On Friday, April 18th, a serac avalanche caught a large team of approximately 25 professional climbing Sherpas who were ferrying loads near the top of the Khumbu Ice Fall. Although several bodies have not been recovered, it now seems certain that 16 Nepali men were killed in tragic event, making the event the biggest single disaster in the mountain's history.
Men's Journal caught up with American mountaineering legend Ed Viesturs to discuss the risks of Mount Everest, the vital role the climbing Sherpass play on the mountain, and whether or not things will ever change.
When was the last time you went through the icefall?
Ed Viesturs: My last trip to Everest was in 2009. The danger is always present there. I've probably been through it 50 times over my career. There's always the thought, when you go through the icefall, that "today could be the day." I always go as fast as possible.
Describe the role Sherpas play on the mountain?
Imagine Everest basecamp like a home construction site. You have the contractors, who are the expedition organizers. You have the clients, who want to realize their dream. And you got this big stack of lumber that's just been delivered and waiting to go. Except instead of wood, it's miles of ropes, tents, and other supplies. The Sherpa are the carpenters – they are the ones who build the route up the mountain. Without the Sherpa, the work doesn't get done. It's their house.
What does the job mean to them?
For them, the spring season is a big part of their annual income, it's their bread and butter. The Everest expeditions are the longest, the most high profile, and if you do good, you know you're going to get hired again next year. They make good money by local standards, but the risk level is off the scale. They know the risk and they accept the risk, but it's not a great situation for them.
24 climbing Sherpas have been killed over the last three years. Is there a sense that things on Everest are at a tipping point? Does anyone have the authority to close Mount Everest?
I don't know. At the moment, the decision whether or not to quit for the season is being left to each team. It could be that a year from now very little is different. The serac avalanche may be seen by some as one of those things that just happened, and there were people in the way.
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But honestly, if the Sherpa all banded together, they could have that power. If they were to "unionize" I think they would have a huge amount of power. They could say, ‘we want these benefits, we want this pay, or we're shutting the whole show down'. But it doesn't sound like they want to do that. The Sherpas aren't forced laborers, they're paid relatively well, and everyone's there on Everest to work, to climb, with the understanding that there's a serious amount of risk that must be accepted.
Personally, I think the Sherpa should be paid what they think they're worth, and if it means significantly increasing the cost per climber and less people go to Everest, maybe that's not a bad thing. It'd mean the mountain was less crowded.
How have you seen the relationship between international teams and climbing Sherpas change on Everest over the course of your career?
In 1991, I went to the South side of Everest with two clients I was guiding, and four other friends. We hired a handful of Sherpa. I was the climbing leader, and I'd hired them, so I felt I should carry loads with them through the icefall every time they did. I felt like I should go along, to show them my respect. The funny thing was, after a week, I could tell they were pissed at me. I finally pulled one of them aside and asked what was up. They said that every load I carried, was one less for them. They looked on the situation as though I was denying them a chance to make money.
I think the camaraderie many teams feel with their Sherpa team can be confusing. Without these guys, nobody would climb Everest. The majority of expeditions, they absolutely rely on them. In 2009, I was so impressed with how organized they were. They would come to us and be like "here is our schedule, these are the loads, this is the strategy." They were pros.
You wrote in The Mountain: My Time On Everest that if you were in the infamous "congo-line" of climbers that was photographed two years ago, in 2012, you'd turn back. That struck me as a profound statement, coming from you. Would you go back?
For me to go back again, there would have to be a professional reason. Everest today is not the climbing experience I want to have. I first went to the mountain in 1987; I've seen how cool it can be with no people. The reality is those days are gone. A lot of people on the mountain today don't even know what it was like. For us who have seen the other side of Everest, it's difficult to go back.