The Snow Report
“The climbers said the storm came out of nowhere,” says Fagin. “But if there had been numerical forecasting models then, I don’t think they would have gone up, because there was a really obvious strong storm coming in.”
That’s the upside of better forecasting. The downside comes when the masses react to the info and clog the route. This year there were hundreds of permitted climbers and only two clear summit windows on the south side. Though Fagin sold his information to just seven expeditions, there’s so much blogging in Base Camp now that the windows are practically announced via carnival barker.
Word also travels on the Sherpa grapevine. Most days, our kitchen tent was visited by Sherpas from other camps, many of them relatives of our sirdar, Mingma Ongel. I spent many afternoons absorbing the best news and gossip in camp without even going outside.
When Brice pulled out, the scuttlebutt was that his Sherpas were spooked by the death of Dawa Tenzing —the husband of Mingma Ongel’s niece. With the May 11–12 opportunity lost, the fixing would need to happen just ahead of the teams. By May 14, both Fagin and Meteotest were calling for relatively calm winds from May 17 through 19. Online news reports, including one that I wrote from Base Camp, estimated that some 200 people might try to summit on the 19th. Madison and the Alpine Ascents Sherpas decided it would be safer to brave the worsening weather on the 20th than to fight the crowds.
Burleson recalls talking to Fagin from Alaska just before the largest group went up. “I said, ‘Do you know how much power you have? When you tell them to go, 200 people are going to risk their lives.’ If he had been off by one day and they had climbed on our summit day—May 20—there would have been 20 deaths. We would have been walking over them left and right. Someday that’s going to happen.”
THE FIRST BODY MADISON'S group encountered, around 11 p.m. on May 19, was that of Shriya Shah, who’d been outfitted by Utmost Adventure Trekking. Shah’s red-and-white down suit was blanketed by a Canadian flag. She was lying at 27,000 feet, near the top of the Triangular Face, which sits 500 feet from the Southeast Ridge and a promontory called the Balcony.
Shah, like the rest of the clients who died that day, had opted to forgo a Western guide in favor of what some outfitters call a Sherpa-guided trip and others, including Burleson, call non-guided. Routinely, I heard the problem reduced to a scourge of local budget outfitters, though Nepali operators aren’t the only ones who offer cheap trips. Nor are they the only ones who have problems.
It’s hard to say which outfitters are truly dangerous and which were just unlucky. There are roughly a dozen companies that fall into the category of Kathmandu-based budget outfitters, including Thamserku Trekking, Asian Trekking, Prestige Adventure, Monterosa Treks and Expedition, Mountain Experience, and Utmost. In 2012, Thamserku was the only one of these to avoid having a client or Sherpa die. Himex and Peak Freak—which aren’t budget operations— lost Sherpas as well.