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Climbing the World to End Alzheimer's
Mar 082016
 
Climbing in the Khumbu Icefall in 2015

Climbing in the Khumbu Icefall in 2015

“How can I get on a team to climb Everest?” This is the second most asked question on my blog other than “How much does it cost to climb Everest?

The short answer on how to get on a team is money.

Sadly, these days most anyone can join an Everest team if they have the cash. As for how much cash,  a standard climb from Tibet (north side) should run around $32,000 and from Nepal (south side) $42,000.

Nepal Climber Requirements

In mid 2015, the Nepal Ministry of Tourism floated several new requirement for any person applying for an Everest permit:

  • Climbers must be between 18 and 75 years of age
  • Permits will only be given to those who can prove they have already scaled mountains that are higher than 6,500 meters (21,325 feet)
  • Disabled or visually impaired people need someone to carry them. Only those who can go on their own will be given permission.

You can read my full analysis at this link but as we approach the time when permits are being issued, it appears none of these requirements are being implemented. This is normal in Nepal as the thought of turning away business is unacceptable. In 2010, Tibet set age restrictions of under 18 and over 60 not allowed on a permit, but even that has exceptions as demonstrated by the oldest American to summit in 2014, Bill Burke at age 72.

The reality is that if you can find a local climbing agency to submit your name on an individual or a group permit, most likely you will be approved. However, not all operators act this way.

Western Commercial Guide Requirements

Long time Everest guides have learned the hard way that experience matters and usually tries to qualify a potential member through a questionnaire and a phone interview. Many will prefer, if not insist, that a prospective Everest member climb with their company on a lower mountain such as Denali, Aconcagua and sometimes the 8000 meter mountains Cho Oyu or Manaslu.

International Mountain Guide’s Eric Simonson believes his company is not taking unqualified climbers:

“I think the average experience level of the IMG team has increased over the years. This may not be true for the Everest community as a whole, but IMG continues to find plenty of qualified customers.”

And he goes on to sum up their philosophy this way:

“It is not in anyone’s interest to take people to Everest on a program for which they are not qualified. It does IMG no good to get someone over there who blows up or has a big problem. 

An individual may need a higher level of guidance or support to be able to climb safely, but sometimes it just is not possible for them to make a reasonable attempt with their experience and fitness.

I have no problem turning away members when we do not think they would be a good “fit” for our team. And sometimes, there are factors beyond experience that we take into consideration. Not all experience is equal. I have seen climbers who have been on relatively few climbs but who are able to take responsibility for their own safety and preparedness. Others may go on 10 expeditions and never really assume much control over their own destiny. People vary and it’s part of what makes this business so interesting to me.”

Phil Crampton of Altitude Junkies believes there is a decrease in experienced climbers in Nepal and on Everest specifically:

“I had the unfortunate experience of overhearing a conversation between a British female member of a well-known Nepal company and her Sherpa. She explained to the Sherpa that she had never worn crampons before, but the Sherpa reassured her that he would teach her how to use them on Lobuche before they attempted to summit Everest. This is what it has become I am afraid.

I just had the experience of watching similar qualified people on Ama Dablam falling all over the place and luckily they were connected to the fixed ropes.”

And Dawa Stephen Sherpa of Nepali operator Asian Trekking adds:

“There is certainly a large number of inexperienced climbers on the mountain and I have also accepted a few inexperienced climbers on my expeditions, on the condition that they have a strong sporting background. However, I do not really see a drastic increase in inexperienced climbers in the last eight years that I have been leading expedition to Everest.”

In looking at Everest 2016 climbers, an 18 year-old from India looking to summit is quoted in The Times of India:

“I never heard of Mt Everest. I never saw glaciers. It was only when I went to Darjeeling for a training in glacier, I saw how glaciers are. I came to know from my NCC (National Cadet Corps) senior that Mt Everest is the world’s highest peak. Yes, I am going to climb the Mt Everest and it will take two months to climb Everest. The approximate date for flag-in at the summit of Mt. Everest is June 15.”

The article goes on to say

“Pooja will leave for Delhi on March 1, where all the ten cadets will be given physical training for one month. From there, they will head to Nepal on March 28. The Uttarakhand girl said that she was hopeful of climbing the peak on her first attempt.”

This is not unusual these days. In my own observation and experience on the mountain as recent as 2015, I have spoken with many, mostly very young people, saying their only climbing experience is on 6000 meter peaks or perhaps a summit Kilimanjaro. They are usually with extremely low costs outfits paying as low as $18,000, including the $11,000 permit.

Willie Benegas of Benegas Brothers Expeditions notes the inexperience on Everest thru the many rescues he and his brother, Damien, have participated in:

“In 2010 during our summit push, I found a climber at the balcony, on all fours, asking me for his Sherpa. First I asked him the name of his expedition, then told him that he needed to go down immediately, and I made it quite clear to him that he was getting me, and my team, in danger! 

For our descent of the South Summit Rock Steps after summiting, I normally bring an extra 70m of rope to rappel left of the rocks and facilitate travel for my team, and avoid the traffic jam that normally happens in this area. This day, during our descent, I was called by radio by another guide requesting help. Upon arriving at the scene, I found the very same climber I had seen earlier that morning still hanging from the fix ropes and creating a big traffic jam, but this time unconscious. We spent what felt like endless hours bringing him down to the South Col, putting our whole crew’s life in danger from fatigue and high altitude exposure. We later discovered that this member had previously been black-listed by another company. The bottom line here is that some companies will take any member in the name of profit, and they are the kind of climbers that can cause danger to everyone up there. 

More expensive companies have much better resources: teams of well trained staff, and Sherpas and guides who are able to deal with members with a lack of experience, or special needs for example, such as being blind! I don’t believe that climbing Everest should be reserved for expert mountaineers only. We live in a moment in time that is all about instant gratification: people from all levels of our society may wake up one morning and say I want to climb Everest! With their morning coffee in one hand, mouse in the other, google and endless websites and resources to learn about climbing Everest, they later book a trip and all their gear online. Any company advertising an Everest climb will present a fantastic image of how good there are, maybe offering a simple training program, but many outfitters offer absolutely nothing prior to departure! A member can arrive in Nepal with the false idea that the Sherpa with be carrying him or her down the mountain should there be a problem! They will get a crash course on navigating fix ropes in base camp, a guide (an uncertified Sherpa) that despite having climbed Everest few times does not actually know anything about safety, or medicine, and off you go!”

Stated Requirements

A quick review of what companies place on their websites as prerequisites for an Everest climb is revealing. Most operators make vague statements about experience with most not listing any kind of specific requirements but rather promoting their services and the experience of their guides.

Altitude Junkies stands out with this clear statement:

“Climbers on our Everest expedition need to have previously climbed on a 7,000-meter or 8,000-meter Himalayan peak to qualify for our expedition. We do not consider a climb of Aconcagua by its normal route or false traverse as suitable experience to climb Everest with the Junkies.”

Sadly, the lack of clear requirements encourages inexperienced applicants and operators, when tempted by an extra member, profit motivation often surpasses common sense in who makes up the team.

On Mountain Support

Almost all guides depend on Sherpa support to keep their members safe, even the ones lead by Western guides. The companies have worked wth the same Sherpa teams for many years, if not decades. But with the high growth of new, inexperienced climbers to support, finding qualified Sherpas is becoming a serious issue.

Dawa Steven Sherpa notes:

“I am more concerned about the huge number of unqualified Sherpas who go with inexperienced members. It has also been my experience that novice climbers with experienced Sherpas or guides are not the ones that get in trouble on the mountain, mainly because they have good guidance and because they listen to instructions due to their own inexperience. 

The people who regularly get in trouble on the mountain are normally climbers who either go without Sherpa support or with a cheap companies.

I would say that there is dangerous lack of qualified sherpas on the mountain, especially on the cheaper outfits. By paying inexperienced sherpas very little, this is how the cheap companies can push the prices to rock bottom. Asian Trekking has a core Sherpa and support team of 96 staff, who draw monthly Salaries and work exclusively for us.  On top of that, our Sherpas are also paid wages and bonuses that are well above market rates.That makes Asian Trekking the biggest operator and unavoidably makes me an expensive company, but it also makes me reliable, safe and professional. 

And Phil Crampton sees something similar:

There are some fantastic Sherpas working on Everest, especially the UIAGM certified ones. I am very lucky as I have been using the same bunch of guys for years. The newer generation are heading to Everest, some with very little experience as the local Nepal companies can hire them for a fraction of what it costs to hire the experienced Sherpas with many summits. Again, it’s the lowest price that the local operators want to offer to their members.

Willie Benegas comments of training programs by local operators:

“Professional and well-trained Sherpas are employed by higher end companies. For example four Sherpas who work with BBE are fully IFGMA certified, and we invest heavily in their education. In the winter of 2015 our provider in Nepal, High Altitude Dreams, ran an Everest specific training program with 30 young Sherpas hoping to work with us as expedition support, and just 6 passed the exam. We employed 4 for this past season. If a well-trained Sherpa cannot find a job at Everest he will likely end up guiding on either trekking peaks, or trekking, as it is not worth it doing an Everest climb for a low budget expedition with poor wages.  Sherpas who have never received any form of training or have never been on the mountain are being contracted by low end companies, so yes, here, sadly, we find the real cheap labor and exploitation! But it must be understood that it is not across the board.

Only around 30 Sherpas are fully trained and certified by the IFMGA, and another percentage by the NMA (Nepali Mountaineering Association). This, however, is only a tiny percentage of the total Sherpa workforce who are misunderstood by some to all Sherpas are GUIDES on Everest. How fair is it for a young Sherpa, with extremely limited mountaineering experience, to be given the responsibility of guiding and keeping alive someone with potentially very dangerous summit fever?”

Since 2003, the Khumbu Climbing Center based in Phortse and run by the Alex Lowe Foundation with Conrad Anker, Pete Athens and others trains Sherpas in basic climbing skills, mountain safety, rescue and wilderness first aid. This has been valuable in increasing the skills of many Sherpas.

Summary

Everest has become more accessible thru known routes, improved gear and weather forecasting, more supplemental oxygen plus over the top support. This has resulted in summits rates twice that of several decades ago thus along with slick marketing by operators promising you never carry more than a day pack, people with minimal climbing skills are now regularly seen on both sides of Everest; and many account for the staggering death rates we’ve seen in recent years – excluding the avalanches and earthquakes related deaths of the past two years.

While this may appear to be one more reason not to climb Everest, my personal experience is that Everest will always be a credible challenge for the person who goes there with the experience, skills and attitude for a life-time experience. Just be careful of who you choose to climb with, their experience and who you want on your rope in case of an emergency.

Climb On!
Alan
Memories are Everything

PS For what it is worth, before my first Everest climb, I had climbs on Mont Blanc (4897m – 3 summits), Cho Oyu (reached 8000 meters), Ama Dablam (6856 meters, summited) and Denali (reached 5500m) – and I did not summit Everest in 2002.

Read part 1, part 2  and part 3 of this series.

  One Response to “Everest 2016: A Changing Mountain – Part 2”

  1.  

    I wonder what would happen if all of the courageous and kind people who sacrifice their own climbs (as well as their own health and safety) to rescue the inexperienced climbers simply stopped being so generous. How many more deaths would there be? Is it possible the increased number of deaths might inject some sense into the minds of the people who should not be on that mountain? And is it possible that the increased number of deaths might help to shut down the unscrupulous guides and companies who take on the inexperienced climbers as members?

    Perhaps it’s time for an unwritten agreement: if you are not on my team I’m not going to rescue you, and it’s OK. No more obligation or pressure. All Everest climbers need to acknowledge the risk and not decrease their own risk by increasing someone else’s.