Are western operators right to complain about cheap Nepali operators on Everest?

Last week the Himalayan Times reported how the rise of cheap Nepali operators who employ inexperienced Sherpas are increasing their market share of commercial Everest expeditions and making the mountain more dangerous.

This is not a new story, but it has passed unnoticed on the radar of western media, who prefer to focus on western operators and inexperienced western climbers, rather than Nepali operators and inexperienced Sherpas.

It was good to see the issue raised in the Himalayan Times, and I hope it gets taken up by western media. The article, written by Kathmandu-based journalist Ammu Kannampilly, was well-written and provided a balanced picture, much better than most articles about Everest you will find published in the west, which tend to be simplistic and one-sided.

There are two sides to this issue, and I will do my best to outline both as I provide the commercial client’s perspective.

Until fairly recently commercial Everest expeditions were run almost exclusively by western operators, who would often subcontract to Nepali trekking operators to provide their logistics to and from the mountain and at base camp. The western operators. however, provided all of the services higher up the mountain. This included qualified western guides and teams of experienced climbing Sherpas, who they often employed directly.

The reasons for this are fairly clear. It was the western operators who were able to get the clients. They speak much better English (or French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian, etc.), and are better at meeting their clients’ expectations. Crucially they were also able to build up a word-of-mouth reputation. Western climbers felt more comfortable booking one of their own and climbing with western guides. Booking a Nepali operator felt like a risk. Clients didn’t know any reliable ones, and had no idea where to start looking.

This situation has changed completely in the last three or four years, and the western operators have failed to adapt to changing times (including a big change in client perceptions).

For a number of reasons Nepali operators have become more adept at finding clients. They are better educated now, more westernised, and speak much better English. They have websites and Facebook friendships to link them with potential clients worldwide. Some are Sherpas who worked for western operators, formed friendships with western clients and, for want of a better word, ‘poached’ them from their ex-employers.

There are also many Indian and Chinese clients climbing Everest now, who are more inclined to hire Nepali operators, and this has enabled the local operators to expand their business on Everest. Some climbers return to Everest after unsuccessful expeditions; they become more familiar with the Nepali operators they climb alongside, and are more inclined to trust them.

So that’s one reason the Nepali operators are taking over on Everest: trust. The other main reason is a more controversial and emotive one: price.

Nepali operators are better at negotiating cheaper prices in Nepal than western operators
Nepali operators are better at negotiating cheaper prices in Nepal than western operators

There are various reasons why Nepali operators are able to offer a cheaper price for Everest expeditions. It may seem obvious, but I needed to explain this point in detail in a previous post: the cost of living is much lower in Nepal. This includes the cost of an Everest climbing permit (as highlighted in the Himalayan Times article), but it also includes basic living expenses such as food, taxes, hospital fees, rent, property prices, school fees, etc. Western operators have to pay their western staff western wages to enable them to live a reasonable lifestyle in the west. This doesn’t just mean the western guides some of them choose to provide for their clients on Everest, but it means all their office staff back home, and an income for themselves. They have to pay for flights, visa fees, hotel accommodation in Kathmandu, and somebody to feed the cat while they’re away (OK, that last one was a bit silly, but you get the idea).

Nepali operators are also better at negotiating cheaper prices in Nepal. A white face with a wad of notes at a market in Kathmandu is going to get charged a lot more than a Nepali speaking the local language. The same applies to negotiating porter fees, and almost every other product and service that needs to be purchased in Nepal. This expense isn’t removed if the western operator subcontracts their logistics to a Nepali operator; the local operator knows their value to the western operator, and prices their services accordingly.

More controversially – and this was the main thrust of the article in the Himalayan Times – many Nepali operators (though not all) have a very different business ethic to western operators. They also have different attitudes to safety.

For the reasons I describe above, most western operators pay their climbing Sherpas a lower wage than they pay their western guides, but they still pay them a good wage by Nepali standards. The most commonly cited figure is US $5000 for a two-month Everest season vs. $700 annual income for the average Nepali (I’m not entirely sure where the first figure comes from but the second figure is based on the World Bank’s data for GNI per capita, which was $730 in 2014). Some Nepali operators, on the other hand, pay their staff much less. Again, this figure is unverified, but I’ve heard $500 quoted for a full Everest season.

The Himalayan Times article quotes Mingma Sherpa, owner of one of the largest Nepali operators Seven Summit Treks. He excuses the huge disparity in wages by claiming his Sherpas are not expected to do the same job as those Sherpas who work for western operators:

I am offering these young men a chance to learn … there is no safety issue because they are not going to guide clients, they are carrying loads … They will learn on the job from other Sherpas like I did … all this technical training about safety and danger is of no use to us.

Culturally this attitude may seem reasonable for a Nepali (and I would be happy for any Nepali reading this to correct me), but it will set alarm bells ringing in almost every westerner who is not a sociopath.

They may only be carrying loads (and not guiding clients), but they are carrying loads through some of the most dangerous terrain on earth. The Khumbu Icefall requires a degree of technical skill which a Sherpa new to Everest may not have. There are ladders, but walking up steep ice on crampons, clipping into and out of fixed ropes needs a level of proficiency. It needs to be done quickly and efficiently, and it requires confidence.

There is also the question of altitude. Their physiology means Sherpas perform much better at high altitude than westerners when fully acclimatised, but contrary to popular belief, they are not naturals above 5000m, and are just as susceptible to altitude sickness as everyone else. Wisdom at high altitude comes only with experience, and this should not be learned for the first time in the Khumbu Icefall when you feel under pressure to do a good job for your employer.

Not only do western operators employ more experienced Sherpas and pay them better, but they have a much better pedigree when things go wrong. This is something that rarely gets written about, because heroic rescues which have a happy ending are a lot less appealing to media (for reasons I don’t fully understand) than disasters where somebody dies.

When things go wrong on Everest, the experienced western operators fight tooth and nail to bring climbers down safely, because they know a dead client is bad for business. Although this should apply equally to Nepali operators, many have not yet grasped this, and all too often the unnecessary deaths are climbers who have chosen the cheaper operators.

The Khumbu Icefall is not a place to learn to climb for the first time
The Khumbu Icefall is not a place to learn to climb for the first time

Cynics will say the operators are only acting in their own interests, but this is not the case. I have yet to meet a guide with such a casual regard to human life, and western operators frequently work together to help each other. Often the person best placed to help is on another team. A quick radio call and a guide whose client is strong will go to help a competitor’s client if they are struggling and need help. They frequently lend each other oxygen bottles. And if a climber is severely ill it can take resources beyond the capacity of a single team. Some of the most heroic rescues can take dozens of Sherpas and guides from multiple teams who happen to be in a position to assist. These rescues are common enough, but you rarely hear about them.

The larger western operators don’t just help out each other, they often look after everyone on the mountain. Budget operators and independent climbers often look to the larger operators to help them when things go wrong. I wrote about just such an incident in my diary Thieves, Liars and Mountaineers, when I was climbing Gasherbrum II in Pakistan in 2009. We were the only team with experienced climbing Sherpas. Late one evening a climber in need began signalling with his headlamp high up on the mountain. Everybody in camp saw him, and they all came to our tents, because they knew we were the only team in any position to carry out a rescue.

Gradually Nepali operators are taking over from western operators on Everest. This would not be a bad thing on its own, but the complete lack of regulation means that there is nothing to stop the unethical companies from operating. They can employ inexperienced Sherpas if they like and pay them low salaries. They can take the money of clients with little or no experience, who dream of climbing Everest, but have no idea what it takes and are attracted by price alone.

This is set to continue, and it’s likely to get worse. I have written at length about the role of Nepal’s government in all of this. There is no sign of things changing there, and it’s time for me to stop going down that road.

At the start of this post I said that there were two sides to this issue. I’ve talked about one of them, but how about the other?

I feel that in some ways the western operators only have themselves to blame. This is best illustrated by a quote in the Himalayan Times article by Damian Benegas of the Argentine operator Benegas Brothers, who have been on Everest for many years but are not there in 2016.

It’s impossible to convince clients to pay us $65,000 for an expedition when there are guys offering trips for $28,000 or less.

Damian is quite right, but I wonder if he has thought of lowering his prices.

The figure of $65,000 for an Everest expedition is one you see quoted all over the place. Why? I don’t know, because it’s fairly arbitrary. In reality you can climb Everest for a range of prices from $28,000 all the way up to a staggering $85,000. Sometimes the price corresponds to the level of service, but not always.

I climbed Everest for $40,000 with Altitude Junkies in 2012. The level of service was everything I needed and more, but not too much more. I didn’t pay for a western guide, because I didn’t need one. I paid for a personal Sherpa on summit day, but not for the rest of my climb. I paid for oxygen because I felt I needed it. Having an internet connection is not a necessity for me. I can keep notes and write about it when I get back. As for a base camp cinema system … well, really? I have a Kindle.

If you’re reading this and have $65,000 to spend on an Everest expedition, I highly recommend you don’t. Instead spend the first $20,000 on a commercial expedition to another 8000m peak and $40,000 on a mid-range Everest expedition. By the time you’ve summited another 8000er you will realise that you don’t need to hire an expensive western guide to lead you up a line of fixed ropes – you can do that unsupervised. You will probably find the western guide you’ve paid for isn’t helping you anyway, but other less-experienced clients. You may even find yourself helping the guide if he or she could use a hand with other clients. A personal Sherpa on summit day, however, when you’re pushing beyond your limits in the death zone, is money well spent and may just save your life.

The trouble with many western operators is that over the years they’ve gradually given their clients more and more luxuries on the mountain. This in turn has attracted clients less and less inclined (or able) to deal with the hardship. This less able clientele has fooled them into believing the luxuries are necessities. More luxuries in turn mean higher prices, and this in turn means a smaller pool of people able to afford it.

They may only be carrying loads, but Everest requires a degree of technical skill which an inexperienced Sherpa may not have
They may only be carrying loads, but Everest requires a degree of technical skill which an inexperienced Sherpa may not have

Contrary to what they may tell you, western operators have lowered their standards when it comes to accepting clients for their expeditions. This is not surprising. As prices rise the pool of clients gets smaller, and instead of expanding the pool by lowering prices, operators have expanded it by taking less experienced clients.

The high-end western operators also have something of an image problem. Even if they can afford it, many competent climbers find the idea of hand-holding and luxuries off-putting. They would find commercial expeditions rewarding, but they feel that such trips are not for them. The commercial operators need to be reaching out to these people. For example, there is a niche for an operator to run expeditions which provide advice and logistical support to people who are already competent climbers at lower altitudes, but lack experience above 8000m. Competent, experienced climbers who are humble enough would make good commercial clients, and would also help to restore Everest’s reputation.

Operators who believe $65,000 for a luxury expedition is the only way to climb Everest deserve to lose business. Times are changing and they need to diversify.

Not everyone is doing it wrong. I’ve mentioned Altitude Junkies as one example of a western operator who offers a different business model. International Mountain Guides (IMG) is another one who has high standards, but offers different service levels to climbers who are looking for a cheaper expedition. Asian Trekking is an example of a Nepali operator who offers a cheaper expedition than western operators, but employs experienced Sherpas and pays them well. There are still a few ethical options for those who can’t afford $65,000 for an expedition.

Finally, on a lighter note, there is a lot of misinformation about the costs of climbing Everest, and it confuses people. They assume we are all wealthy CEOs, when we are just ordinary folk like them. This one made me laugh out loud:

I’m grateful to him for bestowing such lavish praise, but if you’ve seen me climb you will know this is a bit like describing Glenn Hoddle as a professional singer. I’m neither a professional climber nor super rich. I did manage to pay for all my expeditions out of my own pocket, but I just do an ordinary day job like anyone else. It took me ten years though, and I spent nearly all my savings on following the dream.

If you want to know how I did it then my book Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest will not only persuade you that Everest is not just for the super rich, but it will hopefully entertain you too.

It’s only £2.99 on Kindle – that’s almost the price of a coffee. Well, it’s the price of a coffee in the UK anyway; here in Italy they would laugh at you if you tried to charge that amount for a dash of beans, milk and hot water. Charging £2.99 for a coffee is a bit like charging $65,000 for an Everest expedition, but now I’m rambling …

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11 thoughts on “Are western operators right to complain about cheap Nepali operators on Everest?

  • May 4, 2016 at 7:06 pm
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    Excellent reading Mark.

    Its good to learn about the difference in the price of climbing Mount Everest.

    In my opinon, I think Base Camp has way to may luxuries, your there to climb a mountain not watch a film in the cinema tent.

    I wonder what George Mallory would say about it!

  • May 4, 2016 at 9:23 pm
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    So, my takeaway is that there are some outstanding Nepali operators who can do things cheaper, but also some sketchy ones who are doing things on the cheap, and its difficult to separate the two (unless there are already personal connections).

  • May 4, 2016 at 10:17 pm
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    Experience is one thing but far more important to me is the western attitude to risk. Like the quote above from the Nepali saying training about safety and danger is no use to him. I train local guides in Nepal myself for in comparison very simple trekking trips and learned very quickly that attitudes to safety are far far different than what we are used to in the west. Also when you need stuff done in a hurry, when things go wrong the organisational skills of a westerner are far better for getting things done. I think with all things in life the more you pay the better things are and at 8000m I want to be sure my stove works and my oxygen set works and my tent doesn’t fall apart and when you consider the price for top quality kit plus permits and staff for 2 months, weather reports tailored by western weather specialists and all the training a western guide goes through plus tax and profit they need to sustain themselves to make it all worthwile 65,000 doesn’t seem that bad to increase your survival rate. I wouldn’t have a serious operation in Kathmandu or send my kids to university there. If my life depends on something I want the best.

  • May 5, 2016 at 2:18 am
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    A very interesting and well argued opinion Mark.

    It’s been some years since I was personally involved in the Everest guiding game but I can tell you that the issues you raise are not new. Where western guides compete with local operators, the playing field has never been level. You’re right about the questionable safety of the latter, but incorrect in citing Asian Trekking as reliable. AT has one of the worst records of client deaths on the mountain. Some local operators are good for some of the time, but none have been consistently reliable for many seasons, like the best western operators. Also, there is little recourse available to a disgruntled client or a bereaved family when things go wrong. Nepal exists in a regulatory vacuum, there is no comeback without the protection of a western operator that can be held to account by their domestic legal and moral obligations.

    Commercial operators have always wrestled with service levels. Himalayan Kingdoms / Jagged Globe experimented with offering different levels of service within the same expedition, but it simply doesn’t work. Unless there are sufficient numbers to make each service level an entirely separate team, the boundary between who’s paid for what becomes hopelessly blurred and can cause resentment.

    You know better than most that buying a place on an Everest expedition is not like buying a car. You can’t test drive it, you can’t know for absolutely sure what you’re buying until your money is spent. Many prospective clients have no idea what level of service they need if they are to remain on the prudent side of reckless. They don’t know what it feels like to be over 8000m, how close you feel to extinction, how it saps your strength and resolve and steals the precious air from your oxygen mask. You do, you can make that decision for yourself, but those who haven’t been to extreme altitude before can only guess at how they’ll perform.

    I congratulate you on the path you chose to achieve your Everest dream. You invested 10 years to build up to it, growing your experience and ability to a point where you could make a choice of operator that perfectly matched your needs. Unfortunately, few are so patient. Everest has become an accessory, and some people think they can buy it. They’re simply not prepared to put the work in to find out what it takes to get there. Some think they can do it because they’ve hiked up Kilimanjaro. The less experience they have, the more help they need so the more they need to spend. The less money they have, the less they want to spend so the less help they get. Nepali operators are far less able – or willing – to match a client’s ability to the amount of help they need. And because the inexperienced client doesn’t know what help they need, they will often be looking for the cheapest option.

    As for whether a base camp has a TV or not, this a trifling issue. The primary one is prudence. The world has changed since I led a team up Everest (1993) and now Sherpas have iphones and are posting their summit selfies on facebook. In 1993 the only contact we had with the outside world was a mail runner to a Daily Mail reporter with a phone in Khumjung. So if the modern client climber wants an internet connection and a widescreen TV, let them have it.

  • May 5, 2016 at 7:57 pm
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    Thanks for providing the operators’ point of view, Steve. I wish more of you would do likewise. This is a friendly environment for operators who adhere to the commenting guidelines like you have. I’m on your side, as you know. I’ve enjoyed many Jagged Globe expeditions and I hope many more to come.

    I don’t entirely agree with you here, though. One of the purposes of this blog (and my book) is to encourage people who dream of climbing Everest to get as much experience as possible first. Not only do I believe it will make their Everest expedition more rewarding, but I believe it will enrich their lives.

    I also believe (though by all means correct me) that all respectable operators would love to get more experienced clients if they could. It can happen – all five of us on my Lhotse team in 2014 had climbed Everest. But it’s not going to happen by competing on luxury for a shrinking pool of less able clients who can afford ever increasing prices. Some of you may win, but there’s not room for all of you to succeed at that. Meanwhile the cheaper operators continue to hoover up all the clients who can’t afford luxury trips.

    There is a middle way, and there is also a large pool of potential clients that remains untapped. These are the experienced climbers who are totally alienated by what they perceive as the modern Everest experience: spending a fortune to have their hand held and climb with people who have never climbed before. Persuading these people that climbing Everest is a worthwhile goal is a challenge, but I wish someone would try.

    As for persuading the inexperienced dreamers (as I once was) to get more experience before they think of climbing Everest, it’s not much I know, but for what it’s worth I’m doing my bit. The rest is down to you guys. We all know it’s no use waiting around for government regulation.

    I know that expeditions can still be run ethically more cheaply. Hats off to any operator who insists on another 8000m peak for anyone thinking of climbing Everest, and can manage to reduce their prices by encouraging greater self-sufficiency.

    Anyway, looking forward to reading your book(s). I’m shocked that you once sold your story to the Daily Mail. 😉

  • May 6, 2016 at 12:15 am
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    Haha! No I didn’t sell anything to the Daily Mail. They were following the progress of one of my clients, the unique Brian Blessed. Of course, we welcomed the publicity.

    Your comment: ‘I also believe (though by all means correct me) that all respectable operators would love to get more experienced clients if they could’ is absolutely true. In fact, most of ours are. Even the most experienced mountaineer will have a better chance of summiting if they have more support. The less support any climber has, the less the chance that they will succeed. I use the word ‘chance’ deliberately, because nobody is guaranteed to reach the summit. Sound decision making, experienced guides and Sherpas, the maintenance of reserves and the ease of recovery (ie a comfortable base camp) all work towards a better chance of success. However I concede that spending less on a trip means that you’re more likely able to afford going back for a second or even third try.

    My advice to experienced mountaineers who’ve been well over 7000m who wanted to climb Everest is to do your research before signing up with an operator. Narrow it down to 2 or 3 then go and meet them. If possible, meet the leader. Ask them all the difficult questions, get a feel for the character of the expedition.

    Alternatively, get on the net and seek other experienced climbers to build your own team. Be rigorous in your selection of them. Have team meetings so you know who you’re dealing with (many internet relationships have foundered in the flesh – no pun intended!). Then, go to an operator (western if you’d like some insurance, local if you don’t) and have them fix it up for you. If everyone gels and pulls together, this can work really well. The risk is that it might not, and there are plenty of examples of teams falling apart due to personality differences. With the professional leadership provided on a commercial expedition, this is highly unlikely to happen.

    I’ll be covering much of this in my next book (thanks for mentioning), which might get finished if I stop commenting on other people’s blogs! Keep up the good work, Mark.

  • May 6, 2016 at 12:18 pm
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    Hi Mark, maybe we give the perception of our Everest expedition being ‘luxury’, so it’s my fault (as the Marketing Director)! Apart from having a chef in BC (which relatively, isn’t a huge additional cost if you have a decent-sized team), I don’t know what is considered ‘luxury’ about our expedition, or what we could take away. The aim is to get people to the top, decent food is a part of that and our success rate increased once we had a chef. We don’t have a high guide-team member ratio and will send a team of 10 with one leader, plus a Sherpa working in a guiding role. That’s probably the difference between the $65K operators and ourselves and the main reason why we do tend to attract stronger climbers who are more self-sufficient (they don’t want to be ‘hand held’). Those looking for cheaper expeditions tend to go North side, or sign up with the cheaper operators and get less for their money. Some will find the level of support sufficient and summit, others will die (let’s not beat around the bush, this is the potential cost of making a poor choice). Yes, we have an office overhead but we run things pretty leanly and an Everest expedition is typically less than 10% of our annual turnover. Plus I’m proud that Jagged Globe provides jobs for 8 full-time staff in Sheffield. So, whilst I don’t disagree with much of what you write, to bring an Everest expedition in at $40K we’d have to pay our Sherpas less, provide less 02 and generally push down costs in-country. In short, we would not be able to provide what we think is necessary for most climbers to have a reasonable shot at the summit. If the market moves away from Western operators because people want to buy cheap, then there’s not much I can do about that. We’re not about to set aside our ethics in a race to the bottom. Tom

  • May 6, 2016 at 4:25 pm
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    Hi Tom, this post wasn’t a pop at Jagged Globe. I wasn’t thinking of any one operator in particular when I wrote it, and in fact I believe you when you suggest your margins are tighter than some of your competitors. When I compare services offered by some of the top end operators, I have no idea how to account for the huge disparity in prices other than to assume some of them must be taking much larger profits than others.

    You’ve listed many of the services I would regard as optional: gourmet chef, imported food, western guides (not that I have a problem with Gavin’s cuisine of course, especially not the pork scratchings). I would also include any sort of communications not connected with climbing, other entertainment, and extra load carrying.

    In answer to Steve’s point about researching operators, I’ve never found it necessary to meet an operator in advance (although often I have in other circumstances). I would expect a sales pitch if I did it that way, although he makes a good point about the leader, who can make a big difference about the mood and success of an expedition.

    The best way to learn about an operator is to climb with them on another mountain before you splash out on Everest. In fact you don’t even need to climb with them. If you go on enough expeditions, you meet plenty of fellow clients with experience of other operators, and get more than enough word of mouth feedback to give you a good idea what to expect from a given operator (the horror stories I could tell you about one of your UK competitors). On popular mountains you also get the chance to see other operators in action, hang out with their clients in Kathmandu post-expedition and share stories.

    All good reasons to build your experience, aside from the more obvious benefits of turning you into a better climber and making you stronger at high altitude.

    And I can’t believe Steve needed a mail runner for Brian Blessed. He could have just shouted. 😉

  • May 11, 2016 at 12:06 am
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    Great article Mark and I agree with most of what you’ve written. Not sure that I’d recommend climbing without a qualified guide (be they western or otherwise) because your audience includes completely unskilled wannabes. Competent risk management and ethical decision making by qualified and/or highly experienced guides are vital for the unskilled at extreme altitude, despite the line of rope. And with unqualified ‘icefall doctors’ placing questionable routes with equally questionable resources through the most dangerous part of the mountain, I’d say there’s all the more reason to climb with a qualified guide – and I mean an internationally qualified guide, not a local Nepali ‘walked up a snow slope’ certificate. Or one could learn to climb. One of the big issues that remains of course is the numbers on the mountain. Most guiding companies bring as many clients as they can get their hands on, leading to overcrowding at campsites, extensive delays at critical points high on the mountain, competition where there should be collaboration and employment of unskilled mountain labourers. Regrettably neither the government nor the operators have chosen to regulate, nor are they likely to do so. The numbers now are so extreme that not only is it more dangerous for clients and unskilled Sherpas but independent, skilled climbers are being forced to conform with the commercial expeditions’ schedules or to climb elsewhere.

  • May 11, 2016 at 12:06 pm
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    Thanks, Andrew. I agree. Perhaps I should have been a little clearer. Climbing without a qualified guide is not for everyone; for those with sufficient experience who do not wish to, there are not many options, and they are much more likely to choose one of the Nepali operators who are more flexible about the range of services they offer.

    There is also a middle way, which is the one I eventually chose: to go with a team that provides experienced leadership, but otherwise unguided Sherpa support only. In this way you can benefit from experienced decision-making, take advice when you need it, but be a little more self-sufficient during the actual climbing.

    If I didn’t make it clear in the post, hopefully I have in the comments (and elsewhere) that I wouldn’t recommend unskilled wannabes go anywhere near Everest to begin with. They should have a few enjoyable years building up their skills and experience on other mountains first.

    I also agree with you that the government is unlikely to regulate numbers on Everest (= no chance at all). I’m less pessimistic about operators, though. While they can’t do much to stop the charlatans from operating, reputable operators have shown willingness to self-regulate. They’ve been less willing when it comes to vetting clients, but somebody needs to take the lead on this (e.g. by insisting on a previous 8000er). If it means losing inexperienced clients to their competitors then so be it; that’s part and parcel of doing the right thing.

    Just finished reading your book. Really enjoyed it, and was especially interested to read your last chapter on Everest in the commercial era. I can confirm there were no giant bats on the North-East Ridge in 2012. 😉

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