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 2: Sources, reporters and officials now say report was wrong
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
Nepal is an IFMGA country and has 50 or so IFMGA certified mountain guides (trained in Nepal).
Adrian’ s point is valid with the exception of “AMGA” mention. IFMGA is the standard and AMGA (as it is VDBS, SBS, SNGM, VOBS, VSBS, ACMGA, NZMGA, etc) just a member compliant to these standards. Just as AMGA is an IFMGA member so it is NNMGA – therefore no need for Nepali guides to obtain AMGA certification since they can obtain NNMGA certification (both IFMGA).
Thank you for this article Alan, great as always.
One thing that I think is important to establish is where the responsibility starts? Should it be a decree from the Nepali Govt. or is the responsibility with the providers?
My personal opinion is that we need to find a healthy combination where the government puts down guidelines for providers rather than for ‘guides’ on the mountain (I intentionally don’t refer to them as Sherpa as I refer to both the ethical group as well as western guides) and the provider needs to provide evidence that their guides have standards and experience to lead on the mountain.
When it comes to members on the mountain, the wish is that a solution can be found, where sense overrules profit but, from my own experience I have personally witnessed one UK/USA based company hiring western lead guides (in reality leaders in training, who get a significant discount on their expedition cost in exchange for their ‘guidance’ one the mountain) based on them ‘only’ summiting Kili as well as lets say Lobuche East or Ama Dablam.
The guidelines set out by Adrian are fair in an ideal world, however do we need to apply these rules to all Nepalese 8000m permits or only Everest? (i.e. you should have climbed above 6500m before climbing Daulagiri? or similar? and if yo want to climb Baruntse should you prove you have been over 4500m? – and how would this overall effect Nepali Tourism (will teams just travel to Tibet or Pakistan instead?
Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely agree with both Alan and Adrian that something needs to be put in place both in terms of permits (I have firsthand seen western company make up a climbing CV to get a permit issued – I still have the original copy with my own name printed on it as leader!!!), providers and members, but it is a massive step from what it is today, someone will need to lead the talking/conversations with the government but I fear the wrong people will be put in charge of this
I would love to return to the high mountains again, one day, but things will need to change….
It would be good if true I guess but how do 4 bodies just get left in a tent and no one knows who they are?
I was looking for any comment by the company guiding the dead American doctor, but haven’t see a word.
You and Tim quoted in NPR piece a few minutes ago: http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/05/24/529855463/everest-death-toll-rises-to-10-this-season-after-4-more-climbers-found-dead
I’ve been enjoying your writing and reporting.
I wonder why foreigners are even allowed to guide on Everest. As long as Sherpas are not allowed to guide on Grand Teton also you should’d be allowed to guide on Everest. And with your attitude no wonder all the world hates you yankees.
Hi Tommy, thank you for taking your time to make an insightful comment on the deaths. Next time you are in the US, I’ll buy you a pint.
Maybe, it wasn’t anyones fault. The risks are so big on that mountain and there is no rhyme or reason to someone who makes it and one who doesnt, it seems like.
While there are certainly crazy situations, like an earthquake, that may be impartial to who makes it home – these deaths were not random. They were based on ignorance and completely avoidable.
Sad. More death and everyone is pointing fingers while avoiding the obvious. Everest is possible because someone else puts up all the ropes, the ladders, the tents and carries the supplies up to each camp. Sherpas and the climbing companies have made it possible for an octogenarian and multiple teens to ‘climb’ Everest.
We now talk of “The Everest Experience” as if it was a Disney ride.
If the members had to prove they could climb and carry up some of their own supplies, the fatality rate would plummet. And of course the money ride would be over.
THanks Alan for confronting the contentious issues on Everest and informing others of the harsh realities that the authorities arent tackling efffectively.
Thanks Alan for your ethical reporting, based on first-hand experience.
Unfortunately, some newspapers, particularly, The Guardian, manage to get hold of the wrong end of the stick, fail to grasp what the real problems are and condemn all climbing of Everest, because yes, people do die on the mountain. And as we’ve been reminded again this year, even the most talented and experienced of climbers.
The legendary Rheinhold Messner has said that in his day, Sherpas followed behind the climber, acting more as a porter than a guide. The message is clear, in those days people attempting Everest ascents were seasoned mountaineers. Now, there are outfits willing to take on members who have never used crampons and in the case of a Canadian/Nepalese woman who died a few years ago, had never climbed anything larger than some hills in Toronto. I believe she was the first customer of a start-up outfit in it’s first season.
I was going to mention Shriya Shah Korfine, glad you did. The Fifth Estate in Canada here did a good show on what transpired called “Into the Death Zone”.
I like the way the guide companies are trying to establish “standards” so they make themselves feel important. Ha!
Why not just say, “In order to climb Everest, you must have climbed Everest previously!” That makes as much sense.
Sad to hear about these preventable Deaths….RIP, my friends…
I completely take on board the distinction that Tim Mosedale makes beween a “Sherpa” and a Sherpa (notce lack of quotes).
I also raised the question in a comment a few blog posts back whether the death of the Indian climber a few days ago was due to negligence or incompetence (both on the part of the climber and the “Sherpa”).
I have a sneaking suspicion that there was at least one of the two factors (negligence or incompetence) behind the cause of death.
You do a great job of reporting, Alan. Keep up the great work. Everyone needs to be responsible for themselves, especially in that situation, let alone in everyday life!
This is a very insightful article, Alan. Thanks for all your info.
“Title” sherpa should be given only to a person who is approved climbing guide with certified climbing skills. But according by dictionary sherpa is a name of people who live on the mountain villages, so maybe name sherpa is misleading. Alan maybe these four deaths happened because of low level oxygen messed up their head . First I though this year was going to be less deaths than anyother year but now corpses are falling like flies.
Correct on the use of Sherpa, but it has become common to use Sherpa as a synonym for leading on Everest. There was an effort to call everyone “High Altitude Workers” but it never caught on.
Usually anyone at the South Col is on a low flow of supplemental oxygen, but maybe they were not, maybe it ran out, .. can speculate forever.
I like how we’re blaming the Sherpas… Like the 1st world climbers are unaware of how to operate their burners and stoves… Maybe the 2 non sherpas turned on the stove while the Sherpas where a sleep.
Adults need to own up to their own decisions and mistakes.
And you don’t pay Sherpa to take care of you and baby sit you. The lead you up; they take you down. They show you where to step. Not how to act.
Totally agree John. That’s why I wrote” 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.”
I have been talking about climbing an 8000 meter peak before you attempt Everest but each year I see more and more people with a Kili summit and they believe they can climb Everest PLUS there are many many many companies that will take their money and tell them they can do it.
So this is a two-part problem – inexperienced members and unqualified “guides” Both need to be fixed.
100% agree! let’s hope one day Sherpa could be removed as a job name, and guides from any corner of the world can be equally paid and equally qualified.
Alan: why did the number of experienced Sherpa guides drop from 67 to 12 in one village? Age, death, retirement?
This change is shocking to me.
Again, thank you for enlightening me about so much regarding Everest
Many young Sherpas are educated in Kathmandu and pursuing other lines of work. Kami’s son just graduated with a degree in Electrical Engineering and will never be an Everest guide – and Kami is very happy about that.
Thanks for the comment. But what happen to the experienced people? The ones who had been guides?
Anyway it seems there aren’t enough true “guides” no matter why the older ones are gone.
But if the true Sherpas don’t want to guide of course others will step in.
These last deaths the past few days as well as the climbers in trouble have been troubling and tragic.
Thanks for all you do.