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Photo: Sunset on Mount Everest seen from Mount Kala Patthar

Mount Everest looms before the sunset-gilded peak of Kala Pattar (file picture).

Photograph by Elena Pastukhova, My Shot

Ker Than

for National Geographic News

Updated 6:01 p.m. ET, April 22, 2012

A Nepali guide on Mount Everest plummeted 150 feet (46 meters)—roughly equivalent to falling from a 15-story building—into an ice crevasse Saturday, a National Geographic team on Everest reported.

Namgya Tshering Sherpa—believed to be 30 and a new father—is the first climbing-related fatality of the 2012 mountaineering season on the world's tallest peak.

 

picture: mount everest base camp

 

At the time of the fall, Namgya was climbing toward Camp 2, about two-thirds of the way up the 29,035-foot (8,850-meter) mountain. Like many others of the Sherpa ethnic group of northeastern Nepal, Namgya was making a living from his high-altitude upbringing, serving Western climbers as a guide and porter.

Namgya's body has been recovered and is expected to be flown off Everest Sunday, according to a blog post from Everest Base Camp by National Geographic magazine writer Mark Jenkins.

Meanwhile, at Base Camp, "the Sherpas are subdued and sorrowful, especially since it was an unnecessary death," Jenkins wrote. "His death is a tragic reminder of what a slim margin of error there is in the mountains."

(Pictures: The Sherpas.)

Three days before Namgya fell, Everest claimed another victim. A 40-year-old guide named Karsang Namgyal Sherpa died, presumably of altitude sickness, at Base Camp. He had scaled Everest several times and was the son of an accomplished Sherpa known as the "Snow Leopard."

Without a Net

Early reports suggest Namgya hadn't taken safety precautions before crossing one of the many aluminum ladders that are laid flat to bridge giant cracks in the ice in Everest's Khumbu Icefall region (picture).

"It's actually the most dangerous part of the climb," said David Roberts, a mountaineer who has written extensively about Mount Everest.

Each climber is expected to clip his or her harness to safety lines that are anchored into the ice before crossing any of the roughly foot-wide (30-centimeter-wide) ladders.

Namgya was a veteran climber who reportedly conquered the peak in 2010 and 2011. But he apparently skipped clipping in, and he fell after one of his crampons (picture)—sets of metal spikes clipped onto boots for traction—caught on a rung. (Pictures: Everest gear, then and now.)

"It is not completely uncommon among Sherpas to skip clipping into the safety line and simply race across the ladder," according to Jenkins, who's currently preparing for a National Geographic Society-sponsored climb to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first U.S. summit of Everest. (The Society owns National Geographic News.)

"[Namgya's] death could have been prevented if standard safe climbing practices were followed," said Conrad Anker, a climber and photographer who is accompanying Jenkins on the expedition. "By clipping the safety line, his fall would have been suspended."

Why did Namgya skip a seemingly simple, and potentially life-saving step?

According to U.S. climber Peter Athans, who's summited Everest seven times, "Oftentimes there's a fairly strong competitive spirit between the Sherpas who are there, especially if they're from different villages.

"They could also just be overconfident and a bit complacent, because the guides generally have great athleticism ... and going across the ladder is just not difficult for them," said Athans, who's often called "Mr. Everest."

Veteran U.S. climber Ed Viesturs added, "These guys just pretty much dance across the ladders.

"They're so fast and so efficient that sometimes they don't bother to clip in ... It takes a couple of seconds to clip in and a couple of extra seconds to unclip, and if you've done it a few hundred times, you can become a little complacent," said Viesturs, who has climbed all 14 of Earth's 8,000-meter-plus (26,250-foot-plus) mountains without supplemental oxygen.

Athans said he understands the temptation to not clip in during a crevasse crossing and has skipped the step himself.

"There're places where you have a short ladder section, and you get pretty confident about it," he said. "And for whatever reason you think it's just a couple of hops, and you feel completely confident in your abilities."

Veteran climbers aren't the only ones who occasionally don't clip in. Novice alpinists sometimes just plain forget, Athans added.

Part of the problem is that, for climbers from other parts of the world, "you don't really get a lot of opportunities to cross crevasses with ladders," Athans said. For instance, "there's only really one mountain that I know of in North America where people do it, and that's Mount Rainier.")

(Related: "Everest 2012: Pete Athans on the Evolution of Nepali Guides.")

Crevasse falls aren't always deadly, especially if a crack is relatively shallow or if snow bridges soften a climbers fall.

Sometimes, though, climbers survive the fall but not what comes after.

"We had an issue with a skier on Mount Rainier who fell into a crevasse last May, and by the time we got to him, which was three hours later, he had died of hypothermia from being in the hole so long," Athans said.

Most deaths in the Khumbu Icefall are not due to safety-gear issues but rather to avalanches and unstable ice towers known as seracs, according to Roberts.

"When a serac is melting out, it can just collapse when a climber's under it," he said. "Most of the death in the Khumbu is because of that."

Roberts estimated that about a third of the deaths on Everest are guides and porters, many of them Sherpas.

"But I wouldn't say it's because they're overconfident," he said. "They're more likely to spend inordinate amounts of time on the dangerous parts of the mountain ... so they're playing Russian roulette with the odds."

Sherpas Scientifically Suited to Everest

Famed for their legendary athleticism and endurance at high altitudes, Sherpas have been integral to Everest climbing expeditions since the 1920s, when Westerners first set their sights on climbing the mountain.

"They're kind of the nuts and bolts of success up there," Viesturs said. "Sight unseen, they carry 90 percent of the equipment that goes up the mountain, and they get very little recognition."

Scientific studies have shown that Nepali porters are uniquely adapted for alpine environments. They can carry loads that are nearly as heavy as them, and do so while burning less energy per pound than a typical Western backpacker.

In recent years other ethnic groups have found employment as Everest guides and porters, but Sherpas are still "considered the elite ethnicity" for this type of work, Athans said.

But for all of their natural talent on the slopes, Sherpas were traditionally not very well trained in mountaineering techniques. This has begun to change, however. Many modern Sherpas leave Nepal to gain experience climbing other mountains, and participate in training courses to improve their skills.

"Many of them are going out and seeking greater technical expertise," Athans said. "They're taking courses, getting certifications, and trying to pursue work with organizations that will give them greater skills ... They're also upgrading their gear pretty seriously as well." (Related: how some Everest guides learn their craft.)

The best Sherpa guides can make "several thousand" dollars per expedition—enough to provide for their families for an entire year, Viesturs said. He added, "many of these guys will do two expeditions per year, one in the spring and one in the fall."

No Official Investigation?

Because Namgya Tshering Sherpa's death appears to have been accidental, there likely won't be any official investigation beyond an inquiry by an insurance company, Athans said.

"Police or local liaison officers accompanying mountaineering teams will review what took place and will more than likely report those finding to the Ministry of Tourism" of Nepal, Athans explained.

"Given that the fall was trauma, I don't think it will be necessary for an extensive postmortem and, given local customs, the family will prefer to cremate the body within 72 hours of death."

With the tragedy of Namgya painfully fresh, Everest team leaders were insisting on Saturday that all climbers clip in to safety lines, magazine writer Jenkins blogged.

But Viesturs predicted this won't be the last such death on Everest.

"I think for the time being people are going to heed [the advice]," he said. "But then history will repeat itself, and people will become complacent again, and something like this could potentially happen again."

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