We Can Make Everest Safer. Too Bad No One's Trying.
March 22, 2019
Early this winter,the hundreds of climbers making plans for spring-summit attempts on Mount Everest suddenly faced a new set of rules. In December, the Nepalese government decreed that it would no longer issue permits to blind, solo, or double-amputee mountaineers for any of its high peaks. Furthermore, all expeditions would have to employ at least one Sherpa and would be forbidden from using helicopters to reach high camps.
The regulations fit a pattern established by Nepal’s Ministry of Tourism, which in the past few years has issued a series of proclamations—climbers must announce plans to set records, trekkers must carry location beacons—that suggest improved management of its high-altitude peaks. Each new declaration generates a rash of international news reports about authorities making strides toward addressing safety at the top of the world. The truth is a lot more complicated.
Mountaineering is big business in Nepal. Industry experts estimate that it generates some $26.5 million in tourism income each year, with around $11 million of that coming from Everest climbers alone. The enduring obsession of the Western media, including Outside, with tragic deaths on these far-off snowy peaks has resulted in a lot of free marketing. Nepal’s Ministry of Tourism, perhaps concerned that all the morbid tales might drive climbers to Everest’s less used Chinese side, has gained some control of that narrative by broadcasting more positive developments through the Nepalese press. But the rules announced to date would do nothing to mitigate the dangers of climbing Everest even if Nepal had the resources and conviction to enforce them, which it doesn’t. (Meanwhile, in March, Nepal’s Supreme Court stayed the country’s ban on climbers with disabilities.)
Making a huge, hugely popular mountain safer is possible. On Alaska’s Denali, full-time climbing rangers conduct safety checks of many teams and are mobilized for rescue operations. On Argentina’s Aconcagua, rangers patrol all high camps, and until recently, permit fees included the cost of helicopter rescues. Adopting similar policies in Nepal would be a good start. A longer list of true reforms would include ordering all climbers to have previously summited a 7,000-meter peak, requiring nonguides working above Base Camp to take a course at the Khumbu Climbing Center (hundreds have done so since it was founded in 2003), and capping the total number of climbers on the mountain at 500 per season, including support staff. That last policy would both reduce dangerous crowding and help keep the mountain clean.
Unfortunately, these kinds of rules are less likely than ever to be instituted on Everest, owing to the rise of budget guiding companies. Beginning in the early 1990s, Western outfitters established commercial mountaineering on the Nepal side of the peak by attracting clients willing to pay as much as $65,000 to be guided to the summit. That business model dominated for more than two decades, bringing an estimated 9,000 paying climbers to Base Camp. Consequently, Everest earned a reputation as a magnet for the rich, ambitious, and inexperienced.
As in many markets, savvy entrepreneurs saw opportunities for disruption. Lower-cost guiding companies, some founded by Westerners and others by Nepalese, slowly gained traction by offering Everest climbs for as little as a third of the going rate among high-end outfitters. Then came 2014, when 16 Sherpas died after a serac collapsed onto the Khumbu Icefall, part of the main route from Base Camp to Camp I. In the wake of that tragedy, a small group of Sherpas demanded that the Nepalese government establish regulations that would improve working conditions, increase pay, boost life-insurance coverage, and provide a funeral stipend. Ultimately, Sherpas received a bit more insurance—the minimum payout was doubled from $5,500 to $11,000—but not much else.
Partly in response to media attention of these events, Nepali-owned guiding companies have continued to gain influence and market share on Everest. The shift away from foreign control of the mountain is welcomed by many in the climbing community. Another positive development: lower-cost operators are increasing diversity on Everest, attracting climbers from China’s and India’s burgeoning middle classes with aggressive pricing. Based on numbers from the Himalayan Database, in 2010, four Indian and eight Chinese climbers attempted the mountain, just 6 percent of the total. Last year, Chinese and Indian clients accounted for 60 of the 199 Nepal-side summits.
Unfortunately, in the absence of substantive government oversight, some of the budget companies are making Everest more dangerous by flooding the already overcrowded route with novice climbers led by inexperienced guides. Any operators charging less for guided climbs are prone to bolster profits through scale, booking dozens of clients on expeditions. (The most respected outfitters set a maximum of ten.) Putting aside 2014’s tragedy and 2015’s earthquake-induced avalanche, which killed at least 17 people at Base Camp, 12 of the 17 climber deaths on the South Col route between 2011 and 2017 appear to have been clients of budget outfitters.
During last year’s peak season, Kathmandu-based Seven Summit Treks, known for bringing large groups of climbers to Everest, allegedly promoted a young support staffer named Sange Sherpa to guide Everest and assigned him to an older Pakistani client. The pair reached the summit late in the day and got into trouble on their descent. They had to be rescued by experienced Sherpas from another Nepalese outfitter. Sange later had all his fingers amputated due to severe frostbite.
Veteran guides are reacting to all this in different ways. Adrian Ballinger, founder of the California outfitter Alpenglow, has abandoned the Nepal side of Everest and is instead leading teams from China. As he explained it to me, the higher risk from natural dangers (avalanches, seracs, crevasses), the low standards of other outfitters, and Nepal’s mismanagement add up to an unacceptable environment. Several other prominent guides have come to the same conclusion, including Austrian Lukas Furtenbach. Others are staying put. International Mountain Guides co-owner Eric Simonson, whose first expedition on Everest was in 1982, insists that upgrades in route-making through the Khumbu Icefall, and the establishment of dual ropes in areas prone to bottlenecks, have made the Nepal side safer, even as the crowds have grown.
Everest remains the ultimate conquest for many climbers. And while most embrace the risk of high-altitude mountaineering, few understand that the biggest dangers are all too often the result of economics, not the forces of nature. Ultimately, the top priority of many tourism officials and outfitters isn’t safety. It’s the bottom line.
Alan Arnette has been chronicling developments on Mount Everest since 2002. He reached the summit in 2011.