Everest is a mountain our guides have come to know and to respect. Danger lurks on the world’s tallest peak, and with each Everest expedition since the peak was first summited, Sherpa climbers have been essential partners in the ascent. Without their work, climbing Everest would be nearly impossible. So when terrible tragedy struck on April 18, killing 16 Nepali climbers in the single deadliest day on the world’s tallest peak, the sorrow and mourning reverberated throughout the climbing communities of our guides, friends, and athletes.
This sadness was also felt deeply by Eddie Bauer. In the aftermath, we reached out to Melissa Arnot and David Morton, who were not only on the mountain at the time of the tragedy but also started The Juniper Fund last year to provide support to individuals and families left behind after mountaineering accidents on Everest. We’ve backed their effort since its founding, and in the wake of the recent tragedy, redoubled our support with a donation to further their work. We also asked Morton to explain why this cause is so important. This is his personal report on the mission of The Juniper Fund.
Words and Images by David Morton
The early hours of April 18 passed by ordinarily in Everest base camp. I was half awoken at 2 a.m. by the familiar sound of footsteps passing near my tent, disrupted only by an errant cough and the clinking of carabiners. It’s the standard procession of Sherpas and foreigners departing in the night to climb to either Camp I or II in the Western Cwm, planning to pass through the Khumbu Icefall before the heat of the sun’s rays are able to catch them. I rustled back to sleep quickly, as I often do.
At around 6 a.m. I was up for good, throwing on my down pants and jacket, heading to the kitchen tent to grab a cup of coffee from Chhongba, the cook with an ever-present smile. Then I retreated into my morning thoughts over a warm cup of coffee and the music on my headphones in the icy dining tent. It’s my time during an Everest day without anyone around to remove myself from the environment and drift off to another place and time. After the last sip of my first cup, I pulled my headphones off and crashed abruptly back to reality. Outside the dining tent, I heard another all-too-familiar sound: the sound of panicked Sherpa voices over a handheld radio. Although I didn’t understand the words, I understood the inflection and volume and cadence. I’d heard it before and knew there had been an accident, presumably in the Khumbu Icefall.
The rest of the day was a whirlwind of focused attention by everyone at base camp who had ever been in a similar situation over the years. Radio communications engaged formally, bodies mobilized, helicopters summoned, gear assembled. The community at Everest is uncommonly good at this process, unfortunately as a result of experience. By late in the day, the disbelief set in. It was especially clear on the faces of those who have “been there before,” but never like this. Not this many. The sheer numbers seemed to hit everyone with the same unbearable direct blow to the gut.
We know this is part of the reality of work on Mt. Everest and other expeditions in the Himalaya. Sherpas know this all too well. Melissa Arnot and I, having already dealt with numerous accidents in the Himalaya, started The Juniper Fund in 2012 to address the inadequate safety net of life insurance and post-accident support for mountain workers. Our resources are directed towards those working on expedition peaks (7,000 meters and above) in Nepal. Our first objective upon inception was to work with the government to raise the mandatory minimum life insurance for workers to 4 times the standard of 2012. That issue has become one of the main focuses of many people as a result of the April 18 tragedy.
We also raise money for the surviving family members to use towards living expenses, education, and other needs in light of the primary income producer being removed. These funds are allocated per annum over the years following a tragedy. We believe, along with the Sherpas on our board, this approach to be most beneficial and effective. Sherpas working on expeditions not only take care of their wives and children monetarily but also often are responsible for parents and siblings, and beyond. Sherpas work on the mountain because of the opportunity for high pay in a country that has very few options for employment. Thirty to forty percent of Nepal’s GDP is derived from working-age males employed in the Middle East and other parts of Asia. The economy is weak and underemployment overwhelming. Through climbing expedition work, there is a major opportunity to provide one’s children with good education and therefore access to other work. But the risks are high, and a better safety net is important in an industry that has grown large and professional.
The Juniper Fund also is dedicated to educating customers of the mountain-based tourism industry. This written piece is an example. We will continue to reach out through a variety of media and other sources. Our goal is to have customers and clients of this industry asking questions about their local workers and how they are taken care of in the event of a tragedy.
April 18 is a date that is now etched in my brain. There will be more days when people I know are lost in the mountains. That is a part of the mountain environment that will not change. What can change is the safety net in the event of tragedy in the industry.
Visit The Juniper Fund site to donate to the cause. To learn more about the issue of Sherpa families impacted by tragedy on Everest, read Grayson Schaffer’s Outside Magazine Disposable Man feature from 2013 here.
Photo Captions: Top: Nima Lhamu Sherpa and her son Tenzing Chosang Sherpa in 2009. Nima Lhamu was David’s inspiration for creating The Juniper Fund. Having worked for David on treks over the years she was pregnant with this child when her husband was killed in the icefall in 2006. Tenzing Chosang was born in October the following autumn. Above: A young Sherpani girl in the springtime at home with Grandma. Dad was working on Mt. Everest and mom was taking the yaks to Everest base camp with loads of equipment for the season.
Gallery, L to R: 1. Trekking onward down the Gokyo valley with the summit of Kusum Kanguru in the distance. 2. Summit day on Mt. Everest – Sherpas climb high above the South Col on Mt. Everest’s SE Ridge. 3. David Morton and Tenzing Chosang Sherpa at Nima Lhamu’s enjoying the best thing since Polaroids- watching themselves on the LCD. 4. Nima Lhamu Sherpa with her second son after re-marrying. In the foreground are Thorne Morton and his new friend Da Lhamu.
Gallery, L to R: 5. Tenzing Chosang Sherpa at Grandma’s in Maralung village. 6. A young Sherpani girl in the springtime at home with Grandma. Dad was working on Mt. Everest and mom was taking the yaks to Everest base camp with loads of equipment for the season. 7. Thorne Morton and Tenzing Chosang in the doorway of Grandpa’s home. 8. Thorne Morton, David Morton and Tenzing Chosang Sherpa in Thame village, Khumbu.
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