There are a handful of companies around the globe that guide the world’s highest mountains. Of these Alpine Ascents International (AAI), based in Seattle Washington has a strong track record – and a price tag that matches.
Well known for guiding the 7 Summits, I have seen their teams from Antarctica to Alaska to Everest. They are one of only companies that have a guiding concession on Alaska’s McKinley and Rainier. In 2009, they were selected as the top adventure travel company for mountaineering by a National Geographic reader survey. So they must be something right! By the way, AAI has one of the best gear list online anywhere.
Recently I did a post that showed Everest prices, ranging from solo to Sherpa guided to a 1:1 Western Guide, cost as much as a car. I noted then that a few commercial companies charge $65,000 for an Everest south side climb. It generated a lot of interest and was reposted in various forms on Outside Online, Gizmozdo and Time.
With this, I reached out to Todd Burleson, founder and owner of AAI to understand their philosophy and the difference, from his perspective, in a $65K Everest climb compared to a lower price expedition.
Todd was quite engaged in discussing his approach. He felt strongly that today’s Everest was quite different from the days of his first climbs back in 1990’s and not in all good ways. He pointed out that there are too many rescues (most unreported) and a major incident was not too far away based on more inexperienced climbers without good support and guides. He went on to suggest that selecting a non-guided climb based on price was dangerous for inexperienced climbers.
His basic argument in charging $65,000 per climb with his approach improved the chances of success through more resources and saves money by not having to repeat the climb; plus was safer.
Obviously other operators would differ showing good summit success statistics, safety records and defending their value pricing. Not wanting to get in middle of this, my advice remains as always; get references from climbers of similar age and experience to yourself as you research guide services; know your skill level; and never bet your life or limb to save money – it’s just not worth it.
However, as with most companies, their performance is ultimately measured by their customers. This is what Everest 2009 summitter Lori Schneider(the only person with MS to summit) had to say about her experience:
“When I read your first statement about Everest costing the price of a car, I thought maybe you drive a really nice car. My climb with AAI in 2009 added up to around $90K, plus another 10K in gear if you needed to purchase all of it new. It included the base charge to climbing company of $65K, 2 extra (optional) oxygen tanks for the summit push above and beyond what was provided and additional sherpa to carry them -15K, $10K in flights, tips, insurance, meds, making it about $90 for me. I could buy 3 Subaru’s for that amount. I remember trying to decide on all the questions you addressed regarding cost, and came to the conclusion that you get what you pay for. I am glad I paid for a really great climbing company, because the expertise, equipment, sherpa teams, and safety records are worth their weight in gold. I will be driving my Subaru for a long time, but I will carry the memories of the climb with me forever.”
So with this background, I wanted to explore AAI’s thoughts on charging almost twice the price for a non-guided Everest climb, their guiding philosophy and their success rate. From their site they claim 213 total summits (clients, Sherpas, guides) since 1992, claiming a 69% clients success rate from 2004-2009. In 2011 they had 100% client success with 7 on the summit – and back safely.
Q: How is your 2012 Season looking thus far?
We have another great team of climbers this season. I see you have interviewed two of our members, Mark and Leanna Shuttleworth. They will be attempting both Everest and Lhotse this season. They are strong climbers and with a little luck have a good chance of accomplishing their goal.
The rest of the climbers along with guides Lakpa Rita Sherpa, Garrett Madison, Jose Luis Puralvo and Eric Murphy are eager to head to Nepal.
Q: A recent trend on the south is to use lesser peaks such as Kala Patar and Lobuche for acclimatization thus avoiding at least one trip through the Icefall. What are your thoughts on this and will AAI join this trend?
We often do climb Kala Patar. We have talked about climbing Lobuche quite a bit amongst the guides. We do not think it is a bad idea but prefer to spend more time acclimatizing in the Khumbu valley. Our goal is to get everyone to Base Camp healthy, feeling great and well acclimatized before our icefall training. Instead of climbing Lobuche we select a safe place on the Khumbu glacier close to BC and set up rappel stations and ladders over crevasses where we can simulate climbing through the icefall. This training allows us to continue acclimatizing while fine tuning our climbing skills so we can move easier and faster through the ice fall. Everest is also a big undertaking and we want our climbers to focus on this one endeavor and increase their familiarity with the mountain.
Q: I’m curious on the thinking behind spending a full night (24 to 30 hours) at the South Col (8000m) before the summit push when most teams only spend 8 to 12 hours depending on when they arrive from C3. Don’t you worry that your clients will begin to suffer from this extreme altitude before they start their summit push?
Spending a rest day on the South Col has proved to be a great benefit for our climbers. In the12 years since we implemented the rest day on the S. Col almost every climber has succeeded in reaching the top on summit day. We have never had a member become ill at the S. Col and most climbers say they sleep better at the S. Col on oxygen than they do at BC.
If you think about it you have just put in two hard days moving from Camp 2 to Camp 3 and Camp 3 to the S. Col. On the second day most climbers do not reach the S. Col until 3 or 4 PM. They are tired and don’t get settled in and resting until 5 or 6 PM. Then with out a rest day they have to wake up 4 hours later and prepare for one of the biggest summit days of their life. Our climbers sleep through the night and rest on oxygen all day. The tents are warm from the sun and everyone has the chance to rest well, eat and rehydrate before leaving that evening for the summit. The draw back is it cost more money to have food, fuel, oxygen and Sherpa staff an extra day at the S. Col but it is worth it in terms of summit success.
Q: Amongst commercial teams, AAI’s Everest climbs are expensive at $65K with smaller teams and a high guide to client ratio than some Everest South Side operators. What is the philosophy behind this approach?
Our philosophy is that smaller groups led by experienced guides and well trained Sherpa staff give you a much more enjoyable climb, higher success rate and safer climb. We believe there is great value in this.
If you look at the success rate among the companies that offer well supported guided climbs ranging around $65,000 you will see they have twice the average success rate when compared to the non guided (Sherpa supported) climbs or team leader climbs. This means you have twice the chance of having to pay $40,000 again along with all the associated costs to come back and hopefully summit.
Last year most of the well supported guided trips had 100% success or very close to it. The non guided (Sherpa supported) or team leader climbs had an average far lower, closer to 50% or less. When asking a company about their success rate it is important that they measure only paying climbers and do not include Sherpa and guides as this makes the success rates look much higher.
Our group sizes of around 10 climbers led by experienced guides are safer and more enjoyable. Some Sherpa supported teams have as many as 40 members. It is very hard to manage a team this size. Everything from Base Camp life to summit attempts are more difficult to control, especially with all the variables involved.
A good example of this was on one summit attempt where the weather window was forecast for low wind and clear but turned out to be more challenging. Several teams were at the S. Col and left for the summit. Throughout the day everyone in two of the non guided companies turned around and a third had less than 50% success. I believe this is due to lack of leadership and an organized team climbing together. We felt we were climbing safely and with the guides, Sherpa and climbers all working as a team we were able to get everyone to the summit.
In terms of enjoyment and safety, smaller groups make it much easier for guides to offer more assistance and address climber’s needs quickly on the mountain. For example an oxygen regulator could fail and someone starts getting dizzy and extremely cold. We can immediately respond by replacing the regulator and get them warm again and climbing. ( an FYI: I believe every climber should have quick access to a spare regulator on summit day). We have seen non guided climbers descending without wearing goggles on a cloudy day and all having snow blindness hours later and needing to be assisted down. There are hundreds of small things that can turn into big problems. This is where the guide’s knowledge and having them present on the mountain makes a big difference.
Q: On your website you make the case for climbing Everest with western guides and reference several times the need to assist climbers who are with “team leaders” or with just Sherpa. Do you think guide companies need to tighten up the experience requirements of climbers before accepting them on an Everest expedition?
This is a delicate question and I don’t like making statements on how other companies should run their expeditions.
Your question asks do “guide companies” need to tighten up the experience requirements of their climbers? In non guided climbs, (Sherpa supported) or team leader climbs, there is not a whole lot of guiding going on. You give them a radio and a climbing Sherpa and off they go to make their own decisions. You give them weather reports and there may or may not be someone around on summit day to give them some advice. The fact is we end up picking these people up all the time and bringing them down. Often during our rest day at the S. Col we are sending Sherpa and guides on rescues while climbers are resting. If we and a few other companies were not on the mountain I am convinced there would be a lot more deaths or at least greater injuries.
People should know that there has been some very good data collected that shows that 85 % of all deaths take place above the S. Col on summit day. This is mostly caused by exposure and exhaustion. When trouble strikes there is no team to assist and the well supported expeditions come to the rescue or they will most likely die.
The second problem is some guide services trying to selling spaces on the climb often tell potential clients they are qualified for a non guided ascent when they are not in my opinion. When there is a $25,000 difference in price it is quite easy to convince a person that they should join their trip. For example, last year a man and his 17 year old daughter were accepted to a team leader trip and they had no climbing experience except Kilimanjaro. They had no idea what they were getting into.
I do believe that there are many experienced climbers who do well on non guided climbs but they have been climbing on their own for many years and have good decision making skills. Unfortunately this is not your average non guided Everest climber. I believe that at least 80 percent of the people going non guided have the same or less experience that our climbers. Most of these non guided climbers have never been on a big mountain before unguided. They can easily find themselves in the position where they wake up at 26,000 ft on a not so perfect day having to make big decisions for the first time on how their going to climb the highest mountain on earth. This is not a good scenario
This will be our 20th year guiding Everest. Rob Hall and I were the first to successfully lead guided Everest climbs in 1992. Knock on wood, but in these 20 years we have never had to be rescued by another expedition on Everest. We do know it could happen to us any year. But we try in everyway to reduce this possibility by supporting our climbers with great guides, well trained sherpa and excellent logistics.
Q: Last year your guide, Michael Horst, summited Lhotse within 24 hours of his Everest summit, a record. I note there are several others attempting this in 2012. Is this a growing trend?
For many years we have wanted to try Lhotse directly from the S. Col after climbing Everest. Working together with another team we were able to get the fixed lines in place and both attempts last year worked well. Garrett Madison guided Tomas Halliday to the summit a week after Michael. I think you will see this increase in the future.
Q: Will AAI ever offer a North side Everest climb?
Actually 22 years ago I led an expedition on the West Ridge of Everest on the North Side. I took a few paying climbers along with Vernon Tejas, Willi Prittie, Peter Habler and Martin Zabaleta as guides. It was a great climb but without a summit. Vernon and I also worked as lead guides in the fall of 89 on the North Ridge as well. For guiding I prefer the South Side. China is still unpredictable and we have much better resources to assist climbers on the south.
Q: Some operators market their climbs as “green”. What environmental saving techniques does AAI practice on Everest?
Since the early 90’s we have funded Sherpa to remove trash from the mountain. They were paid by load as it came to BC. In around 94 we took 600 oxygen bottles down from the S. Col and flew them to KTM. Alpine Ascents repackages all our gear and food supplies shipped from the states. Our boxes used to transport gear through the Khumbu were made to be used several times to reduce waste.
Q: Your long time climbing Sirdar, Chhewang Nima, died in an avalanche on Baruntse in 2010 helping another expedition. With 19 Everest summits, he was a legend in the climbing community and deeply missed. How is his family doing today?
Chhewang Nima is deeply missed. Along with climbing Everest with us for many years he lived with me for his last five summers in Alaska training Yaks and climbing mountains. He was a great friend to many people.
His family is well. It was very hard on his wife and children. Fortunately many people donated to a fund for the family and both children have been supported by the Alpine Ascent Foundation attending school in KTM for many years.
Q: Any other thoughts for us followers this year?
I just want to wish everyone a safe and successful year on the mountain.
Thanks again Todd for your time and best wishes for another safe season.
Memories are Everything