Once again Everest makes headline news around the world, and the media has had a field day making all sorts of accusations, but with little consideration of just how we got to this situation. I have only been on 26 Everest Expeditions so what would I know….but I suspect that I can at least try and comment on the situation.
To anyone who has driven a motorcar in Kathmandu, you will have a bit of an idea about how Nepal works…..or does not work !!!! There is a lack of infrastructure, for which the authorities seem to have a disdain in trying to rectify……everyone tries there best to do what their own particular goal is…..that might mean driving a car from one place to another…..but then the motorbike riders are more maneuverable so they will overtake, pass on the inside, cut across the path of the car….and at the same time the pedestrian traffic also wants to cross from one side of the road to the other…..or they just want to walk along the footpath…..but that has been dug up to put in a water supply……that was supposed to be finished 6 years ago…so they need to walk on the road…..but what about the dogs….they also want to get from one place to another…….so there we are…..just a mass of people and animals all wanting to do their own thing……but not actually work together to make the journey more efficient and enjoyable……oh and don’t forget about the sacred cows who seem to find it fun to sit in the middle of some of Kathmandu’s busiest roads, or the power poles that are still in the middle of one of the lanes of traffic, having never been removed after the widening of the road. So to a Nepali person……this is normal.
Well that seems to be exactly the same thing happening on Everest.
Many years ago when Everest guiding first began, we saw an increase of operators…..these operators came from a base of reasonable mountaineering experience….but even at that early stage we all got together and self-imposed a set of guidelines on what the minimum safety standards needed to be. Remembering that despite many discussions with the authorities Ministry of Tourism and Civil Aviation (MoT) we were unable to move these officials into thinking about the future, and setting guidelines for all operators. We called this organization International Guiding Operators 8,000 (IGO) and this was before the days of websites / blogs / twitter and the like. We set standards of guide / staff experience, minimum safety equipment and a recommended way of operation. Practically every operator agreed to these standards, but it was not long before Explorers Web started calling us a Cartel, which was the exact opposite to why we formed this organization. Eventually we decided that all this effort was not worth it, so the organization was disbanded…..however…..those same operators are all still here, and are all still operating their respective businesses according to those early guide lines…..and they all still work closely together.
In those early days, the media was already saying that Everest climbing was out of control…..but what several of the operators did was improve the safety (especially for Sherpa staff) and all on the hill. Many of these safety features made commonsense, but the media continued to denounce the operators saying that we were now providing luxury….because they have never been climbers….and have no expedition experience. But still the majority of operators worked together, and often discussed how to make expedition climbing safer….which then turns into more successful. We improved weather forecasting, telecom communications, insurance, wages, safety equipment, and made big improvements to the way rope fixing was done. At the same time these operators continued to have discussions with the MoT……but not a single thing has been improved from the government end…..so a total lack of direction from the country that is collecting so much for Permit Fees. Is it any wonder that it is a free for all on the hill now !!!
Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee (SPCC) was formed to help reduce the impact of garbage on the hill, but they also took control of the rope fixing through the Icefall using a dedicated group of Sherpa’s called the Icefall Doctors. We as operators continue to have meaningful dialogue with the SPCC……but many of these suggestions the SPCC are not able to implement …….again because MoT are not willing to make changes or give permissions to make improvements.
We as operators also helped form Expedition Operators Association (EOA) in an effort to simplify and improve the rope fixing. But again EOA are continually making representation to MoT…..but getting nowhere.
And of course there are all the other organizations behind that are equally as ineffective Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA), Nepal Tourism Board (NTB), Sagarmatha National Park and so it goes on. But like the street in Kathmandu…..all of these organizations are trying to do their own thing……and are seldom working together. Now take each of these organizations individually, and you will find that there are often two or three different fractions within the same organiastion….so it is hard for them just as one organization to speak with a common voice.
The end result……total confusion.
But what is going wrong with Everest…..there is a simple answer…….there are too many companies……and too many people. We as operators and the media have been warning about this for many years !!!!! Now it is actually happening !!!!!
Over the last few years, there has been an increased number of foreign operators……mainly being set up by guides from existing companies…..most of them are offering something that is supposedly different or something special…..but at the end of the day it is basically the same product…..just marketed differently. So this has helped increase the numbers on the hill.
But along side this, in recent years there has been a drastic increase in the number of local Nepal operators. A small few of these operators are desperately trying to do a great job…..but many others are offering cheap trips….taking large numbers….and are far below what we would call normal operating standards. Sure they can offer cheaper trips, but this always comes at a cost, the quality of food that is being offered, sanitation levels, removal of rubbish and human waste, quality of staff, quality of equipment, safety equipment available, and past experience. Some of the claims of safety and success by some of these companies is doubtful…..and blatantly are lies. It is easy to set up a company in Nepal, but are the authorities at all interested in what previous experience one has, or what safety standards are being adhered to……no interest what so ever.
I can understand that some local operators want to increase the work opportunities for those who live in poor and underdeveloped areas of Nepal, so work on Everest offers a chance to earn money. But for many of these people, they have no mountaineering training what so ever. So some of these poor men are being sent onto Everest as their first time ever of wearing crampons. They have not been exposed to mountaineering before, so how do they know when to turn back or keep going, how do they recognize that they might be in danger or not. So yes I can appreciate that this is offering work, but operators also need to undertake correct and through training before putting these lads in this position. More and more we are hearing of cases where a client has left their “Climbing Sherpa” behind on the mountain….that’s because this poor lad does not have experience, and should never have been in this situation in any case, but nobody takes this up with the company concerned, or the authorities.
But at the same time, many of these new companies are targeting Indians and Chinese clients. We are hearing so many more stories of the corruption involved with Indian clients……people who can increase their work rankings if they summit Everest…..people who gain money or land if they summit Everest. And at the same time we are seeing an increase of “false climbing permits”, people claiming to reach the summit….but have photoshopped someone else’s photo, people claiming to have been to the summit…..but are in Base Camp 2 hours later……and so it goes on. And of course the Chinese who have not climbed another 8,000m peak are not able to climb Everest in China…..so they come to Nepal. Easy markets to prey on…..but members are mainly inexperienced and should not be on Everest.
Now the reality on the hill of a new company coming to the mountain is, there are more Base Camps, so space is restricted, there are more people peeing into the water supplies, so clear water is becoming in short supply, more base camp staff, much more equipment that has to be carried in and out of BC, then more climbing Sherpas…..so now more pressure is put on the ladders and the route through the icefall…….more camps at C2, so more pollution, now more pressure on the fixed ropes to the summit, and even more camps at South Col, and the associated rubbish and human waste effect. More pressure on summit days, more stealing of oxygen, more rescues, and more people and equipment to be taken away from BC again. So with the limited infrastructure that is in place, even a month before climbers arrive at BC, we have gridlock of equipment moving from Kathmandu to be flown into the Khumbu…..some loads sitting on the side of a runway for weeks on end…..a constant stream of porters and yaks taking loads to BC, then traffic jams of Sherpas carrying loads through the Icefall….and so it continues up the Lhotse Face and then onto the summit…..then at the end of the season the mad rush to line up for one of the 30 or so helicopters per day to fly out…..and long after the climbers are back home……the gridlock of yaks and porters carrying equipment back out again.
But the same is happening with the Everest Base Camp Trek, we are seeing between 300 on a quite day, and 600 people on a busy day, of day trippers visiting EBC. Again with no infrastructure or policing in place, they are leaving human waste, garbage and graffiti on the rocks. The lodges are totally over crowded, so it is not even a very present experience, and of course the basic amenities are stretched to their limits.
Of course this is all great for the economy of Nepal. Just the Climbing Permits alone for the climbers this year brought in over $4 million directly to the MoT, and some of us estimate that a further $12 million was spent on hotels, restaurants, helicopters, planes, lodges, porters/yaks, climbing staff and the like. This is a sizable proportion of the total tourist income of Nepal…..and Nepal needs more income !!!! But does it need the bad publicity that comes along with this overcrowding.
Many critics would say that we are directly responsible for this. Yes I must accept a certain amount of responsibility, I spent many years trying to understand how to make Everest expeditions safer and more successful. When I first climbed Everest we had very little fixed rope, and so had to short rope…..but I personally spent considerable time in trying to improve how we fixed rope…..yes a lot of my own fault. But at the same time many less people have died because of the fixed ropes. When we first put a tarpaulin on the floor of our dining tent, others followed……when we then put insulation and carpet on the floor…..others followed…..why because it improves comfort which also improves performance which improves safety…..and so it goes on. Yes when I moved from North side to South side….I started going to Lobuche for acclimatization…..now it is too polluted, and overcrowded…..so I have stopped going there. And this year we successfully carried out our acclimatization on Pumori. We were the only team there, and that was nice. I am sure that other teams will be only too happy to use our ropes there next year……but hope not.
Some are saying that the overcrowding this year is due just to the weather. Yes we had a cold jet stream just to the North of Everest this year, that sat there and did not move away for most of the season. But there were some good days early season, but before the rope had been fixed, and there were some good days later in the season…..acceptable on North side but too late on the South side because of the warming up of the Icefall. But most teams went to the summit on days that were too windy and too cold…..and so the wind chill factor was well into the -40 plus range. Sure one might be able to deal with these temperatures at sea level, but to spend protracted hours in such conditions at 8,000m is not an easy task to ask of the average climber.
Our summit day on 23 May was well predicted in weather forecasts, there was no wind at South Col at 00.45 when the team left. There was cloud predicted to 8,000m but actually this went up to 8,400m so our team experienced very light snow during the climb to the Balcony, but this had the advantage of increasing temperatures a little. When the team reached the summit at 07.00 it was clear and calm, and everyone was back down to S Col again by 11.00 and had left the Col by 14.00 when the wind increased again.
Despite there being many very detailed weather forecasts, I am not actually sure many people are able to read these correctly and are able to accurately analyze what is really happening. I was shocked to see an operator who did not actually know where Everest was, or how to read the wind direction on a popular and well used weather model. And I see some teams who are receiving no weather data at all, so they are tending to follow the crowds.
For years and years, operators and equipment manufacturers have been developing better products, boots, fabrics and the like…..but now we are seeing an ever increasing amount of frostbite. That is not the fault of the manufacturers, that is bad leadership/advice and a total lack of personal responsibility. Its almost as though by losing your fingers to frostbite on Everest is like a trophy….well it isn’t ……and the effects of not having digits will effect your business and home life for the remained of your life. So I do not get this disregard to basic safety. In the past, we operated expeditions all about safety, safety, safety……but now it does not seem to happen…..its about summit, summit, summit at whatever it costs.
We are also seeing a bigger trend towards people pushing well beyond their limits, those who are trying to finish their Seven Summits……but pushing past what their bodies are capable, several deaths this year of older, experienced climbers dying on the way down from reaching the summit, or those trying to summit without oxygen pushing past what was their limit. All of us who attempt Everest need to understand that if we push too hard, we might not recover. For sure Everest is not easy, so yes we do need to go outside of our comfort zone, and we do need to push hard…..but we also need to understand where our own limit is……and this comes from experience.
But there is no excuse for one Nepal operator, (of course we all know who it is…..but are not allowed to name them) to be losing so many climbers, five of the 21 people who died in the last season on different mountains (that’s almost a quarter) which brings to more than 50 fatalities in eight years of operation of this company. If this company was a foreign operator we would have had charges brought against us or at least there would be some form of enquiry, or we would be in jail. But nobody MoT, EOA, NTB takes any action. Even when the same company has been exposed as being corrupt with its dealing with helicopter rescue, and the authorities say they will make a full investigation and take appropriate action…..but nothing has been done. The same company that is very well sponsored with clothing, equipment and tents…..but at the end of the season would prefer to cut their company logo out of the tent fly, and leave a perfectly operation tent on the slopes to become garbage a year later.
Why, because this is Nepal, and when you go to Nepal, you need to do things the Nepal way. With corruption being the way of life….then one needs to do business in an underhand way….not be honest and try and improve business ethics and safety.
I suspect that I am too old to care now, and I have spent the last 40 odd years trying to improve systems, and the Nepal mountaineering business, but this has not worked.
Lots of pros and cons to consider. But what needs to be done:
- For MoT to make changes to rules and regulations to accommodate modern expedition logistics.
- We have been suggesting to MoT for many years that the current system of each team having a Liaison Officer does not work. Practically none of these LO’s ever turn up at BC, then only for a few hours before going back to Ktm. We are suggesting that there should be three senior LO’s, one from MoT, one from Police, one from Army, and that they should all be trained to deal with emergencies and complaints of theft and wrong doing at BC.
- CTMA use this system very effectively in Tibet.
- Instead of increasing the cost of radio permits, we should be encouraging the use of radio, and so each radio should have a life long radio permit and a off permit charge. Teams without radios should be penalized, not the teams with radios.
- Laws concerning news from expedition teams should be changed to take into account that practically everyone is already communicating with the outside world by wifi or phone.
- Enforce the current rule that all members and staff must submit a complete medical report….these need to be verified by a registered doctor.
- Set a minimum wage for all local staff at various rates for different jobs.
- Set and enforce minimum insurance for all staff.
- Ensure that all climbing staff have attended appropriate training courses, and have suitable high altitude experience.
- Set and enforce a minimum height standard that an Everest climber must have achieved prior to attempting Everest. Currently this is 6,000m, which is still 2,800m below the summit of Everest, and not even at C2, so means nothing. But the MoT have no way of checking this….a person who climbs Kilimanjaro has been higher than 6,000m….but this is just a walk….where as a person who has climbed Denali is not eligible, despite this being a more technical mountain that actually requires some mountaineering proficiency.
- By ensuring that an Everest climber has already been on another 8,000m peak can be easily verified between the Nepal, Tibet and Pakistan authorities. We certainly see that those who have been to 8,000m prior to Everest are then much safer and successful when on Everest.
- CTMA uses this system in Tibet.
- Allow SPCC to charge all trekkers into the Khumbu a garbage fee, so as all users of the area contribute to cleaning. Then SPCC could concentrate more on the Icefall rope fixing.
- Issue permits for flying all equipment to C2 by helicopter, so as to reduce Sherpa loads through the Icefall.
- Allow EOA to start the rope fixing process earlier.
- Ensure that all operators have minimum safety equipment.
- Help SPCC and EOA with reduced import tax on rope fixing and special safety equipment like stretchers, crevasse and avalanche rescue equipment.
But the job does not just come down to the actions of MoT. We all need to start showing the respect that Everest demands, if we don’t, then she will continue to claim many people lives.
- We as operators need to restrict our numbers per team. The rule is 15 members per team. But we also need to ensure that we are using suitably qualified staff, and that we only take proficient climbers, and have a proof of this.
- Sponsors also need to take care that they are no sponsoring a person or operator who is not qualified to climb Everest.
- Media needs to pay attention to what is really happening, rather than just concentrating on headline news.
- Media needs to pay more attention to what is real news, and what is just being said on blogs by people who have very little idea of what is actually happening.
- Nepal needs to work harder to reducing corruption in the country.
This year I heard of a climber who was heavily sponsored, but she took 22 hours to walk from BC to C2, how come such an inept climber is totally sponsored on such a massive task.
I also heard of a climber who took 15 hours to walk from BC to C1. That team kept taking her higher and higher….taking ridiculous times to get from camp to camp…….guess what, she is now dead lying on the upper slopes…….what a surprise.
We have seen the increased use of helicopters on Everest, and again I must accept a certain amount of responsibility for this as I was one of the first operators to regularly use helicopter transport, but at no stage did I believe that it would be abused to the extent that it has been by some of the less reputable operators with insurance fraud.
This was exposed by some of the insurance providers and was reported last year to the MoT. There was a definite reduction in helicopter “rescue” this year….but still we saw more than 60 so called rescues from C2 during the last season. I understand that a permit for each rescue must be obtained from Lukla, where I suspect the poor chap was suffering from writer’s cramp.
I dare say all I can say is we need to respect this important feature of Nepal, otherwise we will find that such a magnificent beast will turn its fury on all of us, much to the detriment of Nepal tourism. Year 2020 is Nepal Tourism year……can we all work together to try and make this a positive year and a positive event. But pre publicity has not been good.