Flashing on Everest: is it worth the money?

This is a follow up to last month’s post, Flashing on Everest: is it safe or sensible? In that post, I examined whether flashing on Everest is an effective means of climbing the world’s highest mountain, and promised to examine the costs in a later post.

But first, what is flashing on Everest? It’s not what you think it is. It’s got nothing to do with flopping out your John Thomas at 8,000m. It’s the practice of climbing Everest in a shorter period of time by acclimatising at home (using altitude tents) and using larger quantities of oxygen during the climb. There are currently two operators, Alpenglow Expeditions and Furtenbach Adventures, who use this approach.

For more information, you can read last month’s post. If you have time, then I would also recommend reading the discussion in the comments beneath the post, which includes a response from Lukas Furtenbach of Furtenbach Adventures and professional opinions from a couple of wilderness doctors/medics.

Why would you want to climb Everest more quickly instead of using a tried and trusted approach? Everest expeditions have traditionally taken from 6 to 8 weeks, and are therefore beyond the reach of people who don’t feel able to break traditional work patterns. The idea behind the flash approach is to make these trips possible using just your annual holiday entitlement.

How much cash would you splash out to climb a mountain?
How much cash would you splash out to climb a mountain?

It’s a nice idea in theory, but at the moment the trips are prohibitively expensive. Of the two operators that are offering the flash approach, Furtenbach Adventures charge $95,000 for a 31-day expedition while Alpenglow Expeditions charge $85,000 for 35 days. Clearly then, although it may have solved a problem among those for whom money is no object, the expeditions are still out of reach of most ordinary folk.

But perhaps you’re thinking of saving up or breaking into your life savings. In that case, you’ll want to know how these prices compare with other Everest expeditions. The most commonly cited cost for climbing Everest seems to be $65,000 because this is the price charged by many of the top-end and best-known Western operators such as Adventure Consultants, Himex, IMG and Alpine Ascents. But actually, depending on the level of service you need, you can climb Everest for very much less than this. I paid $40,000 to climb with Altitude Junkies in 2012. Next year they will be charging their clients $45,000, still less than half the price of Furtenbach. Nepali operators tend to charge very much less, some as little as $20,000 to $30,000.

So a few questions spring to mind. Why the big disparity in prices? Why do these shorter expeditions cost so much more than even the other high-end operators, what extras are the clients getting on a flash expedition, is the cost justified and – perhaps most importantly – is it worth it?

The biggest two factors are staff costs and oxygen. The former case includes both western guides (who are paid more than Nepali staff) and Sherpas. The cheaper expeditions do not provide western guides, but perhaps more significantly, the cheapest operators only pay their Nepali staff a fraction (as little as 10%) of what the more expensive western operators are paying. There is currently a shortage of qualified, experienced Sherpas. Companies who pay less, get less-experienced Sherpas and put both staff and clients at risk.

In the case of oxygen, as a rule of thumb the more oxygen an operator provides, the more chance their clients have of getting up and down the mountain safely. But each oxygen cylinder weighs 3-4kg, and these need to be carried up the mountain, so more oxygen also means more staff costs.

More recently, evidence has even emerged that some of the cheaper operators may be reducing their prices through the illegal practice of producing fake permits.

Due to both safety and ethical issues, I’m therefore going to exclude these cheaper operators from my comparison. Instead, I will use as my baseline Altitude Junkies, one of the cheaper western operators. Altitude Junkies employ a number of highly experienced Sherpas, who have worked with them for many years and have multiple 8,000m-peak summits to their credit, including Everest. We can therefore be confident their Sherpas are paid a fair wage. They also have a good summit success rate and, perhaps most importantly of all, have never experienced a fatality (either staff or client) in their many years of operation, so we know they take safety seriously.

To give them credit, Furtenbach Adventures provide a breakdown on their website of exactly what clients get for their money. Having climbed with Altitude Junkies I have therefore been able to compare the services offered. Both of these companies operate on the north side of Everest (Tibet), so the logistical requirements are similar.

Both Lukas Furtenbach and Phil Crampton of Altitude Junkies were very responsive to my questions, though understandably neither wanted to provide me with precise figures. For the costs of products and services I have therefore had to use figures available elsewhere. I have also had to make a guess at the number of oxygen cylinders that Furtenbach Adventures provide. Lukas said they provide “unlimited oxygen”, but obviously this statement can’t be taken literally (it’s not possible for a company to provide an unlimited supply of anything, although there is one US company operating on the south side of Everest whose clients swear to me that they provide an infinite quantity of spam with every meal).

Here’s a table comparing the services each company provides.

Service Furtenbach Adventures ($95,000) Altitude Junkies ($45,000)
International flights to/from Kathmandu Yes No
Certified UIAGM guide Yes, 1 per 4 clients (German, English-speaking) Yes (Nepali, English-speaking)
Posh hotel in Kathmandu Yes Yes
Transfers from Kathmandu to Everest Base Camp Yes Yes
Customs clearance at the Chinese border Yes Yes
Full board (food and drink) for the whole trip Yes, except in Kathmandu Yes, except in Kathmandu
Accommodation during transfer to base camp Yes Yes
Baggage transport to base camp and back Yes Yes
One tent per person at base camp Yes Yes
Sleeping mat at base camp Yes Yes
High camp equipment (tents, stoves, gas, dishes, food) Yes Yes
Use of fixed ropes on the route Yes Yes
Transport of waste from base camp Yes Yes
High altitude porters and climbing Sherpa Yes, 1:2 ratio on summit day Yes, 1:1 ratio on summit day
Team of backup/rescue Sherpas Yes, unspecified number No
Oxygen mask and regulator Yes Yes
Oxygen for clients Yes, (“max. actual need for ascent + a second try”) Yes, 5 bottles per person
Oxygen for Sherpas Yes Yes
High altitude generator and tent for 8 weeks prior to the expedition Yes No
Insurance and equipment for the Nepalese staff Yes Yes
Emergency oxyen Yes Yes
High altitude medical kit Yes Yes
Kitchen crew Yes Yes
Heated dining tent at base camp Yes Yes
Shower tent at base camp Yes Yes
Base camp communications Yes (Wifi, laptop and battery charger) Yes (China Mobile SIM card, laptop and battery charger)
Radio for each climber when climbing Yes Yes
Permit fees Yes Yes
Weather reports Yes Yes
Meals in Kathmandu No, except hotel breakfast No, except hotel breakfast
Nepal visa No No
China visa No, client must arrange at home Yes, arranged in Kathmandu
Shipping costs for high altitude generator and tent outside of the EU No Not applicable
Alcoholic beverages No Yes (beer and wine for base camp happy hour)
Tips, including Sherpa summit bonus No Yes
Personal climbing equipment No No
Sleeping bags No No

As you can see, the services are quite similar, but here are the things that Furtenbach clients are getting for their money (or getting more of) that Altitude Junkies clients are not:

  • International flights to Kathmandu. These are around $1,500, depending where you are in the world.
  • Certified UIAGM guide. Guide salaries are obviously a confidential matter between the operator and their staff, but as a rough guide, a western UIAGM guide might earn up to $10,000 for an Everest season, while a Nepalese UIAGM guide is more likely to be paid a similar salary to other (non-UIAGM certified) climbing Sherpas, which is around $5,000 for the season.
  • Climbing Sherpas. A typical climbing Sherpa working for a high-end western operator might earn around $5,000 for an Everest season. However, this can only be a rough estimate. Some operators pay their Sherpas by the day, while others pay them per load carry. Experienced Sherpas will also be paid more than less experienced ones.
  • Backup/rescue Sherpas. Furtenbach Adventures provide an unspecified number of additional Sherpas who do not climb to the summit, but wait at Advanced Base Camp should an emergency situation develop.
  • Permit fees. More guides and climbing Sherpas means more permit fees. The fees to climb Everest from the Tibet side are currently $9,950 for a westerner and $3,300 for a Sherpa.
  • Oxygen. Both Furtenbach Adventures and Altitude Junkies use Summit Oxygen, whose quoted prices on their website are $250 per bottle (rental) or $560 (purchase).
  • High altitude generator and tent. A typical hypoxic air generator and altitude tent, such as those offered by the Altitude Centre in London will cost around $600 per month to rent.

Meanwhile, here’s a significant extra that Altitude Junkies clients are getting for their money which Furtenbach clients aren’t:

  • Tips and summit bonus. Tips can be a sizeable hidden cost. They are supposed to be voluntary, but in cultures where tipping has become standard practice, staff have certain expectations about what is considered a fair tip. If you reach the summit accompanied by a Sherpa, you can expect to pay up to $1,500 in tips and bonuses.

Of course, this is only rough, but we can do a quick calculation of the difference in price, assuming a group size of 4 clients:

Service Calculation +/- Amount per client
International flights Cost of return flight to/from Kathmandu + $1,500
Certified UIAGM guide Difference in price between western vs. Nepali guide, divided between 4 clients + $1,250
Climbing Sherpas Sherpa to client ratio of 1:2 vs. 1:1 + $5,000
Backup/rescue Sherpas Assuming 1 per group, divided between 4 clients + $1,250
Permit fees Difference in cost for western vs. Nepali guide split between 4 clients, additional 1 Sherpa per client on Furtenbach expedition, additional 1 backup/rescue Sherpa per 4 clients on Furtenbach expedition + $1,662 + $3,300 + $825 = $5,787
Oxygen for clients Difference in cost, assuming all bottles are rented, that Furtenbach clients use double the flow rate and have enough for 2 summit attempts to Altitude Junkies 1 (= 20 bottles per Furtenbach client, 5 bottles per Junkies client) + $3,750
Oxygen for climbing Sherpas Difference in cost, assuming all bottles are rented, that Sherpas on both teams use same flow rate, but Furtenbach has 2 Sherpas per client to Junkies 1 and enough oxygen for 2 summit attempts (= each Furtenbach client pays for 10 more bottles) + $2,500
Oxygen for backup/rescue Sherpas Difference in cost, assuming all bottles are rented, and that Furtenbach has an extra Sherpa ready for a summit attempt, split between 4 clients (= each Furtenbach client rents an additional 1.25 bottles for the rescue Sherpa) + $313
High altitude generator and tent Cost of rental for 2 months + $1,200
Tips and summit bonus Cost assuming a successful summit $1,500
TOTAL Adding Furtenbach extras, then subtracting Altitude Junkies extras + $21,050

According to my rough calculations, a Furtenbach expedition should cost around $21,000 more than an Altitude Junkies one.

Of course, this is only an estimate, and I’ve had to make many assumptions about costs, numbers of oxygen bottles and numbers of climbing Sherpas. There is also the cost to transport the extra oxygen by yak from base camp to advanced base camp, and for additional climbing Sherpas to stock them at the higher camps. More climbing Sherpas also means more food. I haven’t included these costs, because I don’t have any information about them. These costs can quickly stack up, and you can start to see why a Furtenbach expedition might be a few thousand dollars more. But even so, even with fake palm trees and a portable cinema at base camp, you would have to stretch them a lot to account for the $50,000 difference in price.

In any case, perhaps this is the wrong way of looking at things. Artwork also differs enormously in price when the raw materials are the same; but people are still prepared to pay higher prices. So instead of thinking about whether the companies are charging a fair price, perhaps we should instead consider how much we are prepared to pay, and whether the costs and services are worth it to us. The answers to these questions will differ for every individual.

Since each of us is different, perhaps it’s best if I answer this question from my own point of view. Personally, I have never been remotely in the $95,000 price range, and I expect there are only a handful of you reading this who are. For me it was always necessary to find an operator who provided a good standard of service at a competitive price.

In my case, Everest was always a long-term project. I built up my experience over many years. Part of this process involved joining other 8,000m peak expeditions that would require long periods off work. Rather than finding an expedition that I could squeeze into my annual vacation, I instead decided to engineer a lifestyle that enabled me to take longer periods off work (I won’t go into the details of how I did this, but I described it at length in my book). I enjoy the easy pace of expedition life, so a shorter expedition was never one of the characteristics I was looking for.

By the time I had gradually worked up the experienced to tackle Everest, I was confident of my ability to jumar up and down a fixed rope, so I didn’t feel I needed to pay for the additional hand-holding of a western guide, though I did value the advice and decision-making of an experienced leader. I would also consider paying more for additional oxygen, as I know from experience that 4 litres per minute makes a massive difference.

But those are my reasons; yours may be different. It’s beyond the scope of this post to discuss these merits in detail. Some of these things were discussed in the previous post about flash expeditions. You can also read a post I wrote some years ago about choosing an 8,000m-peak operator, much of which is still relevant today, and another post I wrote about whether the top-end western operators are still providing good value for money.

But times are changing. More Nepali operators are entering the market and offering expeditions at much lower prices. While I believe they don’t match the western operators for safety and in many cases ethics just yet, the gap is closing. I also believe that although the science is not yet well developed, an increasing number of people will look to shorten their expeditions by acclimatising at home. Look out for more of these flash expeditions.

My advice to anyone considering Everest as an objective has always been to build up your experience gradually. Then you will be much better equipped to judge for yourself. Oh, and you can always read my book for more background.

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12 thoughts on “Flashing on Everest: is it worth the money?

  • July 25, 2018 at 7:41 pm
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    The question that occurs to me is not which company you would use to climb Mt Everest but rather why you would want to climb Mt Everest all given the extreme crowding.

    There are so many almost unfrequented mountains in the world which would give a much better (and cheaper) experience.

  • July 25, 2018 at 7:57 pm
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    A bit off topic for this post, but to answer your question, people are always going to be attracted to the highest, whether or not your preference is to go somewhere quieter. The popularity of Snowdon, Ben Nevis, Mont Blanc, Kilimanjaro, Denali, etc. all testify to this. I don’t think you will ever put a stop to this, so if I were you, I wouldn’t worry about trying to find an answer; just enjoy the peace and quiet. Personally, I’ll do both highest and quietest. They are all nice mountains.

    In any case, on the north side, Everest is not so crowded.

  • July 25, 2018 at 11:02 pm
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    I went with a US based company (Alpine Ascents) in 2017 in Nepal which I guess you would describe as midrange price (~65k). From the moment I left Kathmandu airport to the time I was waved away, I didn’t pay for anything (except some voluntary heli flights), had ~20 bottles of Oz (and more if I wanted it) and never had to cook, boil water etc (very nice at C4 where we spent 3 nights). My sherpa on summit day had summitted 14 times before and the combined sherpa group had 65 summits between them. There was a rescue team and plenty of spare Oz at C4 in case anything went wrong. In short, I could easily see the difference between the above expeditions and my experience.

    BTW the issue with Oz is not just how much the bottle costs but how much it costs to have it available (and not nicked) at C4 when you need it. It is otherwise quite like comparing the cost of the water in the bottle you just paid $4 for in a restaurant with getting it out of the tap.

  • July 25, 2018 at 11:12 pm
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    Nice analysis Mark. As you know I’ve done similar ones in the past. I agree the cost of western certified guides and oxygen seem to be the primary drivers, plus insurance and cost of running the business (liability insurance, business permits, taxes, etc.). I assume Phil’s cost of doing business in Nepal is a lot, lot lower than Lukas’s in Austria – a lot …

    Also, there is profit and investments back into the business for gear, marketing, office staff, etc – again there are real differences between these two companies.

  • July 26, 2018 at 7:26 am
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    Thanks for commenting, Alan. I know your analyses of the cost of Everest expeditions are a lot more detailed than mine – I’ve just concentrated on what I see as the differences, but I know you look at everything, so it’s good to have your input.

    Two very good points about the cost of business in Nepal and the ownership of equipment out there. I know Phil has been operating in Nepal a lot longer than Lukas, so has had time to build things up out there which enable him to pass savings on to his clients. In some ways this analysis says more about how good value Altitude Junkies are than it does about the relatively high cost of these new types of expedition. (This post isn’t sponsored, BTW – I’m just a satisfied client 😉 )

  • July 26, 2018 at 7:34 am
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    These are more realistic costs:
    Foreign UIAGM guide: $25k or more wages, and total cost of ~$40k
    Additional climbing sherpa costs are around $10k as wages are only part of the equation
    Doctor $25k???
    And quite simply, I know that Phil (and myself) underpaid ourselves; it is hard to pay yourself so much more than the rest of the crew.

  • July 27, 2018 at 7:11 am
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    Thanks, Jamie. That’s interesting that a foreign guide costs so much more than I thought. Good advice is to build up your experience on other mountains first. With a good leader, experienced Sherpa support and fixed ropes all the way up, it’s an expense many experienced clients may not need.

  • July 27, 2018 at 2:19 pm
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    Many of the hired foreign UIAGM guides have never worked in the Himalayas before, or never climbed Everest. Therefore their services can be secured for much much less than the 25k suggested. Many guides and doctors are happy to have the experience to be able to post on their resumes. Their salaries depend heavily on tips also. (not doctors)

  • July 30, 2018 at 5:27 am
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    Thanks Mark for another great post. There will always be a demand for cheap and a demand for quality regardless of the cost. Like you, I appreciate the sweet spot that Phil hits but for years now I’ve also told him that he needs to raise his prices. Lukas does offer an amazing base camp from what I’ve seen in photos and this should not be under appreciated by those who haven’t experienced the harshness of life at 17,000 feet.

    I have always felt that the quality of food is critical, more so than movie nights or other luxuries. Phil does a good job with this and I imagine Lukas, Adrian and others are also strong in this area. But, then again, you can’t get too much Spam!!

    Ultimately safety is the most valuable item being sold and it seems like the high-end providers do the best job with this. I think for many potential clients it boils down to who are they most familiar with, who do they personally like, who do they trust, who do they know among both the staff and other clients. These variables are hard to put a firm dollar value on.

  • July 30, 2018 at 7:47 pm
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    Thanks, Robert. I agree on all points, except the one about Phil raising his prices. I say this only half in jest. Not all of us can afford the Furtenbachs and Alpenglows, or even the Himexes, Adventure Consultants or Alpine Ascents. For those of us who can’t, operators like Altitude Junkies fill a market need by offering a high standard with all the essentials at an affordable price.

    Without this, our only options are to go with the cheaper operators – who compromise on safety, exploit staff and perhaps even fake permits – or retire from the 8,000m peaks. What I see happening on the 8,000ers is the high-end operators competing on luxury, while the cheaper operators compete to lower their prices. This leaves a big gap in the middle. If all we have are the two extremes, then rather like our politics, this leaves the many moderate people in the middle disenfranchised. 😉

    PS. Only a Monty Python fan would say you can never get too much spam!

  • July 30, 2018 at 10:16 pm
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    The comment about the lack of offerings/competition in the middle brings to mind that IMG offers a Sherpa lead Everest on the side side for $46K. Thats how I finally made the summit in 2011 (it was $40K then). Personally, I think it may the best value on either side given the scale of their operation. Yes, there are a lot of clients and no happy hour, but there is a natural section that takes place that creates several sub teams of 4-8 people thus it’s not that crowded. And if someone gets in trouble, they have multiple levels of spare support to render aid immediately. Also, while bashing the Nepali companies is in vogue, I wouldn’t put Asian Trekking in that bag. They have been a solid mid-tier operator for decades catering to independent climbers who need/want a lot of handholding.

  • July 31, 2018 at 7:04 am
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    Thanks, Alan. You’re right to point out a couple of other mid price options. I’ve not climbed with either of these companies, but I have spoken to plenty of people who have, and the feedback is similar to what you describe.

    It’s an over simplication to suggest the bad operators are Nepali and the good ones western. I hope I haven’t given that impression. There are bad western operators and good Nepali ones too. Asian Trekking have also been running a series of Eco Everest Expeditions for a few years, which clean the mountain of trash from previous expeditions.

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