Lives lost, dreams dashed in snows of Mount Everest

New Hampshire Sunday News
May 03. 2014 11:57PM

Jake St. Pierre had to quit his job as a Bow police officer to join a research team from American Climber Science Program. The team had planned to collect samples and data on Mount Everest before a deadly avalanche last month scuttled those plans. (Courtesy)

A research team that includes a former Bow police officer has abandoned its plans to climb Mount Everest after the deaths of 16 Sherpa guides last month triggered protests and violence on the world's highest peak.

Jake St. Pierre is in Nepal with a team from the American Climber Science Program that is studying glacier melting rates and pollution levels at extreme altitudes.

It's St. Pierre's third trek to Mount Everest, and he had planned to spend two months gathering environmental samples and data on both Everest and Lhotse, the fourth-highest peak in the world. A 7-year veteran of the Bow Police Department, he had to resign from his position in March to join the ACSP team.

But this year's climb turned deadly - and political - before the team could attempt the summit.

Early last week, the group was still hoping to make the climb. However, in an email to the New Hampshire Sunday News on Thursday, St. Pierre said members had changed their plans.

"Base camp is a ghost town, with almost all teams packing up and leaving after the tragedy," he wrote. "We were able to gather some snow and ice samples at base camp and are going to Kathmandu for a few days. We are talking of heading to the Annapurna range in western Nepal for research and possibly climbing Himlung."

St. Pierre said he still plans to fly home on June 15.

Bow Police Chief Erin Commerford said members of her department have been closely following St. Pierre's team on social media. The day the news broke about the avalance "was terrible," she said, with no word on whether St. Pierre was among the victims. "I felt like I was going to throw up," she said.

"I'm glad he's living because once he gets home, I'm going to kill him," for putting his friends through that, she joked.

The ACSP team's online posts provide an insider's view of the events that began to unfold on April 17, local time.

On the ACSP's Facebook page, the first post that day was joyful: "Wonderful Puja (a prayer ritual) in welcome. Scouting data locations between snow showers. Great crew - many old friends."But later that day came this: "9 Sherpa Team Members caught in massive avalanche in the Khumbu Icefall. 3 descending. Others missing along with 25 other people."

And on April 18: "15 bodies longlined by helicopter to basecamp yesterday. More remain but the mountain is clouded. We all mourn the incredible loss."

Two days later came this grim report: "The remainder of the bodies will remain buried in glacier. We move forward with the science, but it is difficult with heavy hearts."

On April 21 came news that the team had "lost one of our own."

"Asman Thamang was working with the ACSP when he was killed in the avalanche. He left behind a wife and 9-month-old daughter. For the next two weeks, all donations to will go to his family to help them as they face a harsh new future."

The next day brought the first hints of growing unrest and anger on the mountain, even as the teams tried to decide whether to push on. "It is difficult here. Climbers are being used as political pawns by the government and Sherpas. Longtime friends turn on us for gain," the team posted on April 22.

Then, on April 25: "Violence has begun. Someone beaten. Death threats toward the IceFall Doctors and their families. We keep collecting data quietly." (Icefall Doctors are special Sherpa teams that set ropes and ladders ahead of climbers.)

A week ago, the researchers posted a longer essay about how the situation at Everest Base Camp had "spiraled out of control."

"A few days ago, the entire EBC had a huge Puja to mourn the dead and purify ourselves for the coming climbing season. It was a wonderful time of renewal when the Western climbers and Sherpas all embraced and gave eulogies in English and Nepalese.

"We all lost friends and companions of many years and were shell-shocked for days afterwards. It was one of the worst catastrophes in mountaineering history and we each felt it acutely and the shared feelings brought us closer as a community - or so we thought."

Then, everything changed. "Out of the blue a Maoist politician said, 'Then it is agreed, we will remove the equipment from the Icefall and no one will climb.'"

One climber asked if this was out of sorrow at the lost lives or anger at the government, and the politician replied, "in sorrow for the lost lives because the government won't meet our demands.'"

"That was the moment that we climbers realized that we had become nothing more than pawns for a few individuals seeking power among the Sherpas and all of our old relationships were being sacrificed for politics."

"Residual ill feelings from the strong Sherpa support for the Maoists during the Civil War means the government has no desire to compromise," the team wrote. "But neither side is pure . during the Puja, I watched leaders among the Sherpas distributing money intended for the victims of the avalanche among themselves."

Noting that the ACSP team is the only nonprofit group on the mountain, they wrote, "We have put every dime we have into this research effort and there is no 'next year.' . We have nowhere to go and so we remain and collect data. We will climb if we are allowed."

Some climbers have lost up to $80,000, with no chance of refund, they said, and most will never return to Nepal to climb. Two members of the ACSP team - including St. Pierre - had quit their jobs for the expedition.

But it was the human loss that pained them most.

"The Sherpas are attacking the people who should be their closest friends. We share the brotherhood of the mountains and loved each other for many years. But for the sake of the political ambitions of a few - masked under the rhetoric of tragedy - all of those relationships are being destroyed.

A week ago, the team reported that they were creating "alliances" with other groups, including Russian and Chinese teams, still hoping to be allowed "to climb and gather the data that will help us better understand glacier dynamics and hopefully avert future tragedy."

But those hopes collapsed. Last Wednesday, the team posted a message on the ACSP site: "Maoists have threatened to break the legs of any Nepali who helps a climber - Sherpa, cook, porter, friend - and so we cannot in good conscience continue. There is an implicit threat towards us as well if we don't leave by a May 5th deadline.

The group has connected with a Nepali travel group that has agreed to help them climb Himlung, a 23,345-foot peak on the Nepal/Tibet border that they hope will provide similar data to what they would have gotten on Everest.

"And the important thing is that the science will continue - without anyone's legs being broken by Maoist thugs."

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