At a rough estimate, around 250 people reached the summit of Everest from the north side this year, climbing with a number of different operators. Of these operators, two seemed to get the lion’s share of the attention: Furtenbach Adventures and Alpenglow Expeditions.
Why? Firstly, slick marketing fronted by a pair of dynamic, media-savvy owners, Lukas Furtenbach and Adrian Ballinger. Secondly, both teams are pioneering a new approach to high-altitude mountaineering that involves shortening the amount of time spent on the mountain by acclimatising at home in high-altitude tents.
Both teams are currently targeting the luxury end of the market, with prices two or three times more expensive than low- to mid-range operators, and 50% higher than many of the other luxury operators. I’m going to examine these prices in next week’s post, but first I’m going to use this post to examine the concept of shortening your expedition by acclimatising at home. Is it safe and/or sensible?
I kind of did this in another blog post a couple of years ago. Most of that post is still relevant. This post is a follow up to it – an update in the context of what happened on Everest this year.
To summarise, when I wrote that post in 2016, Alpenglow Expeditions were offering shorter expeditions to the 8,000m peaks at a higher price, by sending their clients altitude tents to sleep in at home. The theory is that these tents simulate the reduced pressure and oxygen at high altitude, thereby providing an opportunity to pre-acclimatise.
You may well ask, what happens when the client wakes up and goes to work? Do they wear some sort of mask over their face that enables them to maintain the reduced pressure and oxygen while they sit in meeting or tap away on a computer, or do they immediately lose any acclimatisation they may have gained overnight? I still don’t have an answer to this question, and if anyone can enlighten me in the comments then I would be grateful. For me, this one of the fundamental flaws of the whole approach, though perhaps there is an answer I don’t know about.
Anyway, when I wrote that post in 2016 Alpenglow were the only operator in this space, but I predicted others would follow, some targeting less wealthy clients. To date, only one has followed, Furtenbach Adventures, and they are also targeting the luxury market with their ‘Everest Flash’ expeditions.
The Flash expedition goes a step further than Alpenglow’s ‘Rapid Ascent’ expedition by offering extra oxygen on the mountain, in addition to the pre-acclimatisation in altitude tents. Furtenbach claims their special regulators (which control the flow rate of oxygen from the cylinder) can dispense oxygen at a rate of 8 litres per minute (lpm).
Many operators provide enough oxygen for their clients to climb on 4 lpm, and I can confirm from my own brief experience that this can turn you into high-altitude superman. The more usual rate provided by most operators is 2 lpm. This is better than nothing, and certainly helps with combating frostbite, but does not enable a climber to race up the mountain in the way that 4 lpm can.
Interestingly, extensive research was done into oxygen flow rates as early as 1952. The scientist Griffith Pugh tested climbers at 6,100m on the Menlung Glacier in Nepal during Eric Shipton’s Everest reconnaissance expedition. The obvious assumption was the higher the flow rate, the faster a climber would be able to climb. Pugh tested different flow rates from 2 lpm right up to 10 lpm. He confirmed that the assumption was correct to some degree: the more they consumed, the better they felt, both during and after the ascent – the more easily they climbed, and the more quickly they recovered.
But another factor needed to be considered, and that was the weight of the equipment – the higher the flow rate, the more oxygen (and equipment) they would need to carry. There was a point where the weight of the equipment would counter the benefits of consuming oxygen, and Pugh discovered that climbers on 2 lpm climbed at the same speed as those who climbed without oxygen. And while those on 10 lpm did climb more quickly than those on lower rates, they had to carry so much more oxygen that the benefits were marginal.
Pugh concluded that the optimum flow rate of oxygen to weight carried was 4 lpm, and that is still considered the benchmark today (I have stolen all this information from Harriet Tuckey’s award-winning book Everest The First Ascent, which discusses it all in much greater depth).
That was in 1952. It’s likely that in 2018 the combined weight of cylinder, regulator and mask is less than it was back then, and so the optimum flow rate is a little higher (perhaps 6 lpm, but somebody will need to do more testing like Pugh to confirm this). However, the weight of the actual oxygen is never going to change, so eventually this optimum flow rate is going to reach a maximum, perhaps when cylinder, regulator and mask are all woven from silk.
I’ve digressed into this little discussion about flow rates because oxygen played a key part in events this year. While their use of altitude tents prior to the expedition is the main focus of both Alpenglow’s and Furtenbach’s marketing, it’s unclear how much of their success (or otherwise) is in fact down to the oxygen used when they’re on the mountain.
So what happened? I’ve used Alan Arnette’s peerless Everest 2018 season coverage as my principal source for this year’s events. On 15 May Alpenglow had to abandon their ascent at 8,500m on the Second Step because of equipment failure. Ten out of 39 regulators burst, allowing the contents of the oxygen cylinder to be released into the air. They weren’t carrying enough spare regulators for their clients to continue. They had to abandon their ascent, and were only able to descend safely after their Sherpas gave away their regulators to the clients.
Alpenglow were not the only team to experience regulator issues that day. Furtenbach’s ‘classic’ (i.e. ordinary speed, non-flash) team climbed the same day and put 5 clients and 5 Sherpas on the summit. The Transcend team of young Indian climbers, also climbing on the north side, put 11 clients and 14 Sherpas on the summit. Both of these teams experienced regulator failures, but were carrying enough spares for their climbers to continue.
Meanwhile, over on the south side, celebrity nice guy Ben Fogle described on Instagram how his regulator exploded at 8,100m and then again just below the summit. In both cases he was able to borrow someone else’s and complete his climb.
In some respects, Alpenglow were unlucky. Every reputable operator should inspect every bottle and regulator before carrying them up the mountain. Not all of them do, but Alpenglow said they inspected theirs at Advanced Base Camp, and the problems did not arise until they were well into the climb on summit day. This appears to be the case with the other teams as well, and there is a suggestion that the problem may have something to do with the warm, humid air on that particular day.
But in another respect, this issue highlights one of the major flaws of a shorter expedition. Despite the claims of the operators, it’s extremely unlikely that clients who use an altitude tent to acclimatise at home are as well acclimatised as those on longer expeditions who acclimatise on the mountain instead. While all teams rely on oxygen to help get their clients up the mountain, the shorter expeditions are relying on it to a greater degree.
The big problem, as we have seen, is what happens when the equipment fails. Contrary to what many people suppose, if you are well acclimatised, you do not immediately keel over and die as soon as you remove an oxygen mask, and in fact Ben Fogle’s guide Kenton Cool continued to the summit after giving his to Ben.
But clients who are not well acclimatised and relying on oxygen to a greater degree are in a much more serious situation than those who are already well acclimatised. Alpenglow made the right decision to descend as quickly as possible, a point made graphically by climber and expedition leader Robert Anderson in a recent post on this subject:
And for a climber who has followed a minimal acclimatisation program, has less climbing experience and suddenly finds their most vital ingredient failing on a windswept ridge at -20c in the dark, they will very quickly realize they are a very long ways from home.
So that was Alpenglow. How about Furtenbach and their Flash team? The word flash in English carries a number of different meanings. As a verb it could mean to move or pass very quickly, or to expose one’s genitalia. As an adjective it means ostentatiously stylish or expensive, and as a noun it means a sudden or brief manifestation or occurrence of something.
It’s probably going to take a few more of these expeditions to see if the noun definition will follow. I’m presuming Furtenbach name their expeditions after one of the verb definitions (I’ll let you guess which), but their Facebook post on 21 May after all 4 clients and 8 Sherpas reached the summit, which may remind some readers of a certain world leader’s Twitterstream, suggests the adjective definition is equally appropriate.
So maybe the history of commercial, guided Everest expeditions has to be rewritten? At least a new climbing style was established to the Everest guiding community. Finally, after almost 40 years of standstill without any significant innovation. This is the first time that a whole guided team summited Mount Everest in such a short time (21 days from home) with the help of an acclimatizing program at home. This comes with an increase of safety and a 100% success rate. Not to forget that our Flash members are no professional athletes, they are dentists, consultants or entrepreneurs. With our own acclimatization program we acclimatized the whole team up to 7100m in non-standard hypoxic tents at home. Almost 15 years of experience with hypoxic acclimatization was essential for this project. Only 7 days after entering Tibet we made one safety rotation to the north col and then took a rest for the summit push. This is game changing. So we become the first and only operator that successfully achieved and can offer a 21 days door-to-summit Everest expedition. But what to do with the remaining time? Well, maybe a beach holiday with the family.
Thank you to all climbing community for all the criticism and skepticism, it kept pushing motivation to move on with this idea.
There are a number of things here that grate like fingernails down a blackboard. It’s not just the brash self-confidence of the writing (some people might use the word gloating). Let’s look at them one by one.
First, commercial mountaineering on Everest was in itself a significant innovation that occurred in the last 40 years (you can argue that it started when David Breashears guided Dick Bass to the summit in 1985, or when Rob Hall led a group trip in 1992, it doesn’t matter).
Second, this particular innovation of shortening an expedition by pre-acclimatising in altitude tents wasn’t Furtenbach’s. It looks to me like Alpenglow had the idea first.
Third, the assertion that the whole team were acclimatised to 7,100m before they left home is patent nonsense. It’s not yet known whether it’s even possible to acclimatise to 7,000m, or whether you just have to climb up and get down as quickly as possible. The high-altitude mountaineers Ralf Dujmovits and Nancy Hansen have recently been spending two weeks in a lab at a simulated altitude of 7,000m to find out what might happen.
Fourth, there’s no mention of how much oxygen their clients were using (Furtenbach have since said it was as much as 6 lpm). The jury is still out on whether these fast times are a result of the pre-acclimatisation at home or the oxygen used on the mountain.
Fifth, what self-respecting mountaineer wants a beach holiday?
But the biggest problem is what this post doesn’t mention – the final, most gaping flaw in this whole approach. The weather.
Furtenbach managed this record – and there’s no denying it’s an impressive record – during what was probably the most perfect Everest season there has ever been.
When I climbed Everest in 2012, there were only four good weather days, some of them marginal. This meant that everybody had to squeeze their summit ascents into those four days. My own summit day, 19 May, still holds the record for the most number of successful ascents on a single day (233). How much oxygen would the Flash team have needed if they’d got stuck behind those crowds?
This year there were 11 good summit days in a row, spreading out the numbers. Team after team reported summiting in perfect conditions, with warm temperatures and no wind. Some climbed so quickly that they were surprised to find themselves reaching the summit in the dark.
They may have got it right this year, but there is no doubt Furtenbach got lucky. It’s not usually possible to choose your summit day and go up to a predefined itinerary. You have to watch the weather forecast and wait for a window, and some years those windows are few and far between. It’s not unheard of to spend 21 days at base camp waiting for that window, and that’s all the time the Flash team had.
One thing you can be sure of, is that they won’t be that lucky every year. They would be wise to tone down the rhetoric. What happened to Alpenglow this season should serve as a warning not to get too cocky where Everest is concerned.
But I started this post by lamenting that two teams got all the headlines this year. What have I done, but spent the rest of the post talking about those same two teams. I’ve fallen for it. So I’m going to finish by contrasting their approach with one of the other teams.
On 24 May, Altitude Junkies, the team I climbed with in 2012, posted a dispatch on their website in tiny writing so small that it was barely noticed. They whispered that a number of their team had reached the summit, but due to privacy reasons they weren’t going to tell us who they were.
Two members of the team climbed to the summit and back to Camp 3 in just 5 hours on an oxygen flow rate of 1-2 lpm (bugger privacy, it was Phil Crampton and Kami Neru Sherpa). All of them descended to Advanced Base Camp (6,400m) the same day, using oxygen at rates of up to 3 lpm. To put these numbers into perspective, it took me 18 hours to reach the summit and stagger back into Camp 3 (8,200m) on a flow rate of 1-2 l/min.
The final part of the dispatch made a few nice points in a mock-style that will now look familiar (actually there’s a hint of Russell Brice in it too). It was written by expedition leader Phil Crampton. It came as no surprise to learn that he was one of the climbers to whiz up and down in 5 hours, but it was a surprise to discover his talent for parody. I couldn’t have written it better myself (although I have tried), so I’m going to quote Phil in his entirety.
We hope to exit Tibet tomorrow and be back in Kathmandu 31 days after departing. Below are a few points, which enable us to climb Everest in 30 odd days instead of the traditional 60-70 days.
We do not advertise our expeditions as “Everest Express” or “Everest Flash” but just plain old boring “Everest Expedition”.
We have realized over the years that entering Tibet at the start of April will not change the fact that the ropes will not usually be fixed to the summit until around May 15th.
We do not have well-known, highly publicized, sponsored guides leading our trips but a single expedition expediter. Therefore there is less pressure to rush our schedule based on social media, tight schedule deadlines, live Internet interviews, etc. Our expediter is old and grumpy but is always looking to be sponsored with gear for himself and his Sherpa.
We spend a lot of time at base camp allowing our bodies to recover rather than rushing up to Advanced Base Camp and making folks sleep several nights on the North Col, depleting them of all their energy reserves and reducing their hard earned muscle mass. Climb high sleep low is the old adage.
We do not make our team members sleep in plastic tents over their beds at home. Really! The majority of the Everest industry folks know this does not work. I do not want to be the reason for unhappy husbands and wives sleeping on the sofa. Red blood cells need real altitude to reproduce, not a gimmicky tent at home.
And that goes some way to explaining why many of my 8,000m peak expeditions have been with Altitude Junkies. Regular readers of this blog and those who have read Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest, will know that I value the journey more than the destination. While climbing Everest is a worthy ambition to have, the main purpose is to enjoy the whole experience. After all, nobody climbs all 282 Scottish Munros to annoy people in restaurants or at work by constantly reminding them that they’ve stood on top of 282 hills. They do it to experience many wonderful days out in Scotland.
If you can get the time off work, then I recommend a longer expedition that allows for sufficient acclimatisation, or even a pre-expedition with some trekking at high altitude. Don’t think of it as a chore to be endured, but as extra holiday to be enjoyed.
I believe there is merit in the concept of acclimatising at home before leaving for an expedition, if not to replace the acclimatisation time once you are there, then at least to augment it and give climbers a better chance of success. More objective research still needs to be carried out though, so that we can have a more balanced discussion.
At the moment there is way too much marketing hype by the two operators promoting the idea. This produces a backlash from other operators who might be open to it, and any balanced discussion gets blown to the Tibetan wind.
All of which brings us back to the title of this post. Flashing on Everest: is it safe or sensible? Absolutely not. That’s one part of your anatomy where you don’t want to get frostbite.