Death on Everest

The sky at the roof of the world is so dark and blue that even in the middle of the day, it looks like night is falling; an edge-of-space background for the last photo taken of Shriya Shah-Klorfine while she was still alive.

Death on Everest

The sky at the roof of the world is so dark and blue that even in the middle of the day, it looks like night is falling; an edge-of-space background for the last photo taken of Shriya Shah-Klorfine while she was still alive. The 33-year-old Toronto woman is standing on the hard-packed snow just below the very tip of Mount Everest, sharing the summit with another climber, a Sherpa, and a tangled mass of multicoloured prayer flags. Muffled in a bright red parka and wearing a helmet and oxygen mask, her eyes are the only visible part of her face--but you can still tell that she is smiling. There's a small Canadian flag sewn onto her left shoulder and another larger one rolled up inside the white plastic tube she's holding in her hand. It's 2:30 in the afternoon Nepal time on May 19, 2012, and she has just realized her dream.

It had taken her 18 hours to ascend about 1,000 vertical metres. Shriya had been one of the last to leave Camp 4--the final staging area for the summit push--on the evening of the 18th, joining the tail end of a line of climbers and guides that snaked up the steep mountainside and numbered more than 500 people. All through the night and well into the morning she followed its staggering rhythm: a step or two, then a lengthy pause to recover. Up above 8,000 m, in what is known as the death zone, the air is so thin that even the smallest movement requires maximum effort. Bottled oxygen helps keep you alive, but it hardly makes you faster.

The route that Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa Tenzing Norgay trail-blazed in May 1953 is now well-worn, with fixed ropes running virtually the entire way. Starting out from the moonscape plateau of the South Col, mountaineers make the short, breathless climb onto the glacier, and then trudge across its steep shoulder to a rocky wall. From there, they use ice axes and crampons to inch through snow-filled chutes to what is known as the Balcony, a small ledge at 8,400 m that affords a place to rest, and if one is still able to appreciate it, spectacular views of the surrounding peaks. Climbers then carry on along the ridge, alternately scrambling over rocks or pushing through waist-deep snow, until they hit the South Summit, a small, ice-covered dome, at 8,750 m. The route then dips back down a saddle, and up again along a knife-edge cornice of snow and 3000-m drops on either side. The penultimate hurdle is the Hillary Step, a 12-m-high rock wall. On its other side, 45 m up a slope of loose stones and snow, lies the highest point on Earth, 8,848 m above sea level.

Those who conquer Everest's summit typically don't get to spend much time there. In good weather it's -15º C, but the howling winds make it feel much colder. And on days like May 19, there's the pressure to cut short the celebration and cede the space to the multitudes waiting below. A couple of quick snaps and then you are on your way. Facing a descent that is every bit as dangerous as the climb.

Ganesh Thakuri, the managing director of Utmost Adventure Trekking, the Kathmandu company that Shriya had paid more than $70,000 to guide her up the mountain, summited at 11:30 that morning. Compared to the half-dozen other times he has climbed to the peak, it was a painfully slow journey. There were traffic jams at the chutes and on the Balcony, and he and his partner were forced to stand in the snow for two hours waiting in line for a chance to traverse the final stretch. On the way back down, Thakuri ran into Shriya, her two Sherpas, and the rest of her climbing party at the South Summit. It was well after noon, and already outside what is generally considered the safe window. (The winds pick up and storms often move in during the afternoon, making the descent all the more perilous.)

Thakuri says he begged the Toronto woman to turn around, telling her that she'd already been up in the death zone too long, and warning that the weather was turning. Shriya shook him off. "She was saying, 'I don't want to go back. There's no way. I'm going to the top.' " Utmost Adventure clients sign an agreement stipulating that they will always heed the advice of their guides. But 8,700 m up it's hardly enforceable. "The problem is that if she doesn't listen, there is no way we can carry her down," Thakuri says matter-of-factly. She wasn't the only one to ignore his advice. A 16-year-old Nepali girl and a Swiss man also opted to continue. Thakuri did convince three other clients--Slovakians who were trying to summit without oxygen, and therefore at greater risk of frostbite because of their waits and their reduced circulation--to turn around. In five seasons on the mountain, Utmost had yet to suffer a fatality, but his confidence that the record would hold through that day was waning.

The guides, Temba Sherpa and Dawi Dendi Sherpa, radioed back to base camp just after 3 p.m. local time to report that the remainder of the party had all summited successfully and that they were beginning the return trip. Rishi Raj Kadel, Utmost's expedition manager, got on the satellite phone and called Shriya's husband Bruce Klorfine in Toronto, waking him at 5:30 a.m. to report the happy news. He then placed another call to her best friend Priya Ahuja in Scarborough, Ont. By breakfast, word that she had reached her goal had spread via phone and email through her small circle of supporters and they were celebrating. Hours later, someone from Utmost even posted the photo from the summit to her Facebook page.

But the descent wasn't going as planned. Shriya was walking slower than the others, and by the time she reached the South Summit, she could barely stand. Her speech was slurred and her attention was wandering. As darkness began to fall, the Sherpas took turns trying to support her. And when she could go no further under her own power, they pushed and pulled her, manhandling her toward the rock chutes. She had been on the mountain for close to 24 hours and was sucking on her ninth bottle of oxygen. Worse still, the weather had turned. "It was so, so, so, so bad," says Kadel. "More windy and cloudy and cold."

As the day's stragglers continued to stumble back into Camp 4, another group was preparing for an assault on the summit. Jon Kedrowski, a geography professor and avid mountaineer from Colorado, was part of a team that had decided to wait the extra day in hopes that traffic jams would clear. The first thing he saw when he topped the rise onto the glacier was eight to 10 people trying to roll an inert man across the snow. And the higher he went, the more people in difficulty he encountered. In was a sharp contrast to his own climb. Born and raised in Vail, he hardly felt the altitude and it only took him 5½ hours and one bottle of oxygen to reach the South Summit. By 3 a.m., he was less than 300 m from Everest's peak, but the wind had picked up to the point where it threatened to blow him off the mountain. He abandoned his ascent. "It was an easy decision," he says. In 2009, during a solo climb of Alaska's Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America, he summited just after a storm had cleared and found another man's packsack. He turned it in to park rangers and later spoke with the grieving family. The body was never found. "The cardinal rules of MOUNTAINEERING are that you start early and that you know your limits. And I've got so much more to live for."

On the way back down in the early hours of May 20, just below the Balcony, Kedrowski encountered Ha Wenyi, a Chinese climber, who had become disoriented. He was slumped on the side of the trail in the snow and hallucinating. He had removed one of his mittens, and was clearly suffering frostbite in temperatures that had dipped well below -40º C. "I found it in the snow and tried to put it back on, but his hand was frozen like a claw," says Kedrowski. Wenyi batted at the glove and it was carried away on the wind. The Colorado climber stood there for a minute and then made his decision. "I realized that I couldn't help this guy, but I could take care of myself." He walked on.

There were more bodies near the chutes, frozen and lifeless, and Kedrowski hurried past. Just above camp, he encountered another member of his party, David O'Brien. The British climber had been the leader of a 2009 expedition that summited but then encountered difficulties on the descent. On that trek, Peter Kinloch, a 28-year-old Scot, began to stumble and lose his coordination, then his vision went. O'Brien and several Sherpas had spent the better part of eight hours trying to wrestle him down the mountain, before exhaustion and hypothermia forced them to give up. Kinloch was the 30th fatality in just five years.

On this night O'Brien had abandoned his summit attempt shortly after leaving Camp 4, and had been helping rescue the sick and stranded for hours. When Kedrowski arrived he was aiding a Polish climber who had collapsed in the snow. He was less than half an hour away from shelter, but he couldn't go on. O'Brien tried to give him a shot of Dexedrine, a powerful stimulant, but the liquid froze in the needle. In the end, they picked him up and carried him back. When O'Brien ran into the man days later at Camp 3, he had no recollection of the rescue.

Sandra Leduc of Edmonton also left Camp 4 early in the evening of May 19, headed for the top. The 34-year-old human rights lawyer for the federal government (her last job was at the Canadian Embassy in Kabul) has been climbing for a dozen years, and is in the midst of an attempt to conquer the Seven Summits--the highest peaks on each continent. The first casualty she encountered that evening on the glacier was a young woman being lowered down the snow?eld on a stretcher, half-frozen and groaning in pain. Higher up she could see three or four other teams propping up climbers who were at the point of exhaustion. It looked like the aftermath of an epic battle. It was around 10 p.m. when she reached the midpoint of the rock chutes. Ahead of her, she could see three forms in the snow. As she got closer, she realized they were bodies, still attached to the climbing ropes. Leduc had to thread her way through them, and clamber over the one that had been left at the bottom of a ledge. "I was in a state of shock. It's not what you expect to see," she recalls. All of the dead were no longer wearing their gloves and were frozen solid. But what really stuck with Leduc was the fact that the one in the bright red parka still had her headlamp lit. "It gave you a sense of someone who had just passed away. It was very disturbing." And they couldn't have been more than a 45-minute downward trek from the safety of Camp 4.

Leduc was forced to abandon her attempt not much further along and headed back to camp. By the time Kedrowski caught up with her on the glacier, she too was in trouble, trying to deal with a frozen regulator on her oxygen mask and stumbling. He helped her back to her tent. And the next morning, they all started down toward base camp.

Less than a week later, on May 25, Leduc and Kedrowski launched another summit bid. The body in the red parka was still lying by the chutes. Leduc, who had been surfing the net at base camp, now knew it was Shriya. Someone had covered the corpse with a Canadian flag.

Shriya Shah-Klorfine was never one to do things by halves. So it was when a friend invited her to a protest outside the Ontario legislature in early June 2011. The demonstration was small--about a dozen people rallying to demand that Dalton McGuinty's government do something about the high cost of auto insurance and rising gas prices--but the level of commitment was serious. Their plan was to stage a hunger strike, taking no food or water, until the premier agreed to a meeting. Shriya, who knew little about the cause, immediately joined in. On day three of her fast, she collapsed and had to be taken to hospital. A few hours later, she was back on the lawn at Queen's Park. "She told me, 'I will die sitting here,' " Bikram Lamba, one of the protest organizers, recalls proudly.

The strike fizzled to an end after five days when police ordered them to clear out or face charges, and they never got their meeting with McGuinty. But the small band of protesters, many of them strangers beforehand, had become close. Later that summer they formed their own political movement, the Paramount Canadians Party, broadening their aims to include better anti-drug and gang strategies, and faster recognition of foreign university credentials. Shriya, who was already active with the Conservatives, having served as a delegate at the federal policy convention in Ottawa that ended just the day before the hunger strike began--her Facebook page featured a picture of her and a smiling Stephen Harper--signed on. In the provincial election that September she stood as the PCP candidate in the riding of Mississauga East-Cooksville. The Liberals retained the seat by a comfortable margin and Shriya finished last among the seven contenders with just 113 votes. But she was the fledgling party's second most successful hopeful.

Their champion was Priya Ahuja, who collected 209 ballots in Scarborough-Agincourt. The 43-year-old mother of two had met Shriya for the first time at the Queen's Park protest. She remembers being impressed by the vivacious young woman who seemed to do everything with such purpose and confidence. They met again at a PCP gathering a couple of weeks later, and hit it off. "In one month we were best friends, like two bodies, one soul," says Ahuja. It didn't take long before Shriya confided her life's great ambition--she wanted to climb Mount Everest.

It was a dream that apparently dated back to her childhood in Nepal. Her family, the Shahs, shared the same surname as the country's royals and enjoyed a relatively privileged position. According to Shriya's friends, her grandfather had been a high official in the ministry of foreign affairs. And the stately family home in Kathmandu was only a few blocks from the old palace. When Shriya was quite young, she was accorded the rare privilege of a helicopter tour of the highest parts of the Himalaya mountain range. "The sun was rising on Mount Everest. It was breathtaking, the view," she told an interviewer from Omni, a Toronto community television channel, in March 2012. "I was thinking, 'One day I will do that.' "

But the path of her life took her far away. Bikram Lamba, who bills himself as a former adviser to the late Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi and now works as a Toronto business consultant, says he was acquainted with Shriya's grandfather back in Nepal and helped get her into a prestigious Indian boarding school when she was seven. And after her father died suddenly when she was 10, and Shriya, her mother and siblings moved to Mumbai, Lamba says he found her a place at the Cathedral and John Connon school, a tony private institution. His helpful interventions were news to Shriya when she met him for the first time at a business event in Mississauga in 2010. But she was hungry for any link to her past and they soon became close friends. She helped Lamba with his Facebook campaign to get himself appointed governor general. Like all his political followers, she addressed him as "Sir." And Lamba and his wife became a sort of surrogate family.

Shriya's teenage years in Mumbai had been marked by tragedy--an older brother died in a car crash, and then her mother passed away suddenly. She returned briefly to Kathmandu to study at Tribhuvan University, and in 2000, at the age of 21, took a job as an assistant purser on a cruise liner. It was there that she met and fell in love with Bruce Klorfine.

The Richmond Hill, Ont., native, a graduate of York University's music program, was the ship's pianist. He had been plying his trade at sea for several years, entertaining passengers with standards, and accompanying headliners like Kathie Lee Gifford and John Davidson. Bruce was about a decade older than Shriya, and he was Jewish and she was Hindu, but they had a strong connection. So much so, that Shriya spurned a Mumbai doctor that her mother had selected as her life partner, and instead married the Canadian in 2002. An older sister, her one remaining close relative, was so angry that she never spoke to her again.

The new couple first settled in Mumbai, living in the historic Colaba district for a time, but Bruce was unhappy and wanted to return to Toronto. He introduced her to his homeland, showing her sights like Kensington Market, the CN Tower and Niagara Falls.

Shortly after their arrival in Canada, Shriya found a job as a fashion buyer for the Fairweather women's clothing chain. It wasn't as glamorous as it sounds, and mostly consisted of sourcing products over the phone from factories in China, India and Bangladesh. But Shriya quickly established herself as one of the hardest workers, putting in many late nights, and was a relentlessly upbeat presence in the office. "I have never seen her sad. That was either her weakness, or her strength," says Sindhu Aradhyamath, who joined Fairweather in 2003. Both recent immigrants from the subcontinent, they formed a fast bond. Shriya wasn't skeptical, or wary, she recalls. "The first time you met her, she would talk to you like she'd known you for years."

When Aradhyamath was pregnant with her first child in 2007, it was Shriya who organized the baby shower, and then dropped in frequently after the birth to offer assistance. And after she moved to Houston with her husband and had a second child in 2010, Shriya flew down, more or less unannounced, to take care of her for a week. Another friend, Shellyann Sidoo, a Toronto woman who lost her eyesight and the use of her hands in a 2008 lab accident and is now an inspirational speaker, met Shriya at one of her engagements in early 2011 and within months, they grew so close they were calling each other "sister." "With Shriya, it was never a five-minute conversation, it was more like four or five or six hours--every day," says Sidoo. "And when she wasn't phoning us, she was with us." Priya Ahuja has a thick stack of photos of all the happy times she spent with Shriya--Christmas, and Hindu festivals like Holi, even performing a 24-hour fast during Karva Chauth for the health of their husbands. In March, Shriya organized a surprise party for her birthday, gifting her new friend with an iPad.

She even showered such attention on complete strangers. When Natasha Fatah, a CBC radio producer, posted a story on the web last year about her father's battle with cancer, she received a consoling note from Shriya, whom she had never met, and a request that she be allowed to pay a visit to the hospital. She spent a Sunday afternoon amiably chatting with Fatah and her dad about politics and Nepal. She could be intense and impulsive, even naive in her excessive enthusiasm, but her instincts were always kind.

Aradhyamath says the first time she ever heard about Shriya's Everest plan was two years ago. Shriya had quit Fairweather to start her own business, importing a line of prepared foods endorsed by Sanjeev Kapoor, India's most famous chef. When they'd chat on the phone, her friend first began to muse about joining the Canadian army, perhaps even in a combat role. But within a couple of months, the fixation had turned to scaling the world's highest peak. The initial idea was that the climb would be a charity fundraiser. "I think the need to help and serve was in her nature. It permeated her whole life," says Aradhyamath.

The planning started in earnest in the fall of 2011. Shriya, who had no background in mountaineering beyond a trekking vacation in Nepal a few years ago that had taken her up to 3,500 m, began training six hours a day. She took courses in martial arts and joined a rock-climbing gym. And she would place a 20-kg pack on her back and go for long walks around the north Toronto neighbourhood where she and Bruce lived, marching up and down the few hills she could find in the flat, Ontario landscape. (The highest natural point in the entire city, a reservoir near York University, tops out at 211.5 m.) Sometimes she would make the trek cross town to Ahuja's house in Scarborough. Once she travelled west of town to the Niagara Escarpment, cliffs that were once the shoreline on an ancient inland sea, and went hiking.

In the fall of 2011, she launched a website, www.myeverestexpedition.com, which featured several Photoshopped pictures of her superimposed against the snowy Himalayan giant. It proclaimed her goal to become the first Canadian woman of South Asian origin to scale Everest. "This is my dream and passion to do something for my country," read her welcome message. "Nothing is impossible in this world. Even the word impossible says I'M POSSIBLE." There was a type of gift registry, where supporters could log on and purchase some of the equipment she would require on the mountain. Priya bought her some crampons. The leader of the Paramount Canadians Party gave her a climbing harness. And a friend from Mumbai made a gift of the red down parka, retail price $394.95.

That September, she held the first of a series of fundraising events at a Mississauga banquet hall. Lamba was the master of ceremonies. Cindy Ashton, a Toronto motivational speaker and singer--she most recently appeared as Miss Hannigan in a production of Annie at the Niagara Falls Casino--provided the entertainment. Shriya gave a speech. She lost money on the night.

The same thing happened with a sparsely attended January 2012 event that was supposed to double as a benefit for Toronto SickKids hospital, $30 a plate, tables of 10 for $250. In the end, the entire $100,000 cost of the expedition--the Everest package didn't include airfare, tips or equipment--was financed with a second mortgage on Bruce and Shriya's house.

The dream had put stress on their marriage. Shriya was spending most of her nights and weekends at the homes of friends. It's something those close to her are loath to discuss. "She was very lonely. She was hungry for love," is all Ahuja will say. But Bruce attended all of the events. In a video from her going away dinner someone asked him for his message: "I want to say good luck, and she has to come back in one piece." Bruce, who travelled to Nepal to receive her remains when the body was finally retrieved by a team of Sherpas at the end of May, declined requests for an interview. "I'd prefer to contribute to the public information in my own time and fashion," he wrote in an email to Maclean's.

On March 20, her husband and friends joined Shriya at Pearson airport to bid adieu. There was a special parting gift, a red sweater with a giant Canadian flag on the chest that Lamba's wife had hand-knit.

After spending a week in Kathmandu, Shriya began the long trek to Everest; 17 days, with plenty of stops to acclimatize to the ever-increasing elevation. She arrived at base camp on April 12. Like most expedition outfitters in Nepal, Utmost Adventure doesn't spend a lot of time vetting its clients. The company requires a doctor's note certifying medical fitness, and the website carries disclaimers that Everest is "inherently dangerous" and "not the place to be learning mountaineering." Thakuri, the firm's managing director, says he quizzed Shriya about her preparations when she arrived. "It's very important to be very fit to climb Everest. She told me she had trained all year. That she was very fit."

There were some crash courses on ice climbing and dealing with the ropes, but mostly a lot of sitting around, waiting for a window of good weather that would allow for pushes to the summit. Shriya called her friends and husband via satellite phone almost every day.

Lamba last spoke to her on May 18; it was early morning in Toronto, but already evening at Camp 4. "She said, 'Sir, I need your blessing. I'm climbing tonight.' " Ahuja also got a call. "She was full of life. She was very, very happy. She told me, 'Priya, I can see myself at the top.' "

The first indication of trouble came late the next afternoon. Kadel, the Utmost expedition manager, called Bruce at home to inform him that Shriya was missing. The Sherpas, exhausted and suffering from hypothermia, had returned to Camp 4 without her. When dawn broke in Nepal, a search party was assembled. The call confirming her death came just after midnight back in Toronto. Unable to move her frozen body, and worried that it might be too difficult and dangerous to ever retrieve, the would-be rescuers took a photo to confirm her identity. Underneath the parka, she was wearing the red maple leaf sweater.

The fall climbing season is yet to come, but 2012 already ranks among the deadliest years ever on Everest. In addition to Shriya, there have been nine other fatalities on the south and north sides of the mountain, most clustered within a 48-hour window over the May 19-20 weekend. The corpse of the Chinese climber Ha Wenyi was found in the rock chutes, so too was the body of Song Won-Bin from South Korea. A little higher up above the Balcony, a German doctor died. And on the north face, there was a Spanish physician who perished, as well as another German who froze to death after falling and breaking his leg. All of the dead had summited. (Three Sherpas also died this season, from accidents far lower on the mountain.)

Everest's death toll since 1922, the year of the first foreign expedition, now sits at 236. It is a cruel environment that seems to claim victims at random--experienced and inexperienced, young and old alike. But a study that two University of Toronto professors conducted in 2008 found a few stark patterns. Most fatalities occur above 8000 m on the descent from the summit, and involve climbers who reached the peak after 10 a.m. Kent Moore, one of the authors, says it all has to do with fatigue, the cold and lack of oxygen. Poor choices and bad mistakes get more common the longer one spends on the heights of Everest.

Still, the total death rate among those who ascend above base camp is just one per cent. Among those who summit, it is about 3.5 per cent. The question is whether even such a small risk is worth it. Everest still towers in popular imagination as one of the remotest places on Earth and an unparalleled challenge. But the reality is far more prosaic. Base camp is like a boomtown, packed with dozens of expeditions as well as freelance guides and Sherpas. Garbage litters the landscape, and raw sewage seeps into the water supply. And as of fall 2011, the list of people who had successfully summited was approaching 5,000 names, most added within the last 10 years. Almost 550 more made their attempts this May.

There are few records left. The first Canadian man summited in 1982, and the first Canadian woman four years later. A married Slovenian couple reached the top in 1990, the same year Edmund Hillary's son Peter conquered the mountain. In 2001, American Erik Weihenmayer became the first blind person to make the ascent. Two years later, Gary Guller did it with one arm. "If you're there for the glory, it's probably gone," says Moore.

On the mountain, there is increasing tension between the professional climbers and the tourists. Not only do the inexperienced now clog the way up and down, they are often unaware of how alpinists have traditionally behaved. At base camp, Shriya had hung a large banner for her expedition, proclaiming her intention to make Canada proud and raise money for Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, next to a giant photo of herself on the outside of her tent. It didn't escape attention that the image of her, arms outstretched in front of the world's most famous peak, was computer generated. It was a contrast to Conrad Anker, one of the most famous climbers in the world, who did nothing to advertise his presence. On his first trip to Everest in 1999, he located the body of George Mallory, the Englishman who may well have been the first to summit the mountain way back in 1924. On this trip, his third, Anker was following the vastly more difficult West Ridge route to the top, carrying all his own food and gear.

Sandra Leduc has stood atop lonelier and tougher mountains in her quest for the Seven Summits. And she has tried, and mostly failed, to explain why she does it to friends and family. It's not just the challenge or the sense of accomplishment. It's a feeling. "It just never goes away and it's yours." The sensation was there waiting for her when she finally reached the top of Everest at 5:39 a.m. on May 26, 2012 (about two hours behind her teammate Kedrowski). "It was everything I had experienced before and even more," she says. And after the horrors she witnessed the week before, the mountain was suddenly redeemed for the Edmontonian.

Shriya Shah-Klorfine's friends and family are also asking questions. They wonder if she was really up to the challenge. If her outfitters did all they could to keep her safe. And whether things could have worked out differently. "All of us have dreams," Sindhu Aradhyamath says over the phone from Texas. "But every day I can't forgive myself. I think I should have tried harder to stop her."

She comforts herself with the thought that Shriya at least succeeded in reaching the summit before she died. That was want she wanted. You can see it in her eyes in that photo from the roof of the world; an intense look of pride and joy, mixed with awe and adrenalin. The final image of a life cut short at just 33.

Maclean's July 9, 2012