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Survivors recall chaos, fear Everest avalanche

KATMANDU, Nepal (AP) - Survivors of Mount Everest's deadliest avalanche recalled scenes of panic and chaos, describing Sunday how they dug through snow with their hands and ice axes in hopes of finding their friends alive.

Just minutes before the avalanche hit on Friday, about 60 Sherpa guides had been backed up along the dangerous Khumbu Icefall - the edge of a slow-moving glacier known to calve and crack without warning. They heard the sickening boom of ice breaking above, and then the roar of it coming down around them.

As details of the tragedy trickle down the mountain, Nepal's tight-knit climbing community has been left reeling and struggling to make sense of an accident that they say could have happened to any one of them, at any time.

"We were sweating, panting, digging for our friends," survivor Cheddar Sherpa said, standing beside his friend's body at the Sherpa monastery in Katmandu, Nepal's capital.

As he helped carry down the injured, he had no idea who might still be alive. "We were terrified," he said.

At least 13 people were killed, and another three are still missing, though there is almost no hope of finding them alive.

Climbing has been halted amid a search operation to locate bodies buried under snow, but the operation was suspended Sunday afternoon due to bad weather, and it was unclear whether it would resume on Monday, Tourism Ministry official Mohan Sapkota said.

The expeditions ferrying foreigners to Everest's peak said they would continue the climbs, though they're not sure when - or how, with some guides now injured or gone.

All of the victims were from Nepal's ethnic Sherpa community, which relies heavily on the country's alpine trekking and climbing industry, with many making a living as climbing guides and others catering to foreign visitors by providing restaurants, equipment or transportation.

At the time of the avalanche, according to Cheddar Sherpa, dozens of Sherpa climbers were carrying tents and equipment to higher elevations in preparation for their foreign clients to ascend next month, when weather conditions are best.

They got caught in a traffic jam behind several Sherpas struggling to fix one of the aluminum ladders laid over the crevasses that cut through the Icefall.

Meanwhile, several other Sherpas, who had already passed before the avalanche hit, remain stranded above the collapsed Icefall, waiting until a new trail can be dug and new ropes fixed, said Ang Tshering of the Nepal Mountaineering Association.

It was unclear how long that would take, but Tshering said the group had tents and enough food to last for days.

Hospitals in Katmandu were treating four survivors of the avalanche for broken bones, punctured lungs and other injuries.

While there were hundreds of climbers, guides and support crews at Everest's base camp preparing to climb the 8,850-meter (29,035-foot) peak, few had been around the Khumbu Icefall on Friday, according to American climber Jon Reiter, who spoke with the Santa Rosa Press Democrat (http://bit.ly/1hcOA0R) by satellite phone from the base camp.

He and an Australian had been climbing in the area when their Sherpa guide shoved them back from the avalanche, and out of harm's way.

"We were moving up to Camp 1, just after dawn, when we heard that 'crack,'" said Reiter, 49, a contractor from Kenwood, California. "My first thought was to film it, and I reached for my camera. But the Sherpa yelled to get down. Things started happening in slow motion. Big blocks of snow and ice started coming down all around."

It's not clear how close Reiter was to the avalanche. But in response to questions, he wrote on his blog: "There were very few Western climbers in the area, and all of us had our climbing Sherpa by our sides and they all survived."

The worst recorded disaster on Everest had been a fierce blizzard on May 11, 1996, that caused the deaths of eight climbers, including famed mountaineer Rob Hall, and was later memorialized in a book, "Into Thin Air," by Jon Krakauer. Six Nepalese guides were killed in an avalanche in 1970.

Hundreds of people, both foreigners and Sherpas, have died trying to reach the world's highest peak. About a quarter of them were killed in avalanches, climbing officials say.

More than 4,000 climbers have reached the top of Everest since 1953, when the mountain was first conquered by New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay.

Nepal this year began stationing officials and medical personnel at Everest's base camp, located at 5,300 meters (17,380 feet), to better monitor the flow of climbers and speed up rescue operations during the March-May climbing season.

Join the discussion

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surfnsummitguy April 20 2014 at 12:45 PM

Having climbed without guides in the Himalaya I know first hand what a circus "climbing" has become especially on Everest. Too many people with too much money for the locals to say no thanks to. True soulful climbing occurs away from the crowds, alone, when you can feel the experience and the "freedom of the hills". It is sad what is happening there.

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ralphmattes surfnsummitguy April 20 2014 at 7:16 PM

Hey Bud....you're mine kind of guy. Having been in the Kumbu 3 times myself we've purposely sought out remote routes avoiding the masses. There are such yet seldom untouched treasures there with delightful
local interaction that desparately need to be preserved.

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coleagent007 April 20 2014 at 5:29 PM

The human species likes to take risks, and with risk comes great reward ( I think it is crazy ) or great peril. That is the name of the game, if you have 100 climbers take to the hill you can bet not all 100 climbers will come back.

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goldcountrystore April 20 2014 at 7:24 PM

Will a fund be set up to help the surviving family members? If so, please post where donations can be sent. Thank you.

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1 reply
TruthBeKnown goldcountrystore April 20 2014 at 8:10 PM

They are rich or they could not afford this sport. They put their own lives in jeopardy.

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1 reply
penny.waterman TruthBeKnown April 20 2014 at 10:19 PM

the Sherpas died idiot...not the rich people!!!!! And YES, a fund should be set up for the families that lost loved ones. For many sherpas and their families, this is their only source of income. Maybe the entitled "rich folks" at base camp drinking their frappe's could throw some money in the pot!

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phylandb April 20 2014 at 1:59 PM

.A conservationist before it was fashionable, Hillary became increasingly critical of the numbers allowed to attempt his famous climb — and the rubbish they left behind. "Everest, unfortunately, is largely becoming a money-making concern," he told a reporter in 1992, a month after 32 people had stood on Everest's summit on the same day. "If you are reasonably fit and have $35,000, you can be conducted to the top of the world." From the mid-1990s, expeditions and the Nepalese government heeded these criticisms and improved their efforts to clean up the mountains.

Sir edmund hillary

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1 reply
dimaxjordan phylandb April 20 2014 at 6:48 PM

Excuse me, did you (and he) say, "allowed..."? I guess freedom only extends so far. (Agree about the rubbish.)

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gglass555 April 20 2014 at 10:53 PM

I'm all for hiking/climbing challenging peaks. However, Mt. Everest...you are asking for nothing but trouble. Sorry for the tragedy.

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kvave April 20 2014 at 1:29 PM

When Man challenges Nature , there is inherent risk. While it is great to have the will to Explore , after all that is what furthers knowledge , part of the price is inevitable danger.

I feel for those lost , and wish them a peaceful journey. Amy they find Peace and be free of suffering.

But to BLAME nature , and not the Human who steps foot into its backyard , is to Blame the Water that freezes and shatters a rock.

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lletraw April 21 2014 at 12:55 AM

My sympathy, my love, and my prayers go out to the Sherpa community.

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stevenkozz April 21 2014 at 1:40 AM

Death is never a good thing and I can see many saying "why climb" and "shut Everst down". Its not so simple. A huge amount of good has come to the Sherpa community out of climbing Everest and much of it has to do with the schools, hospitals, and modernization that Sir Edmund Hillary started in the 50's. it has helped the area far more than it will ever hurt it. Imagine telling an basic minimum wage American that he can earn $300,000 to $400,000 in about 8 weeks? Thats about the local currency conversion equivalent of what a high altitude Sherpa can make. Its many many times their local income. Death is a part of life. Climbing is not about the thrill as much as it is about the experience. There is no thrill to pushing yourself physically, mentally and emotionally past any point that you would ever want or think that you could ever achieve... but there is personal growth, satisfaction and a pride of ultimate accomplishment. It is a privledge to see a piece of the Earth seen by so few. If you are not a climber it is impossible for you to understand why people climb.
I used to climb. Ive been to the Himalayas attempting the 6th highest in the world, Cho Oyu. It happens to be the neighboring mountain to Everest so it shares alot of similarities. It was both the best and worst experience of my life. I did not make it to the top as I got sick and I will never let myself live that down. It haunts me and I wish I could have made it but I didnt. I returned home, got married and had kids so im pretty certain my advanced climbing days are gone. No rematch with Cho Oyu, she won and I have to deal with that.
A woman and two guides that I climbed with in Nepal are on Everest as we speak. I would not trade with them for anything at the moment as they are faced with an extrmely difficult decision as to continue or not. One of those guides I believe lost 5 Sherpa from his team. These are relationships formed over years. These are personal relationships which are far from expendable. Death is a part of life. People die tragically every day for no reason. There is little to no glory in death. I dont know what the answer is but I can assure you that Everest will continue with both triumphs and tragedies. Should we stop flying because planes crash? Should we stay out of the ocean because boats sink? Its not so easy. Only climbers understand why. I am not belittling those that do not climb however you are asking for an answer to a question I am yet to be able to answer.... why climb? But we do and will. Prayers to all the Sherpas lost and to their families and im sorry for all my friends that have to endure this tragedy

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pckesq April 20 2014 at 1:44 PM

Humans are hard-wired to explore and take risks. That is part of what makes our species unique. I have hired guides many times in the U.S. to take me into wild places that I am unfamiliar with. I use their experience, their skill, their knowledge to experience the thrill of wild places. It may be a mountain summit, a river rapids journey or even a hike to learn about the local area. Yes, I expect them to use good judgment to keep me safe. But every adventurer knows that safety is never guaranteed especially with objective hazards such as avalanche, rockfall, riptides, etc. I am heartbroken for the loss of these sherpa guides even though I never met them. I know that they are valued and respected by their clients for their skill and bravery and comaraderie. Thank-you for assisting all of us who understand the motto: "There is freedom in the hills".

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hole13 April 20 2014 at 3:57 PM

I think it is so sad for the Sherpa community. They need the money from this dangerous work and yet I am sure they felt pressure to continue with their task even though their were signs of danger. They are certainly the best climbers in the world and understand the mountain better than anyone. The commercialization of Everest has put everyone at risk and in my humble opinion, there should be limits on expeditions and standards of climbing ability. Whoever said that they have turned Mt. Everest into a giant dangerous amusement park is not far from the truth. Maybe the mountain is trying to tell us something and we are not listening.

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2 replies
TruthBeKnown hole13 April 20 2014 at 8:15 PM

Well...DUH...It is saying climb me and die.. ~!

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penny.waterman hole13 April 20 2014 at 10:25 PM

well said!!! i couldnt agree more. shut the mountain down. Enjoy its majesty from below.

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