The Ice Doctors are in | VailDaily.com

The Ice Doctors are in

If you've been to the top of Mount Everest, then you know how difficult and death-defying it can be.

It's less death-defying than it used to be. Less death-defying, that is, unless you're a Sherpa guide.

Dozens have perished in the past few years, and because Pemba Sherpa and others grew weary of watching their friends die, they created a training program for Sherpa guides — Ice Doctors — leading clients through the Khumbu Ice Fall.

"It is one of the riskiest jobs in climbing," said Pemba Sherpa. "These guys are the reason most people get past the most important and dangerous part of climbing Everest."

Pemba founded the local Sherpa Foundation last summer to coordinate earthquake relief in Nepal. This winter he and co-founder Dana Dunbar added training for Khumbu guides.

That training is traditionally done through the Khumbu Climbing Center, and in partnership with the Petzl Foundation.

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Trying to reason with Everest season

As climbers from around the world head to Nepal for this year's Everest quests, their Sherpa guides are securing the route across the Khumbu Ice Fall, improving techniques for anchoring lines and ladders. But most importantly, they're learning how to get their clients and themselves out alive if disaster strikes, and disaster always does.

"It's so incredibly fragile to go across those fields," Pemba said.

People see climbers go across with such relative ease. It isn't.

"The ladders are the most dangerous part of climbing Everest," Pemba said. "This kind of training will not only keep them safe, it will enable them to keep their clients safe."

After last year's avalanche there were so many people injured on the mountain, that some rescuers died trying to save them.

"Everyone puts an emphasis on the international climbers and tourists. My primary focus is on the Sherpas who make this industry possible," said Dunbar, a retired federal judge and co-founder of the Sherpa Foundation.

The top of the world

Apa Lhakpa Tenzing Sherpa has stood on Everest's summit 21 times, a world record. He holds 11 other world records, and is considered history's foremost mountaineer.

He knew most of the Sherpa guides killed on Everest during the past couple of years.

So did Pasang Lhamu Sherpa Akita, National Geographic's Adventurer of the Year.

"People think it's easy for us. It's not. It's hard and dangerous," she said.

Akita was near Everest Base Camp when the earthquake hit on April 25, 2015. During 2014, she saw 16 Sherpas killed in the Khumbu Ice Fall.

Apa said if he had been born a few years later, he might have been one of them.

"These are people's lives. They have families, and this is the way to protect them so they can support their families and return home safely," Dunbar said.

A Mount Everest guide typically earns about $125/day per climb. A guide can earn up to $5,000 a year, wealthy when compared with Nepal's average annual salary of $700.

Guides make four or five trips, carrying your stuff over the same territory you cover once.

This year there are fewer expeditions on Everest than last year, Pemba said, an economic blow to the Sherpa community.

What to do

When the avalanche killed 16 Sherpa guides in 2014, Dunbar, Pemba and others asked themselves and each other, "What can we do?"

"'Training,' I told them. That is exactly what is happening now," Pemba said.

Pemba and his family were born and raised in Everest's shadow.

"Often, as a Sherpa you're naturally good at going into the mountains. Having training and tips from doctors and trainers will make it possible to safely help others and yourself come out of those mountains safely," Pemba said.

Sherpa guides are the key to the summit.

"The services the Sherpas provide should be understood. People need to be aware of it. They're keeping people alive," Dunbar said. "As a customer service provider for the tourist industry, Sherpas are very, very loyal. People don't seem to catch that part."

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or rwyrick@vaildaily.com.