South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

KATMANDU, Nepal — Even for Lakpa Rita, arevered Nepalese mountaineer who has reached the summit of Mount Everest 17 times, the roaring wall of boulders, rocks, ice and debris that pulverized much of the mountain’s base camp over the weekend signified a malign new twist in the peak’s destructive powers.

“Nothing like this has happened before at Everest base camp,” Mr. Rita said by telephone Monday from the camp in eastern Nepal, in the aftermath of the earthquake that set off the avalanche and geological convulsions there. At least 18 people died in the area of the camp, which is 18,000 feet above sea level. “This is a huge, huge avalanche,” he said.

The search for victims’ bodies around the camp, where mountaineers gather before trying to reach Everest’s summit, is likely to be long and difficult.


Rescue efforts stalled on Monday because of bad weather, after 20 stranded climbers had been evacuated and 11 bodies had been retrieved, Jhankanath Dhakal, the chief district officer of Solukhumbu District, which includes Nepal’s part of Everest, said in a telephone interview. That was after 60 people were evacuated from Everest on Sunday, he said.


The earthquake in Nepal unleashed a wall of snow and debris that flew toward Everest base camp Saturday. CreditRoberto Schmidt/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

For many tourists and adventurers, visiting Everest — even at the relatively low base camp — fulfills an intensely personal, and expensive, quest to test extremes. But for many ethnic Sherpas employed as local guides, who often take immense pride in their skills, the most urgent motivation is a good income.

Last year, an avalanche killed at least 13 Sherpa guides on Mount Everest, and left three others missing, probably dead. The number of Sherpas among the fatalities at base camp this time was unclear, but Mr. Dhakal, the district official, said the 11 bodies retrieved on Monday included seven Nepalis. Yet even the two successive seasons of tragedy appeared unlikely to deter Sherpa men from taking jobs as paid guides and load-bearers on mountain expeditions.

In Nepal, where the average income is about $700 a year, Sherpas can make $3,000 to $5,000 in a season on Mount Everest, plus bonuses if they reach the summit.

“They still do it, especially for the money,” said Jangba Shankar, an employee of a Himalayan mountain guide company who was at the Katmandu Medical College hospital, helping to care for a guide who had been flown down from the base camp with head and neck injuries.


A rescue helicopter ferried injured people from the camp a day later.CreditRoberto Schmidt/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“Some people are not happy because they lost their jobs because of the avalanche,” said Mr. Shankar, referring to the disaster last year. “Some people worry the earthquake will scare away people.”

Even hardened climbers acknowledged being terrified by the wave of destruction.

“I heard a really big thump and then I knew, O.K., the avalanche is coming,” Mariusz Malkowski, a 42-year-old Polish-American engineer and an experienced climber, said on Monday after finding his way out of base camp and to New Delhi. But he said he was not prepared for what he saw: a wave of snow and ice, accompanied by a tremendous gust of air. “Imagine a tsunami,” he said.

“Mountains and glaciers shook all around us,” Sean Wisedale, a South African climber and expedition leader, recounted on his blog. “A massive ice slab sheared and thundered into base camp. It lifted rocks and boulders ahead of it, slamming into hundreds of tents in the center of the camp and spilling over onto the Khumbu glacier on the other side.”


Critically injured people being evacuated from Everest Base Camp in Nepal on Sunday.CreditNima Namgyal Sherpa/Associated Press

Members of his team dived into their tents, and then emerged to a different world. “Base camp was the site of post Armageddon,” he wrote.

There seems little chance, however, that successive disasters will seriously dull the luster of Mount Everest among visitors. Some foreign trekkers who had left Everest after the earthquake, or had their plans to visit stymied by the disaster, said in interviews in Katmandu that they hoped to return to the mountain. Others said they had seen enough.

“Emotionally, I felt like this trip was so much bigger than the actual physical journey,” Rob Besecker, who lives in Chicago, said in an interview. He has muscular dystrophy and heart problems, and said he had trekked to the Everest base camp, and other famous or forbidding parts of the world, to show people that illness should not govern their lives. He had already left the base camp when the earthquake struck.

“I felt there were so many eyes on me that you just got to do it,” Mr. Besecker said. “So there was a physical battle, and an emotional battle.”

When memories of this year’s trauma subside, mountain enthusiasts will return to Everest with the same zeal as before, according to Jiban Ghimire, the managing director of Shangri-La Nepal Trek, a company in Katmandu that provides support to mountaineering teams.

“My experience is that every year something goes wrong,” he said. “But when you cross three months, six months, eight months, people start asking me, ‘Hey Jiban, I want to go back.’ ”

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