Everest disaster awakens climber's memories

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Pocked with ice mounds and crevasses, the area known as the "popcorn field" is a well-traveled piece of real estate on the approach to the summit of Mount Everest.

"If you're climbing Everest, you must go through that area," said Michael Kobold, owner of Robinson-based watch company Kobold Expedition Tools, who twice has made it to the summit of Everest. "Sir Edmund Hillary had to go that way. The ice fall is inherently dangerous -- anyone who has ever climbed from the south side had to go through that way."

It was that area where a large avalanche Friday morning killed at least 12 Sherpas who were setting up ropes to prepare for the Everest climbing season. Four other Sherpas are still believed to be missing in the deadliest accident in Everest history.

The area hit by the avalanche is just below Camp 2, Ang Tshering of the Nepal Mountaineering Association told The Associated Press. Camp 2 sits at an elevation of 21,000 feet on the 29,035-foot mountain.

Ever since Everest was first summited in 1953, the safety of Sherpas has been a shadow on mountain success stories. An "Outside" magazine article last year stated that Sherpas working above Base Camp are 10 times more likely to die than commercial fishermen -- the most dangerous profession in the U.S.

During Mr. Kobold's ascent to the top of Everest in 2010, one of his Sherpa guides, Ang Namgel Sherpa, nearly fell off the mountain when he sat down to put on his backpack and fell backward.

"If he had slipped 2 more feet, he would have fallen 9,000 feet and died," he said. "It was the exact same spot where his father had died 18 years earlier."

Mr. Kobold said that Mr. Namgel and another Sherpa guide, Lakpa Thundu Sherpa, saved his life on the way up the mountain when his supplemental oxygen wasn't working. The Sherpas also saved the life of Mr. Kobold's wife, Hungarian climber Anita Kobold, finding an adrenaline syringe after she had collapsed and been pronounced dead by a doctor.

The Sherpas had been fascinated watching Mr. Kobold make watches as he waited to ascend Everest, and after the harrowing climb of 2010 he became determined to provide them with a safer career option.

Mr. Kobold, 35, who lives on a farm near Grove City, brought Mr. Namgul and Mr. Thundu to Pittsburgh for nearly a year in 2011 to train them to make watches. It was slow going at first, with the men hardly speaking any English. But eventually they became skilled enough to go back to Nepal and run their own Kobold outpost there.

Watches such as the Kobold Himalaya, made by the two Sherpas in Nepal, sell on the Kobold website for nearly $3,000. Mr. Kobold drew some criticism last year after Kobold's $16,500 Himalaya Edition watch was unveiled, featuring a face made with rocks from near Everest's summit -- removal of which is technically forbidden.

Mr. Kobold dismissed that criticism, saying that virtually all Everest climbers take rocks and that the Nepalese government regularly gifts rocks to visiting heads of state.

Mr. Kobold plans to open the Kathmandu Watchmaking Institute in Nepal next year, which will train 30 to 50 Sherpas per year in a one-year watchmaking program.

"There's a worldwide demand for watchmakers," he said. "We want to start turning more Sherpas into watchmakers so that they don't have to climb the mountain.

"They wouldn't be climbing if it weren't for Westerners and people from Japan who want to be climbing -- they would be farmers."

The Sherpa people are one of the main ethnic groups in Nepal's alpine region, and many make their living as climbing guides on Everest and other Himalayan peaks.

More than 4,000 climbers have summited Everest since 1953, when it was first conquered by Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. Hundreds have died attempting to reach the peak.

Avalanches are frequent on Mount Everest, said Mr. Kobold, though they are usually smaller or farther off the main climbing path.

The worst recorded disaster on Everest had been a snowstorm on May 11, 1996, that caused the deaths of eight climbers. Six Nepalese guides were killed in an avalanche in 1970.

"There's a lot of criticism for people climbing Everest -- no matter which way you cut it, it's an extremely deadly mountain," Mr. Kobold said. "But there's nothing wrong with climbing Mount Everest and nothing wrong with climbing mountains generally.

"Twenty people die in a bus crash and nobody stops driving buses."

Anya Sostek: asostek@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1308. The Associated Press contributed.

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