What happens on the Earth's highest mountain? (by Elena Corriero)
28 June 2012
by Elena Corriero
In opening Kairn’s website today, my eyes fell on a short news entitled “Too many tourists on the edge of the world”. The news quoted the german alpinist Ralf Dujmovits, who declared to be “saddened” by the overcrowding on Mount Everest. A profane like me was impressed by his picture of the long snake of astronauts heading for the summit, especially in the aftermath of the deaths occurred in those days. The interview in which Simone Moro declared that Everest looked to him like an amusement park stunned me even more.
I wondered if the Everest had actually become an amusement park, and which role commercial operators play in making the mountain more dangerous or safer; I asked myself if the aspiring alpinists paying big dollars were cannon fodder, and which could be the best ways to counter overcrowding.
2012 has been compared to 1996, when 14 people died on the mountain; according to unofficial numbers, this year’s toll is of 10 deaths. But news are not easy to confirm, as demonstrated by the uncertainty that surrounded for days the identity of one of the victims.
News are fragmentary and confused, until they are confirmed thorough laborious investigations and interviews with the expeditions. The most authoritative source for precise details and information is Ms. Elizabeth Hawley, who records in her Himalayan database all details of the expeditions along the Nepalese side of Mount Everest.
I turn to Ms. Hawley to verify whether traffic on Everest on the weekend of May 19 was a normal occurrence or an unusual one.
“The concentration of large numbers of people very high on Everest on two days, the 19th and 25th of May, was most unusual”, she replied, “and the fact that the large majority summited from the Nepalese side, rather than about half of them on the Tibetan side as in previous years, was also unusual.”
This is due, according to Elizabeth Hawley, to the increased cost of the permit levied in Tibet, together with the general conditions that make both logistics and safety more complex on the northern side.
While Ms. Hawley is cautious in tracing a long term trend, the Italian mountaineer Simone Moro is sure that traffic will be more and more concentrated on the south side.
“Everest from the Chinese side costs 30% more than last year, and probably by the next year the cost on the two sides will be the same. The Tibetan side will see less and less traffic. The permit in China now costs 7500$, and you are subject to the odd decision of the Chinese. Base camp is filthy, if you have an edema you cannot descend, helicopters cannot get there… The permit in Nepal costs 10.000$, the camp is clean, the helicopter gets there and you are in a friendly country.
Exact numbers are not available yet, but, Eberhard Jurgalski, the man behind 8000ers.com, tells me that an estimated 550 people summited in 2012. Large numbers, no doubt, although not too far from those of the previous years: 457 summited in 2009, 543 in 2010 and 542 in 2011. In 2007 an exceptional number of 633 summiters was recorded (figures provided by E.Jurgalski).
Nothing strange, then? Not exactly, since in previous years, according to Ms. Hawley, the traffic was divided evenly between the two normal routes, north and south, whereas this year it was all concentrated on the Nepalese route.
The weather did all but improve the situation, with a fickleness atypical for the month of May. A study published by the American Alpine Journal clarifies the connection between the success of an expedition and the season chosen for the ascent, highlighting the fact that spring - May in particular - is the best period, most probably for the stable weather conditions.
This year, however, a series of factors has delayed the rope fixing, as explained by Eric Simonson, manager, co-owner and guide at IMG.
“There was a combination of Lothse face being quite icy early and rock falls issues. This was solved with more snowfall, and the Lothse face ended up being perfect, but there were delays in getting the Lothse face fixed and subsequently above South Col fixed. The fixing did not happen until May 18th. In previous years, ropes were established on the upper mountain first week of May, enabling teams to start the summit bids immediately, so that bids were spread on a much longer time.”
On May 21, it was ascertained that four people had died on Mount Everest during the weekend. Grayson Schaffer reported their names for Outside Online: Shriya Shah, a Canadian woman of nepalese origin; the Chinese Ha Wenyi; a German doctor, Eberhard Schaaf, and the Korean Song Wonbin. According to all sources, none of them was a client of a major outfitter such as Himex or IMG.
The Canadian woman had hired a company named “Utmost Adventures” that neither IMG or Peak Freaks (a smaller but established operator) had never heard of before.
“This company […]”, told me Tim Rippell, owner and guide at Peak Freaks, “claimed to be a commercial operator who guided the now dead woman from Canada/Nepal, had no previous mountain guiding credentials or any previous experience or references on their website.”
Eric Simonson of IMG confirms Rippel’s claim, further explaining that there is an increasing number of Nepalese companies that are trying to get into the business without employing certified guides and planning adequate support, and who might not be authoritative enough to turn their paying clients around during the ascent.
A fact highlighted by Schaffer, who writes that some sherpas he talked to said that the sherpas of two of the dead people “were pleading with the climbers to turn back, but in both cases the climber said “No, no, no […].”
“There's hundreds of this companies”, says Simonson, “advertising the Everest, but they don’t run the expedition themselves, they sign somebody up and take the money. There is no accountability as to who provides the service.”
It is likely that the definition of commercial operator is crucial to understand some of the issues at stake, as proved by the fact that none of the major companies was involved in the fatalities of last month. The numbers seem to say that the mountain is incresingly safe, considering that the ratio of fatalities to the total number of ascents has been decreasing steadily, falling below 1.5% in the last years, according to the figures provided by E.Jurgalski. In their study Success and death on Mount Everest, Raymond Huey and Richard Salisbury concluded that “In some ways these patterns are surprising, given the widespread belief that contemporary Everest climbers are on average less experienced and skilled than their predecessors. If that belief is accurate, then the decline in average skill and experience has been more than balanced by improved equipment and logistics, better weather forecasting, greater cumulative knowledge of the routes, and enhanced skill and experience of H- A porters and leaders.”
Simone Moro is convinced that the decline in skills is consistent. “Roughly 10% of those that climb Everest today have a big safety margin, meaning that if they run out of oxygen they can get down, or that they are able to use crampons and ice-axes if they encounter an icy zone. Nobody is ever 100% sure, but here we have people totally dependent on fixed ropes, on sherpas, on guides.”
The expertise and resources of major outfitters are key to understanding how inexperienced “alpinists”, with a weak climbing history, have increasingly higher possibilities of going back home safe and sound, having achieved their dream of summiting the highest mountain on Earth. The support offered by established operators more than compensates for reduced skills and physical preparation, but all major companies try to reduce risks by selecting the applicants. IMG Eric Simonson declares that, in 2012, IMG has turned down some 10 applicants.
“It’s not in our interest to take people who don’t have good chances to make the summit. We want people to demonstrate past history: having climbed successfully 6000 meters peaks like McKinley in Alaska, or Aconcagua; and to demonstrate they have done well, showing their ability to acclimatize.
We expect people to have good technical skills, so ice climbing, crampons, ice crampons, rope work, rappelling.”
“The Canadian women”, he continues, “had no experience, we wouldn’t have accepted her. It was not safe for her to be climbing up there.”
Peak Freaks, led by Tim Rippell, also insists on technical skills, and offers a specific training package for climbers with “a weak bio”. Both Eric and Tim agree in saying that if a client is in trouble during the summit bid, or if he or she is too slow, they turn him, or her, down. Rippel recounts an incident in 2008, when a climber did not turn around when he was told to; when Tim realized the client was still climbing up, “I hauled him down from the death zone by his boots and he fought me the entire way, no one dies on my time!”
The strength of major operators are the numbers and the resources. For the summit push, almost all offer a 1:1 ratio client-sherpa, plus western guides, (whose overall number depends on the fee paid), and logistic and emergency support: efficient communications, doctors, sherpas, guides, oxygen, resources to confront emergencies. It’s major outfitters that provide stairs and ropes for the route and who - until 2011 - shared all relevant costs. Since last year, I am told, private teams and smaller operators are participating in the costs for ropes.
More resources and better logistics mean more safety for major commercial operators; established companies are responsible for a large share of the traffic along the route, but they are also better prepared to confront the risks and to limit the drawbacks of their clients being more exposed because of the interminable delays. They know the mountain and the dynamics of the summit bids, including the slowness that characterizes it.
Such slowness derives from the limited technical skills of the climbers, from the extensive use of fixed ropes and from the features of the route; at the Khumbu Icefall, or at the HIllary Step, only one climber passes at a time, so that the delays caused by the high number of people increase exponentially when some of them are unable to operate independently.
“In some expeditions, although not in the more authoritative ones, I have seen people unable to use the jumar, who needed their sherpa to pass it from one rope to the other”, recounts Simone moro, who called off his attempt to put up a new line running from the summit of Everest along the Lothse edge. He planned to climb without oxygen, but he deemed the ascent too risky precisely because of the traffic, so he preferred to abandon the project.
The impact of the long delays at high altitude - up to 3, 4 hours at the HIllary Step - where continuous movement is key to keep warm and in the end to survive, can be very different depending on the resources available and on one’s equipment. Oxygen is fundamental to maintain the body temperature stable and the mind active, to avoid frostbite, hypothermia, delirium; but the skills of the climbers and of their guides, knowledge of the route and of the dynamics of traffic, are just as important. The experienced guides know what to expect, while those who are less acquainted may risk ending up in dangerous or out of control situations.
According to what Song Young-il, member of an independent Korean expedition, declared to Daily Telegraph, his team had to wait 4 hours before descending the HIllary Step, after having summited at 7am. Song Wonbin later collapsed and died by the Balcony; the accompanying sherpa declared that “he died because he had to wait for so long, in my opinion”.
What caused the fatalities, in the end? The delays? The wind at altitude (which had been forecast)? The lack of skills of the operators involved, small, inexperienced companies without adequate support?
It seems difficult to say, but it is evident that the prolonged exposition to altitude, wind and low temperatures has taken its toll, causing a high number of “minor” incidents. In his article for Outside Online, Grayson Schaffer reports that an IMG client was rescued at Camp II due to severe frostbite.
“As winds picked up”, I could read on the website of Everest ER, the non profit rescue association operating at Base Camp, “cold permeated even $800 climbing boots. And it doesn't matter how many layers of goose down you have, if you are forced to wait, […], it is just about impossible to stay warm. And if you run low on (or out of!) oxygen waiting for your turn, you risk not only severe altitude illness, but frostbite...which we have seen in droves.”
“Many agree that something ... anything ... needs to be done”, continues the post, “to cut down on the unneeded additional risk of too many climbers converging on the ropes at once.”
When I ask him if there is a coordination of summit pushes among operators, Eric Simonson prefers to use the similitude of a “chess game”. “From a strategic point of view”, he explains, “a team might be better of not announcing their plans”, in particular to avoid smaller, unsupported groups to follow in their path to call for help in case of need.
In reality, major outfitters do talk among themselves, while coordination is totally lacking when it comes to smaller operators. In his article for Outside Online, Schaffer reported that “several experienced guides I spoke with all agreed that the recent deaths resulted from simple, collective disorganization and maybe a little bit of bad luck.”
Simone Moro is pragmatic in his analysis of the issue. Crucial factors determining risk are, according to the Italian mountaineer, the inability to evaluate properly one’s own skills, and the scarce physical preparation of the aspiring “alpinists”. But commercial operators should not be demonized. “Commercial operators are a blessing for Nepal”, he explains. The point is that although major outfitters are the safest, because they impose on their clients a training that includes other preparatory ascents, not all clients are willing to pay more and to plan their Everest as the culmination of a learning process. “Some accept the advise”, Simone explains, “others turn to unscrupulous operators that would accept anybody.”
All of this said, the problem of traffic and overcrowding remains, and it seems unfeasible to suggest a limitation of permits that Chinese and Nepalese government will never enact, just as it may be useless to draw on mountaineering ethics. The overcrowding on Everest must be confronted with pragmatism, accepting that the mountain will continue to be a cherished, obsessing goal for many.
I ask Simone Moro the reason behind his comparison of Mount Everest to an amusement park. “Mine is not a critic tout court”, he explains. “By highlighting this issue, I would like to encourage operators to rethink their strategies, to talk more and coordinate; before this year they had never summited in the same days. I would like them to go back to their previous habits.”
I thank for their help and for their patience in answering my questions:
Tim Rippell (Peak Freaks)
Eric Simonson (IMG)