After the deadly Everest avalanche: a Nebraska climber's perspective

Robert Kay (center) with two of his team's Sherpa guides, at Everest Base Camp. (Photo courtesy of Robert Kay)
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June 11, 2014 - 6:30am

Robert Kay saw and heard the avalanche that killed 16 Nepalese Mount Everest guides, mostly Sherpa, in mid-April. He was in base camp, preparing for his third attempt to summit the world’s highest peak. After a tense week of waiting, climbing on that side of Everest was cancelled and Kay is now back in Lincoln, where he lives with his family and owns a motorcycle dealership. Mike Tobias of NET News has been following Kay throughout his journey; he talks with the veteran mountain climber about the aftermath of the avalanche, and the future of climbing Mount Everest.


MIKE TOBIAS, NET NEWS: You were in the Mount Everest base camp for about a week after the avalanche. What was it like during that time?

EYEING EVEREST: Learn more about Lincoln climber Robert Kay and follow his third attempt to climb Mount Everest in this NET News story and blog.

 


PHOTOS/VIDEO (all courtesy Robert Kay)

Kay (right) and climbing partner Scott Bigelow, entering Everest Base Camp before the avalanche. Bigelow, also of Lincoln, accompanied Kay during part of the climb.


Mount Everest Base Camp.


The Khumbu Ice Fall area after the avalanche; in the middle of the picture, climbers search for survivors amidst the snow and ice.


A helicopter transports injured and dead victims of the avalanche.


A memorial service and meeting with Nepalese government officials at Base Camp after the avalanche. CLICK HERE to watch video of the memorial service.


List of post-avalanche Sherpa demands posted at Base Camp.

 


OTHER PERSPECTIVES

Respected Everest climber and blogger Alan Arnette's coverage of the 2014 climbing season.

Wall Street Journal article on the avalanche and victims.

ROBERT KAY: A really emotional roller coaster is probably the easiest way to describe it. There’d be times when a rumor would go floating through camp and you’d think, “Oh great, we’re climbing.” Then the rumor would change and “Oh no, we’re not climbing.” Of course, we coupled that with the fact that 16 people died and there’s a lot of grief from that. But the grief stage seemed to be pretty short with most people. The Sherpas pretty quickly turned it from grief to anger, and so a lot of our time was just spent kind of keeping our heads down. We didn’t want to get in the way. We didn’t want to be perceived as being pushy or wanting people to do something against their will. So we were kind of a combination of keeping our heads down, listening to the rumor mill and watching our hopes ebb and flow as the days would go by.

TOBIAS: It sounds like it became a really uncomfortable place to be for a while.

KAY: The first day was uncomfortable watching 13 dead bodies be long-lined on the helicopter down to camp. That was really troubling. They had kind of a reception committee is not quite the right term, but a lot of people were at the helipad as the helicopters would come in. There was Sherpas standing there looking to see who the bodies were because they’re all friends, and then there was medical crew there who were verifying a person was in fact deceased and not just unconscious or something. So that was kind of a very difficult day. By the end of that same first day though, a group of Sherpas had kind of rallied and almost became like a mob going through the camp. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable confronting them. They were certainly angry at the situation, angry at the fact that the government wasn’t doing anything to help them. They were not happy people.

"Management vs. Labor"

TOBIAS: Almost like a turn-of-the-century sort of labor conflict?

KAY: That’s exactly the analogy that I was making, and it’s not exactly the same thing, of course. But it quickly became management versus labor, we’re going on strike, we’ve got these grievances and we’re not going to be put aside any longer. That was the feeling that I had. But you got to keep in mind that it was a vocal minority of the Sherpas who were doing that. Most of the Sherpas wanted nothing to do with all of these troubles. We had roughly 30 guys in our group, 30 Sherpas, and 100 percent of them were on board. They wanted to climb. They felt like the mountain was no more or less dangerous than normal. They were ready, willing and able to go, but they were threatened if they did. So I would say it was 20, 30 percent, maybe 40 percent of the Sherpas. A lot more Sherpas signed a petition, but a lot of these guys can’t read or write so they were signing stuff they didn’t realize what it was, and there was some peer pressure, “hey sign this if you’re my friend” sort of a thing. So guys were signing stuff they weren’t quite on board with. We had a couple of Sherpas at the very end of the trip approach our leader Phil (Crampton, leader of the Altitude Junkies team) and ask for work. Phil’s like, “Well there is no work. You guys closed the mountain.” They didn’t seem to quite understand, in spite of the fact they had signed the petition.

TOBIAS: Did you have some concerns about your safety during this time?

KAY: No I never felt endangered. I didn’t feel endangered when the avalanche happened. We were three-quarters of a mile away from it just looking up the hill at it. As far as the Sherpas went, no I never felt any danger at all. I was never threatened. I never had any ugly words or anything directed towards me. The closest I came was the second time they had a gathering, the day that the ministers of tourism and so forth came up from Kathmandu, a large group of Sherpas were there and you could tell that they were not receptive to the message they were being given by these ministers. I don’t speak Nepali so I couldn’t understand it, but you could certainly tell they were not happy with the message that they were getting and I was right at the front in the middle surrounded by people who were getting kind of angry. I thought this has the potential to turn bad, so I stepped back a few yards and got out of the immediate crowd. But nothing ever happened, nothing came of it. It was just being careful more than anything.

TOBIAS: One respected Everest climber and blogger wrote that climbing in Nepal has changed forever. Do you believe that?

KAY: I think climbing in Nepal has changed forever from a cost perspective, definitely. The demands that the Sherpas had, which were reasonable demands which were largely being met by all the responsible western guiding companies, is going to definitely add expense. They want a lot more life insurance. Life insurance is terribly expensive if you’re a mountaineer on big mountains. My life insurance went from $800 a year to $25,000 a year when the insurance company found out what I do. So the life insurance is going to go dramatically up. They want more helicopter rescue and more medical insurance. That’s going to increase costs. They want higher wages. That’s going to increase costs. So yes, I could see a climb going from whatever it is to $5,000, $10,000, $15,000 more per client because of these extra expenses, these requests or demands, however you want to term it. As far as the attitude of climbing in Nepal and what people are feeling emotionally, that sort of thing, I think next year is going to be uncomfortable. I think if things go well next year, beyond that it’ll be back to business as usual. Most Sherpas don’t have any resentment towards westerners. I have never met a bad Sherpa. I’ve never met a westerner who didn’t have the highest respect for the Sherpas. A lot of the stuff that you read and see and hear, written by people who’ve never even been to the Himalayas, will try and act like there’s huge resentment amid all this tension and all this stuff. I’ve never experienced it. I’ve been to Nepal 12 times, I’ve spent over a year in the country. I have two Nepalese daughters. I’ve got dozens and dozens of friends throughout Nepal and I’ve never once encountered those sort of feelings. I think things will be back to normal if they go well next year.

"Myths of Everest"

TOBIAS: Afterwards, you blogged about what you call some of the myths of Everest climbers, including that they’re all “wealthy middle-age white guys” who take advantage of the Sherpa guides.

KAY: There’s a number of myths. One is that we’re a bunch of rich guys who walk up a yellow brick road or being carried up a yellow brick road by people of different skin colors and we don’t care because they’re a different color than us and if they live or die, it doesn’t make any difference to us and it’s not a passion, it’s just something that we do to check off something on a bucket list. You hear how easy it is. All that stuff is nonsense. It’s written by people who have never been to Nepal. There are people in our group who borrowed 100 percent of the money against their house. A single mom, a nurse with a five-year-old son, borrowed 100 percent of the money against her house to do it. I’ve never yet met a person who didn’t have the highest respect for the Sherpas. It’s difficult. Yes, the gear’s better. Yes, the Sherpas do all the really heavy lifting because they can and we just physically cannot do it. We’re not strong enough, and everybody acknowledges that. Nobody is running around patting themselves on the back like, “Hey, I climbed Everest by myself.” We all know, and this year proved it, that we have to have the Sherpas’ support. Without their help, we cannot do it. I take it a little bit personally I suppose, because I find offensive, stuff written by people who have never been there, don’t know what they’re talking about.

I always like to say how important the Sherpas are. The accusation is they never get enough credit, and so I don’t want that accusation to be true for me. The Sherpas do all the hard work. They maintain a fantastic attitude while they’re doing things that we couldn’t even imagine doing. They’re friendly, nice, fun people. They’re super-intelligent. They’re very strong. They seem to be impervious to the cold. I just love being with these guys. They’re fun people to hang out with. They’re helpful and they’re nice and they make the Everest climb happen. They make it possible. But even before Everest, they make the whole trek through the Khumbu region fun, staying at the Sherpa-owned tea houses and lodges, and eating in the Sherpa-owned restaurants. It’s always a fun experience. You meet so many great people and the stories they tell and the friendships that you make. I have a great time being with those people.

A Fourth Attempt for Kay?

TOBIAS: You’ve said that you won’t attempt to climb next year because of your daughter’s college graduation, but will you try again after that?

KAY: Yes, I’m committed to doing it in 2016, provided things go well in 2015. That’s the one caveat that you have to throw out there. If there’s another huge problem next year, boy I’m not sure what I’ll do. Try it from the Tibet side which I really don’t want to do, or give up my dream. I don’t know. I think things will go well next year. I think they have to.

TOBIAS: So has the accident and then the aftermath changed any of your passion for Everest?

KAY: No, not at all. It’s something I’ve been dreaming of for 35 years. People die every year climbing Everest, five to 10 people die every year. This year, we lost 16 in one horrible accident. But it was all this lining up of one unusual, bad circumstance after another. Everything lined up perfectly wrong. The accident could have been a non-event that would never even made news in base camp let alone in the rest of the world. Instead, 16 people were trapped in a spot right where an avalanche came down and they were stuck there for several hours before the avalanche. My desire to climb hasn’t changed. My love for the mountain, for the people, for the country, none of that’s changed. The whole thing this year was just a total lose-lose situation for every player who was involved.


"A Horrible Set of Bad Luck": Kay Describes the Avalanche

"We were scheduled that morning to go into the ice flow up to the first two or three ladders, not all the way up to the top. We were walking through base camp. We left our camp at 6:30 in the morning, and it’s about a 30-minute walk to the other end of camp where you enter the (Khumbu) Ice Fall. I was about halfway up and I heard a noise, a roaring, jet engine sort of a noise. I knew what it was. It was an avalanche. You hear them every 15 minutes in base camp. There’s something falling down somewhere. So you just look up to see what it is and how big it is, just more out of curiosity, and I saw it go right onto the ice fall. There’d been a similar avalanche in 2009 that was recorded, video recorded. The Discovery Channel did a TV show and they managed to catch that one. This avalanche looked very similar, but maybe half the size. That one, the snow actually filtered down onto the base camp. This one didn’t even get close to base camp. In that avalanche, one guy was killed. So I thought “Well, this could be bad. Maybe somebody got hurt. Maybe somebody got killed. But it’s a lot smaller than that last avalanche and besides the fact it’s 6:45 in the morning, there shouldn’t be anybody in the ice fall really this time of day.”

An Everest avalanche victim is "long-lined" by helicopter to Base Camp. (Photo by Robert Kay)

It turned out I was really, really wrong. It was a huge group of Sherpas. I’ve heard 50. I’ve heard a 100, backed up at a particular crevice where the ladders were damaged. They’d radioed down for the ice fall doctors to bring up replacement ladders, and they were kind of trapped there waiting for the doctors to bring the new ladders and they just kept piling up like a traffic accident would pile up cars behind it. The same situation. These guys got bottlenecked there and then while they were standing around and in the crevice, the avalanche let loose and went right into the same exact crevice. So it was a horrible set of bad luck. We got to the crampon point - crampon point on the mountain is where you get off the rock and the gravel, onto the snow and the ice, and you put your crampons on - we were at crampon point wondering, “Do we go in or not, what’s happening?” Pretty soon, the radios all came to life, and there was lots of frantic yelling back and forth and it was immediately obvious that we don’t go anywhere. We stay out of the way. So we stayed at crampon point for about two hours, using telephoto lenses and binoculars to look up at the scene trying to figure out what was going on and trying to get a feel for it."

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