The Snow Report
There were great expectations for this season, but as I arrived things were already going badly. The previous day, Karsang Nagel, a 40-year-old Sherpa working for a local start-up outfitter called Prestige Adventure, had suddenly died in camp—of mysterious causes. The following day, April 21, a Sherpa working for British Columbia-based Peak Freak Expeditions, 30-year-old Namgya Tshering, fell to his death after he neglected to clip a safety line while crossing a ladder over a crevasse.
Normally, during April, each team’s Sherpas spend their time carrying loads of equipment and provisions through the Khumbu Icefall, the precarious tumble of frozen blocks between Base Camp and 19,800-foot Camp I. Meanwhile, the guides and clients begin conditioning their bodies by spending short amounts of time sleeping at successively higher camps and returning to Base Camp to rest. The Icefall is always dangerous, but this year many climbers were especially worried because the route, set by a group of Sherpas known as the Icefall Doctors, needed to pass directly beneath a horseshoe-shaped hanging glacier that was prone to calving at all hours of the day.
By May 1, a team of mostly Sherpa volunteers from several of the stronger teams—including Alpine Ascents, Ashford, Washington-based International Mountain Guides, and Russell Brice’s Chamonix-based Himalayan Experience, or Himex—had established a roped route up to Camp III, at 23,500 feet. Since modern Everest guiding began on the south side in the early '90s, when Nepal started issuing permits to as many teams as could afford them, all the climbers on the mountain have generally cooperated, using the same route. This year a bad snowpack and dry weather were making cooperation difficult.
The mountain was down to bare cobbles, and many of them were melting out and raining down on the climbers. On May 1, 31-year-old Lhakpa Nuru Sherpa, who was working for Lakebay, Washington-based Summit Climb, was struck in the face by a rock and nearly killed. The next day, the various expedition leaders and sirdars (an expedition’s head Sherpa) held an impromptu meeting to discuss the dangerous rockfall.
The gathering was hosted by Benegas Brothers Expeditions, the camp run by Argentine twins Willie and Damian Benegas, two experienced alpinists. On that snowy afternoon, the procession walking down the trail included many of the greats associated with Himalayan climbing and guiding: Russell Brice, Ralf Dujmovits, Dave Hahn, Simone Moro, and David Breashears, among others.
Citing continued rockfall, Brice, 60, said that if conditions didn’t improve, Himex would pull out. Until a 2008 dustup with the Chinese government, Brice had operated only on the north side of Everest, where he gained notoriety for outfitting Discovery’s reality show Everest: Beyond the Limit. It was during the show’s 2006 filming that British climber David Sharp, another Asian Trekking client, was passed by 40 other climbers, including Discovery’s cameramen, as he lay dying. Since 2009, Brice has maintained one of the largest Base Camp operations on the south side.
Still, as other expedition leaders point out, Brice has been on the south side for only a few years. “He’s prone to being dramatic,” one veteran who was at the meeting told me later. The remaining guides, on the advice of Damian Benegas, decided to move the route between Camp II and Camp III into the shelter of some crevasses to the south, to help absorb the rockfall.
On May 5, Brice decided to pull the plug after one of his Sherpas, Dawa Tenzing, died of a stroke. “We can no longer take the responsibility of sending you, the guides, and the Sherpas through the dangerous icefall and up the rockfall-ridden Lhotse Face,” he told his staff.