Mountaineer Had Premonition of Everest Disaster —in 2012

Jon Krakauer looks at the imbalanced danger Sherpas face

By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff

Posted Apr 22, 2014 9:00 AM CDT

(Newser) – Jon Krakauer takes to the pages of the New Yorker to weigh in on the latest tragedy on Everest (the author was, of course, part of the 1996 disaster that saw eight climbers killed). His piece makes plain the imbalance between the dangers faced by Sherpas and the climbers they shepherd to the mountain's peak, but before arriving at that point, he shares a fascinating backstory: That of Himex, a New Zealand-based company that Krakauer calls the most "lucrative commercial guiding operation" on Everest—one that on May 7, 2012, packed up shop after 18 years on the mountain and headed home, taking its guides, members (aka paying climbers, who didn't see their $60,000 refunded), and Sherpas with them.

The much-assailed decision was one made by owner Russell Brice, who had grown fearful of a 900-foot-wide overhang of glacial ice set directly above the main route on the mountain's Nepal side, an overhang that his members were directly under for as long as an hour while traversing the route. As Krakauer writes, the "wedge of ice the size of a Beverly Hills mansion" that broke free and caused last week's avalanche came from "that same ice bulge" and killed 16 Sherpas. As for the outsize dangers Sherpas face, some standout points:

  • Between 1921 and 1996, the mountain's death ratio was a treacherous one death for every four completed ascents. Between 1997 and present, the death ratio was one for every 60.
  • Among the reasons it's gotten safer: Climbers tend to pack and use more bottled oxygen, and some take the robust steroid dexamethasone once they hit 22,000 feet, which pares down the risk of developing the often fatal high-altitude cerebral edema and high-altitude pulmonary edema. Sherpas typically have less of the former and none of the latter (and are, of course, the ones lugging those extra oxygen bottles up the mountain).
  • Krakauer points to an Outside piece that shares the professions with a lower calculated fatality rate than that of Sherpas: US soldiers stationed in Iraq between 2003 and 2007, miners, and commercial fishermen.

In this Sunday, May 18, 2003 file photo, mountaineers pass through the treacherous Khumbu Icefall on their way to Mount Everest near Everest Base camp, Nepal.
In this Sunday, May 18, 2003 file photo, mountaineers pass through the treacherous Khumbu Icefall on their way to Mount Everest near Everest Base camp, Nepal.   (AP Photo/Gurinder Osan, file)
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