"THIS IS THE FIRST TIME I've seen it like this," says Onzchhu Sherpa, 31. Starting on the night of May 18 and going through the 20th, roughly 300 climbers, guides, and Sherpas crowded onto the upper slopes of Everest's Southeast Ridge. From the 19,000-foot shoulder of a neighboring peak, where I was watching, Everest appeared to be lit up like a Christmas tree with the headlamps of climbers converging from the mountain's north and south sides.
Onzchhu, Dawa Dendi Sherpa, and Temba Sherpa, along with their clients from outfitter Happy Feet had started out from the South Col, at 7,900 meters, at 8:30 p.m. on the 18th. Among their clients was Shriya Shah, a 33-year-old Canadian citizen who was originally from Nepal. Also climbing on the same permit were 16-year-old Nima Chhamzi Sherpa and her father, Dendi, 39, a climbing guide who'd already summited three times. Nima had climbed Lobuche (20,075 feet) the previous autumn, and was now on holiday from school trying to become the youngest woman to climb Everest.
Gradually, Nima and her father drifted ahead, summiting just after noon on May 19th. Despite their relatively late summit time, below them was a long string of other climbers, unwilling to quit. At the South Summit, just before 2 p.m., Nima and Dendi came across Shah, in her red-and-white down suit emblazoned with the Canadian maple leaf. With her were Temba and Dawa Dendi. Nima and Dendi urged Shah to turn back. By that point, she wasn't speaking, but was still signaling aggressively that she wanted to keep going up. Temba and Dawa Dendi had already been urging her to turn around. As Dawa Dendi and Onzchhu later recalled for me when I spoke to them earlier this afternoon at Happy Feet's camp, she'd repeatedly told Temba and Dawa Dendi, "No, I have to go; I have to go."
The two groups parted ways. Nima and her father headed down, while Shah and her Sherpas continued up and, according to Dawa Dendi, made the summit sometime after 2:30 p.m. on the 19th. By 9:30 p.m., they'd descended to the Balcony—where the route first hits the edge of the Southeast Ridge—at which point Shah's last oxygen bottle ran out, and she began to falter. She'd consumed nine bottles over the course of her climb, according to Happy Feet's Base Camp manager, Rishi Raj Kandel.
Temba and Dawa Dendi rigged up a rescue rope and attempted to lower her down the Triangular Face, the last major slope before descending climbers reach the safety of Camp IV, at 7,900 meters on the South Col. But at 10 p.m, still with climbers behind her, she collapsed a few meters away from the body of guide Scott Fischer, who died during the Everest 1996 disaster. Her Sherpas couldn't revive her. Dawa Dendi took the camera from Shah’s pocket—the same one she'd used to record her summit photos only hours before. The following day, he returned and photographed her body. Only a few eerie frames separate the triumphant summit photos and the crumpled figure draped in a Canadian flag.
UNFORTUNATELY, SHAH’S WASN’T the only death on the mountain. In all, over the course of the last several days, four climbers, possibly five, have died. Chinese Ha Wenyi, 55, who was climbing with Mountain Experience was found dead just below Shah on the Triangular face. German doctor Eberhard Schaaf, climbing with Asian Trekking, likely succumbed to high-altitude cerebral edema and died between the Hillary Step and South Summit. Both their bodies, along with Shah’s, have been roughly identified based on the colors of their suits, boots, and packs.
Then there’s the still unraveling case of Korean Song Wonbin. On May 19th, the 45-year-old from the Seoul National University team became combative and disoriented (eating snow). According to several credible reports, he likely fell over the edge of the mountain. Song was apparently wearing an orange suit, but no one I’ve talked to has yet to confirm an orange-suited body has been located. Instead, there appears to be a dead, and as-of-yet-unidentified climber in a yellow suit. Even more confounding is the fact that no climbing team here is currently missing a team member or employee. (It's possible that the climber in the yellow suit was attempting to climb Everest on his own, and was not a part of any team; given the condition of the body, it's highly unlikely that the climber died during a previous year.) As to whether or not the yellow-suited body could be the body of Song, I’m still not sure. Several sources I spoke with are pretty convinced that this isn’t a case of mistaken climbing suit color, i.e. the suit is definitely yellow and not orange.
At this point, until Song’s body is located, and/or the climber in the yellow suit is positively identified, we still don’t know if four or five people climbers have died over the course of the past several days. (A Czech climber also died earlier today, the 21st, high on neighboring peak, Lhotse.)