This was a day where we were brought face to face with the risk involved in not just climbing Everest, but in the region and in the lifestyle in general. We had already heard about one death on the mountain, a Sherpa that died in an avalanche above base camp, but this was the one that really brought it home. It also taught us a new lesson in how different life and death are perceived to many of the people in this region, reinforcing what we’d seen in Pashputinath while we were in Kathmandu.
While this was a very good year regarding fatalities on Everest–only five official deaths–even the loss of a single life is just that, a loss. And it takes only one death to remind you how very risky an undertaking this is, especially for tourists such as ourselves. Even just the trekking we did was fraught with said risk, even though we seemed to like to pretend that we were never in any real danger.
Let’s be frank: we did something that had all the potential in the world to go very, very wrong. Yes, risk is just part of life. I could have gotten hit by a car crossing the street to go to lunch today. But trekking in the Himalayas only amplifies that, and gives us so many more opportunities for accidents to happen. And, given the remote nature of it, so much harder to recover from any accidents that might happen.
Many of the trails we hiked on were not very wide, a couple feet in some cases, and had huge drops on one side. A thousand or more feet quite often. One slip and it’s all over. What about those long suspension bridges? Very high up, very windy, and who knows how well built they all were? We passed the remnants of one collapsed bridge, so the potential is certainly there. Hiking up to base camp we were crossing some pretty large boulders and hopping across some pretty big gaps. Ever so easy to miss on one of those leaps and fall. We had no helmets on, so one crack of the skull on one of those rocks and it’s all over. Heck, it’s not entirely unheard of for someone to get HAPE or HACE even at the altitudes we were at, in the 18,000 foot neighborhood for most of us. And those are just some of the possibilities for mishaps that sprung quickly to mind.
There was one day on the trail, going from Labouche to Gorek Shep if I recall correctly, where we came across a man laying on the rocks next to the trail. Approaching him from the distance, it honestly looked like he was dead or unconscious and was a little scary for a moment, here was this body laying on the ground! He turned out to be at least semi-conscious, though was talking a lot of gibberish and not making a whole lot of sense. He seemed local, but was under-dressed for the conditions even given that. The only thing we could really understand that he was saying was that he wanted to go home. He kept repeating this fact over and over, he just wanted to get home. (Wherever that was.)
Jeff had feared that he might have mild cerebral edema initially, though it turned out he was actually just really drunk. Drunk enough he shouldn’t have been trying to stumble home, especially given the conditions that day. The question is, if we hadn’t found him when we did, how long would it have been before someone else came across him? There wasn’t a lot of traffic on the trail that day, so it’s not outside the realm of possibility he would have just laid there until he froze to death.
Rewinding to earlier in the trek, I almost had a mishap of my own heading up to Namche Bazaar. At one point in the morning I had gotten separated from the group and was hiking on my own for a while. I was really not feeling well that day (as we’ve already established) so couldn’t keep up with the lead group, but was still ahead of the rear group that was making lots of stops for Andi to photograph the local botany. There was a fork in the trail at one point, a pretty rare occurence, and I started down what looked like the more established trail, and therefore assumedly the correct one. Only a few feet down the trail a little Nepali girl waved at me and asked “Namche Bazaar?” I confirmed, and she pointed back to the other (correct) trail.
Had that girl not been there, or not been so helpful, who knows how long I would have wandered down the wrong trail? Where I would have ended up? I’m sure I would have figured it out eventually, and also been able to find my way back to the correct route, but it’s another of those “who knows?” situations. A silly westerner like me lost in the Himalayas? Yeah, that would end well. At best, it would have been very challenging for me to catch back up with the rest of the group.
And beyond those risks of life and limb, another thing these recent episodes don’t show (though it will be talked about a bit in a future episode) is the fact that we were facing the very real possibility that the trek was over for us there in Dingboche. If the heavy snows had kept up much longer, there simply wouldn’t have been time to make it to Base Camp or Kala Pattar. The trip would have ended right there, never to go any further than Dingboche. So there was always that chance that we wouldn’t get to have the “full” experience. The risk that we’d fall short of our goals, either as a group or individually. And, to some small extent, we did. No one in the group made it to Base Camp and Kala Pattar like originally planned, some to neither. But there will be more about that later on.
Thing is, as I said before, life itself is full of risks. You take risks every day, so why let that stop you from doing the things you want to do? Why sit back and watch the adventure that is life, rather than engaging in it, just because of what might happen? Honestly, I feel more at risk driving to and from work every day than I ever did on the trek. I’d rather get out and enjoy life, risks be damned, than sit around at home and play it “safe”. I’d rather go out and at least try, even if it does mean I fail. Better than never trying at all.
I’d like to close up this post with the names of those who lost their lives in the Spring 2009 climbing season on Everest. Though the official list has only five names on it, as they only count the climbing-related deaths, so Tendi’s brother Kaji’s death was apparantly not counted. I’ve thus added him to the list:
• Andres Guzman Garza
• Chuck Norris
• Frank Ziebarth
• Wenhong Wu
• Lhakpa Nuru
• Kaji Sherpa
(Images from The Rest Of Everest podcast are © 2003-2010 TreeLine Productions.)