On April 18, 2014, an avalanche occurred off the West Shoulder of Mount Everest, knocking between 20 and 25 people down as it swept through an area between the infamous Khumbu Icefall and Camp I, at an altitude of about 19,500 feet. It was the single most devastating Everest accident ever, killing 16 climbers and making this the deadliest day in the mountain's history.
The avalanche also made the entire 2014 climbing season on Everest as the deadliest ever, since the mountain's annual death toll has, until now, never exceeded 15. It was big news when 10 people died on the mountain, in various incidents and of various causes, in 2012, and the deadliest year before that was 1996, when 8 people died near the summit during a storm in May and 7 more were killed at other times. Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer's retelling of that storm in 1996, has long informed popular conceptions of mountaineering disasters. But what happened last week was quite different.
The avalanche victims were not on their way to the summit; at this point in the spring, hardly anyone is venturing higher than Camp II, or 21,000 feet, on the 29,000-foot peak. Most climbers will head for the summit in mid-May.
The 2014 climbing season, in fact, has only just begun. And while you might expect the push for the summit to be the most dangerous part of an Everest expedition, that's not necessarily the case. The most dangerous steps on Everest are taken between 18,000 and 21,000 feet, and they're steps that many Western climbers are actually able to avoid—thanks to the Nepalese Sherpas they hire to help install fixed ropes, carry gear, and break tracks on the route to the top. Those who perished in last week's avalanche were all at work ferrying loads of gear between Base Camp and Camp II. They were all Sherpas.