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6/2/03 – Tragedy struck just a day before the 50th anniversary celebration of Mount Everest’s May 29, 1953 first ascent, when a helicopter transporting climbers crashed near Everest basecamp on Wednesday. Over 1000 people were gathered there for the anniversary, including 20 expeditions en route to the 29,028 feet summit.
Two Nepalis were killed and a Khazakhstani helicopter crewman and nearby German trekker injured when the Russian made Mi-17, owned by Simrik Airlines, crashed in a stream near basecamp. The cause of the accident remains unknown. The helicopter was en route to drop off incoming climbers, and then take off with another group that included Everest speed-record holder Lhakpa Gelu Sherpa.
Though there are now a cyber-café and other creature comforts at basecamp, the tragedy remains a grim reminder of the dangers of the Himalayan environment in spite of modern equipment and technology. Landing at the 17,550 foot-high camp is a dangerous endeavor for helicopters, which are often incapable of functioning in the thin air and high winds encountered at altitude.
Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to stand atop Everest, gathered with other previous summiteers as guests of the royal government of Nepal to celebrate his historic first ascent. According to the Associated Press, Hillary expressed mixed feelings about the hedonistic base camp spectacle, remarking, “Just sitting around in a big basecamp, knocking back cans of beer, I don’t particularly regard as mountaineering.”