Guide companies tend to come and go, especially on Everest, but there are a handful that have made a significant contribution to the industry and when they “go”, there is a good reason.
I’ve known Phil Crampton since 2008 when he was instrumental in helping me recover from botched logistics on a Everest North side climb. We went to the South side that year and was waylaid by the Chinese antics related to the Olympic games. Anyway, in 2013 I summited Manaslu with Phil and team plus was on his Everest team in 2016 for my Lhotse attempt.
When he told me a couple of years ago that he was leaving Everest, I nodded politely and dismissed his comment as recreational complaining. But then he did it.
His company, Altitude Junkies, has an incredibly loyal following. It is common for him to have 8 out of 9 repeat members on an expedition, almost all who have summited several 8000 meter mountains. And of course Everest was the crown jewel for many.
He is not a “guide” and takes it personally if you call him one. He expects his climbers to come prepared, independent and ready to climb. No training at base camp. If you ask him if there will be a gear check, he will scoff at you and suggest that you are on the wrong team!
Phil is famous for his afternoon happy hours where attendance is mandatory, but drinking is not. I have spent many an hour in the dining tent visiting with the who’s who in climbing including Conrad Anker, Russell Brice and others.
His Sherpas are some of the best and loyal to a fault. He pays above average wages, does not accept tips and keeps his promise that there will be zero surprises on his trips. Oh, and his prices are below average.
So why would he walk away from the largest draw in Himalayan climbing? Why would he leave money on the table? And what is next for the Junkies? With that background I asked Phil what was going on.
Q: What is the background on Altitude Junkies not being on Everest in 2017?
The Junkies have been on Everest every year since 2008 and I have participated in 14 Everest expeditions, both on the north and south sides of the mountain. It’s been a very enjoyable dozen plus Everest expeditions and nearly three years of my life if you include the pre and post expedition duties. The mountains of the Himalayas and their dynamics are changing and with this in mind we decided to switch the direction the Junkies were going with our 8,000-meter peaks expeditions.
One major concern I have for 2017 is overcrowding especially with the climbers from 2014 and 2015 using their permit extensions. 2014 permits are valid until 2019 but those climbers present in 2015 during the earthquake and subsequent avalanche have to use their permit this season otherwise they are invalid. There were some meetings in Kathmandu with the local operators last year in regards to the expected increase in numbers of foreign climbers expected this spring season and going on rumors and local operators talking, it will be a substantial increase and a record number of climbers are expected on the south side.
I am also noticing a lot of climbers, some making their first visit to Nepal, wanting to climb both Everest and Lhotse in the same push. Lhotse used to see very few climbers on her flanks but the allure of two 8,000-meter peaks in a 24-hour period is too much for some of the novice climbers to refuse to attempt. I believe there were only two summits of Lhotse last season and you need a lot of luck for everything to fall into place to gain both is a short period of time.
Q: How much did the deluge of inexperienced climbers play in your decision?
It was always the joke on the north side of Everest back in the 90’s and early 00’s about the inexperienced budget climbers showing up unprepared. We used to call it the “Everest Circus”. It now seems as if the north side has rid itself of that image and unfortunately the circus seems like it’s moving to the Nepal south side.
A few years ago a lot of the western companies would ask their members to have experience on a peak such as Aconcagua before going to “The Big E” but recently I am meeting members of well-known western guiding companies at Everest base camp who are very proud to tell me that they have no experience whatsoever and their expedition company had no problem allowing them to join the team. It now seems very fashionable that a lot of the Everest climbers want to take the fast track to the summit, skip a 7,000-meter peak as preparation and sleep in a plastic tent at home so they can be done with Everest in 4 weeks.
Q: Were you concerned about your member’s safety relative to earthquakes and avalanches?
I am always concerned for the safety of my members and Sherpa staff on any mountain. Earthquakes cannot be predicted whereas those climbers and guides with avalanche training can spot potential dangers but no one can predict exactly when a slide will happen. We provide each climber and Sherpa a radio and an avalanche transceiver but the big mountains throw situations at us that we cannot always control. I always tell my team members that the avalanche transceiver they wear is to help the rescuers retrieve bodies safely if possible, it will not protect them from an avalanche or serac falls.
Any climber on Everest who does not carry a radio is stupid in my honest opinion. They weigh nothing and can save your life. I can attest to that after taking a big crevasse fall back on Manaslu in 2013 and my radio saved my life.
Q: Why did you select Makalu as the alternative?
My good friend and climbing partner, the late Samuli Mansikka climbed Makalu and said it was a perfect commercial 8,000-meter peak for experienced 8,000-meter climbers. Sammy was going to join the Altitude Junkies organization as a business partner when he had finished his oxygen free 8,000-meter quest.
The plan was to offer 8,000-meter peaks for experienced climbers that didn’t have the crowds that are seen on Everest and Cho Oyu and now Manaslu. Unfortunately Sammy lost his life descending from the summit of Annapurna, so I want to keep our dream alive and offer peaks for climbers who want to continue their 8,000-meter climbs. We have plans to visit Kanchenjunga, Annapurna, Nanga Parbat and some other less travelled 8,000-meter peaks over the next few years.
Q: Will you ever go back to Everest?
We are working on some ideas about returning to Everest in the future but I would like to avoid the crowds, perhaps a fall climb instead of the busy spring season.
The north side seems to be the choice now for getting away from the crowds. The Chinese impose strict previous experience requirements for Chinese nationals wishing to climb Everest, and this as well as the route on the north side being colder and more technically difficult will keep the numbers lower than the south side.
Everest is a major part of my life and who I am. I feel somewhat guilty not being there this spring climbing, although I will be there mid-March setting up base camp with some of my Sherpa as we have some regular Junkies climbers who wish to use their permits from the two cancelled seasons. After spending a week at base camp I am flying to Annapurna base camp with Sammy’s mother for a Puja as the second anniversary of his death is coming up. Then after a few days in Kathmandu I head back up the Khumbu and trek to Dingboche with my team members before taking choppers to Makalu base camp. I may not be climbing Everest this year but will spend some quality time in the Everest region this spring.
Best of luck to Phil and team on Makalu this season. You can follow him on the Altitude Junkies website.
Memories are Everything