In only 90 days, climbers from around the world will arrive in Kathmandu ing to summit the world’s highest mountain. However with the deaths of 19 Sherpa in 2014, the world’s attention, salve and media, will be focused hoping to record the drama that comes with every Everest season.
I reached out to the leading Everest guides around the world, including local Nepali companies and some Sherpa, to get a feel for how their preparations were going as well as what they anticipated from this spring season. The bottom line: a slightly smaller number of climbers on the South, a bit more on the North, little change from the Nepal Government, Sherpas still willing to work and more hands-on management from the Western Guides as to routes and safety.
But not every operator feels Everest is safe. Canada’s Peak Freaks, long time Everest guide service, officially canceled their 2015 Everest climb from the South citing environmental, policy and political concerns. Peak Freaks have been expressing concerns about climate change and the impact on Everest for years. They had consistently run solid climbs from the South for a long time and will be missed this year.
Many of the guides I spoke with said they have been approached to host film crews, but said the crews had no “story line” and were going to be there in case there was another tragedy. Apparently there are as many as 8 separate crews preparing to be at base camp. Such a sad use of resources when there are much more significant stories to be reported in Nepal, in my opinion.
Now for the details.
Across the board, the operators I interviewed said on and off the record that their teams were filling up and had sufficient paid members to run at or near their traditional levels. This was for both Nepal and Tibet side climbs.
However, expect to see a few small companies announce cancellations but be aware that the lack of paying members may be their real reason, not the stated concerns, my opinion only.
The global media focused on a few high profile Sherpa who said they would stop working on Everest due to the danger. While it appears to be true a few have retired, some of the ones quoted continued to work on Cho Oyu and other 8000m meter mountains after the spring Everest tragedy. There was full Sherpa support on Manaslu, Ama Dablam, and K2 this past year as well.
Of all the guides I interviewed, they said they had no problem retaining their long time Sherpa and hiring qualified Sherpa for Everest 2015. Some older Sherpas took the opportunity to retire but the younger ones are eager to continue now that wages and insurance coverage have increased.
Phil Crampton of Altitude Junkies opined:
I personally don’t think the events in the spring of 2014 will affect Everest too much in the future, at least not in the long run. All of my Sherpas who were present at base camp in 2014 (30 of them) did not want to go home then and many of them plan to return to Everest in the spring if they are offered work.
I have many loyal Sherpas who have worked for me for many years and all of my regular guys who want to work on Everest in the spring will be working.
Garrett Madison of Madison Mountaineering posted on his site:
As far as the political and labor situation on Everest is concerned, I believe it will be fine in 2015. I have spoken with many Sherpas since the accident and all of them want to return to climb and support foreign climbers on the peak, time has a way of healing us and rekindling our desires. Many climbers have lost confidence in Nepal, and will go to the North (Tibetan/Chinese) side to climb. Others who prefer to climb on the Nepalese (South) side will wait at least one year to see how things play out. There was a drop in the number of trekkers this autumn season, and the locals are worried this will continue into the next year as a worldwide perception that “Everest is closed” persists.
I believe there will be a decrease in the number of climbers in 2015, and ultimately this will affect the families of the Khumbu. Less expeditions means less Sherpas are needed. Generally, a Sherpa usually makes 10 times the average income of a Nepalese person by working 2 months on Everest. This money is used to support his family. Without foreign climbers to support on the mountain, the alternative sources of income for these Sherpa who rely on expedition work is scarce. My personal opinion is that we will return to climb in 2015 and have great success as we have had in the past.
Every Guide was consistent in acknowledging the long time danger of the hanging serac that collapsed onto the Khumbu Icefall last year. They all said they would be pro-active in working with the Icefall Doctors to move the route more to the center and away from the West Shoulder. Guy Cotter, Adventure Consultants, summed it up :
When we first started guiding on Everest we were responsible for putting the route through the icefall which generally went up the middle. However the job of putting the route through the icefall was taken away from us (late ninety’s) to be run by the SPCC as a fundraising exercise for the environmental initiatives in the Khumbu valley, with some of the money being spent on the icefall doctors and their equipment. At that stage we lost any influence on where the route would go and it wasn’t until after a tragedy in April 2006 when 3 Sherpas lost their lives that the route was moved out to the true right side the following year.
This true right side had always appeared like it would be an easier route as it wasn’t so broken up compared to going up through the centre of the icefall. Yet this route was threatened by the ice cliffs above and it was the debris from these ice cliffs constantly calving off that filled the crevasses on that side thereby making it look less threatening from serac fall (seracs are tall blocks, whereas ice cliffs are the shear front faces of small glaciers stuck to the side of the mountain above, that peel off with gravity).
However, the ice cliffs up high have always been there and were even mentioned by Hillary during the reconnaissance in 1951 as being a real threat so any inference that the tragedy last year was from a new threat is unfounded. What we are lobbying for is to find the safest route we can through the icefall, and my feeling that the way to do this is to have the icefall doctors scope the route by helicopter prior to fixing the route.
The Himalayan Database cites 15 deaths in the Icefall prior to 2014. Add in the 16 from last year and there have been 31 or 19.5% of the 159 total deaths on the Nepal side of Mt. Everest. Most deaths on the south side occur from falls while preparing the route or descending from the summit, 120 or 75%.
Todd Burleson of Alpine Ascents commented on the Icefall and the route changes anticipated for 2015:
More toward the center of the route. It is my hope that teams send in guides early so they can help scout the route. This should help greatly. This is how we use to do it and we need to get back to this. Much harder to change routes once they are established. Also have talked with the KCC requesting more training for the ice fall doctors. There is not great depth of experience there now.
Garrett Madison’s thoughts on the Icefalll as posted on his site:
Within hours of the icefall accident the climbing route was moved approximately 100 meters to the center of the icefall, thus avoiding blocks of ice that might fall down from the west shoulder. This was an easy task and should have been done days earlier. There was also a broken ladder that climbers had to use to cross a wide crevasse, and this was very cumbersome. The ladder should have been replaced so that climbers could easily pass through this area. However, this was causing congestion and a crowd of mostly Sherpa climbers were trapped in an exposed area when the ice broke.
Next season on Everest (spring 2015) I believe teams will be proactive in maintaining this portion of the climbing route, rather than relying on the SPCC. If climbers cannot easily pass through under the west shoulder I believe they will turn back rather than spend time exposed to this objective hazard. The group hired by the government of Nepal (SPCC Icefall doctors) is supposed to maintain this route. Climbers pay an additional fee on top of the climbing permit for this. In the future our team and others will work with the SPCC to make sure we agree the route is placed correctly, as well in maintaining it as necessary.
The guides were mixed on this as some felt beacons were required to reduce the exposure for searchers. However the other viewpoint presented is that using beacons put searchers at greater risk as most of avalanches on Everest are ice, not snow, thus there is little chance of survival and a high chance of continued danger. However, it appears that more operators are equipping Sherpa and members with beacons.
Russell Brice, Himalayan Experience, said:
I have been using avalanche transceivers for all Sherpas, guides and members since 2011, so why do you ask me this. I have had many very experienced operators laugh at me over the years because I do this. It will not save a person, but it will reduce the time that it takes to find an injured or dead person, so make it safer for the rescuers. On the day of the avalanche I had 19 Sherpas in the Icefall, they had already arrived at C2 when the avalanche came. I had them all turn to receive and do a search on their way down, but there were no other transceivers on the route that day.
and Guy Cotter’s perspective:
The primary first priority when responding to an accident is rescuer safety. Avalanche transceivers actually increase the risk to rescuers in an ice cliff avalanche as it puts the onus on rescuers to spend considerable time in the path of the ice cliff while they extract victims. Victims of ice cliff avalanches are generally killed immediately where there is often a survival period for snow avalanche burials who are quickly recovered.
Unlike snow avalanches, recovering victims from an ice cliff avalanche becomes a mining operation as the ice freezes into a solid mass and the victim is usually swept deep into a crevasse. It would take many people many days to chip the ice away to recover a victim only 2 meters below the surface. As it was, one victim in the 2014 event was half buried and it still took one and a half days for rescuers to extract the body. Had the three victims who were not recovered wearing transceivers, there would have undoubtedly been an ongoing effort to recover their bodies.
The ice cliff that had caused the initial tragedy continued to calve off and there would likely have been fatalities to the rescuers. This is an unacceptable hazard to the rescuers because, unlike a snow avalanche where the hazard has actually gone after the slope has slid, ice cliffs often keep on calving after the initial event putting anyone in the path at risk. The same often applies to seracs in the icefall as a falling serac often destabilises the area leading to further serac movement as occurred in the event in 2006. We provide Sherpas with avalanche beacons and probes and shovels on post monsoon expeditions due to the risk of snow avalanches.
Reducing trips through the Icefall
One of the criticisms from the 2014 deaths was that the Sherpas were required to make too many trips through the Icefall to equip higher camps with tents, food, fuel, oxygen bottles and “luxuries”. I piled on to this argument in my 2014 Season Summary saying that if a member needs a chair at Camp 2, ” they should carry their own damn chair.” Well not everyone agrees!
As has been widely reported, operators have asked the Nepal Government for years to be allowed to use helicopters to ferry gear into the Western Cwm in order to reduce carries through the Icefall. But they have been denied year after year. However, there are new decision makers in the Government and some operators are hopeful this request will finally get approved.
As for the luxuries, not everyone agrees with me :). Again Russell Brice:
I totally disagree with you when you say that we have luxuries at C2.
- We have strong tents as we know that this camp can easily be blown down.
- We have tarps and carpet on the ground as this keeps the tent warm, so we save the climbers energy, but it is also very good protection from all the shit and rubbish that previous climbers have left behind, we owe it to our climbers for them to have the hygiene.
- We take rollup solar panels to C2, which weigh very little, but provide light (that was very much appreciated when we did the rescue on Lhotse a few years ago) but for sure helps considerably with safety when climbers are preparing and returning from climbs.
- Yes we sit at tables and chairs to keep people in a normal environment, not sitting on shit covered rocks where you get piles and the like. And I supply the same conditions for my Sherpa staff who have to work in this hostile environment.
- I use light weigh aluminium gas cylinders so Sherpas do not need to carry 30kg loads through the Icefall.
- I prepare all food at C2 in BC and have this carried up to C2 so as to use less fuel and so as there is not so much waste to come back down.
- All members and Sherpas are using toilet bags at C2 and the higher camps so we are bringing our rubbish and human waste back down, so as not to contribute to these problems.
- I take a large medical kit, Gamow bag, spare oxygen and the like to C2, which until it is required could be considered as a luxury, but it also helps save lives.
But yes I have been promoting that regular operators should be able to leave camp equipment at C2, this would save carrying gear up and then back down each season. If we could leave this there this could save us about 60% of the Sherpa loads through the Icefall. I have been promoting that we can use helicopter support to take loads to C1 at the start of the season and back down again at the end of the season. This would save us another 20% of the Sherpa loads through the icefall. Reduce the number of trips that a Sherpa has to do through the Icefall by 80% so now he only needs to travel through this area 3 – 4 times, and with light loads.
North Side is Safer?
Alpenglow’s Adrian Ballinger has been waging a very public campaign that climbing Everest from the North is safer and that he would not lead an expedition again from the south. He is charging $79,000 for his climb from Tibet this year almost twice the historic price of around $35,000. Himex offered a North side climb for 2015 but didn’t have enough takers so will only do a South (Nepal) climb in 2015. Other operators said there was a slight uptick in interest to climb from Tibet but it has not translated into business for 2015.
All of the operators I interviewed for this article strongly disagreed that the North was safer than the South. While acknowledging the higher death rates on the South, the argument goes that as a percentage of activity, the South is safer. Also, support staff make more trips through the Icefall than on the North side thus are exposed to more danger, a point of concern regardless of any other argument. In other words, with over 4,370 (3.6% deaths) summits on the south compared to 2,550 (4.1% deaths) on the north, one would expect to see more deaths as a percentage on the south but that is not the case.
According to the Himalayan Database, there have been 106 (23 “hired” or 21.7%) deaths on the North side and 159 (82 “hired” or 51.6%) on the South. The two largest events were in 2014 with 16 killed in the Khumbu Icefall and in 1922 when 7 were killed by an avalanche off the North Col. The term “hired” is used by the Database for anyone paid to support a climber, guide, porter, Sherpa, Tibetan, etc.
But all these numbers, taken selectively or out of context, can be used to prove almost any point. In my observations of the North the past 15 years, that side seems to attract more independent, low cost individuals and teams. Also, there seems to be more attempts not using supplemental oxygen. While not as true today, historically, the north was significantly less expense to climb than the south.
Adrian was one of the lead guides with Russell Brice’s Himex company for years on the south side. It was Brice who pioneered commercial expeditions from Tibet but left the North after the 2008 debacle when the Chinese closed the North for the Olympic torch expedition. One fact is certain, that if you get in trouble on the North, there is no helicopter rescue available like there is on the South – helicopters are not allowed by China on Everest.
Todd Burleson summed it up as to safety on the north side:
Everyone is entitled to their opinion. I would disagree. An accident on either side is possible.
I spent some time speaking live with Adrian this week to better understand his position. In summary, he is taking the long view of building his guiding business over the several decades. He said he is not willing to put his staff, guides, porters, Sherpas in danger year after year by asking them to climb through the Khumbu Icefall. He acknowledges the dangers on the North but feels they are dramatically lower than on the South. He goes on to speak of less crowds and more rewarding climbing as other positive factors in his view.
After the Everest 2014 effective closure, Adrian posted this on his bog:
Until Nepal gets serious about regulating the Everest climbing industry, and until teams make the decision to dramatically change how they approach the mountain and the numbers of trips they choose to make through the icefall, we will not send teams to the South Side. Mt. Everest from Tibet offers a safer route with similar difficulties, and relative political stability where the mountain has not experienced a closure or season-ending event since 2009. In the modern era of commercial guiding on Everest only a tiny percentage of Sherpa fatalities have occurred from the North Side of Everest. This is because the hazards involved are much less random, and Sherpa avoid the more predictable dangers of storms, running out of oxygen, human error with rope systems, and altitude sickness. Competent and experienced guides and members do the same. This is why climbing the North Side of Everest is the right choice for Alpenglow’s team.
He makes a bold prediction that more operators will move their operations to the North side over the next several years. He said the reason he was the only one this year was that many of the leading companies were forced to leave their kit on the Western Cwm in 2014 thus couldn’t make the move. Clearly, this is his personal opinion.
Adrian went on to say he has eight paid members and will use an all Nepali Sherpa support team with no Tibetans. He will pay them “top” wages and provide the maximum life insurance allowed by Nepal. He does provide avalanche beacons for everyone on his team along with the training on how to use it.
Finally, Adrien did throw out a comment that he felt the Sherpa community was still not unified citing issues on Ama Dablam last Fall when he noted that several deaths caused some Sherpas to walk off the job. By the way Adrien’s comment would apply regardless of which side of Everest is climbed, I would assume.
I’ll give the last word to Russell Brice, whom as I noted earlier pioneered climbing from Tibet:
Yes I see some operator promoting that the north is safer than the south, and some of these have never even been there, so how do they know. Interesting marketing, but you watch, put more numbers on North side and it will not take long before you realise that this side also has its dangers. My feel that this is just a knee jerk reaction, and remember that I spent many years working on the Tibet side.
2014 Climbing Permits – Updated January 13, 2015
As many of you recall, the Nepal Government promised 2014 Everest climbers that their permit would be good for 5 years given the abrupt end to the season last spring. But then they began to hedge their position, saying the entire team must return intact creating a lot of doubt for those climbers if they needed to a new permit or not. Several operators cited this as delaying decisions for some climbers and canceling plans for others.
Finally in an article in the Himalayan Times in November 2014, officials were reported to have agreed to honor individual permits, however with the caveat in the fine print that the final decision was up to the Cabinet thus no decision had actually been finalized.
The latest information I could obtain is that the final decision still has not been made and one scenario is to honor the individual permits but to require the 2014 climbers to pay an additional $1,000 to match the current permit of $11,000.
This uncertainty has kept many people away from Everest for this year, which is not a bad thing as it may reduce some of the crowds, but it is a poor practice, once again, on how Everest is managed by the Nepal government.
Update: The Himalayan Times reported that Deepak Chandra Amatya, Minster for Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation wanted more debate on extending the permits and allowing the 2014 climbers to transfer their permit to a different team before submitting it to the Cabinet. This is a serous delay in what should be a simple implementation of what the Ministry promised climbers in a face to face meeting at Everest Base Camp in the spring of 2014. Time will tell if this is a crude negotiating tactic or a real effort to renege on the promise.
As has been widely reported the Nepal Government has allowed life and medical insurance to be increased for support staff or High Altitude Workers (HAW). According to Dave Morton, the Juniper Fund, the insurance coverage now ranges as follows: Sirdar 15 lakh, HAW 15 lakh, Liaison Officer 12 lakh, cook 10 lakh, kitchen helper 8 lakh, porters 6 lakh, medical coverage 3 lakh, rescue coverage 10 lakh (rescue is per team). A lakh is approximately US$1,000.
As is usual for Everest, uncertainty, politics and the raw danger of climbing are in full motion. After the tragic events and confusion of 2014, I had hoped the Nepal Government would step up to manage Everest in a way deserving of the world’s highest mountain. To their credit some positive changes have been made and they are to be thanked. But there is so much more to be done.
Climbers will come to Everest to pursue their dreams, some from Tibet and other from Nepal. Let’s all hope for a safe season, applying the lessons from 2014 and demonstrating a unified community that embodies the spirit of mountaineering.
Memories are Everything
note: edited to remove errors that Ballinger previously guided on the north and Peak Freaks will not guide south in 2016.