Editor’s Note: This is the third post in a series by Ulyana Horodyskyj, a geologist who is trying to determine how airborne particles such as soot that settle on massive glaciers affect how fast the ice melts. On April 18 she, her fellow researchers and a team of Sherpas were headed to Mt. Everest base camp when a huge avalanche occurred just above the camp. The avalanche killed 16 Sherpas who were setting up climbing routes. One of them was among Horodyskyj’s team.
BASE CAMP. MT. EVEREST—After several days of research on nearby mountains, our American Climber Science Program team had assembled in Namche, at 11,500 feet, for final treats (cakes, coffee, hot showers) before our six-week expedition up Mt. Everest and Mt. Lhotse. From Namche it is possible to make Everest base camp, at 17,600 ft., in only three days. We took a bit longer, however, because a few team members were still acclimatizing (getting used to the higher altitudes). Our team includes Sherpas and five U.S. researchers and volunteers, John All (Kentucky), David Byrne (Oregon), Chris Cosgriff (Washington), Jake St. Pierre (New Hampshire) and myself (Colorado). We range in age from late twenties to early fifties and have climbed around the world.
On April 18, a fateful day in Everest history, we were on our way to Gorak Shep, the last remote village (and reliable wi-fi hotspot) before base camp. Suddenly we heard that earlier in the morning, an avalanche in the Khumbu Icefall above the camp—part of a glacier that resembles an enormous frozen waterfall—killed 16 Sherpas who were making their way up to Camp 1, above base camp, to drop off various loads for climbers. Horrified, we learned that one of our own Sherpas, Asman Tamang, had died. Asman leaves behind a young wife and a nine-month-old daughter. He was an aspiring Everest climber and was on his first rotation through the icefall. At camp, we were all heart-broken. It was—and remains—incredibly hard for me to wrap my mind around the magnitude of this tragedy.
In the days since then, the mood at base camp has been understandably grim and somber. Everyone is trying to come to terms with what has happened. To honor the dead there have been puja ceremonies in front of makeshift stone altars. And there have been many meetings held with Sherpas and government officials to determine how to proceed.
What is ultimately heartbreaking with the situation, however, is how it devolved so quickly into lawlessness. Despite the promise of a military presence after a fight on Everest last year, there is no one here. Many big (commercial) expeditions went home from base camp within days of the tragedy after being threatened by some locals to not continue climbing. In addition, the “Icefall Doctors” (Sherpas who fix ropes and other elements of the route through the icefall) and all other Nepalis who might help Westerners have been threatened with broken legs and harm to their families should they try to support any teams going up the mountain. The intimidation has come from individuals who were present at base camp and were trying to gain political advantage and control over operations (part of a struggle between ethnic groups in the hills and various levels of government).
As a small, non-commercial science expedition, this has been a blow to our goals. Although we have been able to collect some data (snow samples, photos and measurements of reflectivity on snow and ice) at the base of the icefall and on Khumbu glacier, the heart of our work lies above, at Camp 2 on Everest. It is sad that a tragedy here has turned into political warfare and hostility among locals and Westerners. It does not have to be this way. There was an opportunity to give this tragedy positive outcomes; to honor the dead and ensure that they did not perish in vain; to bring about some change in how Sherpas who undertake such dangerous work are treated; and to do some important climate research that could provide insight into how the top of the world is changing in response to climate change and localized pollution.
I do not know what our team will do next. The Icefall Doctors will not be going up and resetting the route. Anyone who climbs would climb at their own risk. Indeed, our project has been cancelled. We couldn't, in good conscience, continue on. We are headed to Kathmandu to speak with our liaison officer about continuing our work on another high peak. Nothing is certain yet, but I hope to know more in the next few days.
Funds are being raised for Asman Tamang's family via climberscience.