Looking back on Everest as the dust settles

I promised I would lay off the subject of this year’s Everest season for a little while, and I have. It’s been a full six weeks since my last post about it and the dust is starting to settle. With time comes the opportunity to put bewildering events in perspective. I still see articles about the Everest avalanche appearing in my various newsfeeds, but I have noticed a change in tone. Emotions were running high after sixteen Sherpas died in the Khumbu Icefall, and very few people really understood what was happening. Media reaction was one-sided and critical, and this produced an aggressive backlash from people keen to provide the other side of the argument (including myself).

Chinese mountaineer Wang Jing with two of her Sherpa team on the summit of Everest after their helicopter assisted ascent this year (Photo: Wang Jing)
Chinese mountaineer Wang Jing with two of her Sherpa team on the summit of Everest after their helicopter assisted ascent this year (Photo: Wang Jing)

Now that we’re beginning to understand things a little better, more recent articles on the subject seem to be more moderate and less judgemental in their approach. I thought it would be a good time to examine some of the things I’ve read more recently.

Last week National Geographic posted a detailed article and interview with Wang Jing, the Chinese climber who made a controversial ascent of Everest’s south side after all the other teams had left the mountain by flying into the Western Cwm by helicopter [*]. Every word I’ve read about her climb until now has been negative, including my own slightly tongue-in-cheek post. She was criticised for being disrespectful of the dead, and insensitive to those whose expeditions had been cancelled. She was portrayed as the archetypal rich foreigner using her wealth to climb Everest, and she was of course accused of cheating (more on the subject of cheating on high mountains here).

All these charges are a matter of opinion, and National Geographic resisted the temptation to voice theirs, instead providing a straightforward description of her achievement. Ms Jing and her team of Sherpas (contrary to reports, all of whom had climbed Everest before) reached the summit just 13 days after arriving in the Western Cwm by helicopter. They had the mountain entirely to themselves and trod the knife edge ridge between the South Summit and Hillary Step without the benefit of fixed ropes, as modern commercial expeditions do. Their summit day was unusual in other ways. They left the South Col at 6am, when it was light, reached the summit at 6.30pm and descended in the dark, returning to camp at 11pm. By contrast commercial teams choose to climb in the dark and descend during daylight, often leaving for the summit as early as 9pm the night before.

Just how much of an achievement her ascent was is open to debate. While it’s not in the same league as Everest’s many first ascents on new routes and doesn’t make her an elite mountaineer, it is much more of an achievement than the average commercial ascent (including mine). To climb like they did required considerable experience and confidence in their knowledge of the route. It was Ms Jing’s third ascent of Everest, a notable achievement in itself, and her ninth ascent of an 8000m peak (she has also climbed Makalu, Manaslu, Broad Peak, Cho Oyu, Lhotse, and Shishapangma). A month later she completed her 9+2 challenge of the two poles, the seven summits including both Australasian summits and Mont Blanc thrown in for good measure, in just 149 days. Quite what the value of these manufactured firsts is I’m not sure (more on that here), but it deserves a pat on the back at the very least.

And let’s not forget her Sherpas, of course. She singled out Pasang Dawa for particular praise after he led the route from the South Summit. I remember Ms Jing turning up at our dining tent in base camp to see our Chinese team mate Mel. Whatever you think about her ascent there is no denying she has a natural enthusiasm that is hard not to like, as this summit video demonstrates.

Watch on YouTube

While it’s refreshing to hear the other side of the story, the article left quite a few unanswered questions. Ms Jing says she was surprised by the angry reaction to her climb, both internationally and back home in China (“Helicopter Jing, you’re imbued with the stench of your money-bought certificates and honors … The holy Everest has been dirtied by you, a cunning and ugly person!” one creative commenter on the Chinese social network Weibo was reported as saying). But how anyone who spent a week at base camp witnessing the angry scenes that followed the avalanche can claim they didn’t think it would be controversial is hard to swallow. Likewise the debate about climbing purity is something every mountaineer has heard many times, so there should be no surprise that taking a helicopter might be seen as cheating. It would be like a contestant on the popular TV game show I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here being surprised when they are asked to eat a kangaroo’s testicle.

National Geographic touched on some of the financial aspects of her climb, including rumours that she paid her five Sherpas around $12,000 each, roughly twice what they would earn during a normal Everest season. I would have liked to hear her questioned about any bribes she made to government officials. While initially telling her the helicopter flights were illegal and her ascent illegitimate the government changed direction in a way that would have impressed David Bowie. They eventually presented her with an award for her achievement in an elaborate ceremony in the same week they banned her helicopter pilot from flying in Nepal, which is about as two-faced as you can get, unless you’re Zaphod Beeblebrox.

On the other hand perhaps backhanders weren’t involved, and the Nepalese government just changed their mind. It happens to us all. Take a look at this:

While I was in Peru last month Outside magazine published a long and detailed article about the Everest tragedy. I bookmarked it when I returned, but only got around to reading it last week. I must confess I approached it with some trepidation. As I have reported in previous posts Outside’s editorial line on commercial mountaineering on Everest can be likened to the Daily Mail‘s towards immigration.

As you can see from my tweet, I enjoyed the Outside article this time. As I read it I expected it to turn into a rant at any moment, and was surprised to get to the end and find it hadn’t. There were one or two minor inaccuracies (for example, the Chinese climber who analysed the serac collapse was Mel from our team Altitude Junkies and not Jagged Globe; Madison Mountaineering’s sirdar Dorje Khatri, who died in the avalanche, previously worked for Adventure Peaks rather than Adventure Consultants) but the general thrust of the events it describes is fair. It’s very long and you need to set aside an hour or so to read it, but if you are interested then I recommend it.

On a less positive note, there is more to report about an ongoing saga. Nepal’s Ministry of Tourism announced that life insurance for climbing Sherpas has been increased from $10,000 to $15,000 USD. On the face of it this is good news, but the problem is they are always making statements like this and rarely follow through with them.

“Yawning gap between pledges and delivery is becoming unbearable for the bereaved families of the Mt Everest avalanche victims,” reported another piece in the Himalayan Times. On 20 April the government pledged the meagre sum of $400 to each of the victims’ families. As of 26 July the families are yet to see a single rupee.

In other news the Everest operator Alpenglow made an interesting observation in their latest blog post.

“Conversation about the future of Everest guiding and expeditions was the top topic and one sentiment came out the strongest – Everest’s top Sherpa are no longer going to be climbing through the Khumbu Icefall. One Sherpa said he will only support his team from Base Camp; another is looking for work in the USA; and a third is trying to move his team to the safer North Side (Tibet) … Their reasoning was uniform. The risk of the Khumbu Icefall is no longer acceptable and their families will not support their climbing if they choose to continue passing through it. What I quickly realized during these discussions is that if these leading Sherpa (from some of the biggest and most respected western guiding companies) stand by their beliefs, Everest’s South Side in 2015 will be a less professional and less safe environment. More than half of Everest’s best Sherpa will not be climbing on Everest’s South Side (from Nepal) in 2015.”

The conversation referred to took place at a climbing competition in Utah attended by 5,000 people which raised $10,000 for the Khumbu Climbing Center in Nepal. If the comments are true then there has been a significant change of attitude by Sherpas since the avalanche. While this may be the case my own feeling is to take these comments with a pinch of salt, as they may more closely echo the feelings of operators rather than Sherpas. I can understand operators switching to the north side of Everest next year because of the uncertainty and financial risk created by this year’s events which are still unresolved. Sherpas, on the other hand, have families and businesses on the south side which are heavily dependent on Everest tourism and most would want to do everything they can to keep expeditions operating in Nepal rather than Tibet. The avalanche was a shock for everyone, but climbing Sherpas are experienced enough as mountaineers to know the objective danger is nothing new.

I don’t want to speak too soon, but I hope some of the more recent coverage marks a mellowing in how Everest is reported by the media, and perhaps a change in editorial policy for some of them. Commercial mountaineering on Everest is here to stay, and portraying it as morally wrong, and all Everest climbers as socially retarded idiots, isn’t very constructive. People pay to be guided up many other big mountains around the world, such as Aconcagua and Denali, in much the same way. It seems to be more accepted there, and some day I hope it will be accepted on Everest too.

[*] Is it Wang Jing or Jing Wang – can someone please explain? I have called her Ms Jing in this post as Ms Wang sounds smutty.

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23 thoughts on “Looking back on Everest as the dust settles

  • August 13, 2014 at 9:25 pm

    Her family name is Wang (meaning King in Chinese) and her given name is Jing (maybe meaning money or metal in Chinese). In Chinese they normally put their family name first, so Chinese people would call her Wang Jing. They often reverse their family and given names when dealing with foreigners to avoid being called by their family name, so she may well have told foreigners her name was Jing Wang. And finally, the Chinese among themselves often use the family and given names together. That’s as I understand it, but I’m just a foreigner, looking at it from an outsiders perspective. Hope it’s helpful.

  • August 13, 2014 at 9:38 pm

    Aha, that makes perfect sense. And to make things even easier for stupid foreigners many of them even give themselves western names like Mel! Thanks Geoff, that’s interesting to know.

    … but just a minute, so millionairess Wang Jing’s name translates as “Money King”. Shouldn’t it be “Money Queen”? I remember that wicked sense of humour of yours. This isn’t another one of your jokes is it? 😉

    I hope all is well with you. Any plans for another 8000er yourself?

  • August 14, 2014 at 6:28 am

    Mark Mark, Mark. I expected a bit more than rolling over to the latest news :). OK, Ms Wang’s is clearly took every advantage of every angle, including “contributions” possible to accomplish her ambition of a record including helicopters on Everest, and Aconcagua to shorten the climb.

    While her Everest summit was somewhat credible, it is not a record when compared to other women she was competing against who climbed from BC- full stop.

    As for the Outside article, there are misquotes and yet another piece designed to meet the headline. Albeit, I thought it was nice … but they have become suspect in my book. (full disclosure, I write for them when they agree not to censure me 🙂 ) You know better and have taken them to task …

    The NatGeo article had nothing new other than the reaction in China which was a surprise. I am continually disappointed that these storied brands have become the People Magazine of Adventure.

    Aplenglow’s “announcement” was totally self serving, insulting to other operators and unbiased. I can personally attest that there are many Sherpas willing to work Everest from Nepal in 2015. Perhaps a few have declined but there are many, many quality Sherpas ready to climb from the South Side and climbers should climb in confidence, in my opinion.

    OK, enough from me. The PR battle starts for North vs. South. It is all about positioning and marketing .. let the climber beware.

  • August 14, 2014 at 7:06 am

    Haha, and there I was trying to be diplomatic for a change! Maybe I should stick to my usual opinionated style. Thank you, Alan, for giving me a dressing down and putting things straight. 🙂

  • August 14, 2014 at 7:19 am

    LOL Mark, not “taking you to task” but you are one of the most credible opinion blogs on Everest and I hate to see you succumb to the dark side of PR.

    You know, a lot of this is opinion but it is also turning into a sophisticated marketing game and climbers need to understand that the positioning is not always on their best interest. The press never will going for the “if it bleeds it leads” approach, as you have aptly pointed out.

  • August 14, 2014 at 7:30 am

    Thanks, Alan. That’s a nice compliment and useful feedback. I will try harder …

  • August 14, 2014 at 10:53 pm

    That’s a bit nicer than money, though maybe not quite as appropriate.

  • August 16, 2014 at 4:55 am

    As the writer of the National Geographic article on Wang Jing (first name Jing, last name Wang) I am puzzled by Alan Arnette’s disappointment about “storied brands becoming the People Magazine of Adventure.” What should one include in a story about a woman who pulled off a rather unusual ascent of Everest in the Black Year of 2014? Not write it at all, and deny Mr. Arnette the chance to repurpose it on his blog? In truth, I respect Mr. Arnette’s blog, which is never less than useful and level-headed, but his supercilious comments about “nothing new” in “the People Magazine of Adventure’s” account of the only south side ascent of Everest so far this year suggest some reading comprehension issues brought on by lingering hypoxia in the wake of his recent success on K-2. Beyond the English rendition of a few of the hundreds of tellingly vicious Chinese social media comments, the story noted that the five Sherpas hired by Jing Wang (as we would write her name in the west) were in fact highly experienced, contrary to every previous report; it noted their plush salaries; it noted Wang’s correct age, and her extensive climbing resume which contradicted the shibboleth that she is just some rich chick getting short-roped up 8000 meter peaks. It highlighted the unusual circumstances which led to her teams’ negotiation of the summit ridge above the South Summit without fixed ropes, and the even more impressive descent in the dark. What else? Her extremely humble background, the fact that she sewed the first tent herself enroute to building a billion dollar outdoor gear and clothing company. The People Magazine of Adventure also translated her Chinese language tribute to the Sherpas which she delivered on the summit of Everest at 6:30 PM. Whatever one thinks of bypassing the Khumbu Icefall in a helicopter, or of being so driven by an overarching goal that one dares to climb Everest in a year many people feel should be reserved for mourning, both the issues raised by Jing Wang’s ascent and the genuine achievement of her 9 + 2 adventure of reaching the two poles and the summits of all seven continents are certainly worthwhile journalistic topics. Mr. Arnette is entitled to slag Nat Geo all he wants but to do so in glib disregard for what was in fact unreported until the story in the People Magazine of Adventure puts him in the same camp as the screwballs in China who think Jing Wang’s helicopter actually deposited her on the summit. — Chip Brown chipbrown1@gmail.com

    “The NatGeo article had nothing new other than the reaction in China which was a surprise. I am continually disappointed that these storied brands have become the People Magazine of Adventure…”

  • August 16, 2014 at 8:02 am

    Thanks for your feedback Chip, albeit glib in and of itself, so we are in the same camp I suppose. Sorry Mark to turn this into whatever it has become.

    Chip, I guess you can “slag” me since I did you 🙂 If you read my comments, you can see I give Ms. Wang credit for a summit, just not for a record … and somewhat style. But that is a matter of opinion of which you and I are entitled regardless of our medium.

    As for “new” information, yes you provided some interesting details for which I gave you credit (as if that matters) thus I apologize if I offended your journalist credentials and certainly would never “repurpose” your story. Thank for your kind comments on my work

  • August 16, 2014 at 10:05 am

    No problem, no need to apologise. I enjoyed reading both your comments, it’s what keeping a blog is all about. Thank you for contributing and thanks both of you for reading my blog!

  • August 16, 2014 at 11:34 am

    Very interesting to watch your western to understand a Chinese name.

  • August 16, 2014 at 12:36 pm

    Apology accepted! And please, repurpose away! (Not that I actually know what repurposing entails — that that remark was a gratuitous last-minute rhetorical swipe I now regret.) The only reason I got myself into a swivet about “nothing new” and “the People Magazine of Adventure” (a title I am enjoying beating into the ground) was not that my journalist credentials were being impugned — well maybe a bit of that — but that unlike 99 percent of comments on internet blogs, yours matter, and because they matter, any let’s call them “ommissions” are magnified. In fact this year in Kathmandu the head of the Nepal Mountaineering Association told me one of the first things he did after he got news of the avalanche was to check your blog. I am truly curious Alan to hear your case for how exactly National Geographic’s great old brand is being debased by the sensibility of People Magazine. I looked at some issues from the 1920s not long ago and saw some thoroughly unfascinating stories about corn processing machinery in Iowa. A little People magazine was desperately wanted. Anyway, thanks for your apology, congratulations on getting up and down K2, and please repurpose in any way you legally can the National Geographic upcoming story on the avalanche which comes out in the November issue.

  • August 16, 2014 at 6:36 pm

    Chip, this is an example of an article that in my opinion is not up to NG standards. I come to this based on :1) the sensationalized headline which appears designed to attract (mislead?) a reader, 2) many casual readers may or may not internalize the article which goes on to actually not support the headline (of course this is with my reading comprehension issues 🙂 ) and 3) almost all the quotes support the Nepali women.

    For example, who is asking this question quoted in the piece? Is this an opinion piece?

    “It raises the question: What counts as an “all-female summit”?”

    I met these women personally on K2 this year, they are competent, strong climbers and I think the article disrespects them and their accomplishment. I climbed with Sherpas so I guess I cannot claim to be the oldest American to summit summit K2 and must put an asterisk by my name indicating I had Sherpa Guide support? We were an American team who had Sherpa Guide support so where does that leave us? And the Pakistani/Italian team and many others? There was one Sherpa Guide for every two “non-Sherpa” climber on K2 this year.

    Actually it was a nice, well-written article with good information (yes I said this!) But once again, it feels tabloid in how it is presented ….


  • August 17, 2014 at 4:42 am

    Alan I have to agree with you which may truncate our debate. I met 2 of the K2 team in May and bought a tee shirt at a fundraiser they held. I was surprised to see the tabby headline on the NG website story. I think what you are noticing are some rather profound differences in the quality of what appears on the Geographic website and what goes into the Magazine. Web articles are given a quick editorial once-over and sometimes effectively copy-edited by readers and corrected after they’ve been published. Articles in the Magazine are revised again and again, edited by 3 layers of editors, vetted, and fact-checked and lawyered, and generally scrutinized as closely as billion dollar corporate mergers. I have read 5 or 6 different proofs of the story that will come out in November about the avalanche. The web articles by comparison are the Wild West. This transition — the rise of a new medium and the eclipse of an old one along with the economic model that supported it– is much bigger than any one publication, and something to both mourn and embrace as the forces behind it are unstoppable. All this said I don’t think the NG website is the essence of the organization anymore than the TV station is. The Magazine embodies Nat Geo’s highest standards and I think so far it has avoided your People Magazine of Adventure charge. Though if you bring up the headline on the September issue cover, my defense may collapse completely. I might as well tell you what it is: “Rome’s Bad Boy” A People Magazine head on a very good Robert Draper story about revisions in the historical appraisal of the Emperor Nero. I guess nowadays that’s the sort of bait it takes to get readers interested in antiquity. And frankly if I had seen that headline in an academic journal I would have been delighted and concluded that some stuffed shirts had finally developed a sense of humor. Having standards shouldn’t be equated with being dull. But as I said I think your right about the articles on the web. They are necessarily of a lesser caliber, written more quickly, for less money, and with less expectation of a long shelf life.

  • August 17, 2014 at 6:58 am

    Thank you Chip. Very useful perspective. Sadly as “new media” takes over “traditional media” the distinctions are less obvious to the causal reader thus all properties are painted with the same brush.

    Thank you for the triple editing, vetting and integrity.

    In hopes NG maintains the tradition of excellence that it has earned since 1888.

  • August 17, 2014 at 8:33 am

    Thanks, Chip. Really interesting comments. I think I’m with Alan. I don’t buy NatGeo or Outside magazines in print format, so my opinions of both are formed by what I read from them online. I expect as more and more people share articles on social media both publications will ultimately have a bigger online readership than print (if they don’t already).

  • August 18, 2014 at 2:43 am

    Alan, Mark — They may already have a bigger online readership — certainly the NY Times does. A million print circulation and something like 22 million online readers. (Those aren’t fact-checked numbers!) But — and this is rub — the Times only a few hundred thousand paying online subscribers, if that. Nat. Geo does put the content of the monthly magazine online, but it is swamped in their daily news feed and sometimes hard to find or distinguish amid all the other tabs and buttons and bells and whistles. I’m not even sure the posted Magazine content gets the highest page views because the leisure pace of long-form journalism requires a different mindset than what is apparently typical of people sitting at a computer wheeling and clicking through gyres of curiosity. The slow metabolism of the monthly magazine doesn’t seem right for the web. The web has the metabolism of a shrew consuming 20 times its body weight in an hour. My sense is that the people who run these venerable brands like Nat Geo, and Outside, and some of the big papers, understand the terrible leveling effect of the new medium where everything looks the same whether it was composed in three months or three minutes, but they don’t know how to keeping doing what they used to do well in the new medium. They don’t know how to say “Hey, even though they look the same, and can be accessed in exactly the same way, and appear on the same screen in the same form with the same colors, this text some facile chatterbox dashed off in 45 minutes doesn’t merit the same attention as this nuanced carefully-wrought made-to-be-read-again story, refined draft after draft, over time, by a writer who has had a chance to reconsider his thoughts and his language and maybe come up with something better.” How many times have either of you written something, posted it, and then an hour later, stumbled on a better verb, a more succinct way of saying something? I look back at the first drafts of articles, which in the moment seemed so terrific, and am usually dreadfully embarrassed, or simply horrified.

    Now I will shut the hell up — all this sounding off is making me queasy… Best to you both.

  • August 18, 2014 at 2:47 am

    So I re-read the above and wish I had said “gyres of impulsive curiosity.” Can one edit these posts? That old saw, there’s no such thing as writing, only rewriting….

  • August 18, 2014 at 10:16 am

    Heehee, thanks Chip. Interesting (and entertaining) thoughts. I don’t know what the future business model for magazines is either, but perhaps there’s a happy compromise somewhere between the 5 or 6 proofs and 3 layers of editors, and the cut-and-paste journalism that seems to be springing up all over the place. I usually write and edit a blog post over the weekend and give myself a few days to mull it over before posting it on a Wednesday.

    I was gob smacked by the figures you quoted for NY Times print vs. online, but perhaps it shouldn’t be so surprising after all. I heard a similar variation in the figures quoted for the Guardian, which used to have one of the lowest readerships of all the UK national daily papers, but online now has by far the biggest worldwide readership of all of them. Which is a good thing as long as they give more space to the likes of Ed Douglas and less (preferably none) to Tanya Gold. 😉

  • August 20, 2014 at 5:16 pm

    Wow, this conversation has spun off in an unexpected direction. Great reading, very profound commentary by highly qualified participants on the (d)evolution of popular media. Love it, Mark 🙂 BTW, we’re off to Bhutan in a few weeks and I’m re-reading your article in preparation!

  • August 20, 2014 at 9:42 pm

    Haha, yes indeed. And me!

    Good to hear from you, Dean. You won’t be climbing any mountains in Bhutan; you’re not allowed. Are you doing the Snowman Trek?

  • August 21, 2014 at 7:50 pm

    Yeah Mark, the long plod 😉 Hi to Geoff, another Cho Oyu mate!

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