This interview with Richard Salisbury is one of an ongoing series I do each season with Everest climbers. In addition to regular climbers, occasionally I get the chance to speak with those important figures behind the scenes, I welcome suggestions for anyone climbing in 2013 I should interview. Now here’s Richard:
Richard Salisbury was as much of an unknown name to me as Elizabeth Hawley in 1998. I was in Kathmandu on my way to climb Cho Oyu when I was told by the clerk in my hotel that I had a phone call. “Who would be calling me here?” I asked myself.
“This is Elizabeth Hawley. What is your full name, where do you live? How old are you?” She fired off in rapid succession. Pausing, I gently asked “Who are you again?” With a huff of indigence she simply said “Elizabeth Hawley”. And that was that! I answered her questions politely and hung up not knowing I had just spoken with a legend as famous as Hillary or Messner.
Miss Hawley went to Kathmandu some 50 years ago and never left. As a journalist for Reuters she reported on climbs for various news services and the American Alpine Journal, Climb, Vertical and other magazines. Not only has she earned the respect (and fear) of climbers she is also sought out as a resource on routes and “beta” for the mountains.
But there is much more to this story. The man behind the numbers is quiet, unassuming and virtually invisible. Richard Salisbury is the brains behind the Himalayan Database.
Richard is a retired computer analyst who specialized in databases while at the University of Michigan.
A climber himself, he met Ms. Hawley on one of his trips and the rest is history.
Each year, Richard takes all the first hand interviews and tirelessly updates the database. To be clear, if you are not in the Himalayan Database, then your summit claim is suspect or unknown.
Today, if you have a question about the number of summits, who was first, records, or any obscure question, the answer is within the Himalayan Database.
Used by climbers, expedition operators and news media as well as by universities and physicians for research, the database is available for purchase in CD-format. Summiter and fatality lists for recent seasons are freely available on-line at the Himalayan Database web site. A companion book, The Himalaya by the Numbers, A Statistical Analysis of Mountaineering in the Nepal Himalaya, summarizes much of information in the database and is available in printed format from bookstores.
I caught up with Richard as he returned from Nepal to discuss the upcoming season, the numbers and, of course, his relationship with the famous Liz.
Please meet Richard Salisbury:
Q: Letʼs start by getting to know you a bit better. You have trekked and climbed in the Himalayas for 25 years. Do you have a favorite area or climb?
I have especially liked the Khumbu regions due to many Sherpa friends living in Namche and the western regions where I led treks in the early 1990s into the Upper Dolpo and Mustang regions when they were first opened for trekking.
I got into climbing in the early 1980s when I took a two-week alpine course in Washington in order to get the skills to lead trekking groups in Nepal over some of the high-pass routes such as Tashi Laptsa, Sherpani Col, West Col and Amphu Laptsa.
Q: When was your last trip?
My last big mountain climb was to Annapurna IV in 1991, my last trek as a guide was to Upper Dolpo in 1993, and my last visit to Khumbu was in 2003. All of my recent trips to Nepal have been to Kathmandu to work with Liz Hawley.
Q: Can you tell us how you met Ms. Hawley?
In 1991 I was leading an Annapurna IV expedition, so Liz Hawley came to interview me as the leader. She brought her notes for Annapurna IV to show me and I had an Excel spreadsheet to show her on which I had calculated the minimal, average and maximum days from reaching BC to summit (as a planning tool for determining the optimal amount of supplies to bring). After reviewing what we both had, I suggested that she consider publishing her information as a database. She told me that she already had a Nepali working on this. But a year later she contacted me saying that the Nepali had gone to graduate school in Arkansas and was not likely to return to Nepal any time soon, and wanted to know if I was still interested in helping her produce a database. So we started our collaboration in 1992. We hired a Nepali woman half-time to start entering the data in autumn 1992. The amount of information she had from interviewing almost all of the teams that had climbed since 1963 was massive. The data entry job was finally finished in 2004 when the American Alpine Club published the Himalayan Database.
Q: How do you work together with her in Kathmandu and you in Michigan?
We have a system set up where we can both work independently on our own copies of the database. Then periodically I reconcile the changes we have both made to the database by using a program that compares our changes and merges them into a new combined/updated database. Where we have conflicting changes, the program allows me to select the proper updates for the new database. I also travel to Kathmandu twice a year in April and October so that we can further discuss conflicting, unclear or missing information. Visiting Liz during the two principle climbing seasons also gives me a chance to meet many of the team leaders.
Q: The Himalayan database, both book and CD, is a massive effort. How long did it take to write ‘The Himalaya by the Numbers’ book published in 2007 and will there be another book?
The first e-book edition of ‘The Himalaya by the Numbers’ was started in 2005 and posted in 2007 and covered expeditions through 2006. The second and expanded printed edition was published in 2011 and covers expeditions through 2009. If demand warrants, it would make sense to update the book every 5 years or so.
Q: Tabulating the results just for Everest seems daunting with all the similar Sherpa names, desire for privacy by some climbers and in recent years, the sheer volume. In addition to Ms. Hawleyʼs famous in person interviews, can you describe the overall process?
Liz and/or one of her helpers tries to meet each expedition twice, once upon arrival in Nepal to gather the team biodata and planned itinerary and again after the team returns from their climb to gather the results. Liz usually has from 1 to 3 helpers; but during the busiest times when all of the Everest, Cho Oyu and Ama Dablam commercial teams are arriving and departing this is barely enough to meet the demand. Liz was especially hard-pressed during the Autumn 2011 season because she was confined to her apartment recovering from hip surgery after a fall the previous summer and her one available helpers at the time was dealing with a family illness. We missed over 50 expeditions that season which is why the Autumn-Winter 2011 update was only posted a couple of weeks ago. We are always looking for additional helpers and will need more in the future if the Himalayan Database is to continue on after Liz departs (she is now 89 and can not go on forever).
Q: Do you think claims of false summits are common or a very rare event?
Dhaulagiri had a few false summit claims in the 80s and 90s when the word about the existing false summit was not widely circulated (often climbers would reach the false summit which had a summit pole and not realize their mistake due to bad weather conditions that did not allow them to see the real summit beyond a dip in the route). Now most climbers know about the false summit and the path they must navigate to the true summit.
Manaslu has its own particular problem with its lower fore-summit (about 8125m) and the sometimes treacherous conditions to the true summit (8163m). Often it is only the last few meters (less than 10) that are not climbable due to icy cornice or wind conditions. In the past when the topography was not well publicized many teams only went as high as it was safe to do so and then claimed success, figuring that their stopping point was good enough. Today the topography is well-known by everyone. In the database, we credit climbers with either fore- summit or true summit success (when we know the difference). We also credit true-summit success if they reach within the last few meters of the top. For many commercial climbers, either the fore-summit or true summit is acceptable, but for more elite climbers going for the 14 8000ers only attaining the true-summit is recognized by their peers.
Q: A common headline today is about how dangerous Everest has become. But donʼt the statistics show it is actually safer today than in the 1990ʼs as measured by death per summit?
Everest has indeed become safer since the 1980s, most likely due to better route knowledge, better weather fore-casting and probably most significantly the explosive growth of commercial climbing concentrated on the safer and less technical standard South and North Col routes.
The two charts below illustrate this. The second chart that calculates deaths rates by the number of members above base camp is a more accurate way rather than using summit counts since many deaths are not directly related to final summit attempts (e.g., deaths due to icefall collapses, avalanches, etc.). Using summit attempts leads to the rather high deaths rates in the 60s and 70s as shown in the first chart when the success rates were very low.
The spikes in the 1995-1999 range are due mostly to the 1996 Everest disaster–removing the 8 deaths that occurred on May 10, 1996 would greatly diminish these spikes.
Q: Another headline regarding Everest are the crowds. Do you think there is a logical limit to the number of climbers allowed each season and should there be a limit put on Everest similar to McKinley?
I think that the current situation on Everest is already reaching the maximum limit that can be supported on the mountain, so instituting political limits at this time would not help much unless the limits were set lower in order to address the congestion and pollution issues. The income generated from permit fees and other services will probably preclude lower limits.
Better and shared weather fore-casting is now funneling climbers up the mountain on the same anticipated good weather days and leads to further congestion. On May 19, 2012 there were 166 ascents on the South Col route, which means 332 crossings of the Hillary Step (up and down). The long lines of climbers waiting for their turn is now forcing some to turn back from their summit attempts. A similar situation occurs on the North Col route at the Second Step ladder.
Q: North vs South. Is there a “safer side”?
Overall member ascent and descent rates on the Everest commercial routes (1990-2012):
Ascent rate Death rate North Col 36.96 1.57 South Col 47.60 0.87
The South Col appears to be a safer and more successful route, but it also may be more expensive in terms of permit fees and other costs. Climbers often spend less time at the very high altitudes on the south side (high camp is 7950m versus 8300m on the north), but spending more time between 6400m and 7000m (ABC-North Col) on the north side may help compensate for this. The north side has had more altitude and exposure-related deaths above 8000m than on the south side.
Q: We have seen an explosion in older climbers taking on Everest. Any thoughts on their success rate and safety?
Ascent and descent rates on Everest commercial routes (1990-2012) Above BC Ascents Ascent rate Deaths Death rate 60-64yrs 152 45 29.60 5 3.28 65-69yrs 64 18 28.12 2 3.12 70-74yrs 20 6 30 0 0 75-79yrs 3 2 66.66 0 0 80-84yrs 1 0 0.00 1 100.00 Overall 7079 3005 42.44 86 1.21
The ascent and death rates are less favorable for those in their 60s. Their death rates are more than double those of younger climbers, but the statistical significance is marginal and depends greatly on the year ranges that are selected (it is significant for the 1950-2010 range, but not for the 1990-2012 range). The best lesson for older climbers from this data is to still go ahead with their plans, but pay close attention to any signals that their bodies may be sending to them.
For those in their 70s and 80s, the numbers are just too small to be meaningful (only 24 climbers went above BC). Another 80-year-old Yuichiro Miura will be attempting Everest this coming spring from the north.
Q: You have seen the progression of Everest climbers over the last 10 years. Any thoughts on the requirements to join an expedition?
It would make sense to require some big mountain experience. Many of the more reputable organizers already do this, but this might be difficult to codify into the climbing regulations since climbers come from all parts of the world with vastly different experiences and climbing environments. Requiring previous 8000m experience may be too narrow of a prerequisite since experience on other high peaks such as Denali or Aconcagua also may be acceptable.
Q: Last question. Any thoughts or regrets on climbing Everest yourself?
I was part of an environmental clean-up expedition on Everest in 1984 and was able to climb through the icefall up to Camp 1. But at that time I did not have the permit status or the technical experience for a summit attempt although I did exceptionally well with altitude. In later years I did not really have a sufficient desire to summit Everest and submit by body to the rigors of a true summit attempt.
Thank you Richard for your tireless efforts to track the wild world of Himalayan mountaineering. You can see the Himalayan Database at their site.
Memories are Everything