On Mount Everest, a massive avalanche pummeled the slopes 21,000 feet above sea level Friday, claiming the lives of at least six Nepalese Sherpa guides who were preparing a route to the summit for the foreign climbers waiting to make their attempt to reach the top of the world’s tallest mountain.
Nine more Sherpa guides remain missing after the avalanche which struck at about 6:30 am Friday morning in Nepal — about 8:30 pm Thursday U.S. Eastern Time — burying the 15 guides under tons of cascading snow, almost two miles below the 29,029-foot-high peak of Mount Everest.
Friday’s avalanche struck at about 21,000 feet, slightly more than 3,000 feet above the Khumbu Icefall base camp at the head of the dangerous Khumbu Glacier on Mount Everest. About 50 climbers, mostly Sherpas, were in the area when the avalanche suddenly barelled down the mountainside, burying anything and everyone in its path, according to Nepal mountaineering official Tilak Ram Pandey.
Other climbers and rescuers immediately rushed to the avalanche-stricken area to try to dig out any possible survivors. A rescue helicopter also sped to the scene.
Sherpas are a Nepalese ethnic group who live mostly at high altitudes in the country’s mountainous Himalaya regions. Because many Sherpas become elite mountaineers, their services as guides are regularly retained by foreign climbers looking to climb Mount Everest and say they set foot at the highest point on Planet Earth.
While the latter half of May is generally considered the ideal period to attack the summit of Mount Everest, climbers gather at high-altitude base camps several weeks in advance to acclimate themselves to the thinner air and lowered supply of naturally occurring oxygen.
The Sherpa guides and some climbers often ascend to higher points in advance, to prepare the route and fix ropes for the climbers, many of whom on Mount Everest are inexperienced at mountaineering. In the past two decades, climbing Mount Everest has become a form of extreme tourism.
In 1993, the number of climbers who reached the summit topped 100, after previously being reserved for just a small number of experienced mountaineers each year since Briton Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first human beings to set foot on the Mount Everest summit in 1953.
In 2012 more than 500 climbers summited Everest. Between now and the end of May, 334 foreign climbers have received permits to climb the majestic mountain.
The deadliest years on Mount Everest have been 1996 when 15 people died on the mountain, and 2006 when 12 climbers perished in the attempt to conquer the world’s highest peak.