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Crisis at Base Camp: An Eyewitness Account of the 2014 Sherpa Disaster

Last year, 16 Sherpa were killed following an avalanche on Mount Everest. Climber Nigel Briant was at Base Camp - where tensions quickly escalated.
Wikimedia Commons

"Looking back on it now it's actually really quite scary because there was no police, no army… a large proportion of the Western climbing community were sleeping with ice-axes."

On April 18th 2014, Nigel Briant was at Base Camp preparing to climb Mount Everest. At 06:30 that morning, an avalanche triggered in the Khumbu Icefall killed 16 Nepalese guides.

Until last weekend's events – the ultimate death toll from which remains unclear – it was the deadliest day in the mountain's recorded history.


The days that followed the tragedy saw tensions increase dramatically, worsening the already strained relationship between the indigenous Sherpa people and Western climbers. There was nearly an uprising as a minority element sought to rally the Sherpa to strike, threatening to close the mountain on grounds of poor working conditions and low pay.

"In my experience, the Sherpa were very friendly, nice, quiet people," recalls Nigel. "I didn't see anybody being forced into doing anything they didn't want to. Everybody just wants to earn money."

Given the low living costs in the area, a Sherpa guide carrying equipment and making 25 to 30 trips through the treacherous Khumbu Icefall can expect to make a small fortune.

"These guys would potentially earn up to $4,000 or $5,000 in about two months. The average Nepali would earn $300 or $400 a year. So they are the city traders of the Nepali people. The head Sherpa of the camp we were in sends his kids to an American private school. It's big business."

Tenzing Norgay is perhaps the most famous Sherpa. In 1953 he and Edmund Hillary became the first people known to have reached Everest's summit. Image via

A lot of Western media sources at the time of the incident ran headlines focusing on Sherpa exploitation.

"The Sherpa themselves are a little bit conflicted. They're paid by the load and by the kilo. So if you now tell them, 'You know all those runs you were anticipating earning money from? You can't do them now, because the work doesn't exist,' that's not what they want. And the government doesn't want to do that because every dollar theoretically has tax paid on it, or it's money coming into the country."


Instead, Nigel suggests the real motivation behind the call to strike was linked to Maoist political manoeuvring.

"The Maoists have penetrated Nepal quite extensively and they are trying to gain as much power and influence as they possibly can. It's a very, very poor country, but you've got a money-spinner in Everest. This is where the Maoists want control, because with money comes power."

Within 24 hours of the accident a small number of ringleaders were making demands and inciting the Sherpa to react.

"They weren't locals," says Nigel. "It's been subsequently determined that they were Western-trained guides. I think they were Nepali, but they weren't actually from that particular region, and it is believed they have Maoist political ties. They were there, encouraging everybody to essentially bring everything to a grinding standstill and start to force the government to do things."

Encouraging is perhaps an understatement. Eventually the instigators targeted the Sherpa 'Ice Doctors' who set the ladders through the Khumbu Icefall each year – a crucial part of any Everest attempt.

"The Ice Doctors were threatened; they were told that they'd have their tea houses burned or their legs broken. Threats were also extended to their family. That's when it got really, really nasty. The Ice Doctors came to visit our operator and said, 'We're not doing it.' Without the Ice Doctors, that's it – you're done. Because you've got no route and nobody to set the ropes.


"You have to remember that their families are three or four days away. They're told, 'This will happen and you won't be around to help them. You'll find out about it when you go home.' Who's going to take that risk? It's not like you can assume they will be looked after by a resident police force."

Relatives of climbers killed in the avalanche wait for the funeral procession to begin in Katmandu. Photo by PA Images

The lack of any recognised authority to deal with the volatile situation developing in camp led to Western climbers sleeping alongside their ice-axes and being advised not to venture beyond their own tent and the mess tent.

"If it all kicked off we were very much in the minority. Everyone's walking around with an axe or a knife, because that's part of the climbing kit you used to get to base camp. There was nothing to stop a full-on riot occurring; the authorities wouldn't do anything. Kathmandu is two hours flight away by helicopter and there's pretty much zero communications. So what do you do? You keep your head down, you don't say anything and you don't put anything on Facebook because they were even scanning social media.

"The feeling on the ground from our logistics manager was that all Kathmandu needed to do was send a small group of six or seven troops with rifles. Not to shoot anybody, just to say, 'We're here to make sure there's law and order.' As far as he was concerned the whole thing would have just died away. There were opportunists who were making the most of that situation and there was nobody there to oppose them."


Among the people on the mountain that day were American adventurer Joby Ogywn and a crew from the Discovery Channel planning to film his attempted wingsuit jump off Everest. When the production team were asked whether their documentary was going to be impacted by the deaths they replied that it would not.

This, it turned out, was not the answer the instigators wanted to hear.

"They obviously completely misread the situation," Nigel says. "Within two hours Joby had to leave Base Camp because he was being hunted. There were groups of Sherpa looking for him. We saw them walking around and he left quickly. Very quickly."

Was that frightening at all?

"Absolutely! You just didn't know when the situation was going to escalate. We were all just hoping it would calm down and that rational voices would prevail."

Image via WikiMedia Commons

A deal ensuring improved financial terms for the Sherpa was eventually agreed with the Nepalese government, but Everest's 2014 season was abandoned on April 22nd when the Sherpa decided to stop climbing in honour of their dead.

"The feeling from some Westerners was that the reaction may have been very different had it been a team of Western climbers killed. There are 40 children without fathers due to this avalanche, 16 families without any form of income."

Nigel returned from Everest having been unable to attempt his climb, following several months of preparation and estimated costs running close to £50,000.


"A lot of people lost a lot of money. I personally lost all the money I put in, bar the climbing permit, which I can use again. But the impact was far greater in the local community. The $1,000 bonus that I was going to give to a Sherpa? That paid for my helicopter flight out – I wanted to get away as quickly as possible."

"On the one hand you could be very arrogant about it and say, 'okay, 16 people died, 11 people died in 1996, people die every year,' but nobody can claim to be ignorant. We all come here knowing that it's dangerous.

"A lot of the demands the Sherpa had were perfectly valid. Higher levels of insurance, money going to the families, better working conditions – at least as far as possible. But obviously there was also a feeling from some climbers that, 'You've taken away our dream!'"

Cartilage damage sustained in his knee means that, irrespective of cost and time practicalities, a return to Everest won't realistically be on the cards for Nigel until 2017 at the earliest.

And what became of the Maoist instigators?

"I believe one of them is back on the mountain this year. My climbing partner is back there now and apparently he was asked to share a tent with one of the main protagonists. He flatly refused."

2014 may have heralded the end of tensions on Mount Everest, or perhaps it will come to be viewed as another chapter in a recurring series of incidents involving a rogue element within the Sherpa community. A year on from the disaster, that question is no less relevant as Nepal and the Sherpa people once again come to terms with a devastating set of events.

[Nigel Briant was speaking before Saturday's earthquake hit Nepal]