Wyoming cameraman details deadly day on Everest

2014-05-13T14:55:00Z 2014-05-14T10:02:12Z Wyoming cameraman details deadly day on EverestThe Associated Press The Associated Press
May 13, 2014 2:55 pm  • 

JACKSON, Wyo. — When John Griber heard the roaring sound of an avalanche at around 6:30 a.m. April 18, he wasn't too concerned.

Griber was in his tent at Base Camp on Mount Everest. At almost 18,000 feet in the Himalayas, crashing rocks and minor avalanches were routine.

"Honestly, it sounded like just a distant avalanche," the 48-year-old Jackson Hole resident said. "We hear a lot of avalanches throughout the night. It didn't sound like anything out of the ordinary."

But there was nothing ordinary, minor or routine about that particular avalanche. A hanging glacier had fallen from the west shoulder of Everest and sent huge blocks of ice tumbling down the treacherous Khumbu Icefall.

At the time of the avalanche, Sherpas were fixing ropes and ladders along the icefall for their climbing customers.

When the avalanche settled, pandemonium ensued.

"Nobody really knew who was alive or what was going on," Griber told the Jackson Hole News & Guide (http://bit.ly/QF1uij). "I talked to another Base Camp manager who was on the radio with his Sherpa. All of the sudden he's on the radio talking, hears screams and then the radio just went quiet."

The reality of what had happened began to sink in. Griber grabbed a couple gallons of water, food and shovels to assist the rescuers who were already at the icefall.

The rescue mission quickly turned to a recovery mission. Sixteen bodies were buried under the ice and snow. Thirteen were recovered.

A helicopter conducted 13 long-line retrievals of the dead and transported the bodies to Base Camp one at a time.

The remaining Sherpas, guides and rescuers made their way back to Base Camp after recovery work ceased. Sherpas were hysterical and overcome with the terror of the tragedy.

"They just kept saying things such as 'Oh, my brother, my brother's dead,'" Griber said. "Or 'My friend had just been married, and he has a 3-month-old child.' We just cried the entire day."

Griber never thought he'd find himself at the scene of the deadliest day in Everest history.

He was on his ninth trip to Nepal as a cameraman, hoping to record a stunt for NBC and the Discovery Channel.

Griber was supposed to be one of two cameramen on the summit of Everest when adventurer Joby Ogwyn leaped off the top in a wingsuit in a made-for-TV special.

The special, "Everest Jump Live," was immediately scrapped after the tragedy.

"It was pretty evident that our expedition was done," Griber said. "The lead Sherpa said, 'We're done. We're not climbing anymore.'"

In an effort to recoup some of the millions of dollars it had spent on the canceled special, Discovery put together "Everest Avalanche Tragedy."

The Sherpas are the breadwinners of their families.

They can make anywhere between $2,500 and $6,000 in a climbing season. It doesn't seem like much for an occupation that consistently brings these men within a footstep of death. But the average yearly income for a Nepalese citizen is around $500.

Many of the families of the dead are now without income. The Nepalese government gave each family $400 as restitution.

The money will go only so far. And many of the surviving Sherpas will be forced to continue to make their living on the mountain that killed their friends and colleagues.

"I think they'll probably climb next year," Griber said. "I don't think they really have a choice."

Griber spent five days in Nepal following the tragedy, shooting "Everest Avalanche Tragedy" and trying to cope with what had happened.

During his nine trips to Nepal he has come to love the mountain and the Sherpas who allow so many Westerners to reach the top of the world.

"You can't climb the mountain without a Sherpa," he said.

But what irked Griber was the feeling of some climbing agencies that the Sherpas could simply be replaced.

"There were so many agencies that literally said, 'We'll just get some more Sherpas and we can climb, right?'" Griber said. "I felt personally that just because they were Sherpa it was handled differently. They are not disposable. You're playing with people's lives. And that kind of ticked me off."

Griber could not have cared less about his expedition continuing. He wanted to pay respect to the dead and get back to his family in Jackson.

"It just felt like it was absolutely 110 percent the right thing to do," he said. "Let the mountain rest and let the Sherpas be with their families."

Before Griber returned to Jackson he spoke with his 11-year-old son on the phone from Nepal.

"He said, 'Dad, I can't stop thinking about all the families that a dad is not coming home to,'" Griber said.

Griber arrived home to a son who was grateful for his father and wanted to help those who lost theirs. He and his son began working on a way to raise money for the families of those killed.

"When I go to Everest I'm resigning myself to say, 'This is my job and I'm going and I might not come home,'" he said. "Whereas the Sherpas say the same thing, but they're working for me. And that's what's really hard to come to grips with."

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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