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.
Typically, 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
The 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.