The Snow Report
As some of the company names suggest, several began as trekking outfits. But in the first decade of this century, as they saw American outfitters having success using Sherpas as guides—a cost-saving measure, since Sherpas don’t have to buy permits to climb or guide—they wanted a piece of the action. Rather than simply provide logistics for professional Everest expeditions, as Asian Trekking has been doing since 1982, they began selling guided trips. Of the hundreds of Sherpas on Everest, a handful really are qualified to guide, while others are just strong climbers. But potential clients can rarely tell who’s who.
According to Burleson, if Westerners are even aware that Sherpa refers to an ethnic group and not just a job title, they tend to believe that one is as good as another. “We treat the word Sherpa like it’s one individual,” he says.
The Sherpas know this and resent it. “For me, it’s enraging when we are all painted with the same brush,” says Dawa Steven Sherpa, 28, who runs Asian Trekking, the company that had been hired by Schaaf. “The problem right now is that anyone can set up a company on a laptop. And if they get clients, they can borrow their cousin’s tent, find a cook, and grab a ragtag bunch of guys and set up an expedition. It’s so dangerous.”
On May 19 and 20, Madison witnessed the results of this broken system. The Alpine Ascents group next came upon several Sherpas from Mountain Experience lowering a Chinese woman, Li Xiadoan, 40, who couldn’t stand up. “They said they had it under control,” recalls Madison. “They were taking her back to camp, though it didn’t seem like she could walk under her own power.”
Ultimately, the woman survived thanks to the efforts of the Sherpas and a daring helicopter rescue on the 20th, at a record 21,680 feet. But another Chinese climber, Ha Wenyi, did not. When Madison saw Ha shambling downhill, he was concerned enough to check his oxygen bottle. “He was by himself,” says Madison. “He took a break, drank some tea. He seemed to be doing OK. He was moving just fine toward the South Col, but unfortunately he didn’t make it a whole lot farther.” Ha was later discovered near Shah, his head pointing downhill, suggesting that he’d fallen or collapsed suddenly.
Just below the Balcony, the team encountered Song Won-bin, who had been climbing with the Chungnam High School Alumni expedition. Madison says Song was “unconscious but moving somewhat. We tried to rouse him, to wake him, but got no response. Nothing. He had no oxygen mask, no backpack, nothing.” A number of later reports, though somewhat sketchy, more or less agree that Song had become disoriented and combative before a teammate and one or more Sherpas he was climbing with left him.
“If we had known he was in distress, we could have tried to bring up an extra oxygen mask,” says Madison. “But I don’t know if he threw his pack and oxygen mask away or if he even had them at all that day or they’d fallen off. At that point, I thought he was pretty close to death.”
Madison tried several radio frequencies to report what he was seeing but got no response. The Alpine Ascents party continued past Song into the gale and up the ridge toward their meeting with Schaaf. The last of the previous day’s climbers—anonymous and silent behind their oxygen masks and goggles—had descended past them.