Newsletter 1622 April 2010
Fixed ropes, fixed rules, fixed price – and great teamwork
The Himex base camp is very quiet with most of the climbers currently climbing Lobuje East or getting ready to do so. While I am writing this, the first group has arrived on the summit, with the second group just heading out to go to high camp.
The calmness in the camp gave Russell and the Sherpas some time to sort out logistics, clean up the camp and talk to other teams about how the rope fixing should be dealt with this year. For those, who don’t know how most mountaineers climb Everest in our modern day and age – it is mainly by fixed rope. This means that most of the mountain is being ‘fixed’ with a rope, which is attached to anchors (mainly icescrews or snow stakes) in reasonable distances. As I have explained in one of my earlier Newsletters, the ‘Icefall Doctors’ are in charge of ‘fixing’ the Khumbu Icefall, which is normally done quite early in the season. However, once the ‘doctors’ have fixed the way to Camp 1, the Sherpas of the various teams are left in charge with fixing the remaining 2.8 kilometres of the route to the top of ‘Chomolungma’, as the Sherpas call Mount Everest. Ang Jangbu, who has worked as base camp manager for the big US operator “International Mountain Guides (IMG)” told me that the mountain used to be climbed very differently. “When I went to the summit in 1990 there was only a very small section of fixed rope on the Hillary Step,” he said. Other than that he and his team reached the summit without the use of fixed rope.
‘The fixing of the mountain really started in the mid 1990s, when the first big commercial operators came to Mount Everest,” Ang Jangbu continued. However, in the early years it was not very well organised as the different teams fixed different sections and the ‘right hand did not really know what the left hand was doing’.
According to Ang Jangbu, preparing the mountain for the western clients has improved over recent years, however, the big breakthrough seemed to have come last year. “It was great when Russell brought his rope fixing expertise from the North side. He is a big operator and has lots of material.” In 2009, Russell contributed 5,000m of rope, which his Sherpas used to fix the route all the way to the summit. “I think it was the first big step to getting more organised. Last year, it was already easier and this year we only needed two meetings to decide who is doing what,” Ang Jangbu continued. Even though Russell refuses to take any credit for the improvement of the rope fixing, other expedition leaders see it differently. “It is great that Russell is on this side of the mountain now. His expertise certainly helped improve our system here,” Jagged Globe’s Rob Anderson told me when I met him on one of my walks through base camp.
Money and Material Pool
Before the start of this season, the big operators were in email contact and decided who was providing what on the mountain. It was determined that IMG would provide the rope, Himalayan Guides would provide the hardware and other teams would provide manpower. “We have a pool for money and material, which we take out as needed,” Russell explained. For every climber, expedition leaders have to contribute US$ 100 to the pool, which is used for paying the Sherpas for their rope fixing work and for reimbursing the various operators for the material. “If there is some money left over, we will use it for next year – if there is not enough money then we will just have to pay for it,” Russell said.
Now, this year’s rope fixing plan is scheduled as follows: Sherpas of around seven teams will carry the rope to Camp 2, which lies at an altitude of 6,400m. They will then share the work to fix the rope up the Lhotse Face to Camp 3 (7,400m) and then all the way up to Camp 4, which is situated on the South Col at around 8,000m. The last section from the South Col to the summit will be fixed by the Sherpas of IMG, Alpine Ascents and Himex. Every team will provide three Sherpas, who will be in charge to fix this section. “We will try to close the mountain for other teams so that the Sherpas can fix the rope safely,” Russell explained. The rope should be fixed to the South Col by around 25th April, however, the fixing of the last section will depend on the weather.
Tim Rippel of Peak Freaks has just visited the Himex camp and has shared his rescue plan with Russell. It is a technique Tim used a couple of years ago when he was rescuing a climber from the South Summit. “I will print 20 copies and distribute it around the camp as it could really help rescue efforts,” Tim said. It is actually amazing to see how well all the teams are working together this year. “We need good teamwork – the times of competition are over. We can only make this mountain a safer place by cooperating and this is what has been happening over the past few years,” Tim continued. And he certainly has a point. Up until a few years ago, or rather until more commercial expeditions started to add Mount Everest to their portfolio, statistics showed that there was about a 10 percent chance of dying on the mountain. But with a better infrastructure along the route, better use of radios and better medical facilities, this number has decreased significantly and now stands at around one percent.
Another huge improvement is this year’s distribution of medical kits, air pressure bags, shovels and other material to be used by different teams. At the bottom of the icefall Himex has put up a tent, where different teams can leave gear for common use, in case they need it. “The good thing about this is that people can use the gear at any time and I am not worried that it will get stolen,” Russell said.
There are also a few cleaning teams on the mountain this year, who will hopefully remove some of the old fixed rope and carry it down. “Getting rid of the old rope will make the climbing safer as there will only be one line, the one that is fixed, to clip into,” said Ang Jangbu. The fact that 7,000m (or 400kg) of rope were provided by one operator guarantees that the whole mountain will be covered in the same kind and same colour rope, which makes choosing the right rope easier.
As far as other rubbish is concerned, the Nepali operator ‘Asian Trekking’ has put a system into place, whereby everyone who brings down rubbish from the mountain will be rewarded with 100 NPRs (about $ 1.20) per kilo. This is certainly not necessary for base camp, which is usually kept very clean, but probably a good idea for the higher camps, such as Camp 2 and Camp 4.
Whether or not the rope fixing system will be better this year remains to be seen. However, the season has certainly started off pretty well with most of the expedition leaders feeling very positive about this year’s system. I will be going down to Lobuje East on Tuesday to check out how our teams are doing over there. Until then, I hope you have enjoyed some more of the insider news from base camp.