Everest is open for business for the first time in two years, and while the climbing season is now well underway, it won’t be business as usual. Last year’s earthquake, which killed 22 people in Base Camp — and more than 8,000 in the tiny Himalayan country — may have irreparably changed the way that climbers, guides, and Sherpas approach the mountain. Many outfitters, citing a lack of clients, decided against expeditions this year. Those that are going must deal with fallout from the earthquake and the previous year’s avalanche in the Khumbu Icefall, which killed 16 Nepalese climbing guides and raised a host of questions about the ethics of climbing a mountain that requires so much hired help. We talked to the biggest names on the mountain to hear their thoughts. Here’s what they said.
North vs. South Side
The South Side has long been the go-to route for Everest climbers, but after the tragedies of the last two years, many guides began to reconsider the north side, which avoids the deadly Khumbu Icefall, but puts climbers in the “death zone,” above 26,000 feet, longer. Even more problematic from a guiding standpoint, the north side Base Camp is in Tibet, and China has often pulled permits on a whim because of political turmoil there. Getting scuttled in that manner could be ruinous to a guiding company that’s invested huge sums into a trip.
“I specifically wanted to climb it from the north side. You avoid the Khumbu Icefall. And it’s not nearly as crowded as the south side. I understand the risks of the north side: It is colder and windier. And on your summit push, you spend a lot more time up high in the so-called death zone. But I felt this was a more acceptable risk than the crowds and the Khumbu Icefall.” —Chad Jukes, climber
“I prefer climbing from the south (Nepal) side for several reasons: The summit day is safer, less exposure to high winds means generally warmer temperatures, less distance means less time out exposed, and its easier to pass other climbers than on the north side [where a long ridge makes passing challenging]. I also enjoy the Sherpa culture and the very beautiful trek through the Khumbu valley to Base Camp. On the north side, you drive to base camp, and it’s a barren plateau with a longer, less technical climb overall. Permits are also less certain.”—Garrett Madison, guide
“I weighed the cost-benefit of both sides, but I realized my boyhood dream when I pictured Everest was always climbing it on the south side; I always just kind of pictured it that way.” —Colin O’Brady, climber hoping to complete the Explorer’s Grand Slam in six months
The New Khumbu Icefall Route
In 2014, a serac broke loose high up on the mountain, creating an avalanche that caught a team of 25 Sherpas ferrying loads through the icefall, killing 16 of them. At the time it was the single biggest disaster on the mountain, and caused many people to reconsider the route through the icefall, with many arguing that climate-change-driven ice melt was making the usual route unsafe. Last year the route, which is installed by a crew of Sherpas called the Icefall Doctors, was moved toward the center of the icefall, away from high peaks that could let loose massive chunks of ice, but climbers were never fully able to test it out before the season came to a sudden end after the earthquake.
“There were changes after the 2014 avalanche that needed to occur as the local Nepalese consortium that were `fixing’ the climbing route through the icefall had been positioning the route under a very active set of ice cliffs that posed an extreme hazard to a large number of people. The reason they had the route going that way was because the terrain underneath it was easier than a less threatened route out in the center of the icefall. It was easier precisely because of the avalanches that sweep that part of the icefall and fill up the crevasses. Efforts to get them to place the route were met with resistance, and it was only after the 2014 event that they agreed to reposition the route.” —Guy Cotter, CEO of Adventure Consultants
“It’s more work to put the route into the middle of the icefall because there are more crevasses there, so it requires more rope, more ladders, and more manpower. But from a natural hazard point of view, it’s safer.” —Dawa Steven Sherpa, managing director at Asian Trekking
“Sherpas are carrying loads father distances, and climbers are climbing longer distances, but it leaves you less exposed to avalanches and big pieces of ice that have come down in the past.” —Colin O’Brady, climber
“It’s basically the same as 2015, and that was not a whole lot different than 2014 — just a few meters towards Nuptse. Each year the route is different and changes throughout the season, so a comment about the condition today would not be valid tomorrow. When I went half way up a few days ago, I found few ladders and more real climbing involved. It was fun!” —Alan Arnette, climber and Everest chronicler
Sherpas Taking Over The Guiding Companies
On Everest, western guides and their companies have long dominated the scene, hiring Sherpas as support staff primarily. The western guides booked the clients; the Sherpa do the hard labor to carry food and equipment up the mountain and set ropes to the top. The Sherpa guides get paid extremely well for this work by Nepalese standards, but the 2014 icefall avalanche, which killed 16 Sherpa, brought to light an uncomfortable reality: Western guides were essentially outsourcing their riskiest jobs to a people who would be extremely reluctant to say no. It’s even viewed these days as a form of neo-Colonialism. But in recent years the mountain has seen a dramatic rise in the number of Sherpa-lead and Sherpa-owned expeditions, which means they can make decisions for themselves, but also comes with it’s own downsides.
“Nepali companies have become stronger, more professional, and more capable of organizing expeditions. Meanwhile, Sherpa climbers have become internationally certified just like Western climbers. These sorts of things are changing the scene at Everest. There are more Nepali-owned companies on Everest, on other mountains, and on trekking routes now than ever before.” —Dawa Steven Sherpa, managing director at Asian Trekking
“Everest belongs to the Sherpas, but the biggest issue we’re seeing is the increase of low-budget Nepalese companies who are selling the trip for $25–30K per client. The downside to that is, with the Nepal government taking $11,000 per person for the permit, plus other fees, which brings the cost per person up to $12–$13K, those companies aren’t left with enough money to run a proper expedition, to pay their staff well, and to have properly trained Sherpas. Any American who decides to go climb Everest for $30k needs to understand that in order to do that, someone is paying the consequences, like Sherpas with no training who are put in a position to be so-called guides but don’t know how to tie a figure-eight knot. And they make absolutely nothing; they have the lowest possible salary. And no emergency protocols. If something goes wrong, if someone gets hurt, it’s the expeditions with the proper training and resources who are called upon to help.” —Guillermo (Willie) Benegas, guide and co-owner of Benegas Brothers Expeditions
“I have written extensively about the change on the Himalayan mountains with Nepali companies competing on price while the traditional companies compete on service. There is room for everyone. The market is large for Himalayan climbing.” —Alan Arnette, climber and Everest chronicler
Should People Still Be Climbing Everest?
In the wake of two disasters, it’s a question that’s on the mind of many climbers present and past, like Jon Krakauer, who calls climbing Everest his “biggest mistake,” and says that he wishes he’d never gone. “I’m the last person [who] should tell people not to do crazy shit, but think twice about it,” he told The Daily Beast.
“This is the first time in 20 years that I’m not going to the Himalaya in the spring. Like many of us, I had to do some soul searching [regarding Everest], not just after last year, but after the last couple of years, to decide if I wanted to be there. Ultimately, I decided I did, but it had to be under the right circumstances. And those circumstances didn’t come together for 2016. I told RMI [Rainier Mountaineering, Inc.] that I didn’t want to lead group trips anymore. The nature of guiding a group is there will be some people who are very ready for Everest and some people who aren’t. When you agree to guide a group, you’re going to take all of that on, that’s part of it. I hate to sound old and tired, but my preference now is to scale that down and take responsibility for only myself and a client or two. That means I only want to do private guiding for select clients who are willing to pay a premium. So I guess I raised my standards at a time when perhaps that priced me out of the market. What can I say? The last couple years were pretty difficult over there. If I had to beg to go this year and scramble to find a way, well no.” —Dave Hahn, Rainier Mountaineering Inc. guide who’s summitted Everest 15 times
“We probably could have run something this season; it would have been smaller than our usual four to six people, but sitting back just feels like the right thing to do. At the same time, I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t say it was also due to a lack of clients. People want to sit and wait and watch right now. We’ve been super fortunate in the last couple of years not to have had any mishaps with our folks or our Sherpa. It’s been some really rough times on Everest, and we’re comfortable sitting this year out. We plan to go back next year.” —Peter Whittaker, guide and co-owner of Rainier Mountaineering, Inc.
“We decided not to do Everest this year. We didn’t have enough clients to make a full trip. We had interest — two clients, but decided to postpone to next year. We do an entire year of training offerings, so we’ll have a group that’s super capable of climbing Everest next season.” —Guillermo (Willie) Benegas, guide and co-owner of Benegas Brothers Expeditions
“When people have a camera pointed in their face directly after a tragedy, of course they’re going to say, ‘That’s it; I’m not coming back.’ Some of our older Sherpa staff have retired, and some guides have called it a day or taken a break from going to Everest. That is no surprise in the face of the events of the last three years. However, because of that, we have a few new faces in our Sherpa team who are young and enthusiastic who have been trying to get a position with us for some time.” —Guy Cotter, CEO of Adventure Consultants
“Yes, there are some Sherpas I know who have quit. Yes, there are some Western guides I know who have quit. But to chalk it all up to the avalanche or earthquake I don’t think is fair, because in the meantime there have been many changes in the industry.” —Dawa Steven Sherpa, managing director at Asian Trekking
“Having been in Nepal training last year, I was curious to see, do the Sherpa people want people to climb in Nepal or do they not? There was an overwhelming sentiment that I felt that they want people to come, they want people to climb, they are proud of their mountains, they are proud of their history, and there is, of course, the economic benefit of having climbers there. So for that reason I hope it’s a successful season for everyone.” —Colin O’Brady, climber
“Every climbing season brings a fresh start after a 10-month gap, so from that perspective there is a lot of optimism. There is also a realization within the government, the industry, the associations, the businesses, and the Sherpa themselves that we need to be collaborating this year to having a smooth season.” —Dawa Steven Sherpa, managing director at Asian Trekking
“There is definitely a lot of pressure for the Sherpa communities who depend on the income from this to have a safe and successful season. You have one bad season, okay, but you have two and now three … at what point do people just stop coming back?” —Colin O’Brady, climber
“A lot of Sherpas want to improve the reputation of Everest that they perceive has been tarnished, and I felt a great degree of collaboration when I was setting up our base camp recently, not only from our staff but amongst people I met from all the teams. The Sherpas working on the mountain are very aware of the risks, yet are keen to re-invigorate the industry that is based around Everest, as it’s a lucrative earner of income for many hundreds of people, not only on the mountain but in lodges, portering work, food production, transport, and so on. With Everest returning to ‘normal’ they will once again have money returning to their region with which they can rebuild their homes in the aftermath of the earthquake.” —Guy Cotter, CEO of Adventure Consultants
“The climbers and Sherpas I have met are excited to be here — for the work and the opportunity. There is a quiet optimism that 2016 will be a no-drama year with no natural disasters, etc., but of course, no one can control that.” —Alan Arnette, climber and Everest chronicler