I’ve intentionally laid off from writing about what happened on Mount Everest a couple of weeks ago, when 16 Sherpa guides were killed by a massive avalanche while hauling loads up the Khumbu Icefall.
To get a couple of preliminaries out of the way, the icefall is considered the most dangerous part of the mountain on the Nepalese side, and those going up the southern standard route are required to go through this treacherous place multiple times.
This is even moreso the case for Sherpa guides and Western outfitters — they’re the ones hauling loads, setting fixed lines and establishing camps higher up the mountain. In particular, the risk undertaken by Nepalese guides is the highest, as they go up and down the peak much more frequently than their Western partners and their high-paying clientele.
Certainly, there is a lot about the Everest scene that is different from what most of us know as “mountaineering.” Maybe it’s time to have an honest discussion about that.
If you look at the photograph below, I don’t think any of us would mistake what going on there as “mountaineering.”
That’s Half Dome, one of the iconic peaks of Yosemite National Park. Cables attached to bolted-in rails assist hikers up its steep, bare summit pitch, making it possible to ascend what would otherwise be a very difficult and dangerous climb. Thanks to the cables, any hiker with the mettle to hike to that spot and the nerve to finish the task here can stand atop Half Dome and enjoy some pretty amazing summit views.
So take a look at the next picture below.
What you’re looking at is just part of a line of hundreds of climbers — all attached to fixed lines — heading up Mount Everest. To be sure, the air is thin, the pitch is steep and they are all carrying the gear needed to ascend (though most of these folks will go up and down the peak without ever having to use the ice axe affixed to their packs).
But is what they are doing really mountaineering? Are they using any of the required skills of mountain climbing? What percentage of them would know what their ice axe is for, and how/when to use it? Surely a lot of them would, but I’ll bet there are others who would not.
In any case, the overwhelming majority of the people who make a summit attempt on Everest are not the folks we’d normally associate with the term “mountaineer.” They may have mountaineering experience, but more likely they are people with a lot of money who pay others to do the bulk of the work to make a summit attempt successful. What’s left for the paying client is the task of 1) doing what you’re told by your guides; 2) getting dressed and geared up each morning; and 3) physically willing yourself to the top.
I want to stop here to note that for these climbers, a successful Everest summit is a real accomplishment. It takes a lot of heart, toughness and discipline to make that trek.
But I’d also say that if not for the huge levels of support they receive, almost none of them would ever sniff the summit. Instead, Everest would be left to the Ed Viesturses and Simone Moros of the mountaineering world — the people who could actually plan and execute a climb by way of their own skills and experience.
So that leads me back to where I started. What would you call the Everest climbing scene, if it is not really mountaineering?
In a word, tourism. Very expensive ($60,000 per person and up) and very dangerous tourism.
Paying clients risk their lives doing this. All of them could be injured or killed by avalanches, pulmonary edema, cerebral edema, hypothermia, a fall or any number of other pitfalls that come with scaling the world’s highest peaks. But they keep signing up, in bigger numbers, paying handsomely for the privilege.
Guide services in the U.S, Europe, Australia and Asia reap the rewards of this, and the guides they employ find work doing what they love as well as opportunities to advance their careers. Those guys also risk their lives, and as we saw in Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air,” sometimes they die.
But the biggest risks fall on the Nepalese and Tibetan guides. They haul more loads, fix more ropes and cross dangerous terrain more times than anyone else. They’re also paid the least, and unlike the paying clients, they don’t get to go home to lives of affluence. Sherpa guides earn far more money than their non-climbing countrymen, but their wages are significantly less than what you see in the developed world.
And now we have 16 dead Sherpas, buried by snow and ice as they were hauling loads and fixing ropes while traversing the nastiest part of the mountain last month.
These guys left behind families who, despite the insurance they may have had, are facing difficult times without the main wage earner around anymore. And lest we forget, economic opportunities for surviving family members in Nepal are far, far fewer than what we experience here.
The morality of this system looks a little questionable. Never mind the semi-imperialistic feel of it all — wealthy Westerners hiring locals to do the heavy lifting for small wages, all for the sake of earning a shot of personal glory before returning home. People are making their livelihoods — and risking their lives — all for the sake of what is really just tourism.
Read that again: Sixteen Sherpa guides died trying to satisfy the personal goals of tourists.
I don’t know what the answer is. Certainly, I’d like to see people continue to climb the world’s biggest peaks. I’d like to see folks who make those dreams happen get compensated fairly for what they do. But maybe the money involved in Himalayan adventure tourism is pushing people to take risks that are unfairly costing those who can least afford it.
A lot of high-paying clients on the south side of Everest went home disappointed this month when Nepalese guides shut down operations for the season. No doubt, many of them are wishing they had signed on to climb from the north side, where expeditions are still going on.
But at least they got to go home. Sixteen Nepalese men did not.
I’m going to keep climbing mountains, but it’s going to be with my friends, on much lower-profile peaks here in the U.S. Funds, time and limitations in my own experience/skills dictate that. If I had the ability and resources to try one of the Himalayan giants, I’d sure be tempted to go.
But I’m just not sure I’d feel right about going to Everest in light of what we know of that scene today.