Welcome to the kick-off for my Everest 2016 coverage! This will be my 14th season of all-things Everest: 9 times providing coverage, another 4 seasons of actually climbing on Everest and then last year attempting Lhotse when the earthquake hit Nepal.
I did similar coverage for the 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 seasons. I summited Everest on May 21, 2011 and have attempted Everest three other times – 2002, 2003, 2008 and Lhotse in 2015.
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My goal is to provide insight and analysis of what is going on up there with no favorites or agendas. I use sources directly from the mountain, public information and my own experiences to write my posts.
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Four Years of Death and Uncertainty
Without a doubt, the last few seasons on Everest have been difficult, deadly, disappointing and surprising.
The last time we had a “normal” season was in 2012 with a 551 combined summits from both sides and 10 deaths. Even then controversy emerged when Himex cancelled their expedition half way through the season after Russell Brice deemed the West Shoulder of Everest too unstable for his Sherpas and members to pass underneath. Also, record crowds in 2012 created insufferable lines above Camp 3 and at the Hillary Step fueling global discussion that Everest management was in need of serious changes.
In 2013 an estimated 658 people summited in the spring, 539 on the south and 119 on the north with 8 confirmed deaths. That year we saw the inexcusable behavior of both Sherpas and professional climbers arguing and fighting about who had the right to climb on the Lhotse Face while the fixed ropes were being set for the commercial teams.
Then the deadliest year ever on Everest occurred in 2014 when 19 Sherpas died either from a serac release off Everest’s West Shoulder or during other parts of the season. The season was effectively canceled when a small band of Sherpas influenced others to go on strike for improved working conditions and insurance coverage. There was only one non-Sherpa climber to summit from the South side. She used a helicopter to ferry herself and a team of Sherpas to Camp 2 because the Icefall Doctors had quit maintaining the route. Meanwhile it was business as usual on the North with about 125 summits.
In spite of the chaos during the previous seasons, almost record permits were issued in the spring of 2015 – 358 individuals for Everest 114 for Lhotse and 56 for Nuptse. The season progressed well with the Icefall Doctors taking care to move the route through Khumbu Icefall a bit away from the West Shoulder’s objective dangers.
But the world came crashing down, literally and figuratively when a magnitude 7.8 earthquake occurred on April 25, 2015 in north-central Nepal impacting close to 10 million people – one third of Nepal’s population. Over 9,000 people lost their lives. Today, almost one year later, the response to the communities and families hardest hit has been embarrassingly inadequate by the Nepal government. Reports say that little of the $4 billion in promised foreign aid has been delivered or used.
As for climbing in 2015, for the first time since 1974, there were no summits on Everest by any route in any season. The earthquake created massive instability on both the Tibet and Nepal sides of the mountain creating concern that climbers would be in more dangerous conditions than normal. On the Nepal side, over 180 climbers had to be evacuated by helicopter from Camp 1 at 19,500’ in the Western Cwm when aftershocks made descending though the Khumbu Icefall too dangerous.
While the Nepal government never officially closed Everest to climbing, it was practically shut off as the primary climbing route goes through the Khumbu Icefall and the Sherpas who managed the route stopped maintaining it given the danger. Also, almost every team made the independent decision to halt climbing due to the excessive risks.
On the Tibet side, the Chinese government through the China Tibet Mountaineering Association (CTMA), made the decision to close all climbing throughout Tibet, including Everest, the day after the earthquake and through the remainder of 2015 due to potential aftershocks and excessive risks.
I was at Camp 2, 21,500’, in the Western Cwm climbing Lhotse Peak when the earthquake hit. Our team doctor, Marisa Eve Girawong, was one of 18 killed at basecamp from an avalanche caused by the quake. Once we understood the magnitude of the devastation across Nepal, climbing was the last thing on our minds. We were in full support of our Sherpas and other support staff returning to their home villages to take care of their families. Please read my full 2015 season report for an inside look.
So what does 2016 look like? It could be the lowest number of climbers in years for several reasons.
Certainly the publicity around the earthquakes have created concern that the infrastructure is not safe and climbing in avalanche prone areas is more dangerous than ever given the unsettled terrain. Many feel that climate change is causing the snow and ice features to shift on the world’s highest mountains creating more objective danger on the normal routes. Others feel that these events occur naturally and the deaths are a result of people being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Personally, I believe climbing is no more dangerous (that doesn’t say much!) than it has always been on Everest and the large mountains of the Himalaya.
Reports from autumn 2015 trekkers and climbers throughout Nepal noted no problems with teahouses and climbing on peaks like Island and Mera saying they were as safe as they have always been. The Japanese climber Nobukazu Kuriki attempted Everest from the South Col route in the autumn of 2015, and while unsuccessful, said the conditions were “normal”.
That said, other reports note that Nepal remains a ticking time-bomb for an even larger earthquake that could hit at any moment. For an excellent look at the April 25, 2015 earthquake, subsequent damage and predictions, visit this documentary on PBS/Nova. Note it is not available in all countries.
Another factor that could reduce crowds is the ongoing political turmoil in Nepal as a new government struggles to implement a new constitution. This bungling has lead the Madhesis in southern Nepal on the border with India to block critical supplies including fuel and medicine from entering the country from India, Nepal’s largest trading partner. As usual there is plenty of blame to go around but recent reports note the government will amend the constitution to meet the needs of the Madhesis but other reports say it will not solve the real problem. One can only hope it gets resolved before the tourists arrive in late March.
Back to mountaineering, the Nepal Ministry of Avaition and Tourism that manages Everest and the other mountains has floated several ideas to make Everest less crowded and safer. This has become an annual event where newspapers around the world parrot the Ministry’s declarations but follow thru is sporadic and ineffective. This year, they are suggesting upper and lower age limits plus requirements that anyone attempting Everest must have experience on a 6500 meter peak. You can read my full analysis of these ideas on this post but I doubt anything will change for 2016.
Finally, there is a school of thought that says the Himalaya mountains are asking to be left alone and no one should climb in 2016, or longer. The thought goes on to note that Sherpas have had a difficult time rebuilding their homes due to lack of aid, construction material, labor and time during a harsh winter. All of this is true according to my sources. However, I have received a large number of requests to come back to Nepal this spring to show support and confidence in Nepal, plus bringing badly needed work, and cash, to the Sherpa and many other ethnicities.
As I covered in my annual “How much does it cost to climb Mount Everest” post, look for prices to be higher … and lower 🙂 .
So how much does it cost to climb Everest? The short answer is, a car, or at least $30,000 but most people pay about $45,000. The headline for 2016 is that the high-end went higher and the low-end went lower. The price range for a standard climb, i.e. non-custom, ranges from $30,000 to $85,000. This is driven by low cost Nepali operators getting a foothold in the market and the traditional western operators adding more services to differentiate their product. In other words, climbing Everest has become a mature market just like cars or airplane flights.
How much you spend depends on the expedition style, level of support and which side of Everest you climb. A standard climb from Tibet (north side) should run around $32,000 and from Nepal (south side) $42,000. A climb with one or more western guides from the south side will cost at least $60,000. If you want to go with one of the low cost Nepali companies with no frills and perhaps some dangerous shortcuts, it will cost about $30,000 from either side.
The Grand Dame of all Everest statistics, Ms. Elizabeth Hawley reports on the Himalayan Database that there have been 7,001 summits of Everest through August 2015 on all routes by 4,093 different people. 953 people, mostly Sherpa, have summited multiple times totaling 3,861 times (included in the 7,001 total summits). 193 climbers summited without supplemental oxygen through August 2015, about 2.7% 14 climbers have traversed from one side to the other. About 60% of all expeditions put at least one member on the summit.
282 people (169 westerners and 113 Sherpas) have died on Everest from 1924 to August 2015. Of the deaths, 102 died attempting to summit without using supplemental oxygen. The Nepalese side is more popular with 4,421 summits with 176 deaths through August 2015 or 3.98%. The Tibet side has seen 2,580 summits with 106 deaths through August 2015. or 4.1%. Most bodies are still on the mountain but China has removed many bodies from sight. The top cause of death was from a fall, avalanche, exposure and altitude sickness
Everest is getting safer, statistically. From 1923 to 1999: 170 people died on Everest with 1,169 summits or 14.5%. But the deaths drastically declined from 2000 to 2015 with 5,832 summits and 112 deaths or 1.9%. However, as I previously discussed, two years skewed the deaths rates with 16 in 2014 and 19 in 2015. The reduction in deaths is primarily due to better gear, weather forecasting and more people climbing with commercial operations.
Sadly, death on Everest has become a marketing tool for some operators claiming their techniques are safer. As always climbing Everest is thwart with slick s pitches, clever use of statistics and pricing strategies designed to draw in the naive with low prices and lure those looking for a fast and ‘easy’ summit with high prices.
The death to ‘summit ratio (282:7001) on Everest from both sides is about 4%. Annapurna remains the most deadly 8000 meter mountain with three deaths for every summit (211:69) or 32% .
In my opinion, the recent tragedies will not stop the desire to climb Everest or other high mountains as most people who climb accept the risks. There are some in the Sherpa community that have decided to stop guiding on Everest due to the increasing danger and pressure from their families but the economic benefit of guiding Everest often outweighs the risks.
My hope is that climbers will return to Nepal in the spring of 2016 to provide work and income for the Sherpa community. Nepal needs tourism more than ever to help rebuild the country. I am confident the infrastructure is in place to support climbers and trekkers. There have been many lessons for the recent tragedies that will be applied next season for example, changing the location of camps and climbing routes to minimize impact of avalanches, better training for the Sherpas, and radios and avalanche beacons for all support and climbers.
But to be clear, climbing the world’s highest peaks have become more challenging in recent years. As I previously reported, 2015 was a difficult year on the 8000 meter mountains with few summits and too many tragic deaths.
I have begun to create my annual team location table and tracking climber’s blogs (see sidebar). If you have a team not listed, please let me know and I will add them if I can track them. If you prefer not to be mentioned, please contact me.
I will post a few background articles and interviews between now and early April when the teams arrive at the base camps. If you would like to see anything special this year, post a comment or drop me an email.
Here’s to a safe season for everyone on the Big Hill.
Memories are Everything