The rescuers moved quickly, minutes after the first block of ice tore loose from Mount Everest and started an avalanche that roared down the mountain, ripping through teams of guides hauling gear.
But they couldn’t get there quickly enough. No one can move that fast. Not even the people who have spent their lives in Everest’s shadow, and who have spent years working on the world’s highest peak.
By Saturday evening, the bodies of 13 Sherpa guides had been taken from the mountain. Three more were missing, though few held out hope they were still alive, 36 hours after Friday’s avalanche. Four survivors had been flown to hospitals in Katmandu, Nepal’s capital, where they were in stable condition. It was the deadliest disaster ever on Mount Everest.
For the Sherpas, the once-obscure mountain people whose name has become synonymous with Everest, and whose entire culture has been changed by decades of working as guides and porters for wealthy foreigners, it was a brutal reminder of the risks they face.
Many gathered Saturday at the Boudha Monastery in Katmandu, where prayers were said for the dead.
“The mountains are a death trap,” said Norbu Tshering, a 50-year-old Sherpa and mountain guide who now lives mostly in Katmandu. With his white hair and dark, wrinkled skin, he looked far older than his age. In hands roughened by years of tough work, he worked a string of Buddhist prayer beads.
“But we have no other work, and most of our people take up this profession, which has now become a tradition for all of us,” he said.
The avalanche happened early Friday morning at about 5,800 meters (19,000 feet), as Sherpa guides were hauling gear through the Khumbu icefall, a treacherous terrain of crevasses and enormous chunks of ice. The men were near an area known to climbers as the “popcorn field,” because if its bulging ice, when an enormous piece broke away from a high glacier and came tumbling down the mountain, setting off an avalanche of ice, according to the website of International Mountain Guides, an Ashford, Washington-based company that had a team that witnessed the disaster.
Nepalese tourism officials said the guides had been fixing ropes — using clamps and special screws to attach miles of nylon cord used by the streams of climbers who begin heading for the summit this time of year. But guiding companies said the ropes had already been laid down, and the Sherpas were carrying loads of tents, oxygen tanks and other gear to the higher camps used by climbers as they approach the summit.
Special teams — known on Everest as the icefall doctors — had also already been through the Khumbu, fixing lines and rigging aluminum ladders over crevasses. They were quickly called back after the continued…