The Khumbu Icefall is possibly the most treacherous obstacle on the way to the summit of Mount Everest. This section of glacier falls several feet a day, constantly in motion because of its mammoth weight.
Deep crevasses can materialise overnight and huge ice towers known as seracs can detach themselves at any moment, often the size of cars.
Mountaineers have given the most notorious places nicknames such as the Ballroom of Death and Popcorn Field. Guides view these areas with deep unease.
In his account of the 1996 disaster that claimed the lives of eight people, climber, John Krakauer, wrote “Each trip through the icefall was a little like playing a round of Russian roulette.”
This was owing to the danger of a serac falling over without warning: “You could only hope you weren’t beneath it when it toppled.”
At the time, this was the worst death toll for one season in the mountain’s history. The disaster occurred on the left-hand side of the Khumbu Icefall – the West Shoulder.
In April, where Krakauer’s party met extreme misfortune, 16 Nepalese men working as Sherpas were crushed to death by seracs as large as small houses, setting a new record for the single deadliest accident on Everest.
A boycott by Sherpas followed, leading to the cancellation of that season’s expeditions. The Sherpas presented 13 demands, some of which were met.
Lhakpa Norpu Sherpa, an advisor to the advocacy group, Mountain Spirit, explained that overcrowding can occur, and “a lot of these fatalities occur when you have too many people stuck at a dangerous place for too long.”
Tendi Sherpa, who has summited Everest 10 times, disclosed that many families were left shocked, “But the sherpas themselves, they need the money. They feel obliged to climb. This is the only work they know.”
Sherpas tote 80-pound loads in some of the most terrible conditions found on Earth. They can be paid as much as $6,000 for making the summit, massive wealth in Nepal, where the average annual salary is around $700.
Off-season, they work on tours of lower peaks, which pays a tenth as well, and study English to better interact with Western clients.
In the course of a few expeditions, a Sherpa can make enough to afford to build a concrete house for his family, get siblings through college or even found a small business. Tendi added, “It’s not an easy job. It’s so painful.”
Sherpas have for years complained discreetly of harder working conditions as more climbers tackle Everest. Advanced equipment and improved weather forecasting have made Everest, the Nepalese tourism industry’s leading asset, appear more attainable than ever. 658 people made the summit in 2013, a fivefold rise since 2000.
Clients are willing to shell out over $60,000 to climb. Tour companies compete over the comforts they can provide: espresso, internet facilities, fully-stocked bars and sushi – all of which has to be carried. The most dangerous and difficult tasks are assigned to Sherpas to reduce the risk to Western climbers.
Climate change is melting the ice on Everest. Tom Rippel, a Canadian Everest guide, blogged that the mountain has been suffering for three years: “Each day we sit and listen to the groaning and crashing of the glacier.” Sherpas bear the brunt of the risk.
The route up Everest has now been changed. This path avoids the Khumbu Glacier’s left-hand side and instead goes through the centre.
Ang Dorji Sherpa, head of the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee that sets the route of Everest expeditions, explained that the new route would be arduous and time-consuming but would minimise the risk of avalanche. The route has been used since 1953, the year Everest was first conquered.
Andrew is one of the senior writers at Mountain IQ. A native of South Africa, Andrew has hiked and climbed all over the world. His favourite destination is Nepal and his most memorable hike was to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro!