Of all the obstacles to those ascending Mount Everest, the Khumbu Icefall is perhaps the most treacherous.
The steep, craggy expanse of glacier skids downhill at a rate of several feet per day, constantly heaving and shifting from the pull of gravity and the pressure of its own immense weight. Deep crevasses can appear overnight, and huge ice towers called “seracs” can splinter and fall at any moment, sending chunks the size of cars cascading downward. Mountaineers have christened the icefall’s most notorious sections with names like “Popcorn Field” and “the Ballroom of Death,” and for years guides have eyed the path through them with unease.
“Each trip through the Icefall was a little like playing a round of Russian roulette,” climber and writer John Krakauer wrote in his 1997 book “Into Thin Air.” “Sooner or later any given serac was going to fall over without warning, and you could only hope you weren’t beneath it when it toppled.”
Last April, 16 climbers — all of them Nepali men working as Sherpas for climbing expeditions — were crushed beneath one of those collapsing ice columns. It was the single deadliest incident in Everest’s history and triggered a boycott among Sherpa climbers that led to the cancellation of the season’s expeditions.
Now Nepali officials say they are changing the route through the icefall in time for the 2015 season, shifting climbers’ paths toward the glacier’s central section.
“The route through the center will be difficult and time consuming, but it will be relatively free from the risk of avalanche,” Ang Dorji Sherpa told the BBC. He heads the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee, the Nepali organization that sets the route for Everest expeditions.
The central route isn’t really new — it has been used by mountaineers climbing Everest’s south face since 1953, according to National Geographic. But the path was changed in favor of the more dangerous “West Shoulder” in the 1990s. The new route skirted the left-hand side of the icefall, avoiding the pocked and arduous path through the gut of the glacier, but passed right below massive towers of ice that loom over the icefall’s edge. This is where Krakauer trekked during his 1996 trip up Everest, and where the 16 Sherpas were killed last year.
By shifting toward the icefall’s safer center, the change in route addresses some of the safety concerns that have dogged Everest hikes — but not all of them. Last April’s disaster sparked two separate but related discussions about problems with Everest’s climbing culture: One about the impact of climate change on the mountain, the other about the treatment of the Sherpas who make most outsiders’ Everest ascents possible.
Though the icefall has been considered risky for years — pioneering Everest climber George Mallory famously turned away from it in 1921, calling the section “terribly steep and broken” — some mountaineers say climate change has made the section more treacherous than ever.
“The ice is melting at unprecedented rates and [that] greatly increases the risk to climbers,” climber and environmental science professor John All told the Atlantic last April. All was writing from Everest base camp, his trek up the mountain cut short because of the 16 deaths.
“Climate change closed Mt.Everest this year,” All added.
Canadian avalanche specialist Tom Rippel, an Everest guide whose expedition was canceled, blogged about climate change’s role in the disaster.
“The mountain has been deteriorating rapidly the past three years due global warming and the breakdown in the Khumbu Icefall is dramatic, especially at the upper Icefall,” he wrote. “Each day we sit and listen to the groaning and crashing of the glacier.”
If Everest is becoming more dangerous, then Sherpas — the expert Nepali mountaineers who work as guides or porters for mostly foreign-run climbing expeditions — are bearing the brunt of that risk.
In a feature for the New Yorker published last spring, Krakauer argued that some of the same technologies that made Everest safer for visiting climbers in recent years — bottled oxygen, hypobaric chambers that allow climbers to acclimate to high altitudes before scaling the mountain — are increasing the burden on Sherpas.
“Sherpas do all the heavy lifting on Everest, literally and figuratively,” he wrote. “The mostly foreign-owned guiding companies assign the most dangerous and physically demanding jobs to their Sherpa staff, thereby mitigating the risk to their Western guides and members.”
Sherpas’ work, including installing ladders, anchoring ropes and carrying oxygen bottles in the icefall, may help climbers make their ascent, but it means the Sherpas have to spend more time on the most dangerous parts of the mountain. Most paying climbers only traverse the icefall twice — once going up, the other coming down. By contrast, Sherpas cross that treacherous expanse two to three dozen times per season.
“All the hard work is done by Sherpas, that is the reality,” Pasang Sherpa of the Nepal National Mountain Guide Association told the New York Times last year. “Our job is to make a good scale for the clients, to make this comfortable. We have to do that.”
“The day-to-day life is very tense,” added Nima Nuru Sherpa, the first vice president of Nepal Mountaineering Association. “We never know what will happen. So we are not at peace. It’s a scary profession, a scary job.”
During the boycott that followed last year’s disaster, Sherpas composed a list of 13 demands for better pay and stronger safety guarantees from the Nepali government. Compensation for those injured or killed figured prominently among them. Incensed by the government’s offer of just 40,000 rupees — about $400 — to the families of those killed, the Sherpas wanted this allowance increased to about $1,000 per family. They also demanded the government provide $10,000 disability benefit for climbing Sherpas who are seriously disabled, and that guide companies be required to raise their life insurance payments to about $20,000.
That’s a lot of money in the remote Himalayan communities where Sherpas live, and where subsistence farming is often the only other way to eke out a living. But Sherpas — and many of the foreigners they climb with — say what they’re paid is still not enough compensation for the risks they take.
The Nepali government met some of the Sherpas’ demands last April, raising the minimum insurance payment to about $15,000 and establishing a relief fund for families. Other items from the list — such as a request to use helicopters to drop heavy equipment at the camp above the icefall, reducing the number of trips Sherpas must make through the dangerous expanse — remain sticking points.
But they won’t prevent Sherpas from trekking back up the mountain this spring.
“We have already prepared the equipment required to begin the season,” Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee member Yangee Sherpa told Agence France-Presse.