Today dawned clear and bright--and tragic in the Khumbu.
After three stormy and unsettled days, we were all relieved to wake to calm and sunny conditions. Many teams had members and Sherpas working up into the Khumbu Icefall. Our IMG expedition had sent 20 Sherpas up to the Western Cwm. Our team was anxious to make progress after the necessary delay caused by the storm. The Sherpas left basecamp at 5 AM with several goals. The majority of the team (17 climbers) were bound for Camp II and intended to begin the occupation of that camp close to 21,000 ft. at the head of the Western Cwm. Three of our team were carrying loads for Camp I and intended to work there for several hours before returning to basecamp. Down below, we were startled from our appreciation of the beautiful morning by the basecamp manager of the Asian Trekking team running into camp at 7:45 AM. Roger Coffey alerted us to an incident above and we immediately tuned in to several radio frequencies in an effort to determine just what had happened and where. Initially there was a great deal of confusion as to whether there had been an avalanche and whether anybody had been caught in it. Mark Tucker and I both had uncomfortable flashbacks to last year's demolition of Camp I and the confusion that had initially reigned in that situation. At first, there seemed to be word that Sherpas from Asian Trekking were involved in whatever incident was ongoing. We began, with help from Ang Jangbu Sherpa, to make contact with our own Sherpa teams so as to pinpoint the scene of the incident and in an effort to offer help to whoever had been caught. It became apparent, through frenzied radio activity on several frequencies and with several languages employed, that their had not been an avalanche, that the incident was below Camp I (therefore in the Icefall) and that it had been a collapse.
There were reports, which were difficult to pin down as to their origin, that three Sherpas had been buried in ice debris. With some difficulty, we began to establish the whereabouts of each of our 20 climbers. Most, it turned out, were above the incident, and in fact, above Camp I already. Our sirdar, Ang Passang, was advised to have his men cache the loads they were carrying and return to Camp I, where we had rescue equipment stored. In our feverish work down in the basecamp communications tent, with six radios going at any one time involving the usual complications of dying batteries and squelching electronics, we felt we were gaining an understanding that our team had all been clear of the collapse. We scribbled names on notepads as a confirmations dribbled in for each of the 20 - but one name kept coming up simply with a question mark beside it. Our supposition was that Ang Phinjo could not possibly have been close to the incident. Surely, at age 50 - on his 49th expedition to an 8000 meter peak- carrying a young man's load- surely Ang Phinjo was well below any accident and was simply moving slow and steady as always.
The seventeen IMG Sherpas that had regrouped at Camp I descended with all of the rescue gear they could carry. An Alpine Ascents team that had been below the accident sent two of their best men up fast. Lakpa Rita, their sirdar, reached the scene but was hampered by dying radio batteries. Even so, we heard enough to know that the only sign of the buried men was the load that one of them had been carrying. That load, without any doubt, was the one carried by Ang Phinjo, and it was down among the car-sized blocks of hard glacial ice that had obliterated the climbing route. By the time Dave Morton, AAI's excellent climbing guide, reached the scene and began making clear and concise radio transmissions, many Sherpas had arrived (including ours from Camp I) and all were coming to the same sad conclusion. There could be no survivors beyond the three lightly injured and partially buried men that had already been assisted. The survivors described what had happened to Dave Morton and he passed his information on to those of us with our hands full of radios and pens and paper below.
Ten Sherpas, from a number of climbing teams, had ended up working together in their upward push. They were in line at 7 AM, climbing with their loads at about 5630 meters in what amounted to a corridor within the glacier. A large free-standing tower of ice (a serac) above their corridor had collapsed, in-turn causing the collapse of a neighboring serac. The debris from these two massive glacial features had then struck and collapsed the wall which formed one side of the corridor that the ten Sherpas were climbing through. Those at the tail-end of the line-three Sherpas- were covered and were "gone." Those in the middle were struck by light debris and were partially buried. Some of those three were already descending, with help, toward basecamp and the Himalayan Rescue Association clinic. The three that were "gone" were now known definitively to be Ang Phinjo from our team and two others from the Asian Trekking team.
At basecamp, we hoped over and over that some miracle might occur and that one of the three lost men would emerge from the debris. But we heard repeatedly, from the most reliable of sources, that there would be no chance of that. Glaciers are not built of light and fluffy snow. When they move and settle and collapse due to their inherent downhill progress- shovels and picks are useless in attacking the concrete-hard rubble that results.
Ang Passang, our sirdar, was asked to bring his entire team safely down to basecamp. Our tears began as we realized that not only had tradgedy struck, but that it had struck squarely in our midst. We'd underestimated Ang Phinjo on his last day on Earth- we'd assumed that he couldn't possibly have been keeping pace with men half his own age. And we'd begun to realize that the smiles we'd received from Phinjo the night before were going to haunt us forever. As our friends Tap and Heidi Richards came over from the Mountain Link team to share in our grief, we began a sad afternoon of remembering Ang Phinjo.
There were still high points to the day, like when we discovered that the members of our own climbing team had led a massive improvement project directed toward the basecamp helicopter landing pad- on the chance that a survivor would need evacuation. We'd been so captivated by the action above that it only came to us later that more than a hundred climbers and Sherpas from every team in the valley had trooped down to move rocks on the project.
There was the positive development that the injured made it safely down and were considered to be in good condition- no helicopter would be needed afterall.
There was the emotional high that came with our Sherpa team descending safely into basecamp, not just the 19 that had begun with Phinjo, but the six more that we'd sent up upon hearing of an incident. Seeing their faces once again was immeasurably important to those of us that had sent them in harm's way.
But then their were the low points for which tears could not be kept in check. When we discovered the details of the two Asian Trekking Sherpas, that Lhakpa Tseri of Mende has four children at home- that Dawa Temba's wife, down in Thamo is expecting the couple's first child.
And time after time, when we thought we'd cried enough for one day- there was the memory of Phinjo. Runners had been sent down-valley to bring the sad news to Phortse- but of course, we have most of the men of Phortse here on our expedition. They've known Phinjo all of their lives. Ang Jangbu is his brother-in-law.
I've heard many times that Sherpas don't view death as we do- that their Buddhist religion allows them to shrug it off in the assumption that the deceased have merely passed on to a different phase of being. But when I sat with thirty sad, quiet and thoughtful men this afternoon- I knew that wasn't true. They acted as though their best friend had died-plain and simple. And those of us who are merely visiting this land and this society had to reflect that Ang Phinjo had always treated us as if we were his very best friends. When he came in to show us how he'd sewed up a damaged chair last night- did I treat him as an employee, or as the man who'd looked after me in the world's greatest mountains for fifteen years? When he smiled his famous smile and said 'Like they say in Tibet- Yabba Dabba Doo' why didn't I go over and hug him as if it was the last time I would ever see him?
In 1995, I stood on top of Cho Oyu with Ang Phinjo. At that point, I believe he'd been on twenty or thirty expeditions to 8000 meter peaks- but he'd never been to the top of one. He was very capable, but he'd never asserted himself as someone deserving of a summit opportunity. It turned out that he was very happy to be on the top of the 6th highest mountain in the world- he greeted me ever after with a wave and a cheerful 'Attu Tambu' which I've most likely mangled in transcription - roughly, it means 'Brother' and tonight- upon reflection- I'm sure I was not worthy of the title.