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Reiter survives Everest avalanche

JON REITER PREPARES to descend on ice block, called a serac, while moving through the Khambu Icefall.

JON REITER PREPARES to descend on ice block, called a serac, while moving through the Khambu Icefall.

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Kenwood climber and custom-home contractor, Jon Reiter, attempting to summit Mt. Everest, has survived a devastating avalanche Friday that thundered through the Khumbu Icefall, killing at least 16 Sherpa guides and injuring three. At this writing two more remained missing.

It was the deadliest accident in Mt. Everest climbing history.

The Sherpas were reportedly moving gear through the icefall to higher camps, a routine practice preceding the push to higher altitudes by Everest expeditions.

Reiter was making his second Everest attempt, in his effort to complete the Seven Summits, the highest peak on every continent. He has already climbed the other six, most of them after losing much of one lung to cancer.

Reiter and climbing partner Marcus Bridle, of Melbourne, Australia, were in the icefall with a group of Sherpas when the avalanche hit. The Khumbu icefall is a 3,000-foot chaos of frozen ice that fractures and splits into giant blocks and deep crevasses as the glacier flows off the side of Mt. Everest, traveling an estimated four feet a day. It has historically been the most dangerous part of an Everest climb, subject to unpredictable shifting and sudden explosions of falling snow and ice separating from overhanging mountain walls.

Because of the danger of warming snow and ice letting go, passage through the icefall is usually attempted very early in the morning, sometimes during pre-dawn hours.

By agreement with the government of Nepal, teams of expert Sherpas set the aluminum ladders and stationary ropes that lead climbers through the icefall. Those Sherpas, who in the course of a climbing season will make dozens of trips through the heart of the icefall, run the greatest risk of all Everest climbers.

The following blog reports Reiter sent from Everest explain how the Sherpas saved his life and what has happened since the avalanche.

“There was a large avalanche in the icefall today,” writes Reiter. “It came down off the left shoulder of Everest just as we were entering the ‘football’ field, which is just below camp one. Marcus and I were each pushed down behind large blocks of ice by our Sherpas, which shielded us from the brunt. These guys are truly amazing! We are shaken, but OK. Unfortunately, there are some still up there who were not so lucky today. As I write this, I feel emotional and don’t know what to say. One thought is that we were SO lucky! But the overwhelming feelings are for the poor families of the people that didn’t make it.

“I’m so near to this situation right now that I can’t think straight. Of course we are all asking ourselves that serious question of, ‘Why are we here?’ I don’t want to try to answer that question in this state of mind but it is the big question floating over our whole camp today.

“I’ll close with these thoughts; I feel so grateful! I do know this is part of climbing these big mountains and I’m willing to accept the risk. But I do love and appreciate my family and friends more than this adventure. I have a wonderful life and I’m SO lucky today. If I didn’t have all of you in my life none of this would matter.”

The following day Reiter wrote, “My friend Dawa Sherpa is the man who was by my side when the avalanche struck. He’s the guy who spent all day yesterday digging his friends and neighbors out of the snow and sending their limp bodies hanging on a cable from a helicopter down to base camp. After a long, 16 agonizing hours, he showed up at my tent, before going to his own, to make sure I was OK. He’s an amazing man, and I have great respect for him. He’s a perfect example of the selfless Sherpa people that we entrust with our lives while on the mountain, and who we quickly learn to call our friends.

“The Sherpa community here in Base Camp is naturally quite shaken by this event and most of them have decided to step back from this expedition for a few days, trek home to their villages and reassess the situation with their families.

“Unfortunately, the death toll is still climbing. We have recovered 16 lost souls as of an hour ago. We’re hoping to locate two more of the missing today and get them back down here to Base Camp, one way or another. This scene is a lot for us western climbers to take in, so I can’t imagine what our Sherpa partners are really feeling and thinking as we all witness the worst disaster in Everest history happening in front of our eyes.

“We’ve been getting a few questions and hearing a few comments that I’d like to try to address:

“This accident was just that – an accident, an act of nature, where we humans happen to be in the way. It was not caused by ‘overcrowding.’ Matter of fact, there were only about 40 of us in the entire icefall and we were spread out. There was no one waiting for others in order to move up and no congestion anywhere in the icefall. It appeared to be perfect climbing conditions right up until the moment the thunder struck.

“The avalanche took place just below camp 1 at about 19,000 feet and the time was approximately 6:45 am.

“The Sherpa that were lost were carrying loads to support the upper camps. The fixed lines and ladders through the icefall were already in place. There were very few western climbers in the area and all of us had our climbing Sherpa by our sides and they all survived.

“This is a tough time for everyone here on the mountain, but accidents, and even death, are part of the deal. If climbing Everest were easy and risk-free, I suspect we’d all take a hike to the top of the world. The price that has been paid over the last 24 hours is a large price indeed. I guess the climbing Sherpa, as well as all of us western climbers, need a few moments or days to re-evaluate what’s worth what in this life.”

And on April 21, Reiter continued, writing, “Just a note to summarize the last few days. Our Sherpa friends have decided to use this tragedy to further their cause with the Nepal government. All of the climbing Sherpa (as opposed to the Sherpa that help us establish and maintain base camp) have left the mountain and have stated that they will not return until their requests are met by the Nepalese government. What they’re asking for is certainly deserved and we support their cause 100 percent. They simply want the families of the deceased to be taken care of, as well as assurances that they themselves and their families will be taken care of should they be hurt or killed while climbing Everest. There are other requests on their list (15 in all) but this is the general idea.

“We feel that most of what they’re asking for is valid and overdue. From what we understand, 10 percent of Nepal’s GDP is based on Everest revenue. It may be true that we climbers have substantially increased the quality of life here in the Khumbu Valley, with all the money that’s spent here climbing this mountain and trekking about, but we hope that the government remembers that the climbing Sherpa are the ones putting their lives on the line, right along side us, on a daily basis. We cannot climb this mountain without them by our sides, just as they were not able to climb it without our logistics and resources. We make a perfect and inseparable team. From the very beginning (1953) until today, Everest is climbed not by individuals but by partnerships.

“There have been some horribly misinformed comments made lately about the relationship between the Sherpa people and western climbers. As I mentioned, both parties consider the other as equal partners in this quest. We take care of each other 24 hours a day. When the avalanche hit, it was actually western climbers (many of whom were actually from our party) who spent the day, on the scene, treating the wounded and extracting the dead. We did not run from the scene. As a matter of fact, our western guides from camp one and from the Football field rushed towards the debris into the danger and were some of the first on the scene.

“We have several MDs as clients on our climbing team, and some of these docs spent their entire day volunteering their time down at Base Camp medical, treating the wounded and pronouncing the unfortunate dead. I write all of this to clear the air of the misinformed nonsense about our relationship with our Sherpa partners. We and the Sherpa people are a team of equals and there were many tears spilled and stomachs turned as we brought our friends down one by one.

“We don’t know how long it’ll take this government to respond to the Sherpas’ requests, and we have limited time to move up this mountain. Several teams have already thrown in the towel and are headed downhill out of BC now. As for Marcus and me, we’ve decided to give it our all. We came here to climb Everest and we’ll wait here patiently until our expedition leader tells us we can go up or we must go down. I think we’re ready to climb this one. I think the weather is looking better by the day. The mountain conditions are certainly acceptable and we have the absolute best team behind us.

“Avalanches happen in the mountains. As we lie in our tents, we hear them crash down around us several times everyday. Unfortunately, this is part of the risk, part of the adventure that we all signed up for. If the government and the Sherpa come to an agreement soon, Marcus and I will continue trudging uphill until we can go no further. If they decide to not give us that opportunity this year, we’ll go home early, hug and kiss our loved ones and know that we’ve been lucky to have had the opportunity to spend time in these mountains and share many wonderful times in the Khumbu Valley with our mountain-loving Sherpa brothers.”