I heard the news at five o'clock on the morning of April 30. I
was having milk tea at Mount Everest Base Camp, preparing for
that day's climb, when my cook told me that the great Babu Chhiri
Sherpa (below) was dead. The previous afternoon he had gone off
alone, supposedly to take pictures near Camp 2 (20,400 feet).
There had been a lot of snowfall, enough to cover a small
crevasse, like the one into which Babu fell nearly 100 feet to
As word of Babu's death spread, climbers made for the South
Ridge, where they snapped pictures of the crevasse that had
claimed Babu's life at age 35. It was surreal; I felt as if I
were at Graceland viewing the grave of Elvis--we are talking
about Babu, the greatest Everest climber of our time. Last year
he made the 11,875-foot ascent from Base Camp to the summit in
a record 15 hours and 56 minutes; a good climber normally needs
two to four days. Two years ago Babu set up camp on the summit
for 21 hours without bottled oxygen. Whereas most foreign
climbers stay on the peak just long enough to have their picture
taken, Babu chose to spend a long night sheltered in a small
tent, singing Nepali folk songs into his radio.
Having met Babu a few times, I understand how a big a blow his
loss is to the Sherpa community. He was tremendously engaging,
a brilliant self-marketer who empowered his people by forcing
the outside world to view Sherpas in a more favorable light. His
record feats on Everest convinced deep-pocketed foreigners that
Sherpas were as qualified as their Western counterparts to lead
groups up the mountain. He offered hope that Sherpas will one
day be the predominant guides on their native mountain, much as
French guides control Chamonix and American guides control the
The reverence Sherpas feel toward Babu was evident on the
morning after his death. As I was heading from Camp 1 to Camp 2,
I passed a long procession of Sherpas--many of whom had been
involved in the retrieval effort--slowly descending with the
body. Behind the group carrying Babu were another 40 mourners.
One Sherpa walked alongside the stretcher carrying a handful of
burning incense. There was very little noise, only the sound of
footsteps marching through the snow and rocks.
Ben Webster summitted Mount Everest last year.
COLOR PHOTO: MARK DWYER