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.
— Ammu Kannampilly (@akannampilly) April 30, 2016
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.
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.
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.
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:
— Dan Mccauley (@danmccauley80) April 30, 2016
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 …
Did you enjoy this blog post? This post also appears in my book Sherpa Hospitality as a Cure for Frostbite, a collection of the best posts from this blog exploring the evolution of Sherpa mountaineers, from the porters of early expeditions to the superstar climbers of the present day. It’s available from all good e-bookstores and is also available as a paperback. Click on the big green button to find out more.