A horrible tragedy today on Everest. 2 foreigners and 2 Sherpa “guides” were found dead in the same tent at the South Col, 8000 meters. Rajan Pokhrel broke the story a few minutes ago on the Himalayan Times
It was very windy and many teams choose to stay in their tents and not go for the summit.
Update 1: as usual with stories like this, differing information will emerge. However, my main points remain the same. It doesn’t matter if one person died, four or 40. There are long overdue changes in the way Everest is guided and climbed.
I will break my rule and speculate here that it is most likely they died from carbon monoxide poisoning by using their stoves in the tent without proper ventilation. source
The dead were part of a new “guiding” company on Everest:
Multiple sources at the base camp also confirmed that four persons belonging to a new trekking company have gone out of contact since Sunday after they were last seen near the Balcony area. “We are trying to verify all evidences before naming the victims,” a liaison officer at the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation said.
This is not just sad, it is totally irresponsible – to die from carbon monoxide poisoning is to break a basic rule of camping. The foreigners paid the “guides” to take care of them. While I promote self sufficiency, and will suggest the “climbers” should have also known better, these so-called Sherpa “guides” clearly did not do their job – if this is what they died from.
A few years ago, Nepal started to call every Sherpa a Guide in an effort to elevate their status and promote that climbing in Nepal was safe. I commented then that that is like calling every person on an airplane a pilot.
This public relations ploy by the Nepal government has to stop – the press believes then, uninformed people believe them and people die as a result.
This has to be the breaking point. How many parents will continue to stand by and let their children die – yes a lot of children are going to Everest these days.
On the north side there was an entire expedition with teenagers. While they had no problems, this encourages other teenagers to seek fame and fortune with an Everest summit – and it never happens.
In my last blog post I talked about one family demanding that the body of their son be recovered from a 200 meter crevasse at a cost of $60,000+ and risking the lives of the Sherpa rescuers – this is ridiculous and irresponsible. Their son got “separated” from his Sherpa “guide” and he died.
Sherpa is not Sherpa
Tim Mosedale wrote an article a few days ago on his observation on the so-called Sherpa “Guides” on Everest. It is even more pertinent tonight:
A couple of ‘Sherpas’ have been helped down from The Balcony this morning by some members and Sherpas (note the lack of ‘quotes’ this time) from a team who were on the way back to The South Col from their successful summit bid.
This is exceedingly worrying and I’ll tell you for why.
In the good old days Climbing Sherpas tended to be ethnic Sherpa or at least people who lived year round in a moderate altitude environment. This (usually) gave them a bit of a genetic advantage from the outset of the expedition.
Added to that a lot of the expedition staff used to have previous experience of being on Everest and so they knew the route, they had an idea about what was expected of them, they understood the foibles of dealing with members and their various needs, they understood the importance of summit day protocols and knew where they needed to be within a certain timescale if they were going to successfully get their member to the summit and back again safely.
In short the Climbing Sherpa staff would cumulatively have tens of Everest summits under their collective belts and they were experts in their field.
I’ve just been told by Kame, my Sirdar, that from his village (Pangboche) there used to be 64 Everest Climbing Sherpas … and now there are 13. All that expertise has been lost and the general level of professionalism has been drastically diluted.
A lot of the (cheaper) expedition providers are recruiting inexperienced ‘Sherpas’ on below average wages who have no idea about putting on their own crampons (let alone assisting their members) who are used pretty much as load carriers.
These guys are goat herders, or have a small parcel of land that they tend during the monsoon, or are vegetable sellers and they are brought from a sub 1,000m environment to work on Everest with the promise of summit bonuses beyond their wildest dreams.
This is yet another example of what I would call a toxic mix. Inexperienced members are perhaps introduced to ‘Pasang, who summited Everest last year’. ‘Oooo’ say the group. But what they don’t realise is that he only just got away with it and he is operating at a level where he can barely look after himself let alone assist them in an ultra hypoxic environment.
Over the years there’s been a huge dilution in the cumulative experience of staff whilst at the same time there’s been a net increase in inexperienced or poor expedition providers. When you combine this with a decline in the amount of experience of the members who are accepted on board it’s a worrying equation.
On the one hand there doesn’t seem to be any due diligence or sense of accountability on the part of the expedition operator. On the other hand the member who finds out that their company of choice has had fatalities on every expedition for the past 5 years seems to think that ‘it won’t happen to me’.
I don’t know what the answer is except to offer these salient pieces of advice … if the price sounds too good to be true then it probably is; come thoroughly prepared in many areas of climbing and mountaineering that you have accumulated over many years experiencing a whole variety of differing environmental conditions (the knarlier the better); question the expedition provider about success rates and fatalities (not the success rate of people who summited from The South Col but the overall success rate of everyone who arrived at Base Camp); enquire about the cumulative experience of the staff; ask about the medical provision and their understanding of high altitude physiology (if they are going to refer you to the HRA (Himalayan Rescue Association) then that only applies at Base Camp – what will they do for you if you are ill at Camp 2?); how well connected is the agent in Kathmandu and how readily can they get you on to a helicopter if you are critically ill on the mountain; if you need ‘Max Os’ can this be arranged during the course of the expedition (when you know how you’re acclimatising) rather than up front and what will it cost?
In the meantime feel free to have a look at the list of climbing skills I suggest you be acquainted with. It’s an extensive set of skills and techniques and you should have a deep understanding about what skill set to use when and be totally comfortable in the ever changing environment.
Remember … no matter how good your Climbing Sherpa is he can’t put one foot in front of the other for you; he can’t tell you if you have a cold hand and he can’t tell you when you are hungry or thirsty – you have to work these things out for yourself. And if your ‘Sherpa’ is barely able to look after himself then what are you going to do when the going gets really tough … especially if you are also inexperienced?
Low Cost, High Risk
I have been highlighting the risks of the new generation of Everest guide companies for several years now. Not that they are Nepali/Sherpa but that some lack the basic skills that the western companies have developed over decades of guiding.
Effort to train a new generation of Sherpas is well underway by organizations like the Khumbu Climbing Center, but the demand is too great and the attraction of working on Everest, at any pay level, is too great.
Western companies from New Zealand, America, Germany, the UK have dominated the Everest market. Deaths were few. In fact Everest actually got safer.
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%. The reduction in deaths is primarily due to better gear, weather forecasting and more people climbing with commercial operations.
But after the Sherpa strikes on Manaslu and Everest in 2014, new Nepali/Sherpa owned companies dramatically increased. They competed primarily on price, charging $18,000 for an Everest climb compared to $40,000 to $65,000 by western companies.
Recently, Indian owned companies have entered the market, also competing on price.
Tim hit on the problem – there are not enough skilled Sherpas – or any ethnicity – to support this massive increase in members. 2017 was a record year for foreigner permits on the Nepal side
Today, companies advertise more than a 1:1 ratio of support to member,. This is across the board for all companies. One well known western company who recently summited had six members and over 14 support staff. This is not sustainable.
I want to be clear, there are high quality Nepali/Sherpa owned guide companies like Asian Trekking and others so I don’t want to cast a cloud over all of them, but it is clear over the past few years that most of the deaths have been climbers on low cost companies.
The old stereotype that only wealthy people climb is typified by a comment I saw today on an Everest lauding Kilian Jornet’s speed climb to the summit:
Shows the difference between true mountaineering and guided tourist treks for the wealthy.
Actually the age and net worth of Everest climbers is rapidly dropping as the “guides” compete on price to open a bigger market. Those with money tend to go better prepared, with experienced operators and don’t take stupid risks – they don’t and won’t die for a summit.
Last year two Indian members got “lost” on the Balcony and died. This year another Indian, 27 years-old, died when separated from his guide, and on and on.
While the Nepal Mountaineering Association and Department of Tourism puts out press releases that the Hillary Step is still there, maybe they should worry more about keeping their foreign guests safe from unscrupulous and unqualified “guides.”
How many deaths will it take to get your attention?
I am upset because I care.
Memories are Everything