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Climbing the World to End Alzheimer's
May 172019
 
Aconcagua Climber

A horribly disturbing trend is showing all the signs of coming to full life this spring season across the world’s highest peaks. Thus far, 10 11 people have died on six 8000-meters peaks in Nepal and Tibet. And the main Everest pushes have not begun. About 110 people have summited thus far with another 700 to 800 on both sides going up next week.

I’ve been talking about the trend of inexperienced climbers with unqualified guides for many years now. My fear has been that with all the success seen on these big peaks, combined with operators offering low prices that it has in-fact attracted a new category of person who simply doesn’t know what they don’t know. Combine that with a lack of qualified support, when trouble happens it falls on the shoulders of a few to react. And often it is simply impossible.

As I will cover in this opinion piece, I believe there are three reasons for all these deaths: greed, ignorance and ego.

Greed

greed, noun: intense and selfish desire for something, especially wealth, power, or food.

For decades the big mountains were guided by mostly Western companies who had a system honed over years of using Western guides, having doctors at base camp and the same Sherpas each year. It was/is a tight knit team that could safely take mostly experienced clients safely to the summit and back. They charged high prices, $45,000 to $65,000. A few Nepali based guides had similar performance (and prices) and, while there were still deaths each year, around five, the deaths were viewed as part of the risk of mountaineering and not incompetence.

A pivotal moment in the Nepal guiding industry occurred after the 2014 ice serac release the killed 16 Sherpas in the Khumbu Icefall. It lit a smoldering fire in a few young Sherpas that had begun in 2012 when many Sherpa were killed on Manaslu. This younger generation felt they were being exploited, underpaid and they needed to take the mountains back from the western operators. At time around 80% of all 8000-meter summited were guided by foreign companies. Today, in 2019 that number has dropped to 20%.

These new companies competed on price. They had slick websites promoting their leadership with 5, 10, 15 or more Everest summits. They offered wifi, good food, spacious tents – in other words everything the western companies did, but at half the price. The market was there and reacted aggressively, especially from India and China.

The low cost came from the new Nepali/Sherpa guides paying their own staff lower wages than the western operators. They did not use expensive (and experienced) western guides. They felt they didn’t need training or excess staffing. They simply offered a potential client a spot on the permit, a tent on the mountain and a Sherpa guide. Little vetting and little oversight.

The model worked well – as far as getting business.

Ignorance

ignorance, noun: lack of knowledge or information: he acted in ignorance of basic procedures.

The clients bought this new model hook, line and sinker. They believed everything they were told and seduced by the romantic image of the Sherpa culture. They believed even the most unbelievable marketing:

“If you want to experience what it feels like to be on the highest point on the planet and have strong economic background to compensate for your old age, weak physical condition or your fear of risks, you can sign up for the VVIP Mount Everest Expedition Service offered by Seven Summit Treks and Expeditions.”

They read the stories and articles that  “Everest had a sidewalk to the summit.” And  “Anyone can summit.” They believed the marketing of Nepal the every Sherpa was a “Sherpa Guide.” – something the Nepal Ministry of Tourism instituted to address growing safety concerns. It was like saying every person in a plane is a pilot.

The operators began to increase the staffing, drawing new Sherpas or Nepal ethnic groups that had little to no experience on 8000-meter peaks. The clients didn’t understand the distinction. They never did their own research, only became excited to join the ranks of Messner, Viesturs and Bonnington. A false equivalency if there ever was one.

When told they needed to climb a series of ever-higher, more difficult peaks before their first 8000er or Everest, they scoffed and said they didn’t have the time or money for such an investment. They Googled “low-cost Everest climb” or for Cho Oyu, Annapurna, Makalu, Kanchenjunga or Lhotse and received 43 million hits in 0.84 seconds. Their hearts raced that they could climb Everest and not have to take out a second mortgage their house.

The death rate on Everest has gone down dramatically this century but that is because of the old-school Western operators that pioneered the commercial model of using known routes, reliable oxygen, qualified support and vetted potential clients as to temperament and experience. But even the best guides shied away from the extremely difficult 8000ers: Annapurna, Makalu, Kanchenjunga, Dhaulagiri, K2. They knew there were limits to their formula. If they did run those trips, they were small, tightly controlled and highly experienced.

But this new generation of climbers, eager to bag the top and brag back home, didn’t know enough to understand the difference between climbing Everest and Makalu. They joined a random team of individuals with shared logistics for an independent climb. They didn’t understand the word “independent.” And had no experience to evaluate the risks.

Ego

ego, noun: a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance: a boost to my ego.

Climbing mountains requires a higher than usual ego. You must have high confidence in yourself and the strength to push hard. This year, 2019, has seen deaths of some of the finest young climbers in a generation. On peaks like Nanga Parbat or Mount Howse in Canada. These young men were pushing the limits on routes known for the challenge, and the danger. They knew what they were getting into and choose to take the risk.

Similar, this year, 2019, on the 8000ers there have been deaths of experienced climbers attempting, and sometimes summiting, while pushing the limits. Their websites and social media (and occasional sponsor) wrote about their conquests using terms like  “without supplemental oxygen,” or  “no Sherpa support,” or “independent and unsupported.” The climbing community put these feats on an alter, dismissing anyone who used oxygen, support or climbed on a commercial team.

This feedback loop encouraged more risks, and climbers who had good skills, but not enough natural ability or genetic gifts, to attempt these high risk climbs in “style,” joined an independent team and they died.

They have no problem joining a team. Today, there are plenty of operators willing to take their money, put them on the permit, take their gear to a base camp (or better yet helicopter everything in) and let them go their own way. After all, as I was told by one operator this year, “Its not our job to turn a client back.”

Who’s Responsible?

Everyone has a piece of this.

Operators need to mature into responsible companies that understand the difference between simply taking money for a dangerous product and taking responsibility for a person’s life with the proper support structure. In the United States, the National Park Service awards “guiding concessions” to handful of companies on peaks like Denali. It’s an expensive, highly regulated process that ensures those who call themselves guides, are truly guides.

Climbers need to wake up and understand that climbing a big peak like Everest or K2 or Makalu is extremely risky. They need to stop believing just because they are with a “Sherpa Guide” who has summited Everest ten times that they will be rescued if they get in trouble. Even the strongest Sherpa cannot take an incapacitated person lower by themselves or expect extra oxygen to be delivered to 8,400-meters on a moment’s notice. And helicopters have their limits, as do rescue policies and GPS devices. The climber themselves, need to take responsibility and gain the proper experience, knowledge and vet the company they are putting their life on the line with.

Staying with the Denali comparison, the NPS allows “independent” climbers, even true solo ones, but they spend a couple of hours interviewing you, discussing your experience, the risks and the support options before they issue you a permit. In Nepal, you pay an agency, who takes a cut, and you get your permit – no questions asked.

Even with all these deaths, I don’t expect Nepal to change. Oh, yes we will hear all sorts of announcements after this season is over. The press will mimic the rhetoric and the public will be swayed that improvements are in the works. And nothing will change.

As long as the combination of greed, ignorance and ego work hand in hand to trick people, and companies, into believing what they want to, inexcusable deaths will continue in the mountains.

My sincere condolences to all the families of the deceased. My sincere wish for safe experience to all those headed up. And for the future climbers, please use this season as a learning opportunity.

Alan
Memories are Everything

2019 Spring  Deaths and Missing Climbers in Tibet and Nepal

  • Seven Summit Treks, Makalu: Dipankar Ghos, India, missing after summit
  • Seven Summit Treks, Everest: Ravi Thakar, India, dead inside his tent at C4 after summit
  • Seven Summit Treks, Everest: Seamus Sean Lawless, 39, missing, presumed dead after falling near Balcony
  • Seven Summits Treks, Annapurna: Wui Kin Chin – cause of death unknown. exposed for 3 days at 7400m after summit
  • Seven Summits Trek, Makalu: Narayan Singh died of altitude illness at 8200m
  • Summit Climb, Cho Oyu: Phujung Bhote Sherpa fell into a crevasse while fixing rope near Camp 2
  • Independent, Makalu: Richard Hidalgo died in tent at 6,300m, climbing with no Os.
  • Peak Promotion, Kangchenjunga: Biplab Baidya altitude sickness
  • Peak Promotion, Kangchenjunga: Kuntal Karar altitude sickness
  • Peak Promotion, Kangchenjunga: Rodrigo Vivanco missing, presumed dead
  • Makalu Xtreme, Lhotse: Ivan Yuriev Tomov, died in tent at high camp after no Os’/support summit

  21 Responses to “Too Many Deaths – Opinion”

  1.  

    Though I love your blogs and have followed them every year I felt this opinion piece was a very paternalistic Western view point. May I know how many Western climbers were able to climb without Sherpas? It would be better to point fingers at the Nepal government who is exploiting the need for inexperienced climbers to go on an Everest adventure. My husband went with a Western company to do Island Peak and he was left alone at 5950 metres to find his way back when he couldn’t go ahead. Greed has no colour sorry to say.

    •  

      I, too, think this piece glosses over some important underlying factors. The reason the western companies have more experience is because of historical post-colonial dominance in the region and exploitation of local talent. They can afford to put more into safety and have wider latitude in choosing clients and Sherpa guides because these factors give them a significant advantage. They could recognize their privilege and give back by investing in or partnering with local companies and providing training in business, logistics, and safety to local operators. But, they haven’t-there is greed everywhere. Perhaps, the Nepalese govt could give permits preferentially to companies that have X% local ownership to encourage such partnerships.

      I also saw another interesting idea in a comment here that suggested mandating that climbers (not the operators) successfully climb another peak in Nepal within 18 months prior to getting the permit for Everest. This would bring in revenue and weed out unqualified people.

  2.  

    Good commentary, Alan.
    There is no doubt that some of these issues are definitely due to exploitation of Sherpas over years.
    Now is the time for all big Western operators to put pressure on Nepal govt to make stricter rules for the climbers. Local operators won’t have enough clout to do so!

  3.  

    All of the expedition companies there, including Summit Climb (which is Western, I think) are dodgy.

    Half of those fatalities are from SST. Wow! Expect more deaths from this company.

  4.  

    Alan- I’m torn about this because the best climbers die too. I’m still heartbroken over David Lama, who I believed would be the next great climber with a long life ahead of him.

    I understand too that sherpas have risked their lives for little reward from people taking advantage of their poverty. I don’t blame them for fighting back against exploitation. They risk their lives too, but people seem to only care about the clients.

    I’m not sure of a solution.

  5.  

    This is a link to Nimsdai’s instagram explaining his attempted rescue, failed communication and lack of support of the Indian climbers

    https://www.instagram.com/p/BxiIPmdHYnn/?igshid=hcem8fji53im

  6.  

    Cpmparing rules and regulations on Denali vs those on Everest, and other mountains in Nepal is like comparing apples to… rocks.

    Until Nepal magically transforms into a first world country that isn’t desperate for tourism dollars, things won’t change, and it is foolish and unreasonable to expect otherwise.

    Futhermore, I would also add that I do not bleieve that clients going to Everest with cheaper operators are completely oblivious to the fact they will not get the same level of support of expertise as you would get with more expensive operators.

    I would also love to find out just how much of the money that these expensive outfits charge (north of $60,000) stays in Nepal and goes into their communities and how much of it leaves the country.

    The exploitation of Nepali’s or poor people in general isn’t something that people made up. There is a long standing history of this happening, and it continues to happen, and will continue to happen, and the only thing that will or has changed is that the the one exploiting the exploited is himself a Nepali/local.

  7.  

    Alan, what you report here as the first wave has started is truly what we all have read the years before. So nothing really new to us. And I honestly fear it will continue forever like this as you have pointed out repeatedly. The “main” greed is with the authorities being absolutely incompetent to set up rules for the operators whom to accept as a client. Sort of a certificate which proves their record. Nepal is driven by greed and as long as those “climbers” fill official pockets with their money nothing will change.
    To me, a true guide is one who turns you around not allowing you to climb the hill at base camp. That’s what true guides and expedition managers do: brief you individually BEFORE you pack your stuff for your push. If they tell you it leaves them with a bad feeling, you’d better pack your stuff. And head down away from BC. Serious, big Himalayan climbing requires a rational attitude. It’s not a matter about the cash you want to burn. It’s your attitude and responsibility.

  8.  

    Alan..your most insightful blog yet. This really has been the concern of the 8000 meter mountaineer community since the 1996 debacle on Everest. Equavalant to sending a well heeled HVI into space..putting individuals on 8000 meter expeditions with little or no vetting is highly unethical and likely to end up compromised.

  9.  

    It doesn’t require significant research to understand that climbing these mountains is extremely dangerous. Nobody has any business being on Everest if they don’t have experience climbing other mountains at this altitude. They should not rely on the guides or Sherpas to be their babysitters. If they don’t have the skills to get themselves up and down safely, they don’t belong there. And people who can see they don’t belong there shouldn’t take their money.

  10.  

    Alan, love your blogs every Year! I am not a mountain climber but can feel the experience of the climbers every time you post. Your opinion piece today is spot on. The disturbing fact is that people were left behind and died or disappeared. Where were the guides and Sherpa? Shouldn’t someone from the trekking company stay back to see all climbers are safe – regardless of high cost / low cost expeditions? No one should disappear if the guide company is taking care of and supporting the paying climbers. I see a pattern and reason for Global insurance issues with the Annapurna rescue delay. I may be confusing the obligations of these companies with the higher priced expeditions but no one should disappear without a witness or understanding of why…my opinion. This season has given me a bad feeling from the get go.

    •  

      I don’t agree with the suggestion that the guides are responsible for the climbers. It doesn’t require significant research to understand that climbing these mountains is extremely dangerous. Nobody has any business being on Everest if they don’t have experience climbing other mountains at this altitude. They should not rely on the guides or Sherpas to be their babysitters. If they don’t have the skills to get themselves up and down safely, they don’t belong there. And people who can see they don’t belong there shouldn’t take their money.

      •  

        People should be able to rely on their guides and their groups to at least keep track of them and make sure they aren’t lost.

  11.  

    I’m shocked that six out of the eleven fatalities so far were from altitude sickness, the symptoms of which are obvious and the cure as well. That would seem to indicate that either ego or ignorance was the main factor in those cases. Another problem which the Sherpas themselves acknowledge is that their culture is not confrontational and they have a hard time insisting that clients go down when they’re obviously suffering from altitude sickness and often become quite belligerent as their mental state deteriorates in the process.

    One thing not mentioned is that there are local guide companies that employ Sherpas who are international mountain guides, trained and certified by professional guides from Europel. As more of them are trained, I think standards will rise, brought by pressure from the Sherpas themselves. In the meantime, more tragedy.

  12.  

    Alan,

    We all respect your knowledge and great journalistic endeavors, and your unsurpassed roll as The Authority.

    That said, your recent opinion piece is not your finest hour.

    ________________

    Kent, I have edited your comment as it is abusive, vulgar and not appropriate for my site.

    You are using language I never did nor suggested or intended or ever would under any circumstances. I think you misread my overall intent.

  13.  

    Alan,
    When a guide company has two dead out of seven foreign clients on Everest and their facebook account has only high fives and congratulatory comments I find it unsettling. Do they remove the worriesome comments?
    There is a reason why when I went to EBC, I chose a company with the initials AC. Some people learn from experience, some people have no experience and some people never learn.
    I find it very relevant that your comment elsewhere at the start of this narrow window was ‘”the experienced operators are still in EBC waiting for their window….”
    While others are rushing to the first narrow possibility….
    The family and friends at home should be the ones concerned…..if the climbers are not….
    Thad N R

  14.  

    Alan,

    You have shared your feelings about this progression for several years. You have shared your concerns, support, and opinions. You have experience to share and do so openly and honestly.

    You mention the oversight on Denali compared to Everest et al. That is the issue and one that won’t change because Nepal covets the money they receive from the climbers.

    The Nepali companies are taking advantage of the opportunity provided them by their country. Unfortunately, potential climbers believe what they want to believe without a modicum of research.

    The deaths are sad and many times avoidable. Yet, inexperienced individuals jump at the opportunity without experience and are not given wise advice.

    There are many companies/individuals that are not giving wise advice to potential clients. That is the sad part… some of the “guide companies” know better and still take the money from clients they should not accept.

    It is sad…and it will continue.

    Rusty

  15.  

    This is spot on Alan. From the perspective of an overachiever; I dream about climbing Mt Everest one day and I definitely wouldn’t do it until I feel extra prepared to take on that challenge. Although, it is true that both government and companies need to be more responsible when deciding who are the few ones capable to get all the way to the summit, common sense seems to disappear in the egotistic eyes of the challengers. It is scary to think that all that is on the way of the peak and someone’s ego is having enough money to invest in this enterprise.

  16.  

    Thank you Alan for a thoughtful summary of this growing problem. We all know that nothing will ever change in Nepal, at least in our lifetimes. It is very sad, especially for those left behind.

  17.  

    I agree there is a serious problem with the running of expeditions Alan, however, I think there is an additional heading- Poverty. The young Sherpa guide needs to earn money to support his family and sees this as a way. I have discussed this with the two young trekking guides we had on separate holidays. One has just summited Everest after being caught in the earthquake 2015, and not succeeding last year due to the failure of oxygen regulators. He told us his father died when he was 2 years old and he has to support his mother and 5 sisters. He is hard working, determined and to a greater or lesser degree exploited both by both the local trekking guides and the western climbers. He has got as many qualifications in climbing and mountain rescue as he is able, but the costs of these is considerable and hard to afford, unless he gets his summit bonus. Our last guide is lucky, in the extent that , even though he has been made to give up his ambition to be a monk, in order to support his mother and siblings ( he also has lost his father), his fam8ly do not want him to take the risk of climbing the 8000ers. Behind all the tales of Sherpa greed, there are also stories of real hardship and exploitation.

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