Is it time to boycott the south side of Everest?

Most readers of this blog will be aware that there were one or two problems on Everest this year. These problems have existed for many years, but they have now reached such a degree, with no end in sight, that it’s now time for everyone involved in the Everest industry to re-think how they operate. For many of these people there is a radical but simple solution.

Most of you will have seen THAT photo taken by the Nepali climber Nirmal Purja. I’m not going to publish it here, for reasons I won’t go into, but the photo shows an impossibly long queue of climbers on the Hillary Step.

This isn't the photo of a queue of climbers on the Hillary Step, taken by Nirmal Purja. It was taken by Edita in the Khumbu Icefall, but it illustrates the same concept - too many people queueing for too long in a dangerous location (Photo: Edita Horrell).
This isn’t the photo of a queue of climbers on the Hillary Step, taken by Nirmal Purja. It was taken by Edita in the Khumbu Icefall, but it illustrates the same concept – too many people queueing for too long in a dangerous location (Photo: Edita Horrell).

The photo has been used widely to illustrate a number of the issues confronting Everest today. There are too many people, exposed too long to cold and altitude. Too many climbers do not have enough experience; there are too many cheap operators with dubious ethics, who lack the resources and experience to look after the safety of their clients.

Bodies of those who have died remain on the mountain in full view of others walking past. This year, eleven more people died and most of their bodies remain up there. A single Nepali operator, Seven Summit Treks, has lost no fewer than 7 of their clients on 8,000m peaks so far this year and their owner has been quoted as saying that their clients “know they have a 50% chance of returning safely and a 50% chance of dying or being rescued”.

Once again, there has been no shortage of articles about how to fix these issues. Two examples among many include this one by Mark Jenkins, an American climber with a history of attempts and ascents on Everest, both alpine and siege style, and this one by Russell Brice, the veteran New Zealand operator who has done as much as anyone to develop commercial mountaineering in the Himalayas.

On the face of it, their suggestions are sensible, even obvious. They include:

  • Limiting the number of permits and spreading them over both the spring and autumn seasons so that we don’t have everyone going to the summit at once.
  • Fixing the ropes on the route earlier in the season so that people can climb to the summit earlier, and fixing two ropes (one up, one down) to alleviate bottlenecks.
  • Paying Sherpas a minimum wage; ensuring they have a minimum level of technical training; ensuring they have the necessary communication skills to handle determined clients.
  • Licensing and certifying operators to ensure they all have the necessary standards, experience and safety record to run commercial trips on Everest.
  • Ensuring every climber has climbed at least one other 8,000m peak before attempting Everest. This rule should also apply to staff; a similar rule should be applied on other 8,000m peaks, i.e. that climbers must first climb another 7,000m peak.

This last one is the simplest and most effective of all the suggestions – it would be easy to verify climbing experience (both the government and the Himalayan Database keep records), it will spread the benefits of mountain tourism throughout the Himalayas, and immediately improve the experience levels of climbers on Everest.

None of these suggestions are anything new, and nor are the issues. I’ve been writing about these issues ever since I returned from Everest myself in 2012. I’ve written about cheap operators and choosing a reliable one, inexperienced climbers and how they get their false perceptions, garbage, human waste and dead bodies, At the time of writing I’ve written no fewer than 168 articles about Everest, its history and its issues. I even wrote my own list of ways to fix Everest when I returned in 2014 after yet another controversial season.

The South-East Ridge from the South Summit. The Hillary Step is the black rock section on the ridge just below the final summit snow slope (Photo: Anselm Murphy).
A more normal-looking view of the South-East Ridge of Everest from the South Summit. The Hillary Step is looking much quieter than it did in Nirmal Purja’s photo (Photo: Anselm Murphy).

I can tell you that these suggestions have been doing the rounds for many years now and, sensible as they are, the fact remains that none of them have ever been implemented, and they probably won’t be this time either.

The trouble is, they all rely on the intervention of the Nepal government, and herein lies the problem. This is also something I have written about before. Nepal suffers from a rolling conveyor belt of politicians and officials; corruption is endemic; nobody is in office long enough to understand the issues and bring about positive change. The end result is a series of silly announcements, none of which ever get implemented.

Many government officials are only interested in cashing in while they can. Everest provides them with over $4 million every year in permit fees alone. Very little of this money is ever invested in the Everest infrastructure, and it’s likely that much of it is siphoned off by corrupt officials. Perhaps the most blatant example of this corruption in action is the army of expedition liaison officers who are paid to accompany each expedition but never show up for work. A more sinister example is the helicopter rescue fraud that appears to be continuing amid government inaction or (worse) collusion.

This trend looks set to continue. The world’s leading authority on commercial mountaineering on Everest, Alan Arnette, has reported that Nepal’s government intends to respond to the bad publicity this year, not by instituting meaningful change, but by raising the permit fee from $11,000 per person to $25,000. Other rumours include raising the tax on radios, and introducing a (backdated) tax on support staff. The last two measures would actually penalise operators for safety.

Clearly for the government then, it’s not about making the mountain safer or fixing any of the environmental issues, but about cashing in.

But it’s not enough just to complain about government inaction. In his annual review of the Everest season, Alan Arnette picked out four groups of people who all need to take personal responsibility for the issues: operators, climbers, support staff, and government (I would add a fifth group: media and other armchair critics).

A government delegation at Everest Base Camp in 2014.
A government delegation at Everest Base Camp in 2014.

Each of these groups can act in different ways, but none of them can continue to keep doing things the way they are. I’m going to aim the rest of this blog post at the first two groups: operators and climbers.

The reputable operators will tell you that they are already doing what they can. They vet their clients to ensure that they have sufficient experience to climb Everest. They employ experienced Sherpas, pay them good wages, and train and mentor them over many expeditions. They provide experienced guides, competent leadership and wise decision-making on the mountain. They bring down their trash, and have sufficient staff to help down their clients when they are struggling. They can boast good safety records, no deaths and few cases of frostbite.

They will even tell you that they are prepared for the bottlenecks that we saw this year. This is perfectly true. Bottlenecks are arguably one of the less prevalent and more predictable hazards that Everest has to offer. This summit day report by UK operator Jagged Globe (a reputable company who I’ve climbed with many times myself) provides an good explanation of how they prepared for and coped with a two-hour wait to descend the Hillary Step.

The trouble is, this is no longer enough any more. For years reputable operators have faced a moral dilemma on the 8,000m peaks when they have seen other climbers in difficulty. Every year reputable operators collaborate with their competitors to bring each others clients down safely, but as the mountains have become busier, and less reputable operators have become involved, this has become increasingly difficult. Sometimes it has become necessary to turn a blind eye to others’ difficulties and focus on their own clients instead.

While reputable operators are doing the right thing, getting their clients up and down safely, and ensuring they return home richer for the experience and equipped to climb another day, the fact remains that inexperienced climbers and operators are climbing alongside them. Every year, a handful of them die and their bodies remain on the mountain.

I’ve written previously about the sensitive issue of dead bodies on Everest and the difficulty bringing them down. I have even suggested that it’s better for them to remain up there. But I also believe that all things must be done in moderation. When we know perfectly well that six to a dozen people will die every year and remain on the mountain then it’s time to start thinking differently.

It’s no longer OK for these things to continue. We can no longer turn a blind eye to the corpses and other trash littering Everest just because we are doing the right things ourselves. We can no longer turn a blind eye to other climbers in trouble. It’s no longer enough for climbers and operators to say that we’re doing it properly; it’s others, not us.

There were protests by Sherpas against the government at Everest Base Camp in 2014. Is it now time for climbers and operators to make their own protest?
There were protests by Sherpas against the government at Everest Base Camp in 2014. Is it now time for climbers and operators to make their own protest?

It’s time for operators who value their reputation to take a principled stand. It’s time for those who dream of climbing Everest to do the same.

So what’s the solution? The American operator Madison Mountaineering has taken the bold step of advertising a commercial expedition to Everest in the autumn season this year. I say bold step, because they will have to do all their own rope-fixing to the summit, and climb after the monsoon season. There will be a lot more snow through which to break trail, and it will be a lot colder. But they will have the mountain to themselves; it will be harder, but in many ways a more rewarding experience. It will be interesting to see how they get on.

But there’s another simpler and more obvious solution, and it’s one that could have a more powerful effect.

When I climbed Everest in 2012, I did so from the north side in Tibet, following in the footsteps of George Mallory. I reached the summit on 19 May 2012, alongside 233 other climbers. Until this year it held the record for the single day when the largest number of people reached the top. Over on the Nepalese side of the mountain, another famous photograph by the climber Ralf Dujmovits, showing a queue of climbers on the Lhotse Face, was getting beamed around the world in the same way that Nirmal Purja’s photo did this year.

But here’s a photo I took on the north side. It was taken from above the Second Step during my descent. As you can see, it looks very different. There are around a dozen people in this photo, but the mountain looks desolate and empty.

The North-East Ridge of Everest on the day 234 people reached the summit.
The North-East Ridge of Everest on the day 234 people reached the summit.

I did have to queue briefly a couple of times on the way up, but not for long. Everest is a huge mountain, and it can cope with the numbers if you spread them out. I ascended on the day that held the record for numbers, but over on the north side, Chongba Sherpa and I had the mountain to ourselves for much of the day.

There are other reasons to climb on the north side. Unlike the Nepalese government, who are doing almost nothing to regulate the situation, the Chinese government are taking active measures. They have restricted the number of permits issued to just 300.

Experienced climbers from the China Tibet Mountaineering Association (CTMA) take responsibility for fixing the ropes every year. Prior to my summit day in 2012, members of the CTMA at Camp 3 even tried to spread out climbers the following day by giving us all designated start times. One of the reasons Chongba and I found ourselves alone on summit day is that we were given the last available slot that day and I wasn’t the quickest.

The Chinese government even requires Chinese climbers to have climbed another 8,000m peak before they are eligible for an Everest permit (it’s not clear why this requirement isn’t imposed on climbers from other countries, but it means that many inexperienced Chinese climbers go to the south side instead). They have also been known to take active, if infrequent, steps to clear bodies from the mountain.

The China/Tibet side of the mountain is not without its own political problems, but at least the government has shown its willingness to regulate climbing on Everest. I believe that it’s time for climbers and operators who care about their reputation, and who care about the ethics of climbing Everest, to boycott the south side of Everest until the government of Nepal takes meaningful steps to regulate climbing there.

Memorials on the north side of Everest, to those who have died trying to climb it
Memorials on the north side of Everest, to those who have died trying to climb it

A boycott won’t instantly fix the problems. There will still be charlatans and incompetents operating on the south side of Everest. There will still be corrupt officials raking in the money, but respectable operators will no longer be contributing to the problem, and they will be keeping their reputations intact. There is an analogy with not leaving litter, doing your own recycling, eating organic produce, or not buying products from a company who exploits their workers. You can’t stop the bad habits of others, but every drop of water contributes to the ocean.

And perhaps it can also have a tangible effect. It might not seem like it from the avalanche of silly announcements, but there is no doubt that the government of Nepal does care about its reputation even as they behave in ways that have the opposite effect. A boycott may help to focus their minds, and it will certainly help to focus the minds of the media on the true root of the problem.

Everest is the highest mountain in the world. It will always get the lion’s share of the attention. There will always be dreamers who want to climb it; some whose ambitions are realistic, and others whose aren’t.

Climbing Everest needs to be regulated, and that requires sensible rules by sensible people, implemented for the greater good, not for personal gain. Unless the government of Nepal takes meaningful steps to fix the problems that came to a head this year, we should all – climbers and operators – go north side instead.

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11 thoughts on “Is it time to boycott the south side of Everest?

  • June 26, 2019 at 5:14 pm
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    Thank you-if only wisdom would prevail over economics. I am not a climber(I am 74) but I follow those who do climb with much interest. Everest has suffered much in the last 5 years and I can only hope that those that share the mountain respect her beauty and dominance.

  • June 26, 2019 at 5:46 pm
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    Thanks Mark for another thoughtful article. Im going to climb a few 20K peaks in Bolivia in July following a similar tip to Ecuador in January. I am finding South America to offer a simpler, more satisfying experience than in Nepal. While we have no choice on the world’s highest we do for many others.

  • June 26, 2019 at 6:31 pm
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    Thanks, Alan. Bolivia is one of the South American countries I haven’t climbed in, so I will be following your posts with interest.

    I know that in Peru it’s possible to buy a climbing permit that allows you to climb whichever peaks you want for a period of a month – unlike in Nepal where you have to complete a mountain of paperwork to climb a single peak, and woe betide if you change your mind and decide to climb a different peak. Nepal has a lot to learn from the South American countries.

  • June 26, 2019 at 7:43 pm
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    Another suggestion: in the Alps when climbing with a guide, the guide have absolute authority to turn clients around. (They say turn around and you don’t, you can go to jail.). On Everest, many tragedies are due to unqualified clients who do not listen to their sherpa guide about turning around. The principle now in place in the Alps should be applied on Everest.

  • June 26, 2019 at 9:51 pm
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    That’s one option, but my preference would be for climbers to demonstrate a minimum experience level which showed that they are experienced enough to make their own decisions. Having to follow orders from a guide would surely deter those who are experienced enough to climb unguided.

  • June 27, 2019 at 1:40 am
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    I have been up Everest and this year’s crowds were dominated by the very short weather window and yes, some idiots. The idiots are there every year – Everest attracts them because it is Everest. There were a record number of permits issued on the south side (by about 50 and this doesnt reflect those who actually attempted the summit). The North side cap is well above the number of permits they have ever issued. There is more historic rubbish and bodies taken off each year (to be fair, the weather this year probably added more to the total).

    This year did see a number of new sherpa run companies (which was applauded) but they are still settling down their processes and sadly, can only compete on price at the moment. there is a learning curve for both them and their clients. Minimum experience criteria will not address this and Everest is arguably (and statistically) one of the safest 8000m peaks. Fake peaks are coming more often and many “qualifying” peaks are self / un-tracked (eg there is no official register for Denali, Aconcagua and many others).

    Come on Mark – I expect these arguments from someone who has never set foot on a mountain and writes for a newspaper. You know better and can provide a rare perspective on why people climb despite knowing these things, how good preparation can overcome man made and natural difficulties and the life changing / joy that comes from climbing. 2019 (and 2012) were unusual years. They happen.

    A mate of mine was in “that” photo and pointed out that he had plenty of oxygen, food and layers knowing that the weather window would create a jam. He was stuck in traffic for ~2 hours and took over 300 photos of the summit ridge. In his words “if you are going to be stuck in traffic, I cant think of a better place on earth to be stuck”. He was experienced, well prepared and had the best day of his life.

  • June 27, 2019 at 6:14 am
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    Let me answer these points one by one.

    From what I understand, this year’s weather window was neither especially short nor especially long. It was shorter than last year’s, but longer than when I climbed in 2012. Nobody has any control over the weather, but this post contains numerous ideas for spreading out the numbers so that not everyone climbs at the same time.

    “Idiots are there every year” is not an argument. The idiots should not be there and it’s high time permits were dependent on climbing experience. Similarly companies who are still “settling down their processes” need to do this elsewhere, not on Everest. Only those with a proven track record of running commercial expeditions safely on the 8,000m peaks and elsewhere in the Himalayas should be licensed to operate on Everest. Those whose clients consistently die should have their licenses withdrawn.

    As for Everest being statistically one of the safer 8,000m peaks, that isn’t the argument here. We’re not comparing peaks, but clients and operators. There are undoubtedly operators who are comparatively less safe and others who are downright dangerous. These operators need to be regulated. Same goes for climbers.

    Certainly there were experienced operators and climbers on Everest this year who were prepared for the queues they were likely to experience on summit day. I have given one example above. You have given another. But that misses the point of this post. Without regulation the queues will continue to get longer, and the death count of those who are inexperienced and unprepared will grow every year. It’s time this trend was halted.

    As for your friend’s comment, yes, Everest is an amazing place. I am happy that he was well prepared and experienced, and hearty congratulations if he reached the top. But I think he was being a little flippant if this is what he told you. I can think of many better places to be stuck. There are also some amazing ice formations inside a crevasse, but I don’t recommend spending two hours down one. I would certainly remind anyone up there to appreciate their surroundings, but my main priority on my Everest summit day was to get down as quickly and safely as possible. It’s not a place to hang around.

    You are right, however, that I know better and can provide a rare perspective on why people climb despite knowing these things, how good preparation can overcome manmade and natural difficulties and the life-changing joy that comes from climbing.

    I recommend all Everest aspirants, armchair fans and critics read Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest. You have provided a neat summary of its contents!

  • June 27, 2019 at 6:31 am
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    Great post. You do have one typo, though—either that, or you spent seven years in Tibet?

    “When I climbed Everest in 2012 … I reached the summit on 19 May 2019”

  • June 27, 2019 at 7:57 pm
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    Thank you. Corrected. I was slow, but not that slow.

  • July 3, 2019 at 1:38 pm
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    Maybe the answer is to talk the Nepali government into leasing the entire mountain to a group of Western guiding associations and expedition operators. The selling point would be that a well-run operation would generate far more tourist revenue for the country than selling permits ever could.

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