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Deadly avalanche claims the lives of Everest's thankless laborers

Photo: Prakash Mathema/Getty Images via AFP

Nepalese mountaineer, Dawa Tashi Sherpa, survived Friday's deadly avalanche on Mount Everest.

The victims of Friday's deadly avalanche on Mount Everest were fit, prepared, experienced and acclimated to the altitude. They never had a chance.

Roughly 250 climbers have lost their lives on Everest, at 29,035 feet the world's tallest mountain. Many of those of deaths were attributable to human error: lack of experience, or poor judgment resulting from too much time above roughly 26,000 feet -- the so-called "death zone," where the human body can't replenish its store of oxygen.

The most recent victims hadn't made any mistakes, other than to choose an incredibly dangerous line of work. They were Nepali Sherpas, preparing for the spring climbing season, ferrying gear and fixing ropes through a passage whose very name denotes the danger it posed: the Khumbu Icefall. That section lies beneath the head of glacier that calves gigantic ice chunks which, from time to time, release.

Around 6:30 am on April 18th, according to climber Alan Arnette's authoritative website, the Icefall let go, unleashing an avalanche "off the West Shoulder of Everest hitting an area just below Camp 1, located at 19,500 feet but near the top of the Icefall."

Thirteen climbers are confirmed dead; another four are missing. Until Friday, the deadliest day in the history of mountaineering on Everest had been May 10, 1996, when eight people perished after being caught in a blizzard high up the mountain. One of the survivors, Jon Krakauer, went on to write Into Thin Air, his account of the storm and its aftermath. While that tragedy resulted in a torrent of finger-pointing and acrimony, there is no blame to be placed here.

"It's tragic," Conrad Anker told me on Friday, "but it's the luck of the draw." To get to the upper parts of the mountain, "you have to go through the Icefall." If there's an avalanche in that moment, he says, somberly, "your time is up."

Anker, one of the world's foremost mountaineers, is intimately acquainted with the perils of Everest. In 1999, in a scree field two thousand feet from the summit, he discovered the well-preserved corpse of George Mallory, the British mountaineer who'd gone missing in 1924. On Anker's public Facebook page is a tribute to his friend Ang Kaji Sherpa, killed in Friday's avalanche.

They'd summited Everest together two years ago. "He was part of the new generation of Sherpa climbers," recalls Anker. "He was technically proficient, multi-lingual" and comfortable on social media. "I considered him an equal."

Anker has done much to develop this "new generation" of Sherpas. In 2003, he and his wife, Jennifer Lowe-Anker, founded The Khumbu Climbing Center, in the remote village of Phortse, Nepal. (After flying from Kathmandu to Lukla, instructors hike in three days to reach the school, which is funded by the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation.)

But what could they, outsiders, teach the Sherpas, who were locals?

Just because they're native to the area, Anker explains, that doesn't mean they're born with climbing and mountaineering skills. Anker climbed Denali and various other forbidding peaks before attempting Everest. "I've gone through an apprenticeship," he says. "For a lot of these guys it's more like, 'Well my uncle's got a job for me, so I got a pair of boots.' Next thing you know they're climbing on most dangerous mountain the world."

The KCC gives students skills to diminish the danger, where possible. They're taught how to affix crampons, proper use of a climbing harness; correct rappelling and belaying techniques. The idea is to cut down on "little errors" that can have large consequences.

The founders and instructors at the school, which has now certified some 800 instructors, also aim "to give something back" to an impoverished community that serves as the backbone of Everest's commercial climbing industry. Sherpas wouldn't be risking their lives on the mountain if wealthy western clients weren't paying them to do it. "In a country where the per-capita income is $500/year," writes Arnette, "a Sherpa can make $5000 or more working on Everest."

"I don't mean to underestimate how hard it is" to climb Everest, says Rob Klingensmith, a Hawaii Ironman finisher who trekked in the mountain in late March. "We trained a lot, and it was an ass-kicker."

That said, he describes the aspiring summiteer as someone "whose only job it is to stay connected to the fixed ropes, then sit their ass down in the tent at night." While he admits that's an exaggeration/simplification, "The fact is, the Sherpas do all the heavy lifting."

The Sherpas were toiling at that thankless labor when the mountain collapsed on them. According to Arnette, roughly a hundred Sherpas remain trapped above the avalanche site, their only path to Base Camp blocked. Meanwhile, the government of Nepal announced that the families of deceased would receive 40,000 rupees. Even in death these men remain underappreciated, undervalued. That sum is not quite $415 US dollars.

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