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Oct 162012
 

An opinion piece …

Alan Climbing the Khumbu Icefall in 2002

Alan Climbing the Khumbu Icefall in 2002

Everest is not for the inexperienced, the novice or someone looking for a walk-up. There, I stated the obvious, or did I?

OK, so much for the drama! But as the 2013 season gets closer, I have noticed a few disturbing trends. You would think that after 10 deaths on Everest this spring, the operators would be hypersensitive to qualifying clients, setting expectations and focusing on improving safety.

Most of the deaths had nothing to do with crowds but everything to do with personal responsibility and inexperienced guides.

Setting High Expectations

I recently read Alpenglow‘s promotion for their Spring 2013 Everest expedition.  I was quite surprised as their owner, Adrian Ballinger, has been a prominent Everest and Himalayan guide for years so I assume his marketing has just gotten carried away. However, his promotion gives me pause.

He prefaced his promotion for the $85,000 expedition with “our key differences from the other companies working in Nepal, including teams you have perhaps climbed with in the past” then listed many differences with no mention of difficulty, dangers or risks:

  • “Pre-acclimatization” by using oxygen tents in the comfort of your home before you arrive
  • “remove the discomfort and potential trip-ending health issues of a slow traditional acclimatization through the Khumbu Valley” with helicopter services almost all the way in and out of base camp
  • avoid the backbreaking work of carrying a pack, we carry everything for you meaning “you never climb with more than a daypack”
  • avoid the “substandard” local food with imported food
  • avoid missing surfing the internet, “unlimited wifi internet use in BC”
  • In the end “All of this together allows you to take less time away from work or home (only 50 days to climb Mt. Everest or Lhotse), and climb more safely and comfortably.”

Good Lord, is this Everest or Rainier? Actually with these features, Rainier could be harder. Being an experienced operator, I’m sure Alpineglow will vet the clients but his promotion sets all the wrong expectations.

I have been a vocal supporter, advocate and defender of Everest climbers. I recently took the “risk” of writing an article for the October 2012 edition of Rock and Ice, notorious for rock hounds, not alpine lovers, called “In Defense of Everest” (soon to be reposted here). But now, even I have seen my limit with this promotion. Sadly, he will probably get a few clients willing to pay the ridiculous price thinking they can buy their way to the top. This is what is wrong with Everest.

Everest is not a walk-up. There are no shortcuts. You have to put the work in before you arrive. It is hard and people die. Base Camp is not a 5 star hotel. If you come expecting a walk-up, most likely you will take advantage of that helicopter ride out, and not in a good way.

Setting a Low Price

Some of those who die on Everest are often seduced by low price. One case study is David Sharp who paid $6200 for part of a shared north side permit and minimal base camp services. He died alone high on the mountain in 2006.

Another more recent case in point is the 2012 death of Canadian Shriya Shah-Klorfine who climbed with Utmost Adventure Trekking. This is a tragic event and again, I want to express my condolences to her family. However it does serve as a learning aid.

CBCNews has throughly investigated her death, and produced a documentary and this article revealing disturbing actions by both the guide and the climber.

Utmost promotes on their site a 2013 price of $39,270. Not a low price but lacking critical elements others offer at the same price including:

  • High Tents above Base Camp.
  • High altitude food and fuel above Base Camp.
  • Oxygen & Mask and regulator (will be provided as per request).
  • Garbage deposit.

These can easily add many thousands to the overall price but also leave the client wanting in serious areas such as adequate oxygen. This is what is wrong with Everest.

As a reference, you can sign on with International Mountain Guides (IMG) for $40,000 which includes generous oxygen to get you to and from the summit, all base camp and high camps food, tents and gear plus a Sherpa who probably has summited at least five times if not, most likely, more than ten.

Hearing what you want to hear

But more disturbing is once again the lack of transparency on dangers. According to the CBC article, the owner of Utmost Adventure Trekking, Ganesh Thakuri, assigned two inexperienced guides for the novice climber, Shriya Shah-Klorfine. This after their most senior guide refused to take her higher than base camp. She died on the descent from the summit after she ran out of oxygen a direct result of climbing too slow and not being turned back by her guides. She even skipped the almost mandatory Camp 3 rotation for standard acclimatization.

After climbing for 19 hours (normal is no more than 12 max) from the South Col to near the summit, Thakuri is quoted as telling her:

“Even if we say you cannot go, you have to go down, strongly. She says like no, I spent money and my goal is to reach to summit. And anyhow I will go. So in this case, we cannot do anything. She refused to turn around, and Thakuri gave her one last bottle of oxygen and let her keep climbing.”

Summit fever is real. I personally know how hard this decision can be given that I have turned myself back three times only 1,800 feet from the summit of Everest. Each time was for different reasons but one overrode all else, the desire to come home safely with or without a summit.

Even with this disaster, Utmost continues to undersell Everest on their website with this information (my emphasis):

Safety is paramount during the course of an expedition, and Utmost Adventure prides itself on its unrivalled safety records. Reaching the summit is one thing, but returning safely is much more important. The Utmost adventure infrastructure is designed to help achieve a good safety record, but this does not mean that accidents cannot occur, Members should be mindful of this. It is important that Members consult, take advice, and act on the advice given by Guides, Sherpas and Staff. Comfort at Base Camp, high sanitation standards, good quality food, reliable radio communications, weather forecasting and Staff training are all obscure but relevant to Members’ safety.

This is what is wrong with Everest.

What Can be Done?

A few ideas:

  • Nepal climbing officials set strict standards for who can guide on Everest (today anyone can can call themselves a guide on Everest)
  • Expedition operators set extremely high standards before accepting a client; for example, must have climbed an 8000m peak or gone through a formal and difficult “Everest Preparation Climb” on Denali for example (some operators take anyone without regard to experience)
  • Climbers, be honest with yourself and save your life, or perhaps someone else’s, gain the experience before going. (self delusion is the greatest killer)

 Climb On (and safely)

Alan

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  24 Responses to “What is Wrong with Everest”

  1. I wanted to post this discussion between Adrian and myself regarding this post where he and his company is mentioned. Adrian agreed to have this posted as follows:

    Hi Adrian,

    Thanks for the email.

    My source on my article was 100% from your post (which I linked to) on your site which and was reposted on ExWeb. While no one influenced my article, I did have contacts (many former Himex clients) who said they received an email from you that was basically the same as was posted on your site at http://www.alpenglowexpeditions.com/blog/everest-and-lhotse-expeditions-2013

    I am glad to post your (this) email to me in it’s entirety on my blog as a response to my article or if you like, you can send me another.

    I’m glad to hear of your dedication to development in the Himalaya and your desire to have clients climb Everest fully prepared.

    Best of luck on Ama Dablam. I summited it in 2000 and it remains my favorite climb.

    Alan

    On Oct 23, 2012, at Tuesday, Oct 23,11:11 PM, Adrian Ballinger wrote:

    Hi Alan, how are you? I hope your fall is going well and you are looking forward to winter. I am in the Khumbu, enjoying nice weather and a strong group on Ama Dablam.

    I wanted to quickly get in touch, and hopefully clarify a few points about Alpenglow’s plans. I read both of your recent blogs, and was disappointed to read how negative your impression of our 8000-meter peak offerings is, and how much incorrect information you have published. It seems your sources were quite biased? Of course you are welcome to your opinions, and I realize not everyone will agree with our accelerated schedules, and use of things like helicopters and wifi. But these “creature comforts” are only a small part of what we are offering, and miss out on the more important focus we have – small teams of competent and experienced climbers supported by the highest level of logistics possible in Nepal and led by a phenomenal team of AMGA/IFMGA certified guides and the most experienced sherpa. We believe that with strong leadership and excellent logistics, competent experienced climbers can climb Everest and other 8000-meter peaks more safely and successfully than is currently the standard.

    From reading your posts, I am not sure if you were sent our complete descriptions, or only a select portion, and so hope to set the record straight. I hope you will consider publishing a bit more about our climbs, and at least correct the overall impression that Alpenglow is somehow pushing the level lower on 8000-meter peaks. I believe strongly that the large companies involved in guiding Everest are pushing down the standards of safety and reasonableness on 8000-meter peaks, and I hope our teams can be an example of how 8000-meter peaks can and should be guided.

    Actually, I believe you and I agree on many of the problems currently plaguing big-mountain guiding, and perhaps also some of the ways to address these problems. The guide and support team that left HimEx, which includes HimEx’s lead climbing sherpa (climbing sirdar) Dorji Sonam, head cook Tashi Ram Basnet, lead guide (me), expedition doctor, and numerous other sherpa and certified guides, did not leave because of the decision to cancel our expeditions this spring. We left as part of a natural process to want to continue innovating and increasing safety standards in the Himalaya. We also left because all of us are committed to working with small teams that are more able to deal with the current challenges of big-mountain guiding – overcrowding, insufficient experience amongst climbers on other teams, and insufficient support by other teams to handle the risks involved.

    I am not sure if you took a look at our website (www.alpenglowexpeditions.com), but our whole reason for being is our goal to “develop competent mountaineers”. We have an extensive South American program (Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina) all focused on building climbers’ technical skills, decision-making, and experience at altitude before moving on to the Himalaya. We are an educationally-focused company (education is one of our 4 core values) that develops partnerships with our clients, and we never accept clients for a climb until they are truly prepared to be an active and competent part of our team and decision-making. Perhaps the best example of this is the trip I am on now, to Ama Dablam in Nepal. Ama Dablam is a technical and challenging 6,000-meter peak, and Alpenglow has developed what is perhaps the most successful commercial guiding program of Ama Dablam over the past decade. By bringing competent clients that have worked hard to build the skills and experience necessary, and then supplying the best logistics possible along with certified guides and experienced sherpa, we have a very high success rate with zero accidents since beginning in 2004.

    A few specific examples of what makes Alpenglow’s expeditions unique:

    1. Alpenglow holds to the highest standard in vetting our prospective clients. Our clients are required to have extensive climbing experience before joining our Makalu or Cho Oyu teams (multiple 6000-7000 meter glaciated peaks), and required to have been on another 8000 meter peak before attempting Everest with Alpenglow as part of our group climbs (members climbing with a private guide may in some cases be excepted). Our feeling is that all team-members must be competent so that you as a climber not only feel comfortable with the extensive experience of our guides and sherpa, but also with your fellow teammates.

    2. Our team size on 8000 meter peaks will be small (fewer than 12 total climbers on Everest and Lhotse combined) and our guide and sherpa ratios are the best in the industry (3:1 member to certified guide, 1:1 member to sherpa). We know from experience that a small team of competent climbers combined with excellent staff will lead to a significant increase in safety and success.

    3. All Alpenglow guides must be AMGA/IFMGA qualified or aspirants on their way to full certification. This is the highest guiding standard in the world, and we are the only guide service on Everest requiring this certification.

    4. Our sherpa team is among the most experienced in the Himalaya, with numerous summits of 8000 meter peaks including Everest.

    5. Our team is intimately familiar with the other operators on the mountain, and our staff works well with other teams, guides, and sherpa. This adds to the safety of our team, and everyone else on the mountain.

    6. Maximum oxygen for all members. While many companies offer increased oxygen flow on summit day for thousands of dollars in supplemental fees, we include 4L flow for all climbers. We feel that for recreational climbers this significantly increases their safety and by association the safety of the entire team and staff. 4L flow throughout the climb reduces the risk of frostbite, HACE and HAPE, and adds to the climber’s enjoyment and success.

    7. The most experienced 8000-meter peak doctor in the industry. Having a dedicated doctor on our team significantly adds to our safety while on the mountain, and to clients’ comfort and health in base camp.

    8. Additional niceties your article mentioned, for example imported food, wifi, and the option of pre-acclimatization combined with helicopter access, are in no way our focus. We do believe these services add to the comfort, and therefore strength, of our members, and we are excited to share them with our clients. But we are confident it will be our small teams, experienced and certified staff, and strict experience requirements of our members, that will attract prospective Everest climbers to our teams.

    Alan, I hope this list begins to demonstrate how serious we are abut increasing safety on Everest and other 8000 meter peaks. It is my opinion that some companies are taking unnecessary risks on the big peaks of the Himalaya, especially in terms of their team size, unqualified guides, and the low experience levels of their clients. I hope Alpenglow can offer an alternative to this profit-driven outlook, and bring 8000-meter guiding back to a place of pride in the guiding industry.

    And while I understand our pricing might on the surface seem high, it is the only way we can operate small teams with low guide:client ratios. Bringing AMGA/IFMGA qualified western guides is expensive, but every year we see the benefits they bring to safety and success. Our pricing also includes costs that many operators try to add on after booking their clients. If you check out our competitors’ pricing, you will see they add thousands or tens of thousands of dollars for options like: “max-oxygen”, “personal sherpa”, helicopters from base camp, internet and satellite phone use, and “single-supplemenst”. From talking to many clients who climb with major operators, we know they often end up with a total cost significantly higher than Alpenglow’s. We believe that transparency in our pricing is much more fair. Alpenglow has no “add-on” costs on its 8000-meter peak climbs.

    Finally, while I cannot speak to who Russell Brice is referring to in his recent newsletter, I can assure you neither I nor any associate of mine would ever steal an email list or anything else from a friend and company I respect and plan on working alongside on future trips in the Himalaya. Alpenglow markets only to climbers we have worked with in the past, or those who “opt-in” to our mailing lists. I hope and trust any rumors to the contrary will be regarded as such by a respected site like yours.

    If you have any questions about our plans or goals, I look forward to hearing from you! And I hope to see you again in the mountains sometime soon.

    Regards,

    Adrian Ballinger
    AMGA/IFMGA Certified Guide
    Alpenglow Expeditions
    970.309.8698
    http://www.alpenglowexpeditions.com

  2. Alan, like always, great perspective. It would be nice if the tour operators/guides could be more careful in their selection of potential clients, but alas, money talks as in everything, and Everest is a checkmark on a list for some people who probably should know better. Thanks.

  3. What a sensible article. I was a far from experienced climber when I wrote to Russell Brice and asked how I could get on his team. “Go do a seminar on Rainier – go climb Denali, climb an 8000m on oxygen then call me”! I did and climbed Manaslu and Everest with HIMEX. Ironically, Adrian was one of my guides on both and I enjoyed his enthusiasm and attitude. Like Eugene and Lance above, I appreciated Russell Brice’s incredibly careful attitude. These are dangerous places (well isn’t that obvious!) – and while the comforts of home might sound attractive, in the end it’s not about knowing where to go, it’s a matter of knowing how to get there (and when to pull out). Russell treats his sherpa team like they were his family – that resonates across the camp. If my son ever decides to go climb Everest, I sure hope Russell is still around because I want that level of discipline and knowledge to be there. Anyone who thinks there is an easy way to the top, needs to reassess their goals. Finally, I would not count on Nepali officials doing anything – it’s a no starter – this means that who you climb with and how they manage their operations is surely the most important decision you make if you go to one of these dangerous places. I guess it depends on how much you value your life!

  4. Alan,

    I’ve appreciated your thoughts over some of this policy. As an advisor to the NPS with my Dissertation and AAC studies on Mount Rainier and Mount McKinley for Permit System Management, I couldn’t agree more. One of the reasons I was there in 2012 was to also study the environmental consequences through air and water quality and link them to the permit system management. It is safe to say that this type of tragedy will happen again unless some of the things you’ve listed as well as a few more policy guidelines are adopted into law by the Nepal Mountaineering Association. Unfortunately this will probably not happen because of the almighty dollar. But like you say, and all mountaineers agree, preparation, respect, and realistic expectations will keep the deaths to a minimum as we move forward. I don’t think there is a cure for summit fever unfortunately. I was also in your shoes, as in 2012 I had to turn around just short of the summit. I fortunately was given a second summit attempt due to weather and health and made the most of it. Let’s hope 2013 is a better year. Climb On, and lets climb soon my friend!
    Jon

    • Hey Jon –

      I’m wondering if you’ve looking into any non-government management issues? I’m just an armchair fan of this stuff, no experience mountaineering myself, but I am really interested in the management angle.

      I’ve often thought reading about the hang-ringing about this, why don’t climbers and the responsible companies create an association and implement these rules themselves? Those who don’t follow protocols can be shunned, their guests warned, shared facilities denied etc. Then these articles can encourage climbers to look for a Everest Climbing Assoc. approved program, which would mean they only except people with a prior climb, conditioning test met, a legal and honor commitment to turn back when ordered and maybe even a psych eval. Maybe this is in the works, but haven’t heard much on it?

  5. Well said, Alan. You’re right the Alpenglow promo appears to be targeting absolutely the wrong kind of person.

    You’d think it would be in the interests of expedition operators to nurture a love of mountains and climbing rather treat an expedition like it’s an ordeal to be endured for as short a time as possible, but not everyone is able to see the big picture.

  6. Well written Alan, let’s hope it stirs up care both in the client and expedition leaders camps. I love the Everest Season and especially if it is covered by your wonderful blogs. I feel by following your blogs together with other experienced climbers accounts I know more about the challenges Everest throws at you than the guys intending to summit this year. How we go about putting your wise words out there in the public eye I don’t know but I am sure it would save lives.I felt quite exhausted last year after following your amazing accounts from the comfort of my home, how the novice who is actually intending to climb this forthcoming season without careful preparation and good leadership is most worrying.Saving a few dollars compared to saving your life there is no competion. Let’s hope your wise words are picked up and acted upon. Great read Allan, cheers Kate.

  7. Good post Alan.

    However, I have to disagree on adding rules and more red tape for climbing. There is plenty of information online (blog, website etc) regarding climbing Everest. Some are good, some, not too much. However, it is pretty much common knowledge that climbing a 8000 meter peak is dangerous. So, it is up to the client/climber to do his/her homework and find the best way for him/her to reach safely their goal. Only reading the compagny website is not good enough. It is like trying to find a plumber for your house. You should get read people feedback, call previous customers… this kind of things.

    Having some rules about who can be called a guide may just open the door for a buraucratic nightmare where corruption and bribes could find their way. If you remember the difficult situation during the Olympic 2008 at Everest, I am not sure if I want those same people decide who is qualified to be a guide on the North side… and not too sure about the transparency and integrity of the goverment of Nepal either.

    This kinda remind me of climbing Rainier for the first time. There was that form where they ask you the list of your gear (almost how many underwear…) and to describe your previous climbs. At that time, I was comming back from Chamonix, where at the Aiguille du Midi, there is only an opening in the rock and a sign saying: “Exit for climber”. It was open for eveybody, no rules, no paper, no mandatory educative video…

    My point is that you should be responsible to educate yourself before climbing. And even putting up more rules, there will be situation where people will still put themself in difficult situations… And the majority of the climbers will have to suffer through more red tape and regulation.

    Thanks for all the work you put into your blog, I really enjoy reading your articles. Good luck with the Junkies in Tibet!

  8. I am novice myself, so believe a base camp, rather than summit, trip probably in 2014 might be on the cards. How much should this put me back with a robust company? Tim, could you aid perhaps?

  9. Hi Alan,

    Good, solid thoughts, and well-written as always. Thanks for taking a stance and expressing important viewpoints that need to be heard.

    All the best,

    Jake

  10. Alan,

    As always, so very well said and stated. Its absolutely unbelievable to me what Alpenglow is offering on the table in their “elite” package…my lord. “Elite” is more like the “Bottom of the Bucket” in my opinion. What’s even more bothersome and unbelievable is that there are people out there who will take Alpenglow up on these services and think its the right thing to do. People never cease to amaze me more times for the worse than not. I hope you are well and like others have stated, I really hope Alpenglow and other operators will take some of your advice to heart.

    Brandon

  11. Everest was climbed prior to airline service to Lukla …. the mountaineers just walked in from the trail head in the Kathmandu Valley (old spelling). And the supplies went by trail.

  12. A very interesting article Alan.

  13. Good article Alan. You can’t cut corners when your life is on the line.

  14. As Lance does I receive this Alpenglow email.
    I was really sad. Adrien is a young guide, very strong but I think the way he choose is wrong, he surely wants to bring a new level. I hope It won’t be a disaster.
    Dorje, his sirdar is a strong and wise sherpa, it can help…

    I have more reasons than Lance to come back to Chomolungma because I decided to turn back in 2009. I never go at that standards…

    Eugene

  15. Good post as usual Alan.

    Really not keen on the way Alpenglow is marketed either

    Helicopters to near base camp? Really not sure about this for several reasons.

    I did the base camp trek last year with a local company I think by cutting
    this out people are missing out on a key part of the adventure.

    The local people are really friendly and make a big effort to ensure you are looked after well.It is of course a key part of the local economy in a very poor area of the world.

    Substandard food? well yes you do have to be cautious but if you are careful and use a good company they will be able to advise you what to eat and what not to eat,(as a genral rule we were advised not to eat the meat) but some of the food was actually very good.

    Hmm pre-aclimatization in tents at home. Not something I have heard much of before but it does not sound as natural as the tried and tested trek in I mean a good company would be monitoring your performance during the walk in,how is that going to happen in your own home?Not something I would feel comfortable with.

    Having researched the David Sharp case in detail the bottom line is tragic though it was he took a massive risk doing Everest the way he did and if the slightest thing went wrong as often happens on everest he was likely to be in serious trouble

    You really do have to ask if climbers not paying for the correct back up that is required for a climb should be allowed on the mountain, effectivly they are relying on those who have paid for the right back up to rescue them if things go wrong.

    Think there really do need to be some common sence rules put in place.

    Keep up the good work.

    Regards
    Tim

  16. Wise words, Alan. I imagine we will see some tragic results from Alpenglow’s greedy and careless disregard for safety.

  17. An interesting and courageous article, Alan.

  18. Thanks Alan. Very insightful. I follow your blog regularly and really appreciate the information.

  19. Alan, a very well written and stated piece. I have gotten those “promotion materials” via email because I climbed with Russell Brice (HIMEX), who made a wise decision last year to call off both his Everest and Lhotse expeditions part-way through as you know, due to the elevated dangers of rock fall high up and too many climbers. I applauded him for the decision as safety should be the number one concern, not acclimatizing in some hyperbaric chamber. Wtf? (To put it politely). While I may not have been an overly seasoned mountaineer I did take the steps to learn how to climb, climbed higher each time, and went with a company committed to success but not at the shortcoming of safety. Bravo Alan.

  20. Wow that is crazy marketing! Thanks for sharing Alan and I totally agree with your synopsis. Everest is no joke even for the strongest (physically / mentally) climbers. Alpenglow makes it seem like a walk in the park, which will put their clients and others at risk once the reality sets in.

  21. Extremely well said Alan… as someone who has spent a considerable amount of time in the alpine of the Canadian Rockies, it shocks me still to see how casual some people take the idea of climbing in the mountains, let alone on an 8000m peak like Everest. Without the ability to make decisions and take actions for myself based on experience, I wouldn’t even consider attempting Everest… let’s hope the industry, and future clients, take pause to consider your good points.