One and a half years after losing my wife to the “death zone” of Everest, her fate is still difficult for me to comprehend. I struggle with thoughts of how things might have turned out differently if circumstances had allowed – while I gain an understanding of what did take place, and how and why.
All the while I've been able to take a great deal of solace in her memory. Shriya was easy to love, admire, respect – a woman of character, beauty, and a passion for life that often seemed without limit. She had a tireless spirit, and worked constantly toward her ideals and values, for herself and the people she cared about. She was the antithesis of apathy, and wore her heart on her sleeve with confidence.
Over the years she had proven to me an uncanny ability to draw upon deep reserves of inner strength and resolve in much of what she did. I believe this related back to her earlier experiences which taught her that life held little certainty, contentment does not come from within, rather we must envision our goals, create our own opportunities and earn our happiness through perseverance and sweat. This intense process of self-fulfillment quite often resulted in success in her life, and provided a constant source of inspiration for me as her husband.
But as with any of us, success is not always within reach, and happiness – though she was able to feel and appreciate it most profoundly -- tended to be fleeting. Her struggles, and the difficulties of life and family, seemed to give way to a general feeling of dissatisfaction with her life's situation. So when she informed me that she was planning to undertake climbing the world's highest mountain – completely unexpectedly, as I've told the fifth estate – I took the magnitude of that goal as a measure of that dissatisfaction.
As time went on, regardless of how her dream began, it became clear that it was no passing whim. Throughout her planning and preparations she showed no signs of wavering for any reason. The pursuit made her gleeful, excited, more than I could recall her being for quite some time before. She gladly took encouragement from those who found her enthusiasm contagious, while turning attention away from those who voiced dissent. I was deeply concerned, and although I took every opportunity to express myself to her, regrettably I allowed my overall trust of her and her assurances to me to stop me from delving into the details that might have informed me about what was wrong with her plan.
Later, news of her passing came, as did analysis and judgment about how. It was easy enough after the fact for people to observe she lacked the experience necessary to tackle the world's highest peak, and by extension, to have gone and tried as she did, surely she must have been lacking some capacity for self-judgment.
But I began to see her in a different light. That she endeavoured a journey so completely epic and failed to survive, was far from being an “epic fail” – on the contrary, she exceeded my wildest expectations of her – she reached the summit of Mount f*#%g Everest. I could no longer think in terms of what she should or shouldn't do, so much as the fact of what she could and did do.
Not to suggest that this justified to me the high level of risk in her actions, but neither could I dismiss their significance. To do justice to Shriya's memory, due consideration would need to be given to her accomplishment as well as her failure. The truth of her story was to be found both in her reach and her grasp.
Yet so little was forthcoming. Not to discount the quality of news reports from outlets here in Canada, which I felt, at least at the outset, were remarkably well presented considering their subject was located on the other side of the world, on a remote trail over eight kilometers above sea level. But I still had a lot more questions than answers: What responsibility was taken for her safety? What decisions were made for her, or by her? What was done to help her when she was in trouble? How did this happen?
It was troubling, if also telling, for me to read that Shriya's outfitters, Utmost Adventure Trekking, quoted in news reports, brazenly placed blame for her death onto her while absolving themselves of responsibility. Having taken her on in the first place, securing for her a high-altitude climbing permit from the Ministry of Tourism of Nepal, and then accompanying her on an expedition which progressed unimpeded for two months, I could not accept that she died simply because of failing to listen to their advice. Indeed, her expedition manager never expressed any doubts about her fitness, yet had personally told me on more than one occasion that he felt she was doing well in her preparations. When did he change his mind?
The fifth estate proved to be an antidote to much of the uncertainty. Through their investigative work they helped to piece together countless details and bring Shriya's story into sharp, if sometimes painful, focus. They were able to find and speak to the various people with connections to the story, and ask questions from a point of objectivity, without a hint of bias toward or against anyone in particular. This extended to their treatment of Shriya herself who, through her video diaries was given the opportunity to be presented in the first person. I'm forever grateful to them.
Now having learned about the factors that determined Shriya's fate, my hope is that her story could serve as an opportunity to see the importance of responsibility in the context of extreme pastimes such as high-altitude mountaineering. It's clear that my wife was not afforded the support of outfitters who would take responsibility for her life. Since the governing authorities fail to impose any regulations on them, they have no fear of liability.
To date there have been no meaningful changes in the policies of the Nepalese government. Some much-ballyhooed rules introduced this year don't speak to the problem of how many permits are issued, or to whom, and nor do they impose any limits on the number of people who can climb at a given time. And adding insult to injury is that requests by Shriya's family and me to meet with someone from Nepal's Ministry of Tourism have been met with a lack of response. We've had no recourse to review her case, and no discussion of possible solutions to the issues that have concerned us.
Until such discussion can happen, adventurous spirits like Shriya will continue to die unnecessarily.