On April 25th we started to hear reports that a Sherpa had died on the Lhotse Face. Details slowly emerged over the radio. He had been hit by an avalanche and fallen down an icy section of the fixed lines. His client, walking15 minutes behind, came upon his body; he was already dead.
Dawa Sherpa was from the village of Solu. His wife is from Thame. They have four children. His client was a 57-year-old Italian named Sergio. Sergio was an experienced climber who had been to the summits of all fourteen 8,000 m peaks. He was on Mount Everest to add the southern route to his impressive list of climbs. Dawa and Sergio had been on their way to Camp III for a night of acclimatization at 7,000m (23,000 – ft).
It was soon clear that Sergio's expedition did not have the people or resources to remove the body from where it lay next to the route. Dawa was their only Sherpa member and the rest of the team could not, or would not, face the job. Willy Benegas was trying to organize a body recovery from base camp and had approached Kay Mitchell in our base camp. Kay radioed our expedition leader Mike Grocott to see if he would ask our Sherpas to help. Ours is the biggest expedition on the mountain, we had 14 Sherpas in Camp II that day. Our Sherpas had planned to go to the South Col at 8,000m but a storm overnight added a lot of snow in addition to wind. They decided it was not safe to go that high.
Mike asked brothers Mingma and Pasang to send a group to take care of the body. For those of us from the West the whole ordeal remained rather abstract as the Sherpas prepared to go on their mission.
As he prepared I said to Pasang, “It is a hard job you are doing.”
He replied, “It is our duty.”
Pasang saw this as their duty. Mike had asked them to go even though this man was from an entirely different expedition team. Was it because he was Sherpa? Was it because Sherpas do the most difficult and dangerous jobs on the mountain?
For me it was clear, I had to go help. I asked Pasang, he thought I wanted to go along to film.
“No, I want to help, no camera.”
“Okay Michael Dai.” (Dai means 'big brother' and it is an honor to be called this after your name)
I put on my harness, and added crampons to my backpack, more weight, but this was equipment that Mike had made clear we use any time we moved on the glacier; sensible. None of the Sherpas had harness or crampons with them. One of the Sherpas said, “You don't need a harness.”
Tsundu and Pasang said, “No it's fine to have it on.”
I left it on though I felt a typical western geek.
Before we set out we went to the Italian Camp to get Dawa's sleeping bag. Three Italians were in the camp. Mingma asked, perhaps demanded, that one of them come along. It was their team member who lay dead at the side of the route. 57-year-old Sergio was elected, though two younger men were also there, they headed down to Base Camp as we headed up the mountain.
We all set out, fourteen Sherpas from our team, Sergio and I. At first I had little sympathy for Sergio. I knew and agreed with the Sherpas that his team had not brought enough people to take care of their own. Still I was impressed, he was stoic as he climbed and moved well among Sherpas. I could feel the weight of this event on him and I empathized.
As we climbed the sun beat down on the reflective snow, the heat became fierce. The bowl of the Western Cwm is a solar oven reflecting all the sun toward the center. As usual the Sherpas moved quickly and it began to feel like a race so I stayed with the lead group. I wanted them to believe that I was strong. We had the rest of the season to go and Sherpas respect strong capable climbers.
The body was at the base of the Lhotse face, an hour and a half above Camp II and at about 6,600 meters (21,600-ft).
Eventually we topped a rise, where at the side of the trail was a hastily constructed mound of snow and ice covering Dawa's body. Mingma handed Sergio an ice axe. Pemba Nurbu, our Lama began to chant and prepare incense to burn. All of the other Sherpas watched or prayed as Sergio worked. for the Sherpas, touching a dead body, which especially in the days immediately following death, is an invitation for bad luck. Sergio began uncovering the body. First his cramponed boots emerged and then his back covered by a sun-bleached down jacket.
I started putting on my crampons. The slope was steep enough to slide down and I knew that I would need good footing when the time came to move the body.
Mingma and the others watched as Sergio repeatedly swung the ice axe at the snow, his breathing becoming labored. The body was at nearly 22,000-ft and the work intense. Mingma gave Sergio a rest and started digging around Dawa's head. His head injuries had bled profusely, and blood had frozen his hat to his hair and to the snow making his head like a hinge inside his hat holding his body down. Mingma and Sergio attempted to roll Dawa over. Eventually as they pushed harder his head came free of his hat and his face emerged.
Several Sherpas exclaimed the prayer, “Ohm mani pad me hum!”
Dawa was just barely recognizable with half of his face smashed by the avalanche or his subsequent fall. A single tooth stuck through his lip and blood caked his features.
Mingma handed Sergio the sack for Dawa's sleeping bag, “Put this over his head.”
Sergio looked at him. Was this some sort of punishment? Sergio reached out and took the sack. He was accepting his penance as best he could. He knelt next to the body and tried to pry him into position. Dawa's right hand was frozen next to his head and in the way of the sack. It looked like it would be easier to put the sack over both hand and head. Also his hat was still frozen to his hair and the snow. Sergio struggled, still holding together stoically. Eventually freeing the head from the hat. The scene was horrific and I felt sick. Sergio looked so old and so frail trying to put this bag over the head. No one else was helping.
“Mingma, can I help him?”
I was asking him because I was afraid that by touching the body I would become tainted. But I am not a Sherpa so possibly the same rules would not apply. I don't remember if he answered. I stepped in and started pulling at the edges of the stuff sack but it was too tight and only went to Dawa's cheek. We tried together for a moment but it was too tight.
Sergio let go and stepped back, “It is not possible!”
Something took over inside me, a cold detached determination. I took Dawa's bloody head in one hand and his right arm in the other and pulled them apart. Then I was able to quickly pull the stuff sack over his head.
Now the body was completely covered, only a blood stained hat remaining still frozen into the hard snow. But there was also blood on my hand. I looked around at the Sherpas trying to find Lama Pemba Nurbu among the faces. I wanted some kind of assurance but I didn't see him or much else. I was in a daze. I picked up a handful of snow and rubbed my hands together to cleanse the blood then took two steps forward to stand alone and crouched down. I was filled with anger and frustration. I had just done something horrific. I felt like I was about to drown and tears came to my eyes but it was not the time for crying.
It was done. Now the Sherpas would either accept me or shun me for the rest of the expedition. I turned and went to the Sherpa holding the now loose sleeping bag. I asked Mingma and he said headfirst so I lay the bag over Dawa's head and the open end toward his feet. Someone said, “Take the crampons off first.” I helped Sergio and we removed both.
At first I thought the sleeping bag zipper was broken but Mingma was able to make it work. Now he and his brother Pasang were in the action and helping. We soon had the body zipped up in the bag with feet sticking out the end. The bag was also torn so clumps of feathers stuck to our hands and legs.
Throughout I kept looking up the Lhotse face to see if more avalanches of ice would come but they didn't. Still this is a place that we will all pass again and again with the exact same risk for the rest of the season. It is one of hundreds of dangerous spots on Mount Everest.
As we finished putting the body in the sleeping bag into a stretcher Mingma piled some snow over the bloody hat. It had stubbornly refused to come loose. It is now part of the glacier.
The stretcher we had was a wide and thick piece of rolled up orange plastic with built in straps. Once he was strapped in he made a neat package to slide across the snow. Since I was wearing crampons I acted as an anchorman walking and running behind. Pasang and Fura Gelgin lead with ropes in hand. Other Sherpas, Pasang, Dendi, Kaji held more tether ropes and walked along side and behind. We half walked and half ran all the way down to a place below Camp II.
As we approached Camp II three Sherpas ran ahead to stop people from taking photographs of our procession. They did anyway, one joker even held his camera at waist level. His flash gave him away. It didn't really matter, just showed how disgusting people can be.
As we passed through camp we also crossed areas of blue ice. Kaji slipped and fell right next to me. The crampons kept me on my feet.
We finally arrived at a place where we could deposit the body. We had just run nearly two miles at 22,000-ft but happy to be done with our part. We piled snow on the body again to keep it frozen. Willie and Sherpas from Mountain Madness were coming up the next day to retrieve the body.
We walked back to Camp. One of the doctors, Mariam, gave me a hug as I fought back tears. Sergio was there and he shook my hand and thanked me for helping and being strong. The tears then came a little more so I put my sunglasses back on.
The Sherpas were there waiting. Pemba Nurbu had prepared some holy water. They helped me place drops of the water on my head three times to cleanse my body. I went inside the Sherpa dinning tent. All of the Sherpas were there and we sat together and had tea. The mood was not too somber or serious – just an acceptance of what happened and what had to be done.
Pasang said, “Michael Dai, you are a Sherpa now.”
I smiled, it meant a lot to me.
“Are you ready to take a load to the South Col tomorrow?”
Sergio stopped by our base camp and dropped off a coffee maker and some good coffee as a 'thank you'. I was touched by this and will always admire Sergio's courage.
As the co-director and director of photography of an IMAX movie my professional instinct might have been to shoot the body recovery. At the time and always another more important human instinct took precedence.