Updated May 22, 2014 2:44 p.m. ET
KHUMJUNG, Nepal—They came from six continents, each angling for a chance to reach the roof of the world. As harsh winter turned to spring, hundreds of climbers settled into what has become business as usual at the base camp below Mount Everest.
There were yoga classes, mountaineering training sessions and, for some high-end climbers, cocktail hours as they waited to conquer nature and fear and death. A team from Google Inc. had arrived to collect "Street View" images, while a Hollywood film crew was there to shoot scenes for an action movie about the calamitous 1996 events on Everest chronicled in the best-selling book "Into Thin Air."
Joby Ogwyn, an American stuntman, was getting ready to jump from the summit in a wing-suit, an exploit the Discovery Channel planned to broadcast live. "It's good to be climbing in the big range again," Mr. Ogwyn wrote on his Facebook page on April 17. "Power up."
But in the early hours of the next morning, while most of the foreign climbers slept, Kaji Sherpa and five teammates took a moment for a more somber activity: They prayed.
A veteran of six Everest expeditions, the 39-year-old knew how treacherous the first part of the day's journey—through a splintering section of glacier known as the Khumbu Icefall—could be. He knew that he and a colleague would each be carrying more than 60 pounds of supplies. And he worried about a 19-year-old brother-in-law, a climbing novice who had signed up to work on the expedition.
So in the frigid darkness, with metal-toothed crampons attached to their boots and safety harnesses double-checked, the six Nepali men, whose job is smoothing the way for foreign climbers, stopped for a quick prayer, scattering some grains of rice blessed by a Buddhist lama.
"Be careful," said Kaji. "And take it slow."
For decades, climbers from across the globe have hired Sherpas, an ethnic group settled in the high Himalayan valleys of Nepal, to help them reach Everest's brutal 29,000-foot summit, the pinnacle of so many adventurers' aspirations. And for nearly as long—with the innumerable perils of high-altitude mountaineering—Sherpas have tempted fate for their clients' goals and the survival of their families.
Those risks came into stark focus on April 18, when a mass of ice hurtled down the mountain's west shoulder, killing 13 Sherpas and three other Nepali staff. It was the single deadliest Everest tragedy, and in the aftermath, it has raised questions about the largely unregulated way the mountain is run.
Everest—despite, or perhaps because of, its fearsome reputation and long history of death and disaster—has turned into a big business. It is the centerpiece of Nepal's $360 million trekking-and-tourism industry. Last year, more than 450 people climbed Everest, more than twice as many as in 1990. And with the help of commercial expedition firms, and better weather forecasting, a climber's odds of success have never been better, with more than half now reaching the summit.
But more climbers, including some less prepared than others, means more Sherpas working on the mountain—and more people exposed to risk. Though fatality rates for guides and climbers have declined over the decades, four Sherpas died last year and three the year before. Among clients, "there are fewer hard-core mountaineers," says Susmita Maskey, a 34-year-old Nepali who has climbed Everest and some of the world's other tallest peaks. "It's a circus."
To find the survivors of April 18 and the families of some who died, The Wall Street Journal visited villages in the Khumbu Valley, on the path to base camp. Here in the high hills, goods move only on the backs of people or beasts of burden along mountainside trails. Amid the rock, ice and snow, sources of a sure income are hard to find—except in the world of trekking and climbing.
"No mountaineering means no tourists," said Nima Doma Sherpa, 30, whose husband died in the avalanche. "No tourists means no jobs, and no jobs means no income."
As the ascent began, Kaji's team entered the Khumbu Icefall's labyrinth of icy boulders and deep crevasses, crossed with wobbly aluminum ladders. "Every time I go through the icefall, in my heart, I always fear the worst," said Pemba Chhoti Sherpa, 42, a member of Kaji's group. (Many Sherpas use the name of their ethnic group as a last name.)
The six men were among hundreds of Sherpa climbers working for 31 expeditions, whose 300-plus clients had arrived in recent weeks at base camp to acclimate to the high altitude. Heading to Camp 2 that day, the Sherpas were carrying tents, food, kitchen equipment and even two folding dining tables.
Band of Brothers: A team of Sherpas started up Mount Everest at 4 a.m. the morning of April 18
KAJI SHERPA, 39, broke some ribs in the avalanche but isn't giving up on this line of business. Gordon Fairclough/The Wall Street Journal
PEMBA CHHOTI SHERPA, 42, has climbed Everest 10 times. "I thought, 'this is what death sounds like,'" he said, of the noise of the toppling ice. Ang Tenzing Sherpa
CHHEWANG SHERPA, 19, the least experienced member of the group, climbed close to his brother-in-law Kaji on the morning of the avalanche. Family of Chhewang Sherpa
LHAKPA TENZING SHERPA, 24, fell into a crevasse on Everest in 2011, during his first expedition on the mountain. Family of Lhakpa Tenzing Sherpa
CHHERING WANCHU SHERPA, 34, chose to work as a kitchen assistant, so he would only have to make one round-trip through a treacherous stretch. Family of Chhering Wanchu Sherpa
PHURBA ONGYAL SHERPA, 25, told his sister that this season would be his last on Everest. Family of Phurba Ongyal Sherpa
Kaji, a square-shouldered man with close-cropped hair and a wide smile, and his teammates were working for Adventure Consultants, a New Zealand-based outfit that touts itself as a "world-renowned mountain guiding company" and offers clients a $65,000 Everest package. One of the firm's legendary founders, Rob Hall, was one of eight people who died in the "Thin Air" disaster.
Although glad to be earning an expected $5,000 for the season's work, it was never Kaji's ambition to be an Everest climber. He had spent years growing potatoes and barley on his small farm but kept hearing about the paychecks his friends were earning working for expeditions. "I got a lot of pressure from my wife" not to climb, said Kaji. "But we need the money. I want my kids to get a proper education so they don't have to work as porters and guides."
On their climb from base camp, at 17,500 feet, to Camp 2 some 3,800 feet higher, Kaji and his team traversed "the popcorn," as climbers call a part of the icefall with a rough, crenelated surface, and passed a large, flat-topped block of ice known as "the football field." They could hear the ice around them fracture. Close by Kaji, sometimes holding his hand, was Kaji's wife's youngest brother, Chhewang Sherpa, an inexperienced climber who was coming along as a kitchen assistant.
Two other team members, Lhakpa Tenzing Sherpa, 24, and Chhering Wanchu Sherpa, 34, grew up in Khumjung, a Himalayan village of 500 households that has been sending its sons to work on the world's highest peak for decades. Though experienced climbers, both men had taken safer jobs as camp cooks, who make only one round-trip through the icefall, and for good reason. In 2012, Chhering Wanchu watched a close friend slip off a climbing ladder and fall to his death in a crevasse. The year before, Lhakpa Tenzing himself plunged into a crevasse. He was saved by a safety line but suffered a broken wrist.
The two men, who played volleyball together at the Khumjung Youth Club, were back on the mountain—for money. Lhakpa Tenzing had aging parents and a newborn daughter, born after he was already at base camp, to support. Chhering Wanchu and his wife wanted funds to start a tea house in Khumjung.
Rounding out the group were Pemba Chhoti and another climbing Sherpa, Phurba Ongyal Sherpa, 25, who told his family it would be his last Everest expedition. He was going to climb one more time this year, he said, to earn money to finish building a house.
About 2½ hours into their six-hour climb to Camp 2, the sun had come up and Kaji's group was nearing the top of the icefall. Kaji could see Sherpas from various expeditions strung out along the route above and below him.
Then he heard an enormous crack, "like thunder."
Sherpas have worked as porters in the Himalayas since at least 1907, when climbing expeditions typically began in Darjeeling, India. The hill town had a sizable population of Sherpas who, looking for work, had crossed the border from their homes in the mountains of northeastern Nepal.
Western climbers immediately prized the Sherpas for their physical hardiness, good-natured manner and, above all, their obedience. Sherpas "would seem to be the best for high mountain work," one British alpinist wrote during preparations for a 1921 Everest expedition. "They are less independent than the Tibetans."
Demand for Sherpas only increased after Nepal opened the country to the outside world in 1951. They have become inextricably linked with mountaineering in the Himalayas even though their professional association was largely the result of geographic happenstance.
" Sherpas don't climb for recreation. They climb because it's a job for them, a way of living. "
"Sherpas originally had no interest in climbing mountains," says Jamling Tenzing Norgay, son of Tenzing Norgay, who in 1953 became, with Edmund Hillary, one of the first two people to summit Everest successfully. "Sherpas don't climb for recreation. They climb because it's a job for them, a way of living."
Compared with other jobs open to Nepali men with limited education, mountaineering work pays well; even the cooks at base camp can make $2,500 in a two-month season. It is a considerable sum, since the average annual income in Nepal is $700. But that is far less than the $20,000 to $30,000 a Western guide can earn. Expedition companies say that is because foreign guides have better training, different duties and a higher cost of living.
"If you start paying everyone Western wages, that totally upsets the balance," said Russell Brice, founder and operator of France-based Himalayan Experience. "These people don't need that sort of money," he added, saying the current salary Sherpas get "makes them like a multimillionaire in their own country."
Pemba Chhoti, who had been climbing ahead of Kaji and the others in the icefall that morning, said the crash of the avalanche terrified him. "I thought, 'this is what death sounds like.' "
Before anyone could get a good look, a block of ice the size of a house had broken loose from the West Shoulder and smashed into the glacier below, sending a torrent of ice and snow surging toward them. "It was like the whole mountain was falling," Kaji said.
Kaji, who was climbing next to Chhewang, was struck by flying ice and knocked to the ground. He blacked out, and when he came to, he said, he was engulfed in a cloud of snow. Chhewang, in a panic, had unhooked himself from the safety rope and run to higher ground.
Around him, Kaji said, he could see other injured Sherpa climbers, some with blood streaming down their foreheads. He fumbled for a walkie-talkie. "Save us, please," he said. Then he sank facedown into the snow. "It was like a dream."
Surviving Sherpa climbers could see their comrades' arms and legs protruding from the snow and ice and frantically scrambled to dig them out. They managed to extricate one man, Dawa Tashi Sherpa, who had been buried up to his chest. But most of those caught in the avalanche's path were dead.
At base camp, where most people were still in their sleeping bags, radios crackled to life with the unwelcome news of the disaster. Expedition leaders called in helicopters from Katmandu and organized rescue teams of Sherpas, foreign guides and doctors that rushed up the mountain.
Dave Hahn, a guide for the American expedition company Rainier Mountaineering Inc., or RMI, said that when he reached the avalanche site, he discovered few injured and many dead. "We ended up chopping victims out of the ice," Mr. Hahn said. It was "a horrible progression of body after body."
Kaji, on oxygen and tied to a stretcher, and other seriously injured Sherpas were loaded aboard arriving helicopters. Rescuers told him Lhakpa Tenzing, Chhering Wanchu and Phurba Ongyal were all dead. He says he wondered to himself at the time, "How did I survive?"
As the victims' corpses were recovered, they were hooked by their climbing harnesses to a rope and lifted by a helicopter, one after another, to base camp. Ellen Gallant, a Salt Lake City cardiologist planning to climb Everest this year, said the bodies looked like rag dolls. Most appeared to have died from asphyxiation or internal injuries. "It was probably more than I have ever seen before, almost like being in battle," she said.
On the first day, searchers managed to retrieve the bodies of Kaji's three teammates and nine other people. Another was recovered the next day, but three men remain entombed in the ice.
None of the Sherpas caught up in the disaster was wearing an avalanche beacon, which transmits a signal so rescuers can find buried climbers. Such beacons, which cost about $300 each, aren't required and most expedition companies don't issue them to Sherpa staff members.
Mr. Hahn, the RMI guide, thinks the beacons should be mandatory. They are unlikely to save the lives of those who are buried, he said, but they will help reduce the risks to searchers trying to retrieve bodies by speeding their location and recovery. But Guy Cotter, managing director of Adventure Consultants, said they only create false hope and thereby increase the risk to rescuers. When it is a large block of ice collapsing, "it's not an avalanche rescue," he said. "It's basically a mining project to get people out."
At base camp, after the initial flurry of rescue activity on Friday, shock set in.
The magnitude of the death toll, 16, had a "huge impact on us all," said Nima Namgyal Sherpa, a physician who helped coordinate treatment of the wounded. "We didn't know what to do." He is also a guide for Nepal-based Asian Trekking, and said he knew that clients had invested a lot of time and money to come to Everest. "The Sherpas were freaked out and scared," he said. "I couldn't ask them to climb. And I couldn't just ask the clients to pull out."
Many climbers, especially from groups that hadn't lost any staff in the avalanche, were loath to give up their dreams, and thought expeditions should resume after a brief mourning period. Dr. Gallant quit her job last year to train full time for the expedition, sleeping for months in a hypoxic tent to get ready for the high altitude. "All of us thought we were going to climb," she said. "I honestly thought I would stand on the summit on Everest around my birthday."
But the climbers underestimated the impact of the tragedy on the Sherpas, who were badly shaken. Many were mourning the loss of relatives and friends. Wives, parents and children began to call urging the men not to return to the mountain in what was clearly an inauspicious year.
Soon after the disaster, Nepal's government said it would give 40,000 Nepali rupees, or about $400, to the family of each person who died in the avalanche for funeral expenses. The offer was seen as insultingly low by Sherpa leaders, who quickly drafted a 13-point declaration demanding better government treatment and compensation. They also called for rule changes, such as allowing expeditions to cache heavy equipment on the mountain, to reduce the number of trips Sherpas need to make through the icefall.
If the demands weren't met, the declaration said, "the climbing Sherpas won't hold themselves back and will raise a strong voice." A rally followed a few days later. Some expedition companies joined the call, especially for the safety measures.
Yet as word spread around base camp that Sherpas opposed to climbing were threatening those willing to continue—a charge Sherpa leaders denied—some foreign expedition leaders became alarmed. At a meeting in Katmandu, they asked tourism authorities to send police or soldiers to the base camp to control the situation. The government declined.
In an interview, Tourism Ministry spokesman Mohan Krishna Sapkota said the accident had been "a bitter experience," and that the government "is serious about fulfilling the main demands" of the Sherpas, including looking at improving safety. But he said limiting the number of climbers wasn't under consideration. Arriving by helicopter at base camp six days after the tragedy, a delegation of tourism officials made clear the mountain should remain open for climbing.
But many teams were already calling it quits. "The battle is lost in that kind of climate," said Mr. Hahn, the RMI guide. Many could see a rift between some Sherpas and the expedition firms. "Foreign climbing companies shouldn't only care for the clients," said Pasang Bhote, a climbing Sherpa who emerged as an unofficial spokesman. "They should care for the Sherpa staff, too."
For his part, Mr. Cotter at Adventure Consultants lamented that the Sherpas were "using their grief to destroy an industry that is handed to them." They are "a real asset to mountaineering," he said. "But they're getting into a situation where they will destroy the golden goose."
Lhakpa Tenzing's wife, Ngima Doma Sherpa, was sitting in a tea shop in a market town near Khumjung on April 18 when news of the avalanche flashed on the small wall-mounted television. The 25-year-old had spoken to her husband on the phone only the night before. After trekking home, she found her in-laws crying. That told her everything, she says.
Her husband's body arrived that night. A yellow string, given to him by a Buddhist lama to protect him on the expedition, was still around his neck. Married only a year, Ngima Doma is left with a 2-month-old daughter, Pasang Chhutin, who she says has "her father's face." Her parents-in-law grow potatoes and raise livestock, but there is little money in that.
On April 18, Chhering Wanchu's wife, Nima Doma, was in the hills collecting pine needles for animal bedding when word of the avalanche reached the village. "No one was telling the truth," she says. "They were afraid I would be shocked."
"Most of my relatives are climbing Sherpas," she said. Her husband never really enjoyed the work, she said, but "there's no other job that can make that kind of money."
It is a grim dependency that Khumjung residents are all too familiar with. Tenzing Gyaju Sherpa, Lhakpa Tenzing's father, has been on more than a dozen expeditions to Everest and other high Himalayan peaks. Even with his younger son dead, the 57-year-old says, "we can't complain to the expedition operators because we begged them for jobs."
In many ways, mountain tourism has been good to Khumjung. The main paths of the village, which is about a dozen miles from the Everest base camp, are lined with lodges and souvenir shops, some of them owned by retired climbers. The local monastery is being renovated thanks to contributions from the community and tourists. And the Khumjung School, built in 1961, draws 300 students; more than 60% are Sherpas.
But many residents rue the fact foreign charities, not Nepal's government, have brought about so much of the development here. The Khumjung School illustrates the pattern. Hillary, the Everest pioneer, founded the school and helped with some of the original construction. Overseas foundations continue to fund its expansion and modernization.
Government officials point to a law requiring that state revenue from mountaineering be shared with local communities near the mountains. "How the money is spent is up to the local authorities," said Maddhu Sudan Burlakoti, joint secretary at Nepal's tourism ministry.
By the end of the first week after the avalanche, climbers and expedition equipment were moving down the mountain like a vast, defeated army. North Face duffel bags full of gear were lashed to the backs of yaks and mules for transport to the tiny airport nestled among the mountains at Lukla. Helicopters carried climbers who preferred the express route.
The Discovery Channel abandoned its stunt and produced a documentary on the tragedy. A Google spokeswoman confirmed that a Google team was at Everest this season but declined to comment on details of the trip or future plans. Production on the movie "Everest" is expected to continue.
Kaji spent a week in a Katmandu hospital before going home. But there would be a cruel postscript to disaster for his family: After the avalanche, Chhewang, the teen, had departed base camp without serious injury and was making his way to Katmandu. "I was so afraid," he told his sister during a morning phone call. "But I survived. I am so happy."
A few hours later, Chhewang was dead, struck by lightning not far from his home village of Taksindu.
Sherpas are reputed to have a stoical relationship with death and disaster. But there are limits. "The attitude of the Sherpas has changed," said Ms. Maskey, the Nepali climber. "They're more aware, they're more educated." With more emigrating for a better life, their numbers in Nepal are declining as well, census data show. "I don't know how much longer they will be working in the mountains," says Lhakpa Gelu Sherpa, who in 2003 broke the record for the fastest Everest ascent and now lives in Seattle.
For expedition organizers, the avalanche means a financial headache: They have already incurred significant expenses, and some climbers are clamoring for refunds. "For some guiding companies, it could be the end," said Adventure Consultants' Mr. Cotter.
As for the climbers, a disaster on such a scale has poisoned or at least altered the Everest experience in ways they are only beginning to appreciate. Dr. Gallant, the cardiologist, said she can't imagine repeating the sacrifices she made to climb this season. Still, she believes climbing will resume in 2015. "And men will die—and keep dying," she said.