Monday, April 28, 2014

Everest Climbing and Death - An Objective Summary

Everest Base Camp from South with Khumbu Icefall in the center
People have been dying on Everest ever since human started attempting to reach its summit. Number of people who have died on Everest as on date stand around 265 with number of people who have summitted at 4042. This gives us a 6.5% death rate; which is not such an alarming figure at all. On 18th April this year, 16 Sherpa guides died in one avalanche making this the worst accident on Everest ever, plunging the climbing world into a raging storm of debates. Among the dead I lost three very close friends, whom I had known for decades.

Even though high altitude mountain climbing is among the most dangerous activities on Earth, people do not die proportionately to the risks involved since mountain climbing is a very specialized activity that is undertaken by experienced and qualified climbers and since we know that it is dangerous, it is done with utmost caution and after all due training. Whereas millions die crossing roads annually around the world since it is not perceived as a dangerous activity and anyone and everyone is attempting to do so. In this post I will address all the major concerns about Everest and Sherpa and commercial guided clients, climbing ethics and many such things, which may help in understanding the complex game of climbing the highest mountain in the world. This is my personal view and I will neither quote nor site anyone else and whatever I would mention below are all from my firsthand experience that I gained after multiple Everest summits through different routes, employing different styles of climbing. In doing so I hope I would be able to offer you an unbiased, practical, no-nonsense take on Everest climbing through the traditional South Col route, with bits about the North Col route.

Deaths on Everest – deaths upon Everest are a norm rather than an exception and everyone who attempts to climb Everest must bear this in mind and must accept the consequences. The major causes of deaths are –

High altitude related – pulmonary oedema and cerebral oedema, physical exhaustion, loss of senses, hallucination, etc
Cold related – hypothermia, cold injuries, freezing
Objective hazards – avalanches, crevasses, rock and ice falls etc
Subjective hazards – accidental falls, gear and equipment failure

Who runs the risk of dying more – in the commercially guided expeditions, as has become the norm since the late nineties, obviously it is the Sherpa guides and support staff that runs the risk of death more than the paid clients. There are several reasons for this; the Sherpa guides are exposed to the hazards and high altitudes way much more than the clients and western guides, they carry much heavier loads, use less supplemental oxygen, they have to support their clients to a large extent so they are working much more, they may not be eating the same high calorie food as the clients and perhaps their motivation level to climb is dictated more by the money they make than anything else. When something happens, a Sherpa and not the client is expected to spring into action and take corrective actions, whereas only recently have Sherpa guides started getting technically trained and it takes years of experience to understand and tackle emergencies. Mere physical strength or adaptability to high altitude is not enough for such cases.
Gaping icefall 
What types of Sherpa guides do we get on Everest – there are lead guides who are highly qualified both technically and in experience and know everything that can happen on Everest and is as capable as any western guide to lead and take care of a group, and they have excellent communication and leadership skills; such lead Sherpa guides are not very many. There are individual Sherpa guides, who accompany a client (normally one is to one ratio), who takes care of his client, carries his extra load, stocks up oxygen, tent, food, equipment etc for his client or for his group and then he accompanies his individual client every step of the way up and down. He is literally like the shadow of his client. There are many such Sherpa guides and they are reliable and competent, but where they lack is in their leadership and decision making skills, they can at the best advice the client but may not be able to decide and may not be able to tackle an emergency either. These Sherpa guides are generally technically trained but may lack communication skill but they are very helpful and an asset to inexperienced clients as they literally help at every step, starting from putting on gear and crampons to getting food etc. Many western clients feel restricted with these guides due to lack of communication skills. Then there are junior Sherpa guides; those who are young and aspire to become Sherpa guides one day so they start by helping out in the higher camps or at the base camp and are generally sent as an helper with a lead Sherpa guide or with a large group as extra hands so that they can learn and observe and gain from his seniors and can get a summit below his belt as well. They do lot of load ferries to stock the upper camps. Everest is teeming with such junior Sherpa guides and not to be critical about them, I must say they are a hazard in themselves and no client should ever depend solely upon them since they are themselves novices; even if physically strong. Only very experienced guides or clients should accept the junior Sherpa guides in a responsible role, else let them just come along. After all they can be of great help as an extra support.

Who are Icefall doctors on the South side – these are a team of highly experienced and skilled Sherpa guides employed by the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee (SPCC) whose sole job is to open and maintain the route from Base Camp to Camp 2 using ropes and aluminium ladders and other technical equipment. This is known as the Khumbu Icefall Route Construction Project. Icefall doctors are the ones who enter first into the Khumbu Icefall each season and open the route till Camp 2 and only after they declare the route safe and open can anyone else venture into the icefall. Throughout the climbing season, till the last climber and equipment has been brought down, the team of icefall doctors will be going up and down the icefall surveying and maintaining the route.  Needless to say that their job is the most important one for Everest climbing from south side. Members of this team regularly fall victims into the icefall and such deaths are accepted as occupational hazards by everyone.
Ladders through Khumbu Icefall, these can break and change any time
What type of climbers attempt Mt Everest – for the purpose here I will only be considering the climbers who are paying for the climb; hence I will call them clients. Even though things have improved and most of the clients on Everest come with some sort of training and previous high altitude experience, we still find absolute novices up there who have no business to be there to begin with. So clients range from men and women and boys and girls (now not below 16 years of age), from all walks of life, who have done some mountaineering courses so they know about the technical aspects and have some experience but nowhere near that is needed for Everest or an 8000 m peak for that matter. The most dangerous ones are those who think that merely by paying an exorbitant amount of money they will be pushed or pulled and guided to the top and back, failing to realize that they will still have to climb on their own feet. Majority of the clients are totally dependent upon their guides and Sherpa guides to take decisions regarding safety, climbing strategies, food intake, clothing and load ferrying, oxygen management, weather prediction, rope work, anything at all. And this can be detrimental at times, since some amount of self-sufficiency is needed in case the guide gets out of hearing range from the client or the team is caught in a blinding storm etc. Clients are the reason why the guides and Sherpas are up there since it is all about money yet the client must always be personally responsible for self safety and should not ideally be totally dependent upon another individual for his or her life. I am not blaming the commercial clients since it is to them that Everest and the local communities and Nepal owe so much but I am insisting that the clients themselves for their own sake must train harder and gain more experience before they venture to Everest.

What is the South Col route climb like – the most preferred route on Everest is the same one that Tenzing and Hillary had followed for their 1953 climb and essentially very little has changed about the mountain since. Today the South Col route is the one that most groups use to reach the summit. The entire climb is done in a phased manner from one camp to another and can be summarized as follows –

Base Camp is at around 5350m where the clients arrive and stay for most of the expedition. Base camp hike is easy and poses almost no danger to anyone and each year thousands of normal people trek to the BC. Just beyond the Base Camp, the dreaded Khumbu Icefall begins and this is the most dangerous section of the entire climb. While the clients regroup and rest and acclimatize at BC, the icefall doctors open route through the icefall, fixing ropes and ladders across crevasses, finding the safest route till Camp 2. Once the route is open then the expedition Sherpa and guides start load ferrying and stocking up the higher camps. Once Camp 1 and Camp 2 are established and stocked, the clients will start moving.
Crossing ladder across a crevasse through the crevasse field en route to C2. Lhotse in the back center
Ideally on the first outing beyond BC, the clients go till the midpoint of the icefall till around 5800m taking an average of 3 hour up and 1 hour down. Next they will go till Camp 1 (6050m) and return to BC. Some prefer to spend a night at C1. After few days rest the clients will go directly from BC to C2 (6400m) taking an average of 5 – 6 hours. Some may come back to Camp1 to sleep. Others will sleep one or two nights at C2, then climb up to C3 (7200m). Some may sleep a night at C3, mostly will touch C3 and return to sleep at C2 and next day descend to BC thus completing the acclimatization phase. Very few even prefer to sleep at C3 and then touch C4 (7900m) with oxygen and then return to BC. As the client is moving up and down, so are the Sherpa and guides stocking upper camps till C4 and fixing rope till the summit and making oxygen dumps along the way. Post acclimatization, the clients stay put at BC, doing walks and few occasional climbs to nearby peaks and high points, recuperating, eating, hydrating, reading books, etc. Everyone waits for the weather window and then in the second phase, the clients start around 5 days before the summit date from BC and go for the Summit at one go – typically day 1 from BC to C2 (sleep at C2), day 2 rest at C2, day 3 from C2 to C3 (sleep at C3 using oxygen at low rate), day 4 from C3 to C4 (using oxygen to climb), rest at C4 and start the same night for the summit, day 5 morning or noon summit Everest (using oxygen for going up and descending) and then return to C3 or C2, for some they are slow and hence rest at C4. And then back to BC again going through the Khumbu Icefall.

Route hazards – till BC there’s almost no hazards at all and nearly everyone reaches BC without any problem. In less than 20 min out of BC we enter the dreaded Khumbu Icefall that is perhaps the most dangerous and horrifying mountainscape anywhere in the world. I am surprised that more people do not die here. One has to stay clipped to the fixed rope that winds through the icefall at amazing angles and places, often prompting us to think who made this route; crossing the ladders across the gaping crevasses can be daunting as they often swing and vibrate, and the deep chasm below is not a comforting sight at all. On top of this with crampons and heavy boots it is difficult to walk on the aluminium ladders. Sometimes the ladders do break and even Sherpa guides fall through them. Beyond the icefall we come to the crevasse ridden field to C1 and from there the route veers towards Nuptse and then across another massive crevasse field into the western cwm to C2. The main dangers beyond icefall till C2 is of the crevasses but there are ladders across all of them and mostly with fixed ropes all along and red marker flags it is easy to stay on track. From C2 (which is very crowded) beneath the west ridge, the route goes almost flat till the bottom of the Lhotse face from where the fixed ropes begin once more. The gradient is rather steep and the climb first time is tough as the altitude reaches beyond 7000m. At C3, tent platforms are cut in terraced fashion as there isn’t enough room for so many climbers and same tents are used by different climbers on different days. At C3, normally clients will use oxygen to sleep; else there will be persisting headache.

At C3, everyone wakes really early and putting on oxygen, head for C4, this is a long and hard day. It takes an average of 4 – 6 hours to reach C4. The main hazards here are rock fall from Lhotse face. Rope is fixed well and as long as you keep to it you should be safe. Going through the rock bands are difficult and you have to do some serious jumarring at places. Slow and steady is the best approach here. C4 is very hostile place and you have to be on oxygen all the time. Sherpas too normally strap into oxygen from here. People spend few hours here just resting and drinking fluid and most clients will start between 8 – 10 pm for the summit. An average client can take between 10 – 12 hours to reach the summit and half of that time to get back to C4 and few more hours to return to C3 and below. Again rope is fixed all the way till the summit but there are hazards of bad weather, rock fall, traffic jam, extreme cold, exhaustion, inadequate or defective oxygen bottles and accessories etc. The going gets rather tough beyond the south summit. But as you can see, this route, once you are above the icefall, is comparatively safe and demands almost no technical skills. You only have to clip on to the fixed ropes, keep climbing at a steady pace and make sure you have enough oxygen. Ideally 6 bottles are used by an average client for the entire climb. One is used for sleeping at C3, which is left there. Then a new one for climbing from C3 to C4 and same one at C4. This is left at C4. The third brand new one is clipped on to as one starts for the summit. We change this and get a brand new one at the balcony (8300m) and with this fourth new one we go all the way to the summit. At the summit we change into a new one for returning. We may or may not clip into the one left at balcony depending upon how much is left in the fifth bottle. From C4 down we will use the sixth new one and all the other partially empty ones till C2.
Camp 3 looking up, towards the route to Camp 4
Why more people climb from South than from North – even though the cost of climbing from South is higher the success rates are higher on this side hence more people come to South and as we have seen, barring the icefall, the objective hazards are less and technical skills needed are also less. Whereas from the north, it is more technical, you spend more time inside the death zone, weather conditions are worse than the south, the last camp is at 8300m etc are some of the reasons why it is less popular. Then China is also less predictable and they might stop expeditions without warning or order someone to leave the mountain. Emergency rescue evacuation support is also not as well regulated as in the South. More people prefer the walk in to the South BC as this is beneficial for acclimatization as opposed to the drive in from the North.

What is happening on Everest with the increase in commercial client groups – Everest has truly become a game of money and this has its drawbacks. While spawning a massive industry in such a poor country as Nepal, it has caused and continues to cause a huge burden to the fragile mountain and nature. With more people coming in, there’s more need of infrastructure and support and since many agencies charge a king’s ransom, they are obliged to provide five star services to their clients; who in turn see no offence in availing or demanding such services. If nearly 600 people have to go up to the summit in a span of few weeks then imagine the amount of food, tent, oxygen, equipment etc needs to be ferried up and down the mountain! Therefore need for more Sherpa guides and with such huge demands there will be compromise in safety standards and quality. Everyone hopes that nothing will go wrong and mostly nothing does go wrong, but this year, something did horrifically go wrong and all the wrong kind of people died. We lost some of the most experienced and capable Sherpa guides on Everest this year. If there were less clients then there would be less rush and need to take things up therefore the Sherpa guides will be doing lesser number of load ferries or might do it more cautiously in slower time with more deliberation, rather than being driven by their agencies and guides to race against time. What has happened cannot be blamed on the commercial clients or increased traffic on Everest, since such things happen and the risk factor would always remain the same no matter how many or how few climbers attempt Everest. But what can reduce with less number of climbers would be a reduction to exposure to such risks, we would need less support, less load ferries and therefore less number of Sherpa guides. Amount and degree of risks through the icefall or higher above remains the same but the exposure duration to these risks can be reduced drastically with less number of climbers.

Per se, what has happened is normal and common. Avalanches are part of any mountains and on Everest. They are an acceptable hazard that we all know so are the crevasses, ice seracs, tumbling icefalls, rock falls, etc. They cannot be eliminated but they can be avoided. On Everest safety measures are routinely overlooked due to several reasons, and most of all from the pressures of the client who has paid through his nose for the climb. For me personally, safety always takes priority over the summit and I have turned around members of my team even from the last camp if I had any doubts about safety. Mountains are beautiful and though I would love to die within them while climbing, I am going to do my best to avoid that from happening. I am not saying that these 16 Sherpa guides’ death could have been avoided, since destiny cannot be avoided, but what I am saying is that we can reduce this risk by implementing several measures that many of us have been recommending over the years.

Are the Sherpa guides exploited – by no means are they exploited any more than anywhere else in the poor countries around the world. If we compare the average annual income of a regular Nepali citizen around 500 – 600 US$ to what a climbing Sherpa guide on Everest earns around 4000 – 6000 US$ net (including tips and summit bonus) for three months work, then this is not a bad deal at all and all such Sherpa guides are way more affluent then a regular Nepali. Many Sherpa guides solely due to their climbing skills and humane qualities now work around the world and many have settled to other countries like US, UK, Switzerland etc. So Everest has opened up for them a huge prospect of not only earning more but of other avenues of work and respect and dignity. The risk to money factor they run on Everest is similar and might even be less than other high risk occupation like that in the military or fire-fighting, or police or construction workers in high rise buildings.

In a country where regular work or money is in acute shortage, guiding on Everest is a boon for the Sherpa community. But for the mountains and Everest and commercial clients, they would still be farming and eke out meagre living. So let us not blame the clients or the commercial agencies for Sherpa guides’ work. It benefits both sides and works both ways. One cannot exist without the other and both feed from each other. All Sherpa guides when they sign up are fully aware of the risks they run and the work they are expected to perform; for some it is only work, for some it is proving their manliness, for some it is a family tradition, for some it is a quick way to fame and wealth and a good outlet to another country or building up network abroad. To be fair to all I must admit that the Sherpa guides and the commercial clients are dependent upon each other for their respective needs and no Sherpa is ever forced to do something against his will or desire. Some Sherpa guides even take the mountain lightly, often forgoing safety factors and have been found to taunt their clients, some are too cocky for their own good, many consider climbing Everest a stroll through Kathmandu market but most of them respect Everest and give her due regards and reverence and have the humility to go with it. If we take away the money factor I doubt how many Sherpa would be willing to climb Everest or any other mountain for that matter purely for the joy and thrill of climbing. Some do climb; those who are already affluent and run their own agencies, for creating records.

Should the Sherpa guides be paid more – well this is something that if we take on human level then everyone on this planet, no matter what work they do, always wants to be paid more; but an economist can perhaps tell us how wages and salaries are fixed for jobs. Some of us do get paid much more or much less than the proportionate risk or labour we put in. In my opinion the Sherpa guides should first be divided into different categories and then a base minimum pay scale be offered that commensurate with their skill, experience, past performances, number of Everest summits etc plus they should be paid per load ferries they do between camps, how much load they carry, how much garbage they get back etc. Then add the tips and summit bonus. As of now there are minimum laid down tips and summit bonus that a client has to give to his guide though he can give him much more individually. Most clients also donate their climbing clothing and equipment to their Sherpa or support BC staff. Overall the take home emoluments of a Sherpa guide each Everest season is substantial. But yes, it should be increased by at least 1000 US$ I do agree. But what is more important are their insurance and accident benefits. In case of death, their families should get a much higher compensation than currently they get and personal accident (leading to loss of limbs or such matters that will not permit them to climb again) insurance benefits should also be much higher. And I do agree that the Nepal Tourism that pockets most of the Everest permit fee must invest a larger portion of it back into the Sherpa guides and support staff of cooks and helpers and other porters.

In defence of commercial clients – much has been said against the commercial clients and I want to add my bits to it. Despite few difficult clients (who feel that just by paying money they have earned the right to stand atop Everest), by and large the clients are a good lot and are fun to be with. They are obedient, listen to their guides and the Sherpa guides and generally do what they have been told to do. Most of them are sympathetic to the Sherpa cause and are fully aware that without their support, they stand no chance of reaching the top. Most of the clients go back with the Sherpa as their new found friend. Most Sherpa has only good thing to say about their clients. If the clients stopped coming then the Sherpa, the valley and the entire community will suffer unimaginable monetary loss. So clients are good for the Sherpa community. But having said that, at such volumes and density, it is not good for the mountain and nature.

Presently if we look at the entire gamut of Everest climbing then we can say that the following factors make up the game – Commercial clients, commercial agencies, guides, Sherpa guides, support staff, Nepal Government, tea houses and lodges along the way, aviation support, and above all the mountain itself along with the valley, rivers, glaciers etc. Who can or will decide which one of these is more important or most important since no single factor can survive without the others. Except the mountain of course, but then as human we have been destroying nature everywhere, why talk about only Everest?

For all practical purpose the current season on Everest from Nepal has shut down for various reasons, primarily since the Sherpa guides do not want to go up and want to keep away as a mark of respect for those killed this month.

Can commercial clients climb Everest without Sherpa guides – forget about commercial clients, even seasoned and veteran climbers including our stalwart western guides would find it nearly impossible to climb Everest on their own in Alpine style from the Nepal South Col route. Certainly not within the time that they normally spend on the mountain. And everything boils down to negotiating the dreaded icefall. The sheer physical task of route opening and maintaining through the icefall by a small self contained team is almost impossible. If the climbers are taken by helicopters and dropped directly at Camp 2 from BC then of course we may do without the Sherpas for expert climbers. But for commercial clients, they do need fixed ropes almost till the summit; if not entirely till the summit. Who will fix the rope, stock the camps, ferry loads up and down, if not the Sherpa guides? Sherpa guides not only offer strength and dedication but also number. No self contained team can match that. If Sherpa guides pull out, commercial climbing of Everest will be over for sure from the Nepal side. Sherpa support is not only necessary but absolutely imperative for someone attempting Everest in today’s world. No matter whether you have a personal Sherpa guide with you or you are all by yourself, since you would still be using the Khumbu icefall route made by other Sherpa guides and fixed ropes on higher slopes that have been placed by them as well. So if someone says he doesn’t need Sherpas on Everest then he has no idea what he is talking about.

Solutions – merely by paying the Sherpa guides more will not reduce the risks or their dangers, and in fact may prompt them to take more risks leading to greater accidents. So money is not a solution rather it is a relief when accidents take place. Higher insurance benefits for death and personal accidents are a must, so is higher wages. Closing down the mountain is best but is too drastic since Nepal cannot afford to do that. No one is really bothered about the mountain or nature or global warming, else good sense will prevail and the mountain will be shut for at least a decade. Since climbing on Everest will never stop, we must climb sensibly. And here everyone has to play their role in a collective effort to keep the mountain as safe and clean and pristine as possible. Climbing Everest will always be dangerous so that is an accepted norm for everyone involved. What I would certainly like to see would be lesser number of clients and support staff, better qualified and stronger clients, less amenities offered at BC and higher up, more rustic and minimalistic climbing approach, and to become less competitive and more of a fun activity. Mountains are beautiful but not worth dying for, just like crossing road is not worth dying for yet millions die each year crossing roads. So let us become sensible and responsible climbers.

Summary – Everest will be climbed as long as there are humans on Earth and people will die for whatever reasons. Accidents will keep happening and the incidences and frequencies will vary from year to year. The interdependency among various elements like the clients, agencies, support staff, Sherpa guides, en route support system, aviation industry, government etc will all continue to remain statuesque. It will always be an individual call, whether you want to climb Everest or not and if you do then to accept all the consequences that may arise from your decision.

Happy Climbing! 


  1. Everest has taken its stand and people should heed nature's call, but i guess like you summarized mountains will be climbed as long as they are there. So, all we can do is pray for the safety of the grounded people who make it happen.

    In the end, all that matters is that you are safe :-) xxoooxx

  2. Sir,

    Do you plan to come to Austria anytime soon ?