Fixing The World’s Highest Mountain | How Do You Solve A Problem Like Everest?
What do those who live their lives around Everest feel is the best way to manage a sustainable future on the mountain? We spoke with some Everest experts to get their view on what can be done
On the 27th of May, American Lawyer Chris Kulish suffered a cardiac arrest whilst descending from the summit of Everest. Chris became the 11th and final fatality over the two month 2019 climbing season, a season that many within the Everest community will hope to forget. A combination of factors had been quietly brewing, behind all the promises of glory for the climbers who paid top dollar to be taken to the top of the world. In the end, all of these ingredients created the perfect storm – leading to one of the most deadly seasons on the mountain.
Everyone’s seen the photo taken by Nirmal Purja (see above). Hundreds of people queuing to reach the summit of the world’s highest peak – Everest – like it’s some sort of ride at Disneyland. The queue is happening at over 8,000 metres, where there’s a high chance of frostbite, acute mountain sickness, and prolonged exposure which can lead to death.
It seems like everyone in the outdoors industry have had their say on said photo. Record-breaking mountain runner Kilian Jornet, for example, berated the queue-forming climbers on his Instagram: “I believe in climbing by fear [fair] means and that we should elevate ourselves to the mountain difficulties and not downgrade the mountain to our capacities.”
“These factors created the perfect storm up on Everest – leading to one of the most deadly seasons on the mountain”
The problem on Everest can in some way be brought back all the way to 1985 when Dick Bass looked to become the first to climb the Seven Summits – the highest mountain on each of the world’s seven continents. In paying professional climber and previous Everest summiteer David Breashears to join him on Everest, Bass was able to bring the mountain down to an achievable level, even with his limited high altitude climbing experience.
Bass’ use of western guide support on the mountain arguably started the shift from Everest being an explorative peak to one that can be bought for the right sum, encouraging climbers with limited experience to write a cheque and have a go at the world’s highest mountain. And since 1985, numbers on Everest have been rapidly rising year-on-year to the point where, in 2019, where we saw a record 885 people climbing Everest in May.
We all know the classic supply and demand model – when supply of a service goes up, the price of that service goes down. And when there’s money to be made, there’s competition from companies to become the cheapest in an attempt to draw the most punters to their services – something that’s clearly happening on Everest right now.
As we’ve seen the rise in people flocking to Everestfor the chance to write ‘Everest Summiteer’ on their business cards, we’ve seen an increase in budget companies, who will happily cut corners in an effort to become the cheapest company available – cheaper expeditions generally equals cheaper guides, cheaper Sherpas and less pre-expedition preparation.
“So Everest is now being sold to the cheapest bidder with new companies offering cut-throat reductions”
Not only is the increase in these budget outfits pretty unnerving, but the increase in competition has also created a surge in services that are promising to make your Everest expedition a more luxurious affair. Just giving these companies a quick Google will lead to some pretty horrifying results.
For example, we found a ‘VVIP Everest Experience’ being offered. Visitors to the website are greeted with a message that says, “If you want to experience what it feels like to be on the highest point on the planet and have strong economic background to compensate for your old age, weak physical condition or your fear of risks, you can sign up for the VVIP Mount Everest Expedition Service.”
The cost for this service – $130,000.
Although my only experience at an altitude close to Everest was comfortably sat cruising on an Airbus A380 flying Dubai – New Zealand, I have spent a large majority of my life climbing and skiing mountains around the world. This experience has made me realise that no amount of money is going to make Everest get down on its knees and surrender itself to any man or woman – no matter how much money they throw at it. This message has certainly been missed on the websites of many expedition companies.
“My clients have been on at least seven big mountains before they come to Everest”
So Everest is now being sold to the cheapest bidder with new companies offering cut-throat reductions, compared to many of the original western guiding companies. This discount Everest experience has led to a new group of climbers who are now able to head to Everest on a relatively shoestring budget. This lack of budget also means that they’ll not have much money left to have a go at another 8,000m peak prior to their trip, which of course would’ve made for an ideal training ground for the big one.
Owner of AlpenGlow Expeditions and Eddie Bauer athlete, Adrian Ballinger spent some time chatting to me about the importance of previous climbing experience when approaching Everest: “My clients have been on at least seven big mountains before they come to Everest. They’ve already failed, they’ve been stuck in storms, they’ve had equipment blown away by wind, they’ve gotten intestinal sickness from travelling in a developing country.”
I also met up with The North Face athlete, Simone Moro to chat all things Everest. Simone is a Himalayan rescue chopper pilot, four time Everest summiteer and the only person to have made the first winter ascent of four 8,000m peaks: Shishapangma (2005), Makalu (2009), Gasherbrum II (2011) and Nanga Parbat (2016).
“People have no more fear and no more respect on Everest,” he told me. “This is obvious when you see people who put their crampons on backwards before they start the climb – they’ve clearly not trained and they think it’s going to be easy”.
Renowned authority on Everest, Alan Arnette said there’s a “new demographic of climbers being lulled to the mountain by historically low prices. With operators now offering climbs at $30,000 compared to the ‘old-school’ price of $45,000 to $65,000, people who simply can’t afford to gain the much-needed mountaineering and altitude experience on lesser peaks believing it’s not needed, jump on the low-cost Everest train.”
How To Build A Sustainable Future On Everest?
So we’ve created a monetary value on the summit of Everest, with companies competing with one another with the promise of an Everest summit. Couple this with climbers who aren’t even experienced in putting crampons on the correct way round being accepted onto these trips. Add in a nasty jet stream that sat right on top of the summit, allowing only five summit days with less than 30mph winds (compared to that of 2018, where there were 11 straight days that allowed 670 summits) and we’ve got the chaotic 2019 Everest season.
So what can be done to deliver a safer, more sustainable, future on Everest? Simone, Adrian and Alan gave their thoughts as to how Everest can be managed, and just as importantly, how respect can be brought back to this great mountain.
UIAGM Guides Only
If you’re caught guiding in countries such as France and Italy without the UIAGM/IFMGA guiding qualification then it’s likely you’re going to be heading to the nearest jail. This however isn’t the case for guiding in Nepal. I could turn up in the country and offer to guide people up some of the Himalayan giants, based on my supposed experience.
As Simone told me: “I spent €25,000 and undertook four years of training and assessment in 1996 to become a UIAGM mountain guide”.
Pay peanuts, you get monkeys. UIAGM guides have gone through years of training and assessment to get their qualification and therefore cost a pretty penny. This greater level of training means they have agreat level of mountain safety knowledge – something that is clearly going to be lacking from many of the Everest guides without the UIAGM certification.
“A lot of budget companies are actually not hiring… mountain guides at all, they’re just hiring sherpas and calling them guides”
As the budget end of the market pushes in, with demand on the rise, Adrian claims that “a lot of budget companies are actually not hiring UIAGM mountain guides at all, they’re just hiring sherpas and calling them guides.”
“You have to qualify for the Boston Marathon, but not to climb the world’s highest peak.” – Alan Arnette
Prerequisite client experience is well-managed by the traditional guiding companies. However, the Nepalese government and budget companies are turning a blind eye to essential client experience checks, with the aim of making a quick buck. Simone made it clear that there needs to be a formal box-ticking process to ensure that nobody is cheating the system (and endangering others’ lives) by turning up to Everest with minimal high-altitude climbing experience:
“You should need to climb one 6000m, one 7000m and one low 8000m before climbing Everest. You are still welcoming everybody, but you are forcing them to go into a different valley and spend money there… People in the Everest valley are rich due to Everest’s popularity. Money needs to go to a parallel valley such as Makalu.”
Another relatively simple one really. There were too many climbers on the mountain this year. Sure, I wasn’t there myself but just take a look at the 200 person queue on the Hilary Step and you’ll understand the problem of overcrowding this year.
2019 was a unique one, with only a handful of weather windows being used for an estimated 900 people to reach the summit. If caps aren’t going to be put on the mountain, then guiding services need to better manage how many people they’re putting on each route.
“There was just no way as a mountain guide that I would put my clients on the north-east ridge of Everest with 100 people there”
Adrian gave me his verdict on the big issue of too many people on the mountain this season, coupled with poor leadership from numerous companies:
“The weather this year kind of shone a spotlight on some of the issues that have been growing on the mountain, meaning we had very few potential summit windows… what that showed was inexperienced teams, with inexperienced leaders and guides or no guides at all starting to have a lot of issues.
“It became very clear on the Tibetan side that there were going to be at least around 100 climbers climbing on the 23rd. There was just no way as a mountain guide that I would put my clients on the north-east ridge of Everest with 100 people there, so we ended up skipping that day.
“What that meant was my two summit days were the 22nd and the 24th. On the 22nd, we had only 18 people on the summit and that included 6 of my group and then on the 24th, we had around 25 people on the mountain and 20 of them were mine.”
‘Climbers’: Use Your Brains
It seems like an obvious one, this one. Everest is the highest mountain in the world and this means it has an environment that is very much unique to itself and the 13 other 8,000m peaks in the Himalaya. If you’ve got not got the relevant experience of climbing above 8,000m then you shouldn’t be thinking of stepping on Everest until you have gained that experience. Simple.
“You must also know that as a helicopter pilot, I had to be called many times for people that had to be evacuated from camp 2 after the climb, because they were tired…they were exhausted so much that they could die, but they have nothing wrong with them, just exhausted. You can’t be ‘tired’ on Everest.” – Simone.
“You can’t be ‘tired’ on Everest”
This is always going to be a tricky one to manage, alongside guiding company management. Alan highlighted that “Climbers themselves will not self-regulate as long as there are guides who will take anyone, regardless of their experience. The Nepal government will never turn down money. There is too much corruption and greed across this economically poor country.”
Just to give you an idea of the issue with the Nepalese government’s need for a steady stream of climbers attempting their mountain: the Nepal government earns around $5.2 million as royalty fees from climbers every season. It charges $11,000 per person for climbing the 8,000-meter peak. Nepal’s economy is largely built on Everest expeditions and therefore are not too keen to limit climbing permits, no matter the climber’s experience.
Guiding Services Should Manage Client Expectation
Everest is a mountain, not a product. Mountain guides are selling a service, not a certificate to the world’s highest mountain. Many Everest expeditions are being bought and sold on the premise that a summit climb is certain – that’s impossible to guarantee. This needs to be better managed by the guiding services, for those clients that’ll enviably slip through the self-management net and look to get themselves a spot on Everest, no matter their experience.
“We turn around 70% of our Everest inquiries because they don’t meet our standards and of course we’re encouraging those people to not just leave us, but to climb other mountains to get to Everest. The truth is that most of them go to another company that’s willing to accept the fact that they’ve only climbed Kilimanjaro or Mont Blanc.” – Adrian.
“Everest is dead, not alpinism”
It’s a real shame that Everest has come to this. If I were to go outside and ask someone on the street about Everest, they’ll most likely talk about the mess, the queues and the dead bodies. They’ll sadly not talk of the beauty of being able to stand on our largest mountain, or the levels of human endurance and perseverance required to do so.
With Nepal promising change year after year, tragedy after tragedy, it really does feel like this is the year that something has be done by the Nepalese authorities to avoid more unnecessary deaths on the mountain. Although I don’t think half of the points expressed above will be touched upon next season, if some of them are better implemented then we can hopefully one day elevate Everest back to the status it deserves.
And for the real climbers out there, you don’t need me to tell you that there are thousands of beautiful, untouched and wild peaks out there to get your fix. It doesn’t need to be exclusively about summiting the big one. As Simone highlighted in his conversation with me, “Everest is dead, not alpinism. There are thousands and thousands of mountains, and thousands and thousands of ways of climbing.”
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