof that their clients have summited at least one other 8,000-meter (26,000 foot) peak, among other safety measures.

With no sign of such reforms coming in time for next season, Ballinger said his company will switch to safer routes on the China side of the mountain for 2015.

Sherpas—Climbers and Nonclimbers—Come Together

Perhaps the most introspective conversations in the wake of the tragedy have been among Sherpas. In August, some 40 Sherpa guides gathered in Kathmandu at a workshop, the first of its kind, where they discussed a variety of issues, including better technical training and more coordinated search and rescue procedures among the different teams. "This kind of discussion isn't easy among Sherpas,"said Lakpa Rita. "We don't feel comfortable to speak openly about sensitive things, but it was a good beginning."

Nonclimbing Sherpas have also rallied around the Khumbu communities.

"The tragedy brought the entire Sherpa community together, really for the first time," said Norbu Tenzing, son of Tenzing Norgay, who with Sir Edmund Hillary famously completed the first summit of Everest in 1953. Speaking at the annual gathering of the American Himalayan Foundation in San Francisco, Norbu, who serves as the the group's vice president, said, "I have never been interested in climbing myself, but I felt compelled to support my fellow Sherpas in this critical moment."

Other nonclimbing Sherpas agreed. "We Sherpas have a saying that 'you trade your dead body to do this work,' " said Karsang Sherpa, who grew up in a climbing family but is now an investor in Denver. "Sherpas like my father, who was nearly killed in an avalanche on Everest with the Japanese team in 1969, climbed so that I wouldn't have to. That is the case for nine out of ten Sherpas climbing today. They do it for their children."

In Karsang's case, his father's efforts paid off handsomely. After studying architecture at Cambridge, Karsang earned an MBA from Wharton. He has never climbed a Himalayan peak.

"Let's be honest," Karsang said. "People will always want to climb Everest. But let's make it as safe and as lucrative as possible for the Sherpas who enable others to climb the mountain."

The key issue that Karsang and many Sherpas are focused on for the coming season is to raise the insurance coverage for climbing Sherpas. Last year, the standard policy provided to Sherpas working for established outfitters on the mountain came with a $10,000 death benefit. The government has agreed to compel outfitters to raise that to at least $15,000 in 2015.

"We want to see the insurance benefit increased to $50,000," said Karsang. "That could actually make a real difference if a Sherpa family lost its main provider. I think if all Sherpas press the outfitters and the government on this issue, we can make it happen, and in the end, it will be good for everyone."

Meanwhile, Lakpa Rita has guided his last trip on Everest. "After what happened last year, I told my family I won't guide Everest or K2 anymore."

What would he tell his three grown children if they wanted to climb the world's tallest mountain? "They're not interested," he said. "I was gone so much when they were young they never got into climbing. It never got into their blood like it got into mine."

For more on the Sherpas and the effects the avalanche had on their community, read National Geographic's November story "Sorrow on the Mountain."

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