When expedition operators should be taken with a pinch of salt

It was silly season in the media again last week when the BBC latched onto a not very clever Everest story, and the rest of the world’s press eagerly jumped on the bandwagon with a flurry of misleading headlines, spurious arguments, and copy-and-paste content from last year.

In case you missed the story, here’s my single tweet summary:

The BBC story, entitled Safety fears prompt change to Everest climbing route, reports that the climbing route through Everest’s Khumbu Icefall will be different from the one used last year. The Khumbu Icefall is a moving glacier where ice shifts, melts and forms with the conditions. Seracs and snow bridges collapse regularly and new crevasses open up. Any climbing route up a glacier changes from year to year, and on the surface this story is as significant as one about Prince Harry turning up at a party drunk. In case anyone was unclear the route will be moved to the right, the BBC even provided a nice graphic, though I’m not sure all the crevasses were marked accurately.

To be fair on the media, I was being slightly disingenuous with my tweet, as there is a little more back story. There is avalanche danger on both sides of the Khumbu Icefall, from the West Shoulder on the left and Nuptse on the right. Over the years the route has shifted gradually to the left under the flanks of the West Shoulder, and last year a giant serac fell off the side of it, triggering a huge avalanche which swept the width of the icefall and killed 16 Sherpas who were climbing through. I witnessed this catastrophic event as I walked through base camp, and was only a couple of hours away from being caught in it myself. The risk has been known about for years. In 2012 one operator, Himex, was so concerned about conditions on the route they controversially cancelled their expedition and sent clients home without climbing. Last year the risk manifest itself in the most tragic way, and it’s no surprise the route will be changed this year.

It does not mean, as the Washington Post reported in a headline as misleading as Lance Armstrong’s urine sample that Everest’s deadliest route is now off-limits (the route is neither off limits, nor Everest’s deadliest) in an article which rehashed much of the sensationalist reporting about climate change and maltreatment of Sherpas that accompanied the media feeding frenzy last year.

There is avalanche danger on both sides of the Khumbu Icefall, from the West Shoulder on the left and Nuptse on the right
There is avalanche danger on both sides of the Khumbu Icefall, from the West Shoulder on the left and Nuptse on the right

But this is not another of my posts about crap journalism (like this one, this one, this one or this one). There will always be sensationalist reporting, and I’ve noticed a slight improvement in the last year. There seems to be a growing acceptance from the media that commercial mountaineering on Everest is a valid activity that’s here to stay, and there’s a little less of the the slag-it-off-willy-nilly-without-trying-to-understand style that has been a characteristic of Everest reporting until now.

While there’s still a tendency to parrot meaningless announcements by Nepal’s Ministry of Tourism and present it as news, there is also a greater willingness from the media to ask expedition guides and operators for their opinion. For example, the US public radio network NPR interviewed Pete Athans, a guide with Alpine Ascents who has been looking at a new route through the Icefall.

This is a positive development. Not only are commercial operators who work on Everest every season well-qualified to talk about climbing conditions, but they work with Sherpas year on year, and communicate with officials in government as they complete paperwork and apply for permit fees. Many live in Kathmandu throughout the climbing season. They understand better than anyone (or at least, better than other westerners) the nuances of Everest politics, and are better able to educate the public without presenting a negative agenda.

Sadly operators don’t always help themselves. In their desire to compete for clients they frequently present conflicting arguments which seem to be dictated mainly by their present business practices. In a post about the 2015 climbing season, the respected Everest blogger Alan Arnette interviewed operators on anything and everything, including Sherpa relations, icefall danger, north side vs. south side, and use of helicopters to transport supplies, and rarely found consensus on anything. Just one example was the use of avalanche beacons. While one operator (who issued avalanche beacons to all climbers passing through the Khumbu Icefall) was adamant they would increase safety for rescuers by reducing the amount of time spent looking for injured climbers, another (who did not) insisted they would increase the hazard because rescuers would inevitably spend more time exposed to danger digging up bodies that would otherwise be left.

Dinner time at expedition base camp is a good time to hear operators slag off their competitors
Dinner time at expedition base camp is a good time to hear operators slag off their competitors

In an interview with the German mountaineering blogger Stefan Nestler Russell Brice of Himex lashed out at his former guide Adrian Ballinger, who now has his own company Alpenglow Expeditions, in a manner which suggested that while Sherpas are busy transporting loads through the icefall, operators will be carrying handbags.

“What would Adrian Ballinger know … His opinion is not worth anything,” he said.

Even on the subject of the new route operators are divided. While some believe there is greater risk on the left from seracs on the West Shoulder, others believe that because the glacier moves more quickly down the middle the central route is more unstable and it will take longer to pass through.

As a commercial client who likes to shop around and climb with a number of different companies, I frequently find myself sitting in dining tents or bars listening to operators slag off the policies of their competitors, many of whom I have climbed with. Happily I now have enough experience to read between the lines, present the counter arguments, smile and offer them another drink. To any aspiring Everest climbers reading this, I can only emphasise the need to get enough experience of climbing big mountains under your belt that you can judge for yourself which arguments are valid and which are influenced by commercial interests. While it’s OK to settle on an operator you are comfortable with, accept that there is more than one way to skin a yak, and it’s often worth giving a different company a try from time to time as well.

Which brings me to the nub of this post, which is an appeal to operators rather than clients. One of the more cynical displays of marketing propaganda last week was perpetrated by Adrian Ballinger of Alpenglow Expeditions in a post entitled Everest’s New, ‘Safe’ Route Is No Change At All on a website called the Adventure Journal. It’s unclear whether Alpenglow paid for the article to be published, as there is no disclosure, but it looks suspiciously like a sponsored post of the type Google has been penalising travel blogs for in the last few years.

Adrian is an articulate writer and I have no reason to doubt that his company Alpenglow isn’t a safe and reliable (if slightly expensive) expedition operator. His article makes some interesting points and also provides some valid arguments. He says that over the last six years the route-fixers have often looked for a more central route through the Khumbu Icefall, but ended up towards the left, judging the avalanche risk from the West Shoulder to be less than the risk of serac collapse in the centre. He points out that Nepal’s government has done little in the wake of the tragedy, that last week’s announcement was fairly meaningless, and there is still much that can be done to improve safety and working conditions (some suggestions here). He is also transparent that he has switched his own expedition to the north side of Everest, and has been struggling to sell it to people. For much of the article I found myself nodding in agreement.

That is until I reached the final paragraph, when he let himself down by stooping lower than a limbo-dancing baboon in a dark tunnel.

“The danger of the icefall is now too high to ask large numbers of workers to spend countless hours hauling unnecessary equipment for climbers who are all too often inexperienced. Should every Everest climber be able to take the risk of the icefall on for themselves? Of course. But can an industry, government, or paying client, ethically ask someone else to take this risk simply for money, while not making real changes that would reduce the danger to them? They shouldn’t, but they do.”

Perhaps he’s trying to appeal to the more gullible readers of a certain popular outdoor magazine, because this is precisely what tendentious journalists asserted last year in the aftermath of the tragedy. It’s an argument that not only insults Sherpas by presenting them as helpless victims incapable of making their own decisions, insults operators by suggesting they send their staff to their deaths for cash, insults clients by pandering to the popular media image of us as ruthless braggarts who will stop at nothing to tick off Everest, and ultimately harms the Sherpa community and the people of Nepal by putting people off travelling there by presenting the tourist industry as unethical. Adrian has worked with Sherpas for years, so he ought to know that far from being victims, they are extremely industrious and resourceful, experienced high altitude climbers who are fully capable of assessing risk for themselves. He will know many who have willingly climbed through the Khumbu Icefall many times because it has provided them with the wealth to support their families through school and given them greater opportunities in life. If he has enough sense of history he will know the mountaineering and trekking industry has made Sherpas world-famous, provided them with a heritage to be proud of, and given them a route out of poverty unavailable to many other communities in Nepal.

He ought to know how much the economy of the Khumbu region is reliant on Everest expeditions, and how much it would be crippled if everyone boycotted the south side. Tea houses would go out of business, many would have to move to Kathmandu in search of work, and it’s quite possible Sherpas he once considered friends would end up working on construction sites in the Middle East building stadiums for the Qatar World Cup, where the rate of death among migrant Nepalese labourers in 2014 was one every two days. This would of course benefit FIFA, an organisation whose ethics make most Everest operators look like the Dalai Lama. I’m a little more cautious myself, and I won’t be returning to Everest until I’ve seen how the situation develops, but I applaud anyone who experienced the events at base camp last year and is willing to return in 2015.

The Northeast Ridge of Everest, hardly a piece of piss (Photo: Grant 'Axe' Rawlinson)
The Northeast Ridge of Everest, hardly a piece of piss (Photo: Grant ‘Axe’ Rawlinson)

The Khumbu Icefall may be dangerous, but the north side of Everest is hardly a picnic. I found this out for myself when I trod a fine line between life and death on the Northeast Ridge in 2012, a day when two other climbers died on the north side. My Sherpa Chongba stayed by my side for 18 hours, when he could easily have returned to our camp in half that time. By staying with me he was undoubtedly putting his life at greater risk, and while he was much stronger than I will ever be, he was sufficiently exhausted when we returned to our tent that our tent mate Axe had to make us tea while we both rested. It was his 13th ascent of Everest, so he had some idea what to expect, but in another post last week Alan Arnette provided statistics revealing the death rates for Sherpas on both sides of the mountain are broadly similar.

If Adrian genuinely believes his fellow operators are sending Sherpas to their deaths on the south side, instead of switching to the north side and sending his own Sherpas up there, he should get out of the Himalayas completely and stop lining his pockets with the very same methods he condemns in others.

I extend this appeal not just to Alpenglow, but to any operator who thinks that sniping at others and appealing to the base instincts of tabloid journalists will help you to win clients. It might seem a good short term marketing solution, but it’s unlikely to be helpful in the long run, particularly when it plays to media stereotypes which are insulting to the very people you hope to attract. Clients network and share anecdotes about expeditions they’ve been on all the time, and operators quickly acquire reputations they may not be aware of. There’s the operator with an aversion to fresh meat, who provides their clients with spam every dinner time. The operator whose prices are super cheap, because most essential services are an add-on. Or the company who advertises expeditions to obscure mountains in Central Asia with little intention of actually climbing them. Somebody reading this will recognise the operators in each of these cases. To become known as the operator with two faces, one for the media, probably isn’t a good business move. It may make you the darling of armchair critics who like to get angry about emotive magazine articles, but it’s unlikely to help you win the trust of genuine clients who support your industry by regularly booking onto the type of expedition your company offers.

We have all had our lives enriched by Himalayan mountaineering – clients, operators, guides and Sherpas alike. Let’s stick together to educate the ignorant, rather than stoop to their level in the hope of putting one over on our competitors.

And if anyone does prefer to climb Everest from Tibet, Alpenglow are not the only option. My own recommendation would be the Russian operator 7 Summits Club, who have run the most consistently reliable and well-supported expedition on the north side for a decade. While their clients are predominantly Russian, they have a handful of English-speaking clients every year, and employ a very experienced guide Noel Hanna to help look after them. When I climbed Everest from the north in 2012 I attended a party they hosted for everyone in base camp. Their leader Alex Abramov gave a speech which appealed for unity among all climbers on the mountain, and I was sufficiently impressed by their operation that I ended up climbing Elbrus with them a couple of months later.

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7 thoughts on “When expedition operators should be taken with a pinch of salt

  • February 25, 2015 at 4:38 pm

    Fun, real, tragic and candid Mark. Your (my) pursuit of journalistic and other forms of integrity in the sport we love would make Don Quixote proud.

  • February 25, 2015 at 4:51 pm

    Thanks, Alan. It’s an honour to be compared to yourself. I’m not there yet and probably never will be, but I try my best. 🙂

  • February 25, 2015 at 9:31 pm

    Very well said Mr Horrell. But I have no idea what you are talking about when it comes to Spam! 😉

  • February 25, 2015 at 10:50 pm

    If Monty Python did mountaineering expeditions, Robert, I’m sure you would be the first to book!

  • February 25, 2015 at 11:22 pm

    Very disappointing post, Mark.

    Deliberately exposing others to danger for your holiday is not an act of integrity.

    Times change, and we change with them. Or not. Good people do bad things because they don’t fully understand the consequences of their actions. Plenty of things were considered perfectly legal years ago that now we do not accept. I think you’re on the wrong side of history here.

    Arguing the economic benefits is the standard line, but:
    a) there are plenty in the Khumbu who don’t agree, many of them widows and family
    b) trekking brings in more money than mountaineering – climbing money is good, but not the lifeblood for Nepal it’s made out to be
    c) saying the Sherpas and other workers choose to do it is specious. Given the economic disparities and lack of options, it’s really no choice at all.

    Does it not say something to you, that when Sherpas DO get enough money to have choices, they send their kids away to college to be doctors and businessmen – not Everest workers? i.e. when they get a real choice, they don’t choose Everest.

    Arguments about workers in Qatar, terrible as that situation is, is a classic fallacious argument using ‘whataboutery’ – it evades truly dealing with the subject, by offering up an emotive diversion.

    I’m no great fan of Outside magazine, but their (Schaeffer’s) work on Everest was mostly good, in my opinion, and there’s reasons it struck a chord. There is way too much self-interest in the commercial mountaineering world to properly deal with ethical issues. I’m not the first to use here the Upton Sinclair quote:
    “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”
    In this case it might not be the salary of you and other bloggers, but it’s your vocation, your reputations, and the salaries of all operators.

    To incriminate the industry is to incriminate yourselves, and people rarely do that.

  • February 26, 2015 at 8:14 am

    That’s an interesting twist you’ve put on my words, Damien, but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you’ve simply misunderstood.

    Who said anything about deliberately exposing others to danger? I certainly didn’t. I would love it if Everest were made 100% safe,  for both clients and workers. As a climber yourself I’m sure you understand that isn’t possible, but there are many ways we can improve it. Here’s my list of suggestions, and feel free to contribute some of your own: https://www.markhorrell.com/blog/2014/4-ways-to-improve-the-south-side-of-everest/

    You’re right it does tell me something when Sherpas get enough money they send their children to good schools to have a good education which enables them take up less dangerous and better paid jobs. It tells me we should continue to provide them with a route to a better quality of life, if they choose to take it. When everyone in the Khumbu is well educated,  perhaps then we can start talking about banning commercial Everest expeditions, but we’re not there yet, and if we ever get there it should be a decision for the Sherpas themselves, not us.

    It would be great if we could apply Western standards to all Third World problems. The figures for fatalities in bus accidents in Nepal are appalling. I don’t know what the figures are for construction sites, but from the precarious bamboo scaffolding I see all over Kathmandu I imagine they are quite high. I’m sure people are working to improve safety here too, but in the meantime should they stop operating?

    We’re not completely sheltered from danger in the west. 80 cyclists died in London last year alone, just cycling to work. Should their employers consider moving to a less dangerous location too? And if they don’t, does it make them unethical? Accepting that many things in life carry a risk is not the same as deliberately endangering lives, far from it. Otherwise you’re deliberately endangering the lives of your passengers every time they get in a car with you.

    But we’ve swayed from the original purpose of this post, which was to promote greater openness and trust between operators and clients. As an alpinist who prefers not to book onto commercial trips I’m assuming this isn’t really your area, but you’re welcome to stay if you have something to contribute. You’ve kind of proved my point that Alpenglow are mainly appealing to people like you.

  • January 10, 2016 at 3:50 pm

    There is a spectrum of risk and ethics here. I don’t think anyone would ethically object to hiring a taxi driver to help get the groceries home. On the other hand, if I pay that same taxi driver a large sum of money to jump off a thirty foot cliff, just because I find it entertaining, that’s unethical, yes?
    Hiring a Sherpa must lie somewhere between the two. The problem with the Sherpa case is that it lies at a point where some people find it ethical and others don’t. It’s questionable, and I don’t think it has a right answer.
    If you stand for the status quo, you must accept some responsibility for deaths and injuries incurred. If you insist on shutting the whole thing down, you must accept some responsibility for the economic disaster that would land on the Sherpas. Is there a pure, comfortable place to stand in the middle? I’d be amazed if there was.
    One thing is certain, anyone who starts sniping at another’s position will surely find their target also has a rifle, and lots of ammo too.
    There is a strange irony here as well. Some people think the answer is to make the climb safer. But if they succeed, will anyone want to climb a nice, safe Everest?

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