The Sherpa


The most well known Sherpa is probably Tenzing Norgay, who in 1953 summited Mount Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary. They were the first two men ever to stand on top of the world not long after Nepal opened its borders.

On Friday, April 18th, 16 Sherpa guides were killed in an avalanche in the Khumbu Ice Fall, a crevasse field on Mount Everest’s 19,000 foot lower reaches. While there were five survivors, the accident will be remembered as the deadliest ever on Mount Everest.

Sherpas are one of the primary ethnic groups in Nepal’s alpine region, and many make their living as climbing guides. The word Sherpa has become interchangeable with the powerful mountain guides necessary to reach the high peaks in the Himalayas.

The economics are clear. A top Sherpa can earn up to $5K during the prime climbing season in the Himalayas. This is roughly 10 times the average annual wage in Nepal, where poverty levels are high. For these wages, the Sherpa takes on arguably the most dangerous profession of all.

Alan Arnette, in a thoughtful blog (www.alanarnette.com/blog) points out that since 1924, 262 people have died on Mount Everest, 101 of whom were Sherpas. Outside Magazine cited similar statistics on the fatality rates for Sherpas, “Being a Sherpa on Everest these days is far more dangerous than, say, being a soldier in Iraq from 2003 to 2007.”

Wealthy westerners, often with little or no mountaineering experience, pay vast sums of money to be deposited at the top. It’s an extremely dangerous environment and has unfortunately become accessible as a form of recreational tourism. The triangle is connected by Nepal’s Ministry of Tourism which is motivated by ample access fees.

Out of respect for those who died, the Sherpas are stepping back. There may be no Himalayan climbing season this year. Sherpas, mostly Buddhists, worship the mountain and process death differently than westerners. While the Sherpas are the backbone of the Nepalese tourism industry they also are right to push back when sensitivity to their safety and wellbeing has derailed. Not dissimilar to their tiny country, the Sherpa’s independence is compromised.

View from the Cornice


CorniceTypically, when you set out each morning, regardless of your ultimate destination, you have a specific route in mind.  When traveling in the backcountry, it’s important to know the snowpack and the expected weather. Typically, tests and safety precautions taken along the way help re-assess the risks. Yet, this all assumes we assimilate any new information being prepared to modify our behavior when necessary.  But this is where things become cloudy. More often than not, when we reach critical points we don’t think, we just “dive right in.”

In a fabulous post on the Utah Avalanche Center blog, forecaster Drew Hardesty highlights that instinctual tendency in a reference to the recent book “Free Will.”* Author Sam Harris makes the case that “our brains decide a course of action before we know about it.” The oversimplified idea is that we cannot, or do not, always consciously choose what we want to do.

This is a sobering thought when considering the risks involved in many activities. Whether traveling across remote snow fields, driving down the Schuylkill Expressway, or adjusting our investments, we assume we are processing information and making conscious choices that will influence our outcome. Perhaps, as Hardesty suggests, folks should pause, just for that fleeting moment, to combine intention with instinct.


*Drew Hardesty, “I Just Can’t Help Myself,” January 16, 2014, utahavalanchecenter.org


By Valerie-Clark Roden

Deep thaw is what we need to heal the bruises of winter’s wrath. After this seemingly endless winter I am looking forward to seeing the first colors of spring as the crocuses pop their cheerful, bright purple and yellow cupped petals through the frozen earth to welcome the much-anticipated change of season.

Crocus-e1394760913359The crocus is nature’s promise that we are, finally, seeing the end of the bitter cold. They are the hardiest little plants – enduring the freezing temperatures of winter in order to grow and thrive. Crocuses easily self-propagate and can spread a carpet of blues, whites, purples or yellows across your garden. Honeybees are awakened and lured out of their hives by crocus. And the treasured exotic spice saffron is cultivated from some species.

Squirrels and other little creatures love crocuses as much as we all do. Squirrels, voles and chipmunks like to nibble the bulbs, also called corms, leaving no base from which to grow. With the snow that’s covered my lawn and garden for much of the past 80-some days now receding, I will look to see whether my crocuses survived winter’s hungry gnawing animals. Hopefully the bold little plants will soon be poking their heads up whole with their perennial promise once again announcing the onset of spring.


Avalanche-Blog-PhotoThe lure of skiing deep powder in the backcountry is overwhelming. The vast open snow fields, the speed and weightlessness of a powder descent, the sun and snow blowing magically overhead – there is not much like it.

Little Cottonwood Canyon, outside of Salt Lake City, provides access to some of the most exhilarating powder skiing in the world. A typical winter brings over 500 inches of snow from October to April. The terrain is majestic, with alps-like mountain faces, steep chutes and heavenly powder fields extending down thousands of feet. It is also one of the most avalanche prone areas in the U.S.

The risks are enormous. While the snowpack is controlled in and near the ski resorts, it is generally left untouched across most of the backcountry. Newly fallen snow often does not bond well with the older layers, leading to slide risk. When there is a weak layer, it will often release. When the snowpack fractures, a field of snow can accelerate down the slope at a horrifying rate.

The spellbinding solitude of the backcountry masks the complexity of the situation. The total quiet can be broken by the disconcerting “whomph” the snowpack makes when it settles. This is often a signal of extreme instability. Thousands of tons of snow, perched. Throughout the day, the radiant heat and wind can critically change the risk parameters, often quickly.

Decision making in the backcountry is complex, and fraught with consequence. As you skin across a snow field, even having some sense of the construction of the snow pack and the relative avalanche risk, you can easily become paralyzed with fear. The quiet whir coming from the skins amplifies the incessant fear that at any moment the snow beneath your skis may suddenly break free.

Even with advanced equipment such as the Avalung and the Airbag backpacks, the chances of survival are not good. A large percentage of skiers are killed from trauma, irrespective of whether they happen to become buried in the debris.

Without a perfect prop, the critical factor is to follow a process and strictly abide by rules based decision making. There is simply no room for impulse or whim. A bad decision, and in an instant you are in a whirl of irreversible forces. Success is returning home safely, with more experience and wisdom in hand, to better manage the nebulous risks the next time.

Collapse of the Polar Vortex

FrozenFalls_2014As 2014 gets under way, investors and market watchers are digging through analyses and research for some insight as to what may be in store for the year ahead. Clearly, they need look no further than their local meteorologists for direction.

Early January brought an arctic cold snap to most of the continental US like it hasn’t seen in many years. In plain language the scientific explanation is that, in winter, the stratosphere cools with less solar UV radiation. That temperature difference creates a vortex. Last week, the jet stream dislodged part of the vortex, causing it to collapse and move south. Voila. Icy cold air put an instant freeze on our everyday lives. Most people had probably not even heard of the polar vortex before that.

As the wave of frigid air marched across Lake Erie it dumped 20 inches of snow on Buffalo, New York and more or less ice-coated everything in the neighborhood of Niagara Falls.

The practical messages are direct: What we should fear most about the markets is the “unexpected” event, the black-swan, the collapse of the polar vortex.

Our second take-away is when arctic air arrives stay out of it. When the markets become inhospitable, for whatever reason or bad luck that comes along, stay safely on the sidelines and wait it out while the ice melts.