This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
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Dr. Peter Lowry, a 38-year-old radiologist from Golden, passed two bodies on May 23, casting a shadow on his life-long dream mere steps from the summit of Mount Everest.
“I thought I would see bodies from five, 10, 20 years ago. Not from this season. I did not mentally prepare to see people who had died less than 24 hours ago,” said the mountaineer who reached the top of the world’s highest peak on May 23, a day after four climbers died on the mountain. “That brought, I think, an unexpected layer of complexity to how I was processing it, and to be honest, I’m not sure I’m done processing that.”
There’s a lot of internal conflict swirling around Everest right now. Eleven climbers died — including one from Boulder –this season on the peak, which saw shifting weather patterns shrink windows of opportunity for summit-chasing climbers paying tens of thousands of dollars to stand atop the world.
The deaths have spurred, once again, calls for reform, regulation and simply rethinking the hows, whys and whos of Everest.
“Something has to give,” said Jake Norton, one of Colorado’s most accomplished mountaineers who just returned from his eighth attempt at scraping the ceiling of the Earth. “If nothing changes, we are going to keep seeing these deaths — 10 to 15 every year.”
This was a weird year for weather on Everest, Norton said. Last year there were almost a dozen windless days and that allowed a record number of climbers to reach the summit. This season, the window was brief, meaning a tighter compression of climbers on May 22 and May 23. Norton was climbing the north face of Everest from Tibet — a much less trafficked route.
Looking up the mountain, he could see the gridlock on the more popular route climbing up from Nepal’s south flank of Everest — “people nose-to-butt,” he said. The team he was with, from Alpenglow Expeditions, required its clients to have climbed an 8,000-meter peak before attempting Everest. That used to be more common among Everest guiding companies, Norton said.
“A lot of them — ultimately in the quest for more money — have dropped that requirement or will drop it in some cases so you’re seeing a lot more inexperienced climbers on the mountain, especially with the lower-budget operations who have not just inexperienced climbers, but inexperienced staff on the mountain,” Norton said. “Those cheaper companies, they tend to get into a herd mentality. They get in that weather window and they see other companies going for it and they won’t back off.”
The world has seen the May 22 photo now: the line of more than 100 climbers backed up on the technical Hillary Step below the summit of Everest. The photo spurred hundreds of news articles questioning why Nepal issued a record-high 381 permits to climb the peak this season.
Lowry said that bottleneck of climbers in the so-called Death Zone — the oxygen deprived belt above 8,000-meters where most Everest climbers die — “was the worst moment that happened this climbing season and probably the worst in a decade at least.”
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But he only saw a handful of climbers when he navigated the Hillary Step on May 23. Lowry, along with many Everest veterans, say the issue this year wasn’t crowds as much as the shortened window of days to reach the summit.
“But my experience was not that picture, and the majority of people who climbed Everest this year did not experience that,” he said. “The causes are one thing to debate. But how pristine and beautiful that mountain is, which is what my focus was on during my climb, it takes away from that to imagine every summit or every summit day was like that picture. Because it wasn’t.”
Lowry, barely a week home from his nearly 10-week expedition to the Himalayas, is both celebrating his triumphant trip and dealing with what he saw. One of the bodies he passed was Don Cash, a 54-year-old Utah man Lowry spent time with during their January expeditions up Antarctica’s Vinson Massif. He had to step over the legs of another dead climber.
On his push to the summit on May 23, Lowry’s team passed Anjali Sharad Kulkarn, a 54-year-old climber from India who would collapse after reaching the top of Everest with her husband. She did not make it down.
Lowry said Sherpas on his team had seen Kulkarn laboring to the summit and told her she needed to turn around.
“She wouldn’t go down. Nothing could be done to save her. She shouldn’t have been on Everest,” he said.
During their ascent of the Vinson Massif in January, Lowry met Cash, who had lost fingers due to frostbite during an earlier ascent of Denali. Lowry said Cash had suffered frostbite on his nose on Vinson. The two men spoke about their hopes to climb Everest later in the year.
Lowry spent his adult life preparing for Everest. He climbed all over the world, including South America’s Mount Aconcagua and Denali in Alaska, all part of his quest to scale the Seven Summits, the highest points on all seven continents. He went with a reputable, accomplished guiding company, Alpine Ascents International, with the same guide from Antarctica and Denali. Cash, who climbed Vinson with Alpine Ascents, was guided on Everest by Nepali tour operator Pioneer Adventure.
Lowry credits his guide, Ben Jones, and his team’s Sherpas for recognizing the potential for traffic in the brief weather window and delaying their summit day to avoid a crowded route.
The emergence of Nepali-operated guiding outfits, many owned by veteran Sherpa climbers but staffed with much less experienced climbers, embrace a culturally-based mentality that the paying customer is always right, Lowry said. So if they mention that maybe a client should abandon their summit attempt and return to a lower camp and if the client rejects the suggestion, it is not pushed. An experienced western or European guide, however, wouldn’t worry about insisting a climber return to a lower camp.
“The summit is so much the ultimate goal for people that it becomes set. It shouldn’t be that way for guides and operators,” Lowry said. “When guides and operators don’t have the ultimate goal of safety as clearly their No. 1 goal, then a lot of people … can be pushed to empty and they get to empty at the summit or just below the summit and they have no energy to go down and it’s impossible to help someone down from there if they can’t do it by themselves.”
Typically in early May, the monsoon season arrives and pushes the jet stream a touch north, quelling the winds and opening the Everest climbing season.
This season, Sherpas were able to set fixed ropes up the mountain in mid-May, but the winds returned and climbers had to wait. When forecasts showed the winds settling around May 20, the summit window opened and climbers who had been acclimatizing prepared for their summit day, gathering at Camp 2 for the three-day push to the summit. Since climbers typically use oxygen for every moment beyond Camp 2, around 21,000 feet, they are pretty committed to a timeline — based on their oxygen supply.
The weather delay fueled the surge of oxygen-reliant traffic piled up below the summit on May 22. Lowry’s team left their high camp at midnight May 22, about 2½ hours behind another team. He never waited in any lines and saw only a handful of other climbers. Again, he credits the veteran guides on his team for knowing how to avoid the crowds. Western guiding companies charge around $65,000 to guide a climber up Everest. Some of the newer Nepali guiding companies charge half that.
“I think there is a very wide difference in the experience, knowledge and ability of the guide companies that you can hire if you are a prospective Everest climber,” said Lowry, describing how some guide operations charge as little as $30,000 for a trip up Everest. “But in a sense, you get what you pay for. You don’t have that lead guide that has summited multiple times, and can look at people and figure out whether or not they need to go down.”
Fort Collins mountaineer Alan Arnette is a sort of professor of Everest. He’s been tracking climbing on the peak for more than 20 years and attempted to reach Everest’s summit four times, succeeding on May 21, 2011, at age 54.
This year Arnette counted 885 climbers reaching the summit of Everest, 621 of them approaching from Nepal and 264 from Tibet.
(Those numbers include guides and Sherpas as well as permitted climbers.)
Arnette, who remains in close contact with guides, climbers and operators on Everest all spring, said his analysis of the 11 fatalities on Everest this year reveals many were “preventable.” He sees the wave of deaths this year connected not to Nepal’s number of permits, but to the growing number of less-experienced, often Nepal-based, guiding companies offering discounted trips. Arnette said eight of the deaths this season involved clients of what he calls “low-cost operators” and three from traditional, “high-end operators.”
The growth of the local, Nepali guiding companies is part of a wave of Sherpas building their own companies instead of working for Western guides. While the owners of the new companies may have years of experience on Everest, not all their guides do. And there’s a customer-relations problem with the new companies, Arnette said.
They don’t tell clients to turn around. Sherpas can earn $2,000 bonuses for guiding a client to the summit of Everest, which amounts to about half a year’s pay.
Arnette said he was talking with a Nepali operator this year about an incident on another 8,000-meter peak where the company’s client died on the descent after reaching the summit.
“It was obvious that the client was in trouble … and the owner of the company told me ‘Alan, it’s not my job to turn people around.’ Well, ask any Western guide and they will say ‘Hell yes it’s our job to turn people around. Our number one priority is to get our clients home,’” Arnette said. “These new companies need customer-relations training. How do you effectively communicate with someone at altitude? It’s not about getting liked. It’s not about getting their summit bonus. It’s about living another day.”
Not turning around when there’s trouble at 29,000 feet can be fatal. Arnette counted at least three fatalities of climbers who were hung up in crowds.
“Instead of a 12-hour day, they had a 20-hour day, and they were still coming down,” Arnette said, noting that climbers stretching their time in the so-called Death Zone above 8,000 meters often start rationing oxygen, making it difficult for them to think clearly. “It becomes this vicious cycle. This deadly cycle. What they should have done is turn around. Their guides should have turned them around and the individual climber should have recognized they were going too slow and needed to turn around. I turned around three times on Everest when I realized I was going too slow.”
Lowry, Arnette and Norton all suggest Nepal should require climbers who secure Everest permits to have history on other 8,000-meter peaks. Since eight of the world’s 11 8,000-meter peaks are in Nepal, the country could boost its mountain-climbing tourism revenue by requiring climbers to visit at least twice.
Secondly, guide companies should take charge of vetting the experience and capability of their clients.
“What you don’t see in that picture that went viral is at the head of that line, I guarantee you there is someone who is struggling to get past something that should be taking them a fraction of the time or they are too exhausted to move and they are stuck,” Lowry said. “It’s like a car crash on the highway and everybody stacks up behind them. You have to minimize car-crash scenarios and put that on the guide company. Maybe with penalties if your climbers hold everyone up or if you have a death or serious accident.”
Lowry spoke with many guide companies that routinely turn down climbers seeking help to scale Everest. Some reject climbers by the dozens, he said.
Norton said Nepal and China would benefit from embracing the strict, federal-government enforced guiding regulations followed by outfitters who lead climbers up North America’s Mount Rainier and Denali. Violations of policies, negligence or accidents on those peaks can result in a guiding company losing its concession with the National Park Service, which can be a fatal blow to the business.
“Whether or not Nepal will be willing to take on regulation like that is a huge question, but in my mind, it is the only thing that will work up there to make sure there’s a modicum of responsibility among outfitters,” Norton said. “Everest makes Nepal a bunch of money and there is a big financial incentive to not change anything.”
That could change quickly with a really bad accident, Norton said. Not just a season where 11 die, but a single event that kills dozens. Like a failed anchor when several dozen climbers are connected to a single fixed line hauling themselves up the final steep steps to the summit.
“In my mind, it’s only a matter of time,” Norton said. “My hope is that Nepal sees the writing on the wall. If the money is so critical, maybe raise the permit fees. You’ll hear charges of elitism but let’s not kid ourselves here, mountaineering is not a poor man’s sport and it never will be.”
Arnette and Norton are not optimistic that new safety regulations or requirements for guiding companies will actually find their way to Everest, which delivers a big economic boost to the impoverished country. (The government charges climbers $11,000 for a permit to climb the mountain.)
“Nothing is going to change,” Arnette said. “We’ve seen the deaths. We are seeing the outrage. In three months, I promise you there’s going to be a huge announcement from the Ministry of Tourism about massive changes in Everest safety. I call it the silly-rule season. They will name all these rules and the world will say ‘Yes, they are finally learning, and it’s all going to change for the better.’ And the next year, it will be exactly the same.”
That leaves the onus to change on guiding companies, Norton said.
“I would love to see more outfitters helping to train their clients that climbing is less about summits and more about a process and it doesn’t always happen for the first time. I know that’s kind of anathema to our culture to not have this instant gratification,” he said. “My first two trips, we didn’t make it to the summit. And those were, for various reasons, more gratifying expeditions because they taught me a lot more about mountaineering than if I had just waltzed up to the summit for the first time.”