I’ve certainly had a lot to talk about in the wake of a very sad season on Everest. In the last few weeks my posts have included an eyewitness account of the 18 April avalanche, an expedition trip report, a tongue-in-cheek look at the use of helicopters as a climbing aid, a look at the role of government corruption and incompetence in the tragedy, an eyewitness account of the base camp summit meeting, a look at the role of charities and why Sherpas are not being exploited, a parody of one of the more infamous Everest hate rants that was published in the mainstream press following the tragedy, and how media sensationalism is harming the Sherpa cause.
You will be pleased to know this is the very last post I’m going to write about this year’s Everest season, at least for a little while, so those of you who are bored with the subject can start reading this blog again from next week. Sorry for banging on about it so much and thank you for your forbearance if you’ve stuck with me. As you can see there has been a lot of ground to cover, and I felt it needed covering as the commercial client’s perspective is always under-represented (and often completely lacking) in any reporting about Everest’s recent history. One of my purposes in keeping this blog is to provide a voice and a little bit of respect for commercial clients, who are generally portrayed as irresponsible and incompetent morons.
I’m going to finish on a positive note by looking at some possible ways forward for commercial mountaineering on Everest. All of us are touched by tragedy at some point in our lives, and I know from experience that even our darkest moments have a silver lining because of the things we can learn from them. This spring was my fifth expedition to an 8000m peak and my third visit to Everest, but my first time on its south side where I could witness the circus that is Everest Base Camp in Nepal (and one thing I learned is, yes, it is a circus there).
I don’t have the in-depth knowledge of the south side that some people have, but sometimes it’s good to provide a fresh perspective. Lots of things have been written about how to “fix” Everest. Overwhelmingly these articles seem to be written by people who are not climbers and/or have never been there, or are alpinists (a subset of usually more talented climbers who carry out their mountaineering in a more intrepid and uncompromising style). The perspective is often based on ignorance and personal prejudice, and tends to be contemptuous of commercial mountaineering. Often they confuse human ethics (the principle of respecting other human beings and the desire to generally make the world a better place) with climbing ethics (a long running debate about the unwritten rules of the sport, where beliefs are sometimes taken to such extremes that they have more in common with religious fanaticism than ethics).
This post assumes that it’s the 21st century, and not only is it now possible for people who are not elite mountaineers to climb Everest, but that commercial mountaineering on Everest is a good thing because of the opportunities it provides both for the local community and for those who want to expand their horizons by completing a great personal challenge. It is also very specific and applies only to the standard Southeast Ridge route up Everest during the main April/May climbing season. It recognises there is still a place for alpinism on Everest and for pioneering ascents on other routes and at different times of year.
There are lots of recommendations, and I have grouped them into four themes. The general purpose is not just to make the mountain safer and limit the risk and impact of a tragedy like we had this year, but to improve the benefits and overall experience for those who climb Everest, whether for personal enjoyment and fulfilment, or as a job. They are lessons learned from this year, and there are many more issues, such as improving the environment, that I have not covered.
The four themes are:
- Reduce time spent exposed to danger in the Khumbu Icefall
- Improve the working conditions for climbing Sherpas
- Improve the quality of clients who climb Everest
- Reduce the impact of politics on the Everest experience
1. Reduce time spent exposed to danger in the Khumbu Icefall
- Change the route through the Khumbu Icefall
The Khumbu Icefall passes through a narrow valley between the West Shoulder of Everest and Nuptse, and there is danger from avalanches and collapsing ice on both sides. This year’s tragedy was caused by a huge serac collapsing off the West Shoulder, and it is generally accepted the current route passes too close to this side of the Icefall, an easier route, but more dangerous. A safer more central line needs to be found.
- Reduce the luxuries at Camp 2
Over the years operators have competed for clients by increasing the luxuries at base camp, including comfortable dining tents with carpets, tables and chairs, cinemas, internet terminals and gourmet cuisine. This is not a problem at base camp, as it provides more work for porters and yak drivers, and the equipment can be carried in safely. Increasingly, however, operators have started introducing some of these luxuries into their Camp 2 set ups in the Western Cwm. This means more journeys through the Khumbu Icefall by Sherpas carrying heavy loads. Operators need to stop competing on luxury at Camp 2 and start competing on price instead, and clients need to recognise they are on a mountaineering expedition not a luxury cruise.
- Allow operators to keep a permanent cache of equipment at Camp 2
When the season closed prematurely this year and journeys through the Icefall were no longer possible, operators were faced with having to leave several tons of equipment on the mountain. Several teams flew Sherpas up to Camp 2 to gather their equipment into a cache to be retrieved next year. Keeping semi-permanent caches like this in the Western Cwm could become standard procedure and reduce the number of journeys Sherpas need to make to carry the equipment at the start of the season.
- Allow load carrying to Camp 2 by helicopter
This is an expensive option, and it would transfer employment from climbing Sherpas to helicopter operators, but in recent years pilots have become much more experienced at flying to extreme altitudes and landing safely. Flying loads to Camp 2 could become an option in the future, potentially reducing the number of journeys Sherpas need to make through the Icefall.
- Introduce a maximum load of 15-20kg for climbing Sherpas
There were unconfirmed reports that one of the backpacks found at the avalanche site this year contained nine oxygen cylinders, which would have meant a load of around 32kg. Sherpas are often paid by the weight they carry and some volunteer to take heavier loads. But climbers need to be able to move quickly when they reach dangerous areas of the Icefall, and this is impossible with a 32kg load. A maximum load for Sherpas carrying equipment through the Icefall needs to be introduced. Although this could potentially mean more journeys, operators need to find other ways of reducing Sherpa loads, such as those suggested above.
- Encourage climbers to pre-acclimatise on other peaks
In recent years the operator Himex has reduced the journeys its clients have to make through the Khumbu Icefall by allowing them to acclimatise on Lobuje East, a nearby 6000m trekking peak. This concept is controversial for some, as Sherpas still have to carry loads through the Icefall, and there is an argument westerners should show solidarity and share some of the risk by acclimatising in the Icefall instead. But the simple fact is journey time through the Khumbu Icefall is reduced enormously – by several hours – once a climber is acclimatised to the altitude. There are many beautiful 6000m trekking peaks in the Khumbu region which can enrich the whole Everest experience for climbers, who can show solidarity with their Sherpas in other ways, such as by carrying their own personal kit and oxygen above base camp.
2. Improve the working conditions for climbing Sherpas
- Improve insurance cover
Before I head off on a mountaineering expedition I ensure I have adequate insurance to cover medical expenses, search and rescue, and personal accident including permanent disability. If I had dependents I would also ensure I had life insurance cover. Operators should provide all of these things for their climbing Sherpas, who do a dangerous job. Much has been made of the life insurance cover, and that the $10,000 most operators provide for their Sherpas is not enough. In the UK adequate life insurance is generally accepted to be four times annual salary, to give dependents time to find their feet again after losing a family bread winner. Sherpas can earn $5,000 for an Everest season, and work other expeditions over the course of a year. Insurance cover should therefore be at least $20,000, and if this cost is passed on to clients then so be it.
- Enforce a minimum wage
Lots of people have reported that climbing Sherpas can earn as much ($5,000) in two months as the average Nepali earns in seven years, but less well reported is that more unprincipled (often Nepali) operators pay their Sherpas only a fraction of this, sometimes as little as $500 for the season. This has a knock-on effect, as Sherpas who accept these jobs are not as experienced and often lack the necessary climbing skills, yet they are exposed to the same dangers. Climbers who hire budget operators are often not well-prepared and do not realise what they are letting themselves in for. There is an urgent need for a minimum wage for climbing Sherpas employed to do this dangerous job.
- Provide training where appropriate
While many climbing Sherpas are very skilled and experienced, with multiple ascents of Everest and other 8000m peaks, some of the Sherpa deaths on Everest in recent years have been a result of inexperience, such as failing to clip into fixed ropes or climbing too high too quickly and dying from altitude sickness. While deaths from avalanche are often down to bad luck (where exposure to danger can be minimised but never eliminated) these deaths are preventable, and can be reduced by providing the appropriate training and ensuring climbing Sherpas are experienced on other peaks before working on Everest.
- Introduce a maximum load of 15-20kg for climbing Sherpas
This point has already been covered in the last section.
3. Improve the quality of clients who climb Everest
- Climb another 8000m peak first
While it’s not necessary to have climbed another 8000m peak before attempting Everest, it helps so much by giving you greater confidence and enabling you to savour the whole experience. Climbing Everest is a big commitment in time, effort and financially, and also in terms of other life sacrifices such as career and relationships. It’s not just a tick in the box, and is an incredibly enjoyable and enriching experience, but much less so if you believe you can take shortcuts. Prospective Everest climbers need to accept it’s a long journey to the top, and operators need to show more responsibility with the clients they accept. While all operators claim to vet clients to some degree, in reality most are not diligent enough. Instead of running the risk of losing a client to a competitor by insisting they climb other peaks before attempting Everest, they will accept their money while reserving the right to stop them climbing if they’re not good enough. I personally believe this practice is not ethical, as the inexperienced client pays a huge amount of money without realising they are not yet ready for it.
- Reduce the amount of support provided to clients
While it’s no longer necessary to be an elite mountaineer to climb Everest, it’s still necessary to have a good level of fitness, experience at high altitude, basic climbing skills, determination and the ability to endure hardship. Over the years operators have ramped up the level of support they provide to clients, to the degree that there are people attempting Everest now who believe they can do without some or all of the above. Oxygen flow rates of four litres a minute certainly make you go like the clappers, but they’re not strictly necessary if you are strong enough. It’s certainly easier to climb Everest carrying little more than a day pack, but if climbers are forced to carry their own personal kit and oxygen then it helps to reduce the crowds by filtering out some of the less suitable climbers, and encourages self-sufficiency.
- Helicopters for safety and emergency only
At the risk of sounding like a parrot trapped in a time warp, climbing Everest takes commitment and sacrifice. Clients who believe they can fly into base camp by helicopter and nip up to the summit during a four week vacation are not respecting the mountain like they should, and reducing their ascent to a tick in the box. Everest deserves better, and so does the beautiful Himalayan landscape you have to pass through to get there. If we need to reduce crowds then a good place to start is with people who don’t appreciate the mountains or the whole experience of mountaineering. Such people can get their fix in other ways, and operators who wish to support them can earn their living on other mountains more suitable for people who are time-impoverished.
- Reduce expedition prices
I know what you’re thinking, how on earth is lowering prices going to improve the situation – surely it will encourage operators to cut corners, pay their staff less and scrimp on safety? Not necessarily. I’ve talked a lot about how Everest expeditions are becoming more and more like a luxury cruise, and there are lots of ways operators can reduce costs by cutting some of the non-essentials. The trouble with spiralling luxuries is it also means spiralling prices, taking Everest beyond the reach of many people and reducing the pool of suitable clients. This pool is further reduced because more experienced clients who can do without the luxuries start shopping around for cheaper operators. By reducing prices operators increase that pool and become better able to pick and choose clients. A good example of this principle in action is Altitude Junkies, the operator I have used for most of my 8000m peak expeditions, who run one of the cheapest expeditions on the mountain, have the most experienced clients, yet still provide a good level of support. There were five of us on my Lhotse expedition this year; all of us had climbed Everest and we had 27 expeditions to 8000m peaks between us. As things currently stand the more expensive operators have very little chance of attracting a client base like that.
4. Reduce the impact of politics on the Everest experience
- Take action against the militants
While it’s impossible to forget that 16 people lost their lives on Everest this year, leaving a scar across their families that will take years to heal, many more people suffered to a lesser degree because of the actions of a few militant Sherpas who used the tragedy to press a political agenda by disrupting the climbing season. While few would disagree that more rapid progress on safety and Sherpa welfare is desirable, this was not the way to achieve those ends. Many clients gave up their jobs and life savings to climb Everest and returned home bewildered, while many more Sherpas and tour operators will suffer financial loss in future years as a consequence. Government and operators have a responsibility to take action against those militants to ensure they are no longer in a position to exploit such a tragedy again.
- Station police and army at base camp
I wish I didn’t have to say this, but with an undercurrent of violence at Everest Base Camp for two successive seasons now, it’s necessary for the government to follow through on its promise to station police and troops at base camp to provide protection in the event of any threats. The season ended prematurely this year not out of respect for the dead, as some people reported, but because of threats of violence against Sherpas and climbers who chose to remain. Death is always very sad and we all want to show respect to those who have passed away, especially when we know how easily it could have been ourselves. But death is also inevitable in mountaineering, just as it is in life, and it’s a matter of personal belief whether to remain on the mountain or leave is the best way to remember fallen team mates. To threaten violence against those with a different belief is no way to remember them.
- Abolish expedition liaison officers
Liaison officers became an anachronism years ago. Historically their role was to provide the link between foreigners and locals, smoothing the expedition logistics and negotiations with local staff, and ensuring local laws and customs were observed. These roles have long since been replaced by local Nepali operators and greater familiarity with Nepal. Sadly liaison officers have now become one of the most visible symbols of government corruption. Expedition teams must pay $2,500 plus expenses for their liaison officer, who is supposed to accompany the team for the duration of the expedition. It has become normal practice for liaison officers to pocket their fee and not show up for work. When the avalanche occurred this year, of the 31 teams at base camp only three had liaison officers present to respond. Operators usually don’t want them there anyway and turn a blind eye, treating their fee as just one more expense to be passed onto their clients. It’s time to end this nonsense.
- Sacrifice personal agendas for the benefit of the whole
As far as I’m aware only one person has ever climbed Everest solo and completely unsupported, Reinhold Messner via a North Ridge and North Face variation in 1980. Everyone else has relied to varying degrees on support from other people. Climbing Everest requires team work, and while it’s a great personal challenge to reach its summit it’s rarely possible without making sacrifices for the benefit of the team. It’s the same with Everest politics. There has been a lot of it about this year, and I can’t claim to be innocent of it myself after some of the things I’ve been writing, but we all need to look at the bigger picture. Like it or not commercial mountaineering on Everest is here to stay. We must work together to ensure everyone who has a stake in Everest benefits: Sherpas and their families, other local Nepali staff, western clients, operators, alpinists, government, and even the media (especially the media!). The only group I’ve left out is the armchair critics – they can go back to their mothers’ basements and put something on over their underpants (to use a caricature painted by my Everest team mate Robert Kay).
So there we have it, phew, the last post I’m going to write about this season. Not all of these suggestions are going to be possible immediately. Many require cooperation and agreement among operators, or better still government regulation. Sadly, after six years as a democratic republic Nepal doesn’t seem to be any closer to having a stable and competent government (or at least not if what I have seen of its Ministry of Tourism is anything to go by, whose latest act of shameless tomfoolery is to award an engraved plaque to the Chinese climber who made the first ever “aviation assisted” ascent of Everest this year).
But the shortcomings of others should be no excuse. All of us are capable of making ripples in the ocean which turn into waves. And if enough of those waves accumulate a great tide can be produced. We all need to do our bit to ensure the 16 who lost their lives in the avalanche did not die in vain.
Here’s a short video to remind us of what happened, and why the future is still uncertain.