On what would be the darkest day in the history of the world’s highest mountain, Nima Chhiring, a 29-year-old Sherpa from the village of Khumjung with sunburned cheeks and a thatch of black hair, marched to work at 3 a.m. He had a 65-pound canister of cooking gas on his back. Behind him was the temporary village of Everest Base Camp, where the members of some 40 international expeditions were asleep in their tents or tossing restlessly in the thin air of 17,290 feet. Above him a string of headlamps flickered in the darkness, as more than 200 Sherpas and other Nepali workers filed through the Khumbu Icefall. Considered among the most hazardous sections of any regularly climbed mountain anywhere, the icefall is a steep, constantly shifting labyrinth of teetering seracs, crevasses, and contorted ice that spills 2,000 feet down a gorge between Mount Everest’s west shoulder and Nuptse, the 25,791-foot peak that looms over Base Camp.
Many of Nima Chhiring’s fellow Sherpas had trudged into the icefall even earlier on that morning, April 18. They’d had their typical breakfast of tea and a barley-flour porridge named tsamba, and shouldered loads packed the night before. Some were hauling ropes, snow shovels, ice anchors, and other gear they would use to set a handrail of fixed lines all the way to Everest’s summit at 29,035 feet. Others were lugging the equipment with which they would establish four intermediate camps higher on the mountain—sleeping bags, dining tents, tables, chairs, cooking pots, and even heaters, rugs, and plastic flowers to pretty up mealtime for their clients.
On some Sherpas were traces of the roasted barley flour they had rubbed on each other’s faces during the puja ceremonies the previous day, when they petitioned Jomo Miyo Lang Sangma, the goddess who dwells on Everest, for safe passage and “long life.” A number of the climbers already had made several round-trips since the route had been opened in early April by the Sherpa specialists known as the Icefall Doctors. The line of fixed ropes and aluminum ladders spanning cliffs and seams in the ice was not markedly different from the route of recent climbing seasons, though it was closer to the avalanche-raked flank of the west shoulder, where a hanging glacier bulged ominously a thousand feet above.