Their lifeline to more tomorrow's......

12th Nov 2014

I looked around the room at the Nepalese Tea House where our Island Peak team are staying in the small Khumbu village of Dingboche.  On the various busy tables I counted 3 copies of 'Into Thin Air' by Jon Krakauer.  One of them was on our table.  It had been brought to Nepal by team member James and it is usually the same - whenever I bring a team here there's almost always someone with a copy of the book.  This undoubtedly goes some way to explaining why it has sold over 3 million copies (although I'm sure lots of the ones I see around the Khumbu are not genuine because it can be bought for a fraction of genuine price in a hundred or more Kathmandu bookshops).  
I'm sure you've heard of the book but, just in case you haven't, Krakauer's book tells the harrowing story of the 1996 Everest disaster where so many climbers lost their lives when what always seems to be described as a 'sudden killer storm' blew in while they were high on the mountain.  Krakauer is an excellent writer and his book weaves the threads of the story together brilliantly.  He did, however, receive a fair amount of criticism for what some saw as considerable character assassination of various team members and detail inaccuracies.
I grew up with an ambition and determination without which I would have been a great deal happier.  I thought a lot and developed the far-away look of a dreamer, for it was always the distant heights which fascinated me and drew me to them in spirit (Earl Denman - a Canadian who's book 'Alone to Everest' documents his attempt to climb Everest alone in 1947)
When James had read his copy I borrowed it and, although I've read it countless times before, I was soon hooked by the fascinating story yet again.  Of course the Khumbu region is the ideal place to read it and, conveniently, yesterday's route took us to the classic Everest viewpoint at Kala Pattar.  As I sat looking at all the famous features like the Icefall, the South Col and the summit ridge, I found myself pondering on the fateful events of that day.  
Like most disasters the true story involves so many interlinking threads.  One or two factors alone and there would have been no story to tell, but add together a significant number and, when hell was unleashed on the mountaineers battling to find shelter, they had left too fine a margin to get themselves to safety.  With ropes that weren't fixed, some clients lacking sufficient experience, over exertion, oxygen supply problems, character conflicts and, of course, that 'sudden killer storm', it was a cocktail that led to one of the mountains worst disasters.
I looked down.  Descent was totally unappetising.....too much labour, too many sleepless nights and too many dreams had been invested to bring us this far.  We couldn't come back for another try next weekend. To go down now, even if we could have, would be descending to a future marked by one huge question: what might have been? (Thomas Hornbein - Hornbein's book 'Everest: The West Ridge' is an excellent read describing his 1963 ascent of the west ridge)
I'm sure all guides have analysed the details of that fateful event to see if there are ways to ensure it couldn't happen again.  There have certainly been changes to guiding on Everest such as many  companies now utilising a 1:1 client to Sherpa ratio for the upper section of the mountain or more detailed weather forecasts being sought before the peak is attempted.  Just like every development in safety, humans usually end up learning from a time when something went wrong.
As we walked to Dingboche today we passed a small flat area at the side of the trail where 50 or so stone monuments stand overlooking Ama Dablam.  It is a fittingly tranquil and stunningly beautiful place.  From a distance the monument to Scott Fischer stands out because, as well as a brass plaque, someone has painted his name in huge black and white letters on the boulder beneath.  Scott Fischer was the owner of guiding company Mountain Madness and he was one of the climbers that perished on that fateful day.  Scott is always described as a gregarious, fun loving person with a larger than life persona and I thought today how fitting this vibrant memorial was for such a man.  Scott was guiding on Everest for the first time and his style, as described by Krakauer, was to allow his clients to make decisions about their movements on the mountains for themselves.  This allowed them to move up and down at their own pace but also meant Scott could end up being called up or down the mountain to attend to problems.  There is a suggestion this tired him out and left him very short on reserves for summit day.  Reserves he ended up needing in abundance when things got difficult.
“Somewhere between the bottom of the climb and the summit is the answer to the mystery of why we climb.” (Greg Child)
Another key player in 96 was Kiwi guide Rob Hall.  Rob was owner of a rival guiding company called Adventure Consultants which, at the time, was probably the leading player in Everest guiding.  He also died in tragic circumstances that night after becoming trapped near the summit with an ailing client.  Rob, although apparently an extrovert and confident character too, always seemed to be, from the descriptions I've read at least, a more calculating tactician than Scott.  Rob kept tight reigns on his team and was in direct control of their movements at all times.  Having said that, the time this system was most needed, and yet couldn't easily be maintained, was on summit day itself. 
Two contrasting leadership styles whose fate became intertwined that fateful night and, as I looked across from Kala Pattar yesterday it was hard to imagine, in this landscape of such incredible beauty, that such suffering could occur in this haven of calm.   Everest's storms were sleeping yesterday although I've been in poor weather often enough to know how it must of been for all those desperately trying to find safety.  To be forced, through an hypoxic haze and appalling weather, to try and find the tents that were their lifeline to more tomorrow's.  In the circumstances I'm actually amazed there weren't more deaths.
Of course, this year we have had more recent events on Everest and within the Nepalese Himalayas to learn from.  As I looked at the Icefall yesterday and, from photos I'd seen, I think I could identify the place where a huge serac collapse funnelled thousands of tons of ice onto Sherpas carrying loads through this huge and constantly changing maze.  The loss of these 16 lives this spring made it the deadliest season in the mountains history.  Then, 51 trekkers, guides and porters died in a storm that ravaged the Annapurna region just before we travelled here.  I understand this is Nepal's single biggest mountain disaster.
The mountains, the forest, and the sea, render men savage; they develop the fierce, but yet do not destroy the human.” (Victor Hugo)
But what of the lessons to be learned?  I understand Everest operators are looking at various possibilities.  New approaches to acclimatisation have helped to protect western climbers (time is now often spent acclimatising on other peaks before they travel to Everest) but hopefully strategies can be found to help protect the Sherpas who may end up travelling through the icefall a dozen times or more per expedition.
Similarly, how to protect the trekkers?  The Nepalese government are suggesting compulsory local guides for trekking groups and trekkers will be required to hire tracking devices from Spring next year.  It will be interesting to see if that actually becomes reality and what steps are put in place to ensure guides are suitably trained.  Are there even enough guides? 
We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of providence, determined still to do our best to the last.' (Captain Robert Falcon Scott's final message before his death on 29th March, 1912)
What time in Nepal does show is how the web of lives in these mountain regions are so intertwined.  One of our Sherpa team was in the icefall this Spring and he watched as 3 close friends were buried by the ice avalanche while he was waiting no more than 25 metres away.  Similarly, our trekking guide spoke emotionally of being involved in the rescue of several trekkers when the storms swept the Annapurna range. It was his last job before joining our group.  The Sherpa will be back on Everest next year and our trekking guide continues his challenging daily work - how can they not when it's their only way to support their young families in a country where work is hard to find and the average income is only around $600.
These mountains give so much to so many. They change lives for the better in a million ways, but they have their sinister side too.  The best we can hope for is that, as humans, we learn and adapt when knowledge is gleaned.  We change best practice when a new example of best practice comes along.  We try to protect those from local communities who we work with and, whenever possible, we seek ways to challenge ourselves while still having a safety net to catch us.  But perhaps most of all, we keep visiting the mountains.
Posted by Paul