On Friday, a deadly incident claimed the lives of at least 12 people on Mount Everest.
Willi Prittie and Ellie Henke, both residents of Talkeetna, have extensive experience on Everest.
Even with the most current gear and knowledgeable guides, mountain climbing carries inherent risk. Willi Prittie has led six expeditions on Mt. Everest, and currently works as a coordinator for a guide service on Denali. He says that major incidents remind people of the risks involved in trying to reach the world’s tallest peaks.
“It’s a roll of the dice whether you’re going to be there when something big moves or not, and people forget that,” Prittie said. “They forget that you are incurring risk any time you’re going through an area like this, just like you would when you get in your vehicle and you drive down the Parks Highway you’re incurring risk.”
“We forget that as well; we tend to have a very convenient memory as a species on these sorts of things.”
On Friday, reports conflicted regarding where the avalanche actually took place. Willi, says that the description that makes the most sense is that the “avalanche” was in the area of the Khumbu Icefall. An icefall occurs when a glacier, which is essentially a very slow river of ice, crosses steep terrain, causing stress fractures. Willi Prittie says that the Alaska Range also has a number of large icefalls, but that climbing routes avoid them because of differences in conditions.
“Something of that size and scale here in Alaska is far more active, and you’d have to have a death wish to walk into it,” Prittie said.
Speaking about Friday’s tragedy, Ellie Henke, who managed base camp for 10 seasons of Everest expeditions, says that using the word “avalanche” may be premature.
“Because it could have been something like a serac collapse,” Henke said. “It could have been ice-fall from way up on the West Ridge somewhere, coming quite a distance down.”
“At this point, I haven’t heard anything that tells exactly what this was.”
Mt. Everest is in a remote region, and even in the age of satellite phones and internet, there is still a human factor in reporting accurate information. Ellie says that one year, falling ice destroyed much of a large camp on the climbing route. Willi Prittie was the first one to reach the site, but had not reported back with accurate information. Still, Ellie says someone sent word to the outside world.
“Somebody in base camp put it out internationally, and next thing we know, BBC is carrying this story of, ‘The biggest disaster in Everest history: Dozens killed.’ Once the dust settled, nobody was killed,” Henke said. “BBC had to do a total retraction later on because it was so inaccurate. That is really common that that kind of stuff happens.”
The story of the Everest incident resonates in Talkeetna, the launch point of nearly all expeditions on Denali. Willi Prittie says that while there are environmental hazards to contend with, the most popular route to North America’s tallest peak is very different from the climb up Mt. Everest. On much of Denali, the danger does not come as much from avalanches above climbers, but the cracks in the ice, or crevasses, below their feet.
“Generally, the majority of those crevasses will be covered over by wind and snowfall in the winter time,” Prittie said. “You’re often crossing many hundreds of those snow bridges without even knowing those crevasses are down there.”
“Quality of the snow on top of the snow bridges deteriorates as the season warms up, so hidden crevasses are probably the single biggest problem.”
Despite the dangers, Willi Prittie says that the reason stories like the Everest tragedy make news is that they are fairly uncommon.
“It’s not like climbers go up and have this death wish to kill themselves,” Prittie said. “For the most part, you can mitigate a lot of these risks, and you can stay safe in these areas.”
“Look at Everest; there has been many thousands of people up and down there in the last couple of decades or so, and this is the first one of these incidents that’s happened in a very long time, there.”
Conditions and the lack of an official agency, like the National Park Service in the U.S., mean that it could be awhile before the full details emerge of exactly what happened to claim the lives of the 12 or more Sherpas on the world’s highest mountain.