18 Apr 2014

Everest avalanche: 16 people ‘believed dead’

Exclusive: Mountaineer Ed Wardle speaks to Channel 4 News about “horrific” scenes on the slopes of Everest, which has now been closed off, and says that 16 people are believed to be dead.

The deadliest single accident on Mount Everest struck a group of local Sherpa guides early on Friday morning on the most popular route to the mountain’s peak.

Nepali officials said that 12 people had died in the avalanche, which hit the group of guides just under 20,000 feet, between base camp and camp 1.

But speaking to Channel 4 News direct from the slopes of Everest, Scottish adventurer and filmmaker Ed Wardle said that 16 people were believed to be dead.

Mr Wardle, who had been intending to make the ascent himself as part of production team from an NBC TV crew, said that the mountain had effectively been closed off.

“I believe 16 people are dead and several people are critically injured. Some have been airlifted back to Kathmandu and 10 to 15 people… managed to walk out of the avalanche,” he told Channel 4 News. “One of the most horrific sights I ever saw on Everest was seeing the bodies being airlifted on long lines below the helicopters.”

He added: “The mountain is closed for now. Nobody will be climbing… I think that many of the expeditions here will pack up and go home.”

The mountain is closed for now. Nobody will be climbing Ed Wardle

A rescue operation is underway to try and recover the injured, said the region’s tourism officials, and helicopters and rescuers on foot have been sent to the site, said senior ministry official Madhusudan Burlakoti. Mr Wardle said that it was mainly being run by volunteers at the moment.

The fatal accident is the most deadly to strike the mountain, and was the first major avalanche on Mount Everest in this year’s climbing season, when hundreds of foreign and Nepali climbers flock to the mountain to attempt to reach its 8,850 metre (29,035 feet) peak.

Local Sherpa guides climb the mountain ahead of foreign climbers and prepare the way by fixing ropes and setting up camps, and many of the Sherka community are linked to the industry of moutain climbing.

Mr Wardle and his team had intended to start climbing on Thursday, but were advised by their Sherpa guides to wait until they had prepared the way.

“The avalanche came sweeping from the Khubuche Icefall and hammered over at tents of Sherpas, who were heading to Camp 1 to ferry logistics and fix ropes for the climbers of different expedition teams,” said a statement from the Nepal Mountaineering Association.

‘We all have to question what we’re doing here’

Mountaineers at base camp heard the icefall before 7am on Friday morning. Volunteers soon started preparing to go and help, Mr Wardle said, but then they heard on the radio how bad the avalanche was.

“The atmosphere here at base camp is one of shock, and now of grieving,” he told Channel 4 News. “For something like this to happen makes the whole thing seem pointless to me. And I believe that will be the same for many people here.

“Everest is an extremely dangerous place. I wouldn’t be surprised if we heard an avalanche in the next few hours. People come here to take a risk. We understand those risks. But when something like this happens, we all have to question what we’re doing here.”

Mountain deaths

Nearly 250 people are known to have died on the world’s highest mountain and more than 4,000 climbers have managed to scale the summit. It was first climbed by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa in 1953, and the route they took is the one hit by the avalanche on Friday.

Nepal’s Tourism Ministry has issued permits to 334 foreign climbers to scale Mount Everest this season, up from 328 the whole of last year. Nepal plans to cut fees to climb the mountain despite concern about overcrowding.

Everest is on the border between Nepal and the Chinese region of Tibet and can be climbed from both sides.

Avoiding the avalanche

“Our plan was to start climbing Everest last night, which would have put us exactly in the path of the avalanche,” Ed Wardle told Channel 4 News.

“We decided to delay 24 hours on the advice of the Sherpas who wanted to have another day laying in ropes and camps further up the mountain.

“So all the Sherpas early this morning, about 4 o’clock, left base camp and started climbing up with loads, with ropes, equipment food even for all of the climbers expecting to climb the mountain.

“They got most of the way to camp one before the avalanche came down and completely wiped away the path they were following.”