Print Edition - 2014-04-26 | On Saturday
Along the hardest route
Apr 25, 2014-
He heard the crack. In the thin air around Camp 1, on the way to Everest’s summit, sounds like that can seem more menacing than they are. But this time, Pemba Tshering Sherpa—who was lugging up a tent along with supplies to be used by his clients in a few weeks—felt that there really was something ominous about the sound. He glanced westwards and up, and before he could gather himself, he was flung by the high-pressure front generated by the now-infamous avalanche on Mt Everest, on April 18. He was lucky to have been so displaced, for he landed in a spot some distance away from the path of the trundling mass of snow, which blanketed everything in its path. On the little outcrop where he’d landed, Pemba crouched low to the ground, waiting for everything to subside. When the force of the avalanche had been spent, he looked around for his fellow guides.
As he scanned the area, he saw bodies strewn all around, some half buried, some with arms and legs sticking out from under the snow, and some whose bodies made outlines in relief on the snow. Even from a distance, he knew that most were unconscious and that many were probably dead. As he made his way towards his colleagues, it occurred to him that although he had seen avalanches before and the death that they wrought, he had never seen one on this scale. As he reached the avalanche’s area, some of the guides who had climbed further up, before the avalanche hit, descended too, and together, they set out trying to rescue as many fellow workers as possible. They used whatever they had at their disposal—to dig as fast as they could: shovels, the crampons under their boots, even their fingernails. He doesn’t know how many fellow climbers he was able to rescue and by the time the rescue team from the Base Camp arrived, he had collapsed. Along with all the others—the 14 dead and nine injured—he was airlifted to Kathmandu. Pemba was then taken to Medicare hospital, Chahabil.
When he was being taken to hospital, he could barely move. Strangely, the 26-year-old had not suffered a scratch on his body, although he knew he’d hurt his back. He recovered relatively soon and was discharged from hospital after just four days. He knows he’s extremely lucky: among the 16 dead, five were members of his team.
This year’s death tally—the highest ever on Everest—is perhaps why the story has gotten the coverage around the world it has. That large number has perhaps brought deaths associated with mountain climbing to the forefront of many people’s consciousness. But for the guides, and the more experienced professional climbers, who return again and again to tackle the treacherous routes up the mountain, death is a perennial presence—it’s right there, with them. Constantly. “You have to be prepared. You never know what happens at that altitude,” says Pemba. He recalls how he saw the deaths of fellow climbers, who were not from his expedition group, in Manaslu in 2011. “I know it might happen to anyone.”
But you go to work anyway. You have to. The expedition this year was Pemba’s fourth on Everest. He says climbing is the expertise he has, hard-won knowledge he can depend on to make a living. It’s a far different life than the one he originally led, as a trainee lama in a monastery in Darjeeling. When he was 12, he’d been sent there from his village, in Taplejung, by his family. After running away from the monastery’s confines, when he was 18, he returned to Nepal and started working as a tour guide: he’d take tourists around the Annapurna circuit, the Langtang trail, the Khumbu region and other assorted destinations. But the Himalayas always loomed in the background and he’d always wanted to become a climber. He learned the basics of the trade by climbing Yala Peak, in Langtang; but before he could scale Everest, he had to take on mountains such as Choyu and Manaslu. He was learning to tackle the mountains just as the professional climbers from the West do, who used to comprise the majority of climbers scaling Everest many years ago. There is a certain camaraderie among many of these professional climbers and the Sherpas. It’s probably because they have been
forged from the same fire, have worked together to achieve a common goal as comrades. But since the 90s, when the richer—often non-professional—climbers started queuing to get atop Everest, the nature of the work started to change. “Climbing a mountain is an adventure but it has been made easy with money now,” says Pemba.
These days, to accommodate the new breed of Everest conquerors—made up of everyone from cine stars and amputees to even an octogenarian—the Sherpas have had to transform from climbing guides into chaperones of sorts. And they have to start preparing the slopes almost a month before the clients even set foot on them. From early April, the guides head off in groups from Base Camp and start setting camps all along the route. They carry supplies—the food, clothes and oxygen tanks their clients will use—from camp to camp. For example, in a period spanning 12 days, they make eight trips between Camp 1, situated at a height of 19,600 ft, and Camp 2, at a height of 21,300 ft. The clients only start their ascent once the guides have transported and stored the necessary supplies all the way up at Camp 4, at 26,100 ft. Some of the guides make it all the way to the summit—these days, mostly to prod, push and pull many of the amateurs along.
Pemba is now recuperating in his rented room in Mahankal. He says he will never forget this darkest of seasons on Everest, which took the lives of his friends. But he has to make a living so he’ll be back hauling tents again
next year. Two more expeditions, he says. And then that’s it. You can only tempt death so many times.
Published: 26-04-2014 08:53