The thin line between triumph and tragedy

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IOL Joby Discovery Channel Joby Ogwyn at Batura II in Pakistan (2005).

What was meant to be a momentous feat for renowned mountaineer Joby Ogwyn as he planned to leap off the summit of Mount Everest, led to a shocking disaster when an avalanche claimed the lives of 16 sherpas. In light of the tragedy, Discovery Channel decided against running with the live coverage of the jump. Several weeks later, Joby Ogwyn opens up about the day of that fateful event, writes Debashine Thangevelo.

LAST year, Discovery Channel captured Nik Wallenda, a seventh- generation high-wire artist, as he attempted his next big feat across the Grand Canyon.

Nail-biting moments aplenty, the daredevil stunt was a roaring success for Wallenda and the channel.

In April, Discovery Channel, in keeping with that pioneering theme, planned to do a live crossover to mountaineer Joby Ogwyn as he leapt off the summit of Mount Everest.

Sadly, an avalanche – reportedly the deadliest in Everest’s history – brought the plan to a halt on the morning of April 18, claiming the lives of 16 sherpas, five of whom were working for Discovery Channel.

Recalling that fateful morning, Ogwyn said he was at base camp.

“It was quite early in the morning… about 6.45am. The sun had not really hit base camp yet, so people were not moving around at all. I heard the avalanche and it was not particularly loud or a large avalanche (I believed). I have seen a lot bigger and louder avalanches before so I didn’t think it was that big of a deal, but, from what I could hear inside the tent, it seemed to be coming from the icefall. And I knew that my sherpa team and a lot of other sherpa teams and Westerners were up there and were climbing on their way to Camp One that morning.”

When he opened his tent to have a look, he says he spotted 30 to 40 men on the mountain.

“I saw the avalanche come down and cover those guys, but I wasn’t sure those guys really got hit that hard. I was hoping the avalanche had actually happened higher up on the mountain and that those guys were just getting what I would call a ‘dusting’ – where you get blown around a little bit with some snow on top of you.”

As he quickly dressed, the radio traffic around camp went crazy and all the Western mountain guides, including the sherpa bosses, rounded up rescue teams.

Ogwyn continued: “You could hear guys yelling and what we figured was that they were working very hard to try and get the guys who were buried in the avalanche uncovered. There were some guys who were obviously dead and then there were guys who were still exposed, that had only been partially buried but were injured.

“They were able to rescue those guys and worked very hard over the next hour to locate guys who were missing and tried to dig them out of the snow.

“The biggest thing we knew we needed to do was try to help the people who might be injured and get them off the mountain. We had a helicopter come in and survey the area. And very quickly, we knew that a number of people had been killed.

“We took steps to not only rescue the guys who had been hurt, but also recover the bodies as fast as we could.”

He points out that the latter was equally important as the bodies are needed for a proper ceremony and cremation in terms of the Buddhist religion.

On losing his team of sherpas, he shared: “Obviously, that was a really devastating blow to me, my climbing partner, to the rest of the team and the team we had assembled for filming from Discovery Channel and NBC. NBC had sherpas whom they had been working with who were also killed. So essentially, I lost all of my sherpa team. It was a really sad day.

“I don’t think any other team actually lost everybody, and we did. That’s very difficult. I have been going to the Himalayas for quite a long time – over 15 years – and maybe more than a dozen expeditions to mountains in that area. This is my fourth expedition to Mount Everest.

“Obviously, we stopped filming – it was the right thing to do. My mission basically changed from trying to climb to the top and jump off to essentially making sure the families of my sherpas were taken care of. The only thing I could do was make sure we raised as much money as we could for them (the families) to make sure they had what they needed as their husbands were making the majority of the income.”

Since the tragedy, the sherpas are pushing for a change in the government structure regarding royalties as well as trying to get better insurance coverage.

Ogwyn reiterated: “I have not given up on my programme or my dream. I’m trying to take some time to re-evaluate everything and work with Discovery Channel as well, obviously, to evaluate what we should do in the future. We also have to wait and give time to the sherpa community and the government of Nepal to sort this out. I think they have a lot of work to do over the next several months to decide how they are going to run the business of climbing Everest in the future. My plan is to go back next spring and jump off the summit and fly my wing suit down. There’s a lot of work though, but I will work through it and… try again!”


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