The film, Everest, complete with movie stars, green screen special effects and stunning footage taken on Everest, will open in theaters in September. On a much smaller scale, Sherpa, has already made it’s debut at film festivals and will be shown in 200 countries next year on the Discovery Channel. Finally, while not about Everest, Meru, is getting accolades for it’s authenticity and being compared to Touching the Void.
With all this activity, the public relations machines are in full motion pumping out story after story on Everest – and as usual with any story about Everest there is truth, fiction and exaggeration. While films like Everest, are just movies not documentaries, the storyline will most likely perpetuate the most common myths thus leaving casual viewers with a less than accurate impression of climbing, climbers and Everest.
In the spirit of attempting to keep the record straight on Everest, based on my five climbs (2002, 2003, 2008, 2011, 2015) and one summit in 2011 plus 13 years of covering the climbing action, this post will explore the top 10 storylines of Everest.
1. Everest is a Garbage Dump – False
There is trash on Everest but in my experience, I have not witnessed what I would term a “garbage dump”. A shredded tent here, an old rope there and you will certainly see a food wrapper flying by from time to time.
It’s true that as the Khumbu Icefall melts, there is trash from pre-2000 expeditions that become uncovered, but this is picked up on a regular basis.
Asian Trekking, a Nepal based guiding outfit, has run trash collection expeditions for several years. A bounty on used oxygen bottles cleared up the vast majority of abandoned bottles. Today, all bottles are removed from Everest. Many expeditions use biodegradable bags to remove solid waste off the mountain, including at the South Col. In 2015, the Indian Army stayed behind at Everest Base Camp after the earthquake to remove debris created by the avalanche onto base camp.
2. Members pay $65,000 to Join an Expedition – True but Mostly False
The vast majority ~ 90% of climbers pay less than $45,000, including permit, and many around $30,000. Everyone pays $11,000 to the Nepal Government for a spring climbing permit and it drops to $5,500 in autumn and $ 2,750 in summer or winter.
There are a few western companies including Adventure Consultants, Himex, Alpine Ascents that have a list price of $65,000 – and they regularly sell out. For this extra money, you get several western guides, top quality food, weather forecasts and experienced Sherpa Guides.
In the last five years, local Nepal based guides have come on strong and now guide about 70% of the members on Everest. They have low overhead and charge between $30,000 and $40,000. But in some cases, they pay low wages to their staff, don’t get professional weather forecasts and use staff that have limited to no experience on Everest.
See this update for a complete overview of What it Costs to Climb Everest.
3. Members are Unprepared – True and False
This is a changing situation. On my early climbs, everyone was quite experienced. Most people had climbed Denali (20,320’/6194 m) and Aconcagua (22,902’/6980 m). Some had another 8000 meter mountains under their belt like Cho Oyu (26,907’/8201 m).
But in 2015, I was dismayed to talk with many climbers, especially younger ones, who had hiked up Kilimanjaro or trekking peaks in India or Nepal. They were depending 100% on their guides, and were far from being self sufficient. In all these cases, they were with low cost outfits with inexperienced guides.
Sadly, a few experienced guide companies, including well known western companies, have seemed to follow suit and taking members with minimal experience on Everest assuming that their companies’ “formula” was foolproof. Many did basic training at base camp. So this is a bad situation getting worse.
4. Sherpas Drag Members to the Summit – False
First, Sherpas want to live and dragging a member to the summit puts their own life at risk. While Sherpas are motivated to earn an extra $1,000 or more through summit bonuses and tips, they are unlikely to push a member.
Of course there are exceptions, but in most cases it’s the member who is pushing the Sherpa to keep going. The case study here was in 2012 when Shriya Shah-Klorfine reportedly refused advice to turn around given to her by her Sherpas from Utmost Adventure Trekking. She pushed too hard, ran out of oxygen and died on the mountain. Her family spent a reported $30,000 for Sherpas to bring her body to a low enough altitude to be removed by helicopter.
5. Tibet is Safer than Nepal – True and False
Prior to 2014, the death rate was a bit less on the North side at 106 compared to 140 on the South, this is for all routes. But with 16 Sherpas killed on the Khumbu Icefall in 2014 and 19 people at base camp in 2015, the South has almost two thirds of the 282 total deaths on Everest.
However, looking at the total summits compared to the total deaths, the South is a bit safer with the Nepalese side having 4,421 summits with 176 deaths through August 2015 or 3,98% compared to the Tibet side with 2,580 summits and 106 deaths through August 2015 or 4.1%
Most long time guides still prefer the Nepal side as it is well known, more stable politically than China and with exceptions, safe. However, there are a few guides that are using the recent disaster to opportunistically build their business based on the north side and take every opportunity to exploit the recent deaths.
The bottom line is death happens on both sides of Everest and it often comes down to being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In 1922, 7 Sherpas were killed on the North side from an avalanche.
6. Most Climbers Die in the Khumbu Icefall – False
Falls are the primary cause of death on Everest at 67, according to the Himalayan Database through autumn 2015. Icefall Collapse was way down the list at 15 deaths. However this is another one of those stats that is heavily skewed by one disaster. Adding in the 16 deaths in 2014, the Khumbu Icefall now is the location of 31 deaths. Altitude and illness related deaths still top the list with 90 listed.
From 1921 to 1999: 170 people died on Everest with 1,169 summits or 14.5%. But the deaths drastically declined while summits increased fivefold in this century. From 2000 to 2015 there were 5,832 summits and 112 deaths or 1.9%. However, two years skewed the deaths rates on the south, with 16 in 2014 and 19 in 2015.
7. Sherpas are Forced to Work for Rich Members – False
Sherpas choose to work, no one forces anyone to do anything. However, Nepal is a poor country and the work opportunities limited. With Everest Sherpa Guides making $3,000 or more for 6 weeks work, it is a lucrative career in a country where the average person make about $700 per year.
As a comparison to staying in Nepal, according to CNN, 350,00 Nepali men are working in Qatar building the World Cup stadium. Tragically, two Nepali workers die in Qatar every three days. Many have signed three year “contracts” that take all their income the first two years to pay off their “contract” leaving them little to send back home.
8. Sherpas are Exploited – False
This is a matter of opinion and mine is that Sherpas are not exploited as many claim. Exploited is defined as “to use selfishly for one’s own ends”. To be clear, 99% of today’s climbers could not summit and return home safely without Sherpa support. Sherpas work for fair wages, when compared to local guides around the world.
Reputable operators give them gear allowances and manage reasonable workloads. The Nepal government requires $15,000 of life insurance – a limit dictated by the political factions within Nepal and not by the operators. The long time western operators support the families of Sherpas killed on Everest along with organizations like the Juniper Fund.
If Sherpas are exploited, it is often by a few low-end Nepal based companies who pay less than market wages, require long hours and large loads in order to keep the cost to their members low.
9. Climbers Step over Dead Bodies on Their Way to the Summit – Mostly False
The image of stepping over dead bodies on Everest was generated when David Sharp struggled to survive on the north side in 2006 after apparently summiting. He was climbing without supplemental oxygen, solo and on a extremely low cost expedition when he probably developed acute mountain sickness. He had no radio.
It was reported that 40 people stepped over his dying body in their own selfish pursuit of summiting. The truth is that multiple people including Sherpas from Himex stopped and gave him assistance including oxygen and medicine but he was thought to be dead.
That case notwithstanding, climbers have been known to pass by a body on the way to the summit often not knowing if the person is dead or alive even after checking for a pulse. Not an excuse, but at 28,000 feet rendering aid to another person puts your own life at risk. It takes 10 strong Sherpas to move an incapacitated body, dead or alive, lower
Many climbers succumb to extreme weather conditions making rescue, or even seeing, a person lying in the snow or in driving snow storms impossible. Overall, this is not a simple matter of selfish climbers ignoring other climbers in need. Again, in my experience, I’ve seen many climbers and guides and Sherpas give up their summit to help someone in danger.
Read my article on Bodies on Everest for more details.
10. Everest is a Walk up Trek, not Really Climbing – False
Anyone who thought Everest was a cake-walk hopefully changed their minds after 2014 and 2015 with a total of 35 deaths.
People who rock climb accurately claim that Everest is not climbing on vertical rock walls using cams, pitons or nuts like you see in the Dolomites or Yosemite. Similarly, people who ice climb see a huge difference in that Everest climbers do not swing ice axes on steep icy walls, using the front point of their crampons to gain .
What people who climb Everest do is to maneuver over difficult, steep and uneven ice in the Khumbu Icefall using a jumar (mechanical device to prevent you from falling if you slip). Everest climbers will scramble over Class 4 rock on the Yellow Band, Hillary Step, the 2nd Step on the North. More than anything they move under their own power at the highest altitude on earth. Everest is all about altitude.
There are many books on Everest. A search of Amazon shows 15,282 books with Everest in the title or description. We all know that controversy sells so most publishers go out of their way to promote the most insidious moments to gain attention.
Case in point was the recent interview promoting the movie Meru by author of Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer who was widely quoted as saying “…Climbing Mount Everest was the biggest mistake I’ve ever made in my life. I wish I’d never gone.” He added that he was suffering from PTSD.
I don’t doubt Mr. Krakauer’s comments but the timing of a blockbuster movie loosely based on his book is sure to give a boost in s for him.
On the other side, Everest 1996 almost victim Beck Weathers was interviewed in Outside Magazine about the movie, Everest. Weathers humbly said:
Part of the story in the film is the story from Outside and Into Thin Air, which was about inexperienced climbers who shouldn’t be on Everest showing up in droves. That’s pushed a little hard in the film.
They were also a little tough on Scott Fischer. They present him in a somewhat unflattering light. I think that’ll be difficult for [his widow] Jeannie and his family to see. That bothered me. There are things like that. But you have to put it in context.
I was told by an editor of a well known adventure/climbing magazine that if they put Everest on the front cover, it will be their selling issue all year. No doubt, Hollywood understand this as well.
I hope viewers will enjoy the movies as entertainment and not fact.
Memories are Everything