Climbing Mount Everest

Mar 13, 2015

Crowds, Supplemental Oxygen, Sherpas, WAG Bags. Alan Arnette talks about the who, when, where and how - with interesting insights about the highest mountain in the world  - and how to navigate through the annual media onslaught.


I’m noticing the seasonal increase in articles about Everest with the usual topics of trash, crowds, rich and famous, punters and more. The famous outdoor magazines are creating their spreads along with other media outlets finishing up stock stories to be printed at a moment’s notice, regardless of the facts. I have been contacted by many for background and fact checks. Sadly, we define facts in different ways. So, I thought I would take a few moments and give, from my perspective, a few headlines on the realities of Everest based on my coverage and four climbs since 2002 – 13 years.

Who climbs Everest?

The common notion is that of an out of shape, rich guy paying $65,000. He is drug to the summit using more oxygen than a MIG fighter pilot and returns home to brag about “conquering” Everest solo and without oxygen. Well only two of these things are correct.

In my experience, the average Everest climber is a person in their 40s who has been dreaming of the opportunity since childhood. They saved money through making sacrifices and trained diligently over the previous year. They are neither selfish nor suicidal. The average price paid by westerners in my surveys is about $45,000. They arrive at Everest Base Camp with trepidation and respect. They have worked towards Everest through climbs of Aconcagua, Denali, Mont Blanc and a few have Cho Oyu or Manaslu on their resume. And yes, they have all worn crampons before.

For 2015, I expect many 2014 climbers to return from their halted season. In fact 16 of the 26 climbers with blogs I tracked last year are returning. The notion of a “flight to the North” from Nepal is overstated. Again, in my interview over the past several months, the traditional south side operators are full. I can only identify one major south side operator who fully switched to the north. Early permit applications suggest a few less teams on the south side, 25 instead of the 30 in 2014. This was expected and is good.

Finally, more people climb Everest hiring Nepali guide companies than the operators you usually read about including Himalayan Experience, International Mountain Guides, Alpine Ascents and Adventure Consultants. These operators and those like them, have decades of guiding Everest and do so professionally, safely and pay their staff, including Sherpas, above market wages. Many of the stories of exploitation do not originate from these companies.

Crowds, Crowds, and more Crowds

“I would never climb Everest, all you do is stand in line!” I think that is an excellent decision and I hope that anyone who is put off by crowds would select any of the thousands of mountains with not anyone on them to climb and not contribute to the crowding on Everest.

OK, snarkiness aside, I understand. With the pictures you see , including some of my own, it is easy to generalize that climbing Everest is like buying gas at Costco. The reality is that yes, sometimes you get caught up in a line of fellow climbers. 

Let me explain. The route on both sides is marked by a thin nylon rope. Every wise climber clips into this line to save them from a free fall down steep sides or into a hidden crevasse. This creates a line. Given different people move at different speeds, if there is a slow person on the line, it will slow everyone else down. It is easier said than done to simply unclip and let everyone go by. In the traditional areas of congestion, there are often two lines, an up and a down one. Most of the time this is not a huge issue. The famous picture from 2012 was unique because it caught over hundred people climbing from Camp 3 to the South Col. This is at extreme altitude, on a steep icy slope and was mostly of Sherpas moving slowly with full packs. We can discuss the merits of using Sherpas at all, but that is for another post and mostly for the purists.

Looking back over the history of Everest there are usually 8 to 12 days where the winds are low enough to allow for a safe summit. For the several hundred people attempting the summit, this is sufficient time to allow a natural spreading out thus reducing any crowds. In 2012, there were less that five suitable summit days thus the climbers were squeezed into a small window. Does this eliminate the crowding argument, no but it should keep it in perspective that not every day is a Costco day. Also, Everest is a huge mountain and with some planning, crowds can easily be avoided. In 2011, I was the fourth person to summit on a day that saw about 125 summits, May 21. I never stood in a line.

Can you climb Everest without a Sherpa?

Yes and no. Many people have climbed Everest each year from both sides (Nepal and Tibet) without hiring a Sherpa. But in late 2014, the Nepal Ministry of Tourism established a new rule that every climber must hire a Sherpa Guide. But to be clear, Everest has been climbed from many routes without the support of Sherpas, meaning non-Sherpas have carried all their own gear, cooked their own food, set up fixed lines where needed and more. This was mostly on the Tibet side where there is no significant Icefall. But also, to be clear, this is rare and even the national teams of the 1920’s, 50’s and beyond used Sherpa support. Lest we not forget Sir Edmund Hillary summited with Tenzing Norgay Sherpa who had climbed on Everest the previous few years with Swiss teams.

The traditional role of a Sherpa has been to establish the high camps by carrying tents, stoves, fuel and oxygen bottles. At Base Camp, mountain workers serve as cooks. Other ethnic groups serve as porters to get all the gear to Base Camp. A dedicated team of Sherpa, aka the Icefall Doctors, set and maintain ladders across the crevasses in the Khumbu Icefall and set the fixed line to Camp 2 on the Western CWM. The commercial teams’ Sherpas and guides then set the fixed line to the summit. On the North, a dedicated team of Tibetan climbers set the fixed line from ABC to the summit.

By the way, the oft quoted “fact” that being a Sherpa is the most dangerous job in the world was debunked in this article by Mark Horrell.

Everest is a walk up and not that difficult.

Again, this is a yes and no. You have to look at the route in sections. On the traditional Southeast Ridge aka South Col route, sections are just hiking, for example across the Western CWM or from Base Camp to Advanced Base Camp on the North side. But other sections require using hands and feet to scale obstacles like ice blocks in the Khumbu Icefall or the Steps on the Tibet side.

Is it the Dawn Wall? No, but it’s not the Disappointment Cleaver on Rainer either. Everest is not the most technically difficult climb and not even similar to K2 or Makalu, but it is the highest and that is what makes it hard. Again, it is the altitude that makes Everest a challenge. But to underestimate the climbing skills required is to go unprepared and risk injury, no summit or death. Every person must go with the proper expectations of being self sufficient based on proper experience and be willing to turn themselves back from the summit when conditions dictate.

Supplemental Oxygen Makes Everest Easy

This comment is common from those who have not been on Everest, or any 8000 meter mountain. The fact is that by using supplemental oxygen a climber feels like they are about 1,000 meters, or 3,000 feet lower. Thus the summit would be 25,035′ (7848m),  not 29,035′ (8848m). The reason people use supplemental oxygen is due to the lower air density as you go higher. At sea level, the available oxygen is 100%, at Everest Base Camp it drops to 66% and at the summit of Everest it is only 33%. To state the obvious, oxygen makes our bodies work.  Also, the extra oxygen makes the climber warmer thus reducing the risk of frostbite.

While climbers do multiple climbs to ever increasing altitudes to force their bodies to adjust to the lower oxygen levels, it is the rare indvidual with a gifted physiology that allows a climb to the summit without help – and they are to be admired.

Thus it is this draw that attracts climbers each year to attempt Everest with no supplemental oxygen. Also, there is an entire debate around “style”. In other words, it is cheating to use supplemental O’s.

So does it make a difference in how you feel? I can only speak for myself in that I used Os on my four Everest climbs and my answer is yes. Did it make it “easy”? My answer is no.

For the record, according to the Himalayan Database, 97.3% of all Everest summits since the first, which used extra Os, have been made using supplemental oxygen. Also, climbers not using O’s are twice as likely to die than those who choose it.

Everest is a trash heap.

In places. The fact is every major, popular mountain on the planet from Mont Blanc to Denali to Everest struggles with too many people. Mountain climbing has become a very popular sport and with the advances in gear, guides and weather, these mountains have been opened up to people who would never have considered them 40 years ago.

On Everest, from Nepal, there is little visible trash as in empty cans, plastic wrappers, used fuel canisters, etc. There are shredded tents, especially around Camp 3 on the Lhotse Face; a result of high winds and weather that not only destroyed the tents but prevented their recovery. Occasionally, you might see trash from late 1900’s expeditions when they must have thought no one would ever find out.

Through the excellent efforts of many Nepal and international teams, much of the trash and oxygen bottles have been removed from the mountain over the years. The problem is that anything that is not blown away become frozen to the ground or buried under ice and snow making removal virtually impossible at those altitudes. However some of the trash buried in crevasses is eventually carried down to base camp as the ice moves or has been exposed as the glacier melts. This is routinely picked up.

The biggest problem facing Everest and every other popular mountain is human waste, primarily solid waste. On Denali and Aconcagua, each climber is required to use biodegradable bags and carry their solid waste off the mountain. Only a few teams do this on Everest, but it is a growing trend.

The recent headlines of “Poo on Everest” again overstates this situation but even a small amount is uncalled for. At Everest Base Camp, everyone uses blue barrels for solid waste. The barrels are removed frequently and taken to a village for proper disposal.

As for the conditions on the North, that is another story and a sad one as the Chinese have not take the problem as seriously as the Nepalese.

There is a simple solution to this problem: each climber carry a WAG Bag that will allow them to use and remove solid waste easily at the high camps. Each bag weighs 3 ounces. That is what I will be using on Lhotse this year.

There are dead bodies everywhere.

In my four trips to Everest from Nepal, I never saw a dead body. But yes, there are dead bodies on both sides of Everest, approximately 200. On the North side, there are bodies just off the main route and are visible to most climbers.

As to the question of why bodies remain on Everest, it is a matter of logistical difficulty and further risk. It can take five or even ten or more very strong, acclimatized Sherpas to move a body lower from the extreme altitudes above 8000 meters. The work is slow and dangerous exposing the rescuers to altitude, weather and potential falls. And it is expensive costing over USD$30,000 for a full repatriation. If several years have passed, the body has most likely frozen into the landscape preventing any form of recovery. Using helicopters to transport bodies has only recently become practical. FishTail Air helicopters regularly carried injured climbers and even deceased ones from Camp 2 at 21,500′ on the south the past few years. But a body above that altitude must be moved by human power to a lower position. There are no helicopters available on the north due to the Chinese prohibiting the use of helicopters for any reason thus any body must be moved by human power to ABC then by yak to base camp at 17,000′ and then moved by a vehicle.

Often friends or guides will return the following year after a death to provide a respectful “burial” of the dead by moving them off route or down a steep hill side. Some are moved into a crevasse or covered with rock or snow if available. However, with climate change, these burials are proving to be temporary as wind and melting snow reveal the bodies years or decades later.

Finally, often deaths occur during the harshest of conditions where everyone is fighting for their lives preventing any form of immediate rescue. On occasion, climbers have been known to be literally blown off the upper mountain flanks or ridges never to be found.

OK, there are more headlines but I think you get the point that there are many sides to every Everest headline. But the media loves to shock readers into reading thus using the most sensationalized words possible. And sadly, we fall for it thus the world goes round.

Climb On!
Memories are Everything

Thank you Alan. For more updates subsrcibe to Alan's BLOG.

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