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'Russian roulette' on Mount Everest after three more deaths

April 14, 2023

In a year which marks the 70th anniversary of the first ascent of the world's highest mountain, three Sherpas have been declared dead on Mount Everest's Khumbu Icefall, and the climbing season has barely even begun.

Mount Everest
Image: Radek Kucharski/Zoonar/picture alliance

Lakpa Rita Sherpa, Pemba Tenjing Sherpa and Dachhiri Sherpa were at the wrong place at the wrong time.

On April 12, the three Nepalese mountaineers were crossing the so-called "football field," a relatively flat section of the dangerous Khumbu Icefall about halfway between Mount Everest's Base Camp (5,400m / 17,700ft) and Camp 1 (6,100m / 20,000ft), when they were caught in an ice avalanche after a serac, a massive column of glacial ice, collapsed.

Emergency services arriving by helicopter reported finding the route blocked by meter-high blocks of ice.

With no trace of the Sherpas, who had been carrying equipment and material to the next camp on behalf of "Imagine Nepal," a commercial Everest expedition company, they were declared dead.

Trained for high risks but low pay

The fatalities are the first of the 2023 spring climbing season on the world's highest mountain, which has barely even begun, with hundreds of climbers still acclimatizing in the region and yet to even reach Base Camp.

Indeed, this year's "Ice Doctors" – eight specialist Sherpas whose job it is to identify and demarcate a safe route through the Khumbu Icefall each year with ladders and ropes – only gave the green light six days earlier on April 6.

The highly trained Sherpas earn between $2,500 and $3,000 per season, and are selected and renumerated by the Nepal's Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee (SPCC). Originally responsible for environmental protection in the Everest National Park, since 1997 the SPCC has also been tasked with securing and maintaining the route through the Khumbu Icefall.

The scene after an avalanche triggered by a massive earthquake swept across Everest Base Camp, Nepal on Saturday April 25, 2015. Mountain guides and climbers stand beside camping and climbing gear gathered together after the avalanche hit, boots and camping gear lay strewn about.
Traversing the Khumbu Icefall is one of the most dangerous parts of climbing Mount EverestImage: P. Tu Sherpa/M. Bogati/Zuma/picture alliance

Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay: 70th anniversary

Any climber taking part in one of the many commercial Everest expeditions must pay a $600 fee to cover the work of the Ice Doctors – a drop in the ocean compared to the total costs of private expeditions, typically between $50,000 and $60,000.

Would-be climbers can even book "luxury expeditions," all-inclusive private tours featuring all the home comforts imaginable at Base Camp, several personal Sherpa guides and unlimited bottled oxygen. Yours for up to $160,000.

So far this year, the Nepalese tourism ministry has issued 250 Everest "permits" to foreign climbers, at a cost of $11,000 each, and hopes are high that the previous record of 408 permits in 2021 can be broken.

After all, 2023 marks 70 years since New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Nepal's Tenzing Norgay first set foot upon the world's highest peak on May 29, 1953 – an extra incentive for aspiring summit candidates.

Northern route not open until 2024

Mountain climbing tourism is a major source of income for Nepal, a small Himalayan country with chronically empty coffers. In the area surrounding Mount Everest, almost all of the local population make a living directly or indirectly related to it, as mountain and trail guides, luggage carriers or lodge owners.

Prior to the pandemic, Nepal had to share its Everest business with China, with around one third of the 10,000 summits in the last 70 years being achieved from the northern, Tibetan side of the mountain. But since the Chinese and Tibetan authorities closed the border and banned foreign expeditions to all mountains in the region after the emergence and spread of the coronavirus, only the southern, Nepalese route has re-opened

It was only this week that the first Nepalese expedition was given permission to enter Tibet and attempt to scale the Chinese eight-thousanders Shishapangma and Cho You. But the green light for expeditions to Everest has come too late for his season, and the northern route will only open again in 2024.

Distant view of the north face of Mount Everest at sunset
The North Face: the route up the northern side of Mount Everest, from Tibet, will only open up again in 2024Image: picture alliance/dpa/XinHua

Everest: 'A game of Russian roulette'

Since the deaths of seven Nepalese porters during the first British Mount Everest expedition in 1922, over 300 people have lost their lives attempting to reach the highest point on earth, or returning from it – every seventh in the Khumbu Icefall.

The treacherous passage just above Base Camp is objectively one of the most difficult: the glacier is in constant movement and there is a risk at any time of one of the great ice towers collapsing or a gaping new crevasse opening up.

On Everest's western flank, a hanging glacier lurks ominously over the icefall. It was from here that an ice avalanche fell in April 2016, burying 16 Nepalese climbers in the worst tragedy on the icefall to date. The Sherpas at the time refused to climb back up and the season was prematurely brought to an end.

The Nepalese tourist board is determined that that should not happen again in 2023, the big anniversary year, and the Ice Doctors will continue working on a route through the icefall.

"The Khumbu Icefall is both heaven and hell simultaneously," wrote Gabriel Filippi, a Canadian mountaineer who has climbed Mount Everest from both sides, on Facebook.

"Every time we climb up and down, it's a game of Russian roulette."

This article was originally written in German