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.
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|
|High altitude medical kit||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|
|Meals in Kathmandu||No, except hotel breakfast||No, except hotel breakfast|
|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|
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.