Listening to the Mountain: Diana Williams Answers Everest’s Call
On April 18, 2014, an avalanche killed 16 climbers on Mount Everest, in the Himalayas of Nepal.
By Margot Clark-Junkins
On April 18, 2014, an avalanche killed 16 climbers on Mount Everest, in the Himalayas of Nepal. It was the worst loss of life ever recorded on the highest mountain in the world (elev. 29,035 feet), and it was especially shocking because all of those killed were sherpas, a tightly-knit community of Nepalese mountain guides. Rye resident Diana Williams had been at Base Camp just days earlier and was on her way down the mountain when the avalanche occurred.
Williams, a prominent reporter and anchor for WABC’s “Eyewitness News,” is an avid mountain climber who sat down for a cup of coffee with The Rye Record recently. Looking chic in a bright blue dress that matched her eyes, she modestly described herself as more of a hobbyist than a mountaineer.
Nevertheless, in 2007, she climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania (elev. 19,341 feet) with her son, and in 2008, they climbed Mount Rainier in Washington (elev. 14,409 feet). At first, she said, she simply did a lot of running to prepare for her climbs, but she eventually discovered the importance of legwork and interval training. She credited the Rye YMCA for being a superb training ground filled with supportive people.
For her solo trip to Nepal, Williams booked her tour through International Mountain Guides, a company she used to climb Mt. Rainier. On March 29, she made her way to Katmandu to meet her group, who were then flown to a tiny airport in Lukla. It took them about two weeks of arduous hiking to reach Base Camp, stopping in teahouses, which are famous for hosting the hiking community, along the way. She befriended a climber named Gavin Turner, one of two in the group who was planning to go all the way to the summit.
The coming days would be an important part of the acclimatization process. It is difficult to imagine hiking five to six miles per day while climbing steep, rocky terrain in dusty conditions with just half the oxygen you are accustomed to using. Williams knew that respiratory complications would be a real hazard; her goal during the trek was to “stay healthy, stay even” and to learn as much as she could about Nepal’s religion and culture.
Williams found the Nepalese to be “a caring, light-hearted, and giving” people who, in spite of a limited way of life with little money and no cars, are “very happy, very smart.” The group visited Tengboche, a Buddhist monastery and midway point. Williams followed the custom of spinning prayer wheels at intervals along the route. At one point, they passed a yak train carrying production equipment up the mountain for Joby Ogwyn, who had made recent headlines with his plan to leap from the top of Everest in a specially designed suit with “wings.”
The group’s lead guide, Lapsang Sherpa, had handpicked the accompanying sherpas. The word “sherpa” means “eastern people.” hundreds of years ago, the nomadic population had drifted into Nepal from Tibet. Some sherpas are guides and some are porters. They are deeply religious and revere the mountain. Their knowledge, skills and strength are critical to the success of the climbers. Today, sherpas earn anywhere from $400 to $6,000 per climbing season, which is ten times the average income in Nepal.
“I got really emotional. Surrounded by the Himalayas — they just soar higher than you can ever imagine.”
In contrast, climbers spend as much as $50,000 to reach the summit; Williams paid about $6,000 to get to Base Camp. It is interesting to note that in 2013, 450 people climbed to the top of Mount Everest, more than twice the number in 1990. During the climbing season, it is not uncommon to see several hundred people at Base Camp; this is where groups set up camp and begin the process of acclimatization through a series of limited climbs before making their final push to the summit.
When Williams’ group reached Base Camp on April 12, she said, “I got really emotional. Surrounded by the Himalayas — they just soar higher than you can ever imagine.” She revealed that her goal of reaching Base Camp was actually two-fold, that she had done this in part to honor the memory of her best friend, whose death from ovarian cancer several months earlier had affected her deeply. “Her voice was in my head the entire way.”
Over the next three days (the group began their descent on April 15), Williams found herself “listening to the mountain” after hearing several avalanches in the distance. Base Camp is in the Khumbu Valley, at the foot of the Khumbu Glacier, which advances downhill at a rate of three to four feet daily, causing great instability. Khumbu Ice Fall is known for ice towers called “seracs,” which have a tendency to collapse suddenly, causing avalanches. Ice crevasses will also form unexpectedly; climbers must be prepared to cross these crevasses by balancing on the rungs of a ladder “bridge.”
On the morning of April 18, some of the sherpas from other climbing groups set out to plot the day’s course. Gavin Turner and his sherpa had also begun a climb; the avalanche missed them by a matter of minutes, he later told an Australian news agency. Daredevil Joby Ogwyn’s team of five sherpas, hired by the Discovery Channel, were all killed. An American climber at the scene, Jon Reiter, told CNN that his sherpa, Dawa, had saved his life by shoving him behind an ice block after hearing a breaking noise and then seeing snow and ice come crashing down. Both survived but Dawa spent the rest of the day in a frantic search for his colleagues.
Thirteen bodies were recovered and three have yet to be found. Initially, Nepal’s government offered $400 to each family of a sherpa who had been killed; already devastated, the remaining sherpas became angry and walked off the mountain. All climbs were put on immediate hold and eventually cancelled.
It took Williams and her group just three days to make the return trip, hiking at a swift clip, ten to 12 miles per day; it was “very tough on the knees,” she said ruefully. Upon learning of the avalanche, her first concern was for the sherpas and two climbers in her group who had planned to summit Everest; all were thankfully unharmed. Williams felt that the moratorium “was the right thing to do,” that the sherpas needed time to mourn their dead, to consider their futures, and to advocate for their rights.
When asked what her future “dream” trip might be, Williams smiled and confessed to a fascination for Shackleton’s Crossing, referencing Ernest Shackleton’s trek across South Georgia in the Antarctic, considered to be one of the greatest survival stories of all time. You get the feeling that, for Diana Williams, anything is possible.