For several years, I have been writing about the bifurcation of the Everest guiding business. In other words, the separation between the low-end operators and the high-end is growing larger each season.
Now as we began to think about 2018, it is clear that Nepali operators like Seven Summits Treks are making huge inroads into the guiding business based primarily on catering to the Chinese and Indian middle classes with prices under $30K, lower than their direct competition.
At the other end are Western companies like Alpenglow and Furtenbach around $100K price tags and long time operators like Alpine Ascents, Adventure Consultants and Himex asking for $65K and more. IMG and several Nepali companies like Asian Trekking are playing the middle game with prices in the mid $40K’s.
However, there is something fascinating happening as the ultra high-end companies are targeting the uber rich who want to minimize time climbing in pursuit of a sport called mountaineering. In other words – peak bagging in its purist form.
Everyone knows that high altitude mountain climbing is more popular than ever. Each year, it seems that records are set on the world’s highest peaks both for summits as well as for deaths. And the guide services are capitalizing on this popularity with more climbs and more offerings.
To some degree mountain climbing has always been about bragging rights. If you go to a party and say you summited Everest, some people will “oh and ah” and want to hear all the details.
Others upon hearing you summited the world’s highest peak will poke at you and ask “That’s nice, but did you use a guide and did Sherpas haul you to the top?”
And then the guy with a six-pack in him after just arriving will mutter almost incoherently “Yeah, and did you use oxygen?” Drawing out the ‘o’ in oxygen like it was his last breath!
Everest climbers have gotten use to this hazing and most shrug it off but a new benchmark is emerging and soon the next question will be “So, how long did it take you? My friend Bob summited Everest last year in less than 4 weeks.”
More Money, Less Time
Time is a valuable commodity. We are about to change the fundamentals of high-mountain expeditions. Mount Everest in less than 4 weeks! While a regular Everest expedition can require almost two months, our Everest Flash expedition takes only 4 weeks while increasing safety and chances of success.
Lukas charges €95,000 price tag – $110,000 at current rates – the absolute highest price from any company for a team climb. It may be the “Maybach” of Everest climbing.
Lukas is not alone, the Snapchat kid, Adrian Ballinger, also promotes his “Rapid Ascent” climbs all over the world arguing that:
… we have refined and distilled the acclimatization and climbing process to maximize safety, health, success, and enjoyment.
Oh, and he charges $85,000 per client, well over twice what other’s charge for an Everest climb from Tibet.
More Oxygen – Before and During
The key to both of these programs is the use of generous oxygen while climbing and altitude tents to “pre-acclimitze” in the convenience of your home weeks and months before the climb. In theory, you arrive at base camp already acclimatized to maybe 17,000 feet or 5,000 meters – Lukas claims even higher.
Most longtime guides sniff dismissively at the use of altitude tents to pre-acclimitze. Jagged Globe’s Managing Director, Simone Lowe calls the entire approach “Complete bloody hogwash”. Russell Brice, famed leader of Himex, Russell Brice, used the term “snake oil” and told me recently:
Yes I do think you can cheat acclimatisation by moving fast up and down, but this is extremely risky as if anything goes wrong and you are delayed then there is a high risk of dying. This should only be done by people who have already experienced high altitude before, so as they have an idea as to how they normally perform at altitude, and can therefore make an educated decision about how they feel. One needs to be very fit and strong and have a very well thought through plan…..but also fully understand the risks involved.
I would suggest that there are only a few people that are capable of this in the climbing community. So to date there have only been a few people who have proven that the use of hyperbaric tent, fast ascent actually works, and there have been many failures, so it is early days. I have yet to see any scientific evidence that suggests that this is safe, it seems to me to be more of a commercial promotion.
One of the issues not addressed by this approach is that while it may shorten the upfront time in acclimatizing, there is not much you can do about the vagaries of weather and delays that add time to the back end. You may arrive a couple of weeks later than your teammates but still end up waiting at base camp for a week or more for safe summit weather, thus being exposed to the same risks as those who climbed the old fashion way.
I did an extensive article on this a few years ago including interviews with world-renowned high altitude doctor, Peter Hackett who also runs the excellent site Institute for High Altitude Medicine and Brian Oestrike, CEO of Hypoxico, the industry leader in these tents. My conclusion was that it can be effective but not a replacement for old fashion acclimatization techniques.
OK, with my clear bias that these commercial speed climbs are simply a circus side show filled with tempting marketing that tricks clients into spending tens of thousands more than is needed with similar results as the old -school, I invited Lukas to have a good spirited debate with me.
Grab a beverage and pull up a chair ringside, and remember this has a lot of tongue in cheek comments by me 🙂
AA: Let’s start with the snake oil part of your offering – those altitude tents. When we first met in 2015 at Everest Base Camp, your entire team has used them and you told me everyone summited and the pre-acclimization played a big part. When I laughed out loud, you called me an ugly American (not really but I’m sorry I laughed) but you did tell me that these tents have been used in Europe for decades and most Americans are not familiar with how successful they are. Can you elaborate?
LF: Yes the snake oil… I have deepest respect for Russel, his work and experience. He is a top-notch alpinist, leader and expedition operator. Actually he has been one of my mountaineering heros when I was younger and I still listen to his advise. His statement shows a common problem. There is still a lot of obscurity and smattering around when it comes to pre-acclimatization.
We are not using hypobaric tents but hypoxic tents. Hypobaric chambers generate the pressure level of a different altitude level. Hypoxic tents simulate the oxygen concentration of higher altitudes. A generator is filtering O2 out of the surrounding air and blowing this low oxygen air into a tent. That produces a hypoxic environment and that simulates altitude. To say it simple – your body thinks he is in high altitude and starts with all physiological acclimatization processes as he would in „real“ altitude. There is broad consensus today among leading high altitude scientists and medics that pre-acclimatization in hypoxic environment is as good and as effective as acclimatization on the mountain. The scientific proof exists in numerous studies. There is no more doubt about it from the science side.
But back to the snake oil – in 1992 the COMEX study with French and Italian scientists took place. Climbers were pre-acclimatized in a hypobaric chamber in France and then reached Everest south col within a week. Without bottled oxygen by the way. The final summit push was stopped by a storm. This was 1992 and without O`s. At this time it was not clear if it makes a difference if the pre-aclimatization is done in hypobaric or hypoxic environment. Now, years and several studies later scientists agree that it makes no difference for the body. The hypoxic part is the one that triggers the physiological processes. So the distilled quintessence of the „snake oil“ is: Pre-acclimatization in hypoxic tents works. And that is a proven fact. Doubters and skeptics do your research.
There haven´t been any substantial changes or developments in classic Himalayan mountaineering since five decades. Of course, equipment is better and lighter, weather forecast not really (as long as we do not fully understand the global climate change processes that have puzzled meteorologists for the last years in the Himalaya and Karakoram) and we can use WhatsApp on the summit of Everest. That`s basically it. I think what Adrian Ballinger and me are trying to do is making Himalayan mountaineering smarter. And whenever something traditional changes there is criticism. For me it seems more like an other inter-generational debate. Or is it just coincidence that there lies exactly one generation between the pros and cons? The interesting thing is that those who used to be rebels at younger age are now the ones that critizise most. We had this before, I can see a pattern. Remember how Messner was critizised when he made his attempt without O`s or when he started to make money out of his Everest achievments.
I have been using hypoxic tents for pre-acclimatizing since more than 15 years. It was alway scientifically attended and I have been a subject in a scientific study about the use of hypoxic tents. I know what I am doing.
AA: What altitude do you assume your clients are acclimatized to when they arrive at your base camp? And what additional acclimatization measures are taken?
LF: The classic hypoxic tent systems that are widely used from professional climbers and athletes in different endurance sports are limited with a simulated altitude of around 5000m (16500ft). We developed our own completely new acclimatization program using multiple generators connected with special modules. With this setup we are able to simulate even more than 7000m (23000ft). That would be a night at Camp 3 in the Lhotse face on the south side of Everest.
The program starts with one generator and over a period of 8 weeks we increase the sleeping altitude and the amount of generators used. The program is individually adjusted to every single member and depends on the altitude where they live, where they train etc. At the end every member has spent a certain amount of hours in an average altitude and every member has spent at least one night at over 7000m.
In addition to that all members have to complete a training program with hypoxic masks, that can simulate even higher altitudes for short time and trigger additional processes in the body. So actually members from our Flash expedition arrive at basecamp fully acclimatized and ready to go. But we still do one rotation with them to north col (7000m), before the final summit push. This is an extra safety measure.
With 8 weeks of pre-acclimatizing and 4 weeks of expedition the total exposure time to altitude is 12 weeks. This is 4 weeks longer than a classic Everest expedition. 4 weeks more time of acclimatizing for your body, 4 weeks longer to build red blood cells and complete all other physiological processes. Actually our Flash expedition is longer than any other Everest expedition. But without the downsides of acclimatizing on spot: cold, tent living, lack of appetite, weight loss, many people with even more disease germs, absence of job, lack of stamina training in basecamp.
AA: So you say the trade off is a month away from home justifies the two months at home sleeping in an altitude tent. In speaking with several people who have done this, they say it takes a toll on their partner relationship …
LF: Being away from home, from your partner and kids for two months is a knock-out disqualifier for some people. Of course, sleeping in a tent for 8 weeks is not just fun. Although it`s still the lesser evil than no bonding at all for that long. But seriously, we have 2-person hypoxic tents that fit exactly on a standard American kingsize bed.
AA: One aspect of your “flash” program that really caught my eye is the you offer clients oxygen rates as high as 8 liters per minute when most everyone maxes out at 4 LPM. Reinhold Messner, – you may have heard of him 🙂 said that using oxygen at 2 lpm makes an 8000m peak more like a 7000m one, so with 8 isn’t this proof that you are simply “doping” your clients like race horses to get them to the top?
LF: It´s funny that the statement from Reinhold Messner has spread through the world since decades and nobody was ever questioning it. It is more like that: 2LPM make the summit of Everest more like 8000m and 4 LPM make it more like 7000m. Most high-priced western guide companies on Everest provide 6lpm on summit day in the last years. Simply to make their clients move faster. And that works. From an achievement or moral aspect it makes absolutely no difference if you climbed Everest with 3, 6 or 10 bottles of oxygen and it makes also no difference if you have used 4, 6 or 8 liters per minute. You simply climbed Everest using O´s. If using oxygen is doping than it`s also doping with 2 LPM. The only acceptable question would be did you climb with or without O`s. But as a commercial expedition operator with high safety standards and clients that rely on us we have to stick to the use of oxygen of course.
We say it´s wiser to use as much oxygen as possible to be faster and safer. Use of oxygen makes Everest safer. That´s a fact. So why only a limited little bit of safety when I can get much more safety?
LF: In the last years, almost all western and some Nepalese operators switched to Neil Greenwood`s Summit Oxygen system. Some still use their old Poisk cylinders but all of them use Summit Oxygen masks and regulators. The Version “B” regulator with max. 6 LPM is becoming the new standard amongst them and widely used already. This has changed in the last couple of years. 6 LPM is now what 4 LPM used to be 4 years ago.
AA: Lukas, we have gone back and forth on this claim that “Most high-priced western guide companies on Everest provide 6lpm on summit day in the last years” and you know I strongly disagree. There certainly has been an increase from 2lpm to 4lpm for the summit push, but to make such broad based statement is simply incorrect in my experience, knowledge and opinion I guess we will agree to disagree on this one.
AA: Yes, I know Summit Oxygen well and have used their systems on Everest, K2 and Manaslu with great satisfaction. So, he has designed a new mask for you that can support this windstorm of oxygen at 8 lpm. Most masks cannot handle more than 4 and anything higher goes to waste. Can you give us the basics on why your mask is different?
LF: We use Summit Oxygen equipment because it is the best and most reliable system available on the market. It simply works. And that´s what you want up there. Last year Summit Oxygen designed a regulator for us that delivers a maximum of 8 LPM. We use the regular Summit Oxygen facemasks with a large 200ml reservoir. On the summit of Everest 8lpm is expanding into close to 20 LPM, at a breathing rate of 40BPM means that 250ml of oxygen is flowing during the exhalation phase of breathing. With a 200ml reservoir this would mean that 50ml of oxygen is entering the mask at the end of the exhalation phase. The oxygen that has spilled into the mask creates a slightly more oxygen rich environment ready for the next inhalation.
AA: The support you provide is extraordinary: 1.5 Sherpas per client, unlimited oxygen, generous client to western guide ratio, “luxurious” base camp with gourmet food. And if they don’t make it on their first try, you let them try again after a short rest! Come on Lukas, is this mountain climbing or a cruise for people with breathing problems?
LF: Our clients pay a lot of money and use a lot of their time to make their dream come true. Whatever we can do to increase their safety, their chances of success and the value of their once in a lifetime experience we will do. No matter what it costs and no matter what others are thinking about it. We are in debt to our customers, not to Reinhold Messner. When people climb Mount Everest with us and think afterwards that it felt like vacation for people with breathing problems, we have done our job right.
AA: Interesting that a few questions earlier you boasted “With 8 weeks of pre-acclimatizing and 4 weeks of expedition the total exposure time to altitude is 12 weeks. “ now you are saying it IS a vacation. So you consider climbing Everest in the same category as a holiday cruise or Christmas with the family? Perhaps it is this type of marketing that is attracting unqualified clients.
LF: I am saying that we do our best to make it feel like vacation. But we tell our clients pretty clear that it`s still a solid mountaineering expedition with everything that goes with it. People should have a good time there. On Everest it`s not all about suffering. Climbing Everest with a commercial operator is no hardcore alpinism. We try to reduce the “suffering part” to a few days.
Attracting unqualified clients is one thing. Accepting them is a different story. So far we haven`t had any unqualified clients because we simply refuse them and offer them an individual long term expedition training.
AA: You only require that your client have experience (not summits) of a 6000 or 7000 meter peak before Everest. Is this enough or does your tight handholding absolves the client of all climbing responsibility?
LF: There are operators out there that require that their clients have summited an 8000m peak before. This has mostly been Cho Oyu and it is mostly Manaslu now. I have seen many of these clients and their mountaineering skills and performance.
Quite often this 8000m peak was the first time real mountaineering for them and the first time they had crampons on their feet. And of course they use oxygen on their 8000m „training peak“ (Back to Messner and his statement and the actual altitude they have reached…). And after that you are ready for Mount Everest?
We do require from our Everest clients that they have appropriate mountaineering experience, technical skills, altitude experience, mental and physical strength. It doesn’t matter if they reached 6900m or 8200m before.
In 2017 not a single one of our 8 members has climbed a 8000m peak before. All 8 members summited easily. In 2016 only one member has been on a 8000m peak before. 85% summited. And I would say that in both years our groups were the most efficient and powerful on the mountain. In both years they were able to descent directly to C1 after summiting. I have not seen many other teams doing this. Descending to C1 after summit increases safety significantly. I claim that this is related to our pre-acclimatization program.
AA: Are you saying that performing well on Aconcagua at 6900 meters is equivalent to performing well on Manaslu or Cho Oyu at ~8200 meters?
LF: Well, that depends on the flow rate you are using on Manaslu or Cho Oyu. Manaslu and Cho Oyu are not the right places to learn snow and ice techniques. And so isn`t Aconcagua. But you can get a feeling of high altitude on Aconcagua. Because you climb there without bottled oxygen. But don`t get me wrong, I am not a supporter of Aconcagua as a qualifier at all. Our preferred “qualifying” or training expedition for expedition rookies is 7246 m / 23800 ft high Putha Hiunchuli (also called Dhaulagiri VII) in Nepal. A beautiful, remote, little known and objectively safe mountain that we visit since four years now.
AA: Lukas how can you charge your clients over $100,000 each for an Everest climb when other ask under $30K – including tent and food 🙂 Seriously aren’t you using the “Flash Climb” as a trick to get more money?
LF: When you compare prices you have to compare included services. For 2018 there is not a single operator who charges under $30K for Everest with Sherpa support and oxygen. Also all the Nepalese low budget operators have raised their prices after entering the market. And we have seen the trend that the Chinese side becoming more expensive than the Nepalese. Put pointedly the south side is becoming the cheap and dangerous one with all the inexperienced climbers and the Khumbu icefall and the north side in Tibet is becoming the safe and expensive side. Even more with the new rescue center and the expected helicopter rescue permissions.
The biggest cost factors on Everest are oxygen, transport of oxygen up and down the mountain, experienced sherpas and IFMGA certified guides. The amount of oxygen and sherpas we provide justifies the price. That’s a simple arithmetical problem. Everest Flash is not a cash cow nor nonsense or a trick. We simply do everything we can to make an Everest expedition shorter. We try to take a shortcut to the summit. That costs money. It takes a lot of knowledge and experience, is a lot of work and pretty much responsibility.
We have never had a fatality in our expeditions. I believe this fact indicates that we work with high safety standards and an appropriate risk management than others. I am aware that any high mountain expedition has risks for the operator and no operator is immune from having a fatality. No matter how good and safe he works. Stats show that the risk of fatalities increases dramatically with decrease of expedition cost. Most fatalities on Everest and other 8000m peaks in the last years go on the account of low cost operators. Sad but true.
AA: It seems you have drank the cool-aid using fire and smoke to demonize the south side. The stats from the Himalayan Database show about the same percentage of deaths of both sides. Certainly the 2014 ice serac and earthquake were low points for that side but it is a matter of opinion if these will be ongoing events or one-time tragic ones.
LF: That is what I say. The south side is more dangerous when it comes to objective dangers like avalanches, seracs and crevasses. And it`s more crowded with unqualified people.
You are right, the overall numbers are about the same with a slightly better ratio on the Tibet side. But if you take a closer look we can see a clear trend. Since 2000 the ratio is getting better and better for Tibet. Since 2010 this trend is increasing significantly.
AA: By the way, how many 8000 meter expeditions has Furtenbach Adventures completed to date?
LF: Touchée Alan. We are a young company, founded in 2014 only. We can not look back to 20 or even 30 years of Everest guiding. But I operate expeditions since almost 20 years. The label Furtenbach Adventures is new. We all work in the industry since 15-20 years. All our guides are top-notch IFMGA mountain guides, the highest qualification level worldwide. All of them have solid expedition experience and work as full time mountain guides. Austria has a long Himalaya climbing tradition. 5 out of the 14 8000m peaks were first climbed by Austrians.
We have a very high success rate on Everest, we were shooting two Everest documentaries alongside our regular expedition, we had the first large cine camera on the summit since IMAX 1996, we have shot the first 360° VR clips of the whole route to the summit and we took the second blind climber to the top of Everest and back down safely. We know our business and our job. And we love it and do it with passion.
AA: Final question. I assume your clients are rich and busy but still consider themselves “alpinists”. Do you think that by shortening the mountain by such a drastic use of Os, providing them so much support and rushing the entire process, they deserve that title?
LF: They climb Mount Everest, the highest mountain on earth. This mountain is not easy. It is dangerous and you can die. Of course they deserve that title. I do not assume the right to be the moral authority to value the climbing achievements of others. The only moral authorithy for your own behaviour in the mountains is yourself. A discussion of moral aspects of the level of support in commercial mountaineering expeditions is a bit screwy. 1,5 or „only“ 1 sherpa, 6 or „only“ 3 bottles of oyxgen? That is not the criterion if you are top-notch alpinist „climbing by fair means“. To say it with Messner´s words (that he actually took from Albert Mummary who had this idea 100 years before him).
Mountaineering is one of the last breathing rooms in our over regulated society. Let`s preserve that. Climbing Mount Everest is one of the greatest adventures of manhood. Still. With and without support.
Finally something we can agree on: “Climbing Mount Everest is one of the greatest adventures of manhood [humankind].”
In wrapping this up, I want to be clear that I respect ALL Everest summiteers, but my quibble is encapsulated in “Why rush?”
I understand and can recite all the reason Adrain, Lukas and others give but…
For me, climbing is a time to get back in touch with yourself, a time of testing, perhaps a time of suffering. Its a time of building intense relationships, taking in the beauty of nature and spending time in a place few will have the opportunity to visit.
So, why rush?
Thanks Lukas for staying with me during the interview. As I said in the opening, I have known Lukas for a few years now and have seen him in action on Everest, albeit the South side :-), and can attest to his first class, very safe operation. I wish him all the best as he continues to grow his 8000 meter business.
Memories are Everything