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Tan Dawn Wei
Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Asia

Climber recalls Everest avalanche and aftermath

The Straits Times | Tan Dawn Wei | Wednesday, May 7, 2014

On Good Friday, April 18, Mr Brooks Entwistle was up before dawn when he heard the usual groaning and crackling of glaciers breaking.

From his tent at Everest Base Camp, he had a spectacular view of the Khumbu Icefall, which climbers scaling the world's highest peak from the south side must pass, at great risk. The Singapore resident had hiked through it once the previous Tuesday, being among the earliest groups to set up at base camp.

"I was up to look at the icefall. I heard it first, then saw it," said the 46-year-old of the deadly avalanche that struck at 6.30am, killing 16 Nepalese guides and porters in the worst tragedy on the mighty mountain.

Nearly 340 climbers were permitted to scale Everest this year, each paying between US$35,000 (S$43,900) and US$100,000 to attempt a summit within a three-week May window.

That morning, Mr Entwistle's team was supposed to hike through the icefall at 3am to the higher Camp 1. Climbers cross it quickly in the wee hours of the morning when the ice is frozen and thus less susceptible to shifting.

The guides and porters, including the 16 who were killed, were hauling up loads. But Mr Entwistle's climb was postponed for a day as the porters had not properly set up at Camp 1.

By 7.30am, it became clear it was serious. Mr Entwistle's climbing guide had come down from Camp 2 and had passed the group of 16 Sherpas. "He told me, with a look in his eyes I'll never forget: It's not five or six. It's 15 or 16," recalled Mr Entwistle, who retired from his job as chairman of Goldman Sachs South-east Asia last year.

By late morning, 13 helicopters came in, one by one, lifting the bodies from the icefall.

"That juxtaposition of the red helicopter, the long wire and the limp body against the blue sky with the Everest west shoulder - no one there will ever forget that," said Mr Entwistle, who returned to Singapore last week.

The next morning, he watched the first group of Sherpas hike out. His trekking agency International Mountain Guides also sent their Sherpas home, with the understanding that they would return on Tuesday night.

"The emotion was, they'll come back and the climb will still be on. I hadn't come to the realisation that the mountain closing was on the cards."

The turning point came on Monday, when the climbers and guides at base camp attended a memorial service for the dead Sherpas, which, to Mr Entwistle's surprise, turned into a political rally.

The guides issued a manifesto, asking, among other things, that the government channel 30 per cent of climbing fees it collects - US$3 million this year - to a mountaineering relief fund.

By Wednesday, after his team's Sherpas came back and had a meeting with the expedition leader, the news was given to Mr Entwistle and his fellow climbers: It's over. His team was the largest with 80 Sherpas, and they were not willing to continue climbing. The others followed suit.

Thursday morning marked the mass exodus: As many as 15 helicopters were hovering above in the Everest sky, waiting to pull climbers out.

The climbing community has rallied around the Sherpas as they negotiate with the government. Several fund-raising drives are going on.

Mountaineer and leadership coach David Lim, 49, who led the first Singapore Everest expedition in 1998, expects that climbing will continue next season, but with enhanced insurance coverage for the Sherpas, and stronger engagement between them and the government.

In the longer term, Sherpas, now better educated, will have a more equal voice in expeditions. "As the icefall presents a continuing hazard, and commercial concerns are still often dictated by foreign companies, an uneasy tension will continue to exist. Managing it well is both a leadership skill and art," he said.

Mr Entwistle believes climbers may now migrate to Tibet to try to scale Everest from there. But he does not know if he will return.

"I wanted to climb Everest my whole life," said Mr Entwistle, who grew up climbing mountains in his home town of Colorado. "But I've never questioned the call to honour the Sherpas and respect that the mountain needs to close and grieve for a while."

dawntan@sph.com.sg

This article was published on May 5 in The Straits Times.

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