The Snow Report
When I met with Utmost’s Kandel, in Base Camp on May 21, two of Shah’s three Sherpas, Dawa Dendi, 31, and Temba Sherpa, 31, were just returning to camp. They’d all set out for the summit at 8:30 p.m. on May 18, and almost immediately Shah began to lag. They climbed through the night and into the next afternoon. At roughly 2 p.m. on May 19, two other climbers, a Sherpa guide named Dendi, and his 16-year-old daughter, Nima, descended past Shah, still climbing, near the South Summit. They urged her to turn back, as did her Sherpas, Temba and Dawa Dendi. Shah, who was fluent in Nepali, had stopped speaking but gestured that she had no intention of turning around. An Utmost Sherpa named Onchhu told me, that, earlier, Temba and Dawa Dendi had tried to stop her and she’d said, “No, I have to go. I have to go.”
Shah made the top sometime after 2:30 p.m. In her summit photos, she’s wearing a Poisk oxygen mask, a Soviet model that few people still use. By 9:30, she and the Sherpas had descended to the Balcony, where she ran out of oxygen and deteriorated quickly. Temba and Dawa Dendi say they attempted to lower her but gave up after she lost consciousness.
Klorfine recognizes his wife’s “stubbornness and determination” but still has questions. “She really wasn’t listening to people who were trying to get her to come back,” he says. “The problem I have is, I’m not hearing the extent of the effort to get her to come back. And, more importantly, who’s supposed to be in charge of that?”
Todd Burleson was less reserved in his criticism. “You think that was guiding? These are logistical trips where they’re taking people with no prerequisites, as long as they can write a check. It’s like joining a cruise.”
AROUND 4:30 A.M. ON the 20th, Madison and his team filed off the South Summit and moved across the fixed line toward the Hillary Step, their last major obstacle. Jim Matter, a doctor from Minnesota, was suffering from numb fingers and could barely operate his mechanical ascender device. Lakpa Rita and Madison decided it would be best if Matter and his Sherpas went down, which they did.
Just after six, the rest of the Alpine Ascents group summited, lingering for a few minutes to snap photos. Neither Lakpa Rita nor any of the veteran Sherpas had ever summited in such harsh conditions, so they moved quickly to get down. When they passed Song, he was likely still alive but had stopped moving. By 10:30 a.m., the entire team was back at the South Col, where a massive, mountain-wide head count was already under way.
In Base Camp, the Benegas brothers were running from camp to camp, trying to figure out which teams might be missing a climber. At one point, Damian noticed that I was carrying two radios, a giveaway that I was scanning the traffic for news leads, and asked me to hold off on writing anything, which I readily agreed to do. It’s a generally accepted rule that you don’t report on deaths until family members have been notified—even though, with so many clients, guides, and Sherpas taking advantage of cell service, it’s rare now that news doesn’t hit Facebook or blogs within minutes of any event.
When it finally emerged that the four dead on the south side and the two dead on the north side had all been climbing with Nepal-based guides or trekking operators, neither Burleson nor Simonson nor Brice, the three most established Western outfitters, were surprised. Madison flatly told me that every person who died that day was part of a “substandard” team.