In January, Polish hiker Tomek Mackiewicz and his French climbing partner Elisabeth Revol set off to climb Nanga Parbat, the Pakistani mountain known as the “killer mountain.” In the middle of winter. It wasn’t until descending from the 8,126 meter summit that the two climbers fell gravely ill with acute mountain sickness, snow blindness and frostbite. Revol was rescued the next day, but conditions prevented Mackiewicz’s rescue and he remains on the mountain, presumed dead. Much of the media coverage of the event questioned the Pakistani government for requiring full payment of the helicopter rescue mission and included a link to a Go Fund Me page set up by the climbing community for people to donate to the rescue.
Cold-weather climbing is a form of extreme climbing. Like free climbing, or climbing without oxygen, it is another way of making the challenge harder and more admirable. With temperatures reaching below negative 40 degrees Fahrenheit, treacherous winds and limited visibility, high-altitude climbing in winter is ludicrously dangerous.
Globalization and technology have created new opportunities for adventurers to take on new extremes. We can heli-ski or tow-in surf or deep sea dive. We can seek to go faster, higher, deeper and further. And we can be the first to do it in extreme heat or extreme cold, or as the first snapchatter. Soon, for enough money, we will be able to go to the moon or Mars.
But what are the consequences of these extreme adventures?
As the highest peak in the world, the impact of the ever-increasing number of tourists attempting to ascend Mount Everest gives insight into the challenges of this type of tourism. What used to be the domain of a handful of professional climbers has now been commodified and made accessible to a much bigger group of people.
The Everest conga line raises the question – in democratizing the mountain, has the industry birthed a type of neocolonial tourism in which any experience can be purchased, regardless of the consequences? Or are the motivations and repercussions irrelevant, if the industry is fueling much needed development and opportunity for a region? How can the tourism industry reconcile these issues as it strives to be bolder, higher, more Instagramable?
While encouraged, no actual climbing experience is required to attempt to summit Mount Everest.
Every climbing season, commercial tour operators hire local climbers to fix ropes from base camp to the summit along the two main routes on the mountain — one on the Nepalese south side and the other on the Tibetan north side. Climbers can clip onto these ropes and pull themselves along the route using a clamping device called a jumar. “During the acclimatization period at Base Camp, Nepali guides teach clients how to use the fixed ropes and how to react in an emergency,” said Gokul Sapkota, the owner of trekking company Outshine Adventures.
In addition to the fixed-rope system, climbers are usually accompanied by a team of local guides and porters (commonly known as Sherpas, even though only some actually belong to the Sherpa family) who carry their gear and supplemental oxygen and set up camp prior to the climbers' arrival. Drugs such as dexamethasone, which minimize the risk of lethal high-altitude illnesses, are now widely available (although it can also be argued that their use creates a false sense of security and encourages greater risk-taking behavior).
Combined, these measures effectively mean, as Sapkota explains, that “anyone can climb Mount Everest.” And tourists are taking up the challenge. The New York Times reports that in a typical year, about 1,200 people attempt to summit the mountain from both sides. In 2017, the Nepali government issued 371 permits to scale the mountain. At $11,000 a permit, tour operators usually work together to form groups of six to eight per permit, to share the price. With only a short window of opportunity between April and May to make the trek, that’s a lot of people on the mountain.
A mountain of multitudes of trekkers with varying degrees of skill and ability is incredibly dangerous. “I have had clients who summited Mount Everest who could not climb Mera Peak [8,000 feet lower],” said Ang Tendi Sherpa, a guide with Outshine Adventures. “Inexperienced climbers get into trouble if another climber falls, or is ill, or they have to spend longer in the cold or in the altitude,” said Sherpa, all of which become more likely on a crowded mountain.
There are also serious environmental consequences of an over-crowded mountain. Used oxygen tanks, trash and even dead bodies line the trail. Some climbers have argued that the foot traffic, combined with the damage from the 2015 earthquake, has caused irreparable damage to the mountain.
Although “anyone” can try, climbing Mount Everest is a very dangerous expedition.
It is 29,029 feet high, making oxygen levels 33 percent of those of sea level. It is below freezing and climbers are at the mercy of the elements. There are crags and crevices and opportunities to fall. It is not a foolproof adventure, and every year the mountain claims a new set of victims of all levels of experience.
In 2017, ten people died on the mountain. Roland Yearwood, a doctor from Alabama who had survived the 2015 earthquake on the mountain, died from unknown causes in his second attempt. Both Yearwood and Australian climber Francesco Enrico Marchetti, who died of altitude sickness as he approached the summit, were reported to be experienced climbers.
Later in the season, four bodies were found in tents at Camp IV, in the area known as the “death zone,” where there is very little oxygen or atmospheric pressure. It was speculated that the two Nepalese and two unidentified foreign climbers died from carbon monoxide poisoning by using their stoves in the tent without proper ventilation. The dead were not claimed by any of the expeditions on the mountain and the head of the Nepal Mountaineering Association said they may have been climbing on their own with inadequate safety measures to save costs.
In his seminal article for Outside Magazine, “Into Thin Air,” Jon Krakauer claimed that the 11 dead in the 1996 season was an number unprecedented since 1982. While overall ratios of climbers to deaths has decreased since then, hard numbers remain the same, or higher. In 2014, an avalanche killed 16, while the earthquake in 2015 killed 19. Six died in 2016. Over 265 people have died on the mountain since 1922. The last year without any fatalities was 1977.
According to the law of Nepal, anyone can try to climb Mount Everest.
Tourism is the third largest contributor to the Nepalese economy. For context, the largest sector of the economy is agriculture, and yet the country no longer produces enough food to feed its own population, let alone export. The second largest sector is remittances from overseas workers. The lowest paid workers in the Persian Gulf are amongst the highest paid in Nepal. Tourism is vital to the economy and the industry has suffered greatly from the 2015 earthquake.
This does not mean the government is blind to the dangers of the industry. In January of this year, the Nepali government announced that it will now be mandatory for foreign climbers to be accompanied by a local guide when climbing high-altitude mountains. The government claims the move is both a safety measure and a means of ensuring that the industry benefits the local economies.
For their part, companies need various registrations to operate tours in the region, but the requirements are business-related and there are no safety provisions. Whether or not a company accepts a client is entirely up to them. It is not even compulsory for climbers to have insurance.
“When a potential client contacts me about climbing a 7,000 meter-plus peak, I start by asking them about their climbing experience,” said Sapkota. “If they have no experience, I encourage them to start with a smaller peak.” Before each climb, Sapkota’s guides (all of whom are certified guides, and where needed, certified climbers) provide safety training to all climbers regardless of their skill level. He tries to build buffer days into all trips to allow for weather restrictions and to prevent poor decision-making because of an overeager desire to make it to the top. Perhaps most importantly, Sapkota supports his guides’ decision-making. He tells clients before they embark on any trek that the guide makes the final decisions.
But these measures are for Sapkota’s peace of mind and are not enshrined in any form. “I don’t think you can legislate safety measures for Everest,” he said. “Even the most experienced climber can have a bad day,” Sapkota said, pointing to Min Bahadur Sherchan, an 85-year-old Nepali who died on Everest this year trying to reclaim his title as the oldest person to summit the mountain. Sherchan was a highly experienced climber and had summited Everest and multiple high-altitude mountains before. This just wasn’t his trip.
“Even if you were to restrict who can try to climb the mountain, how do you assess judgment and morality?” asked Dr. Dave Ohlson, who summited Everest in 2016 to film an expedition organized by U.S. Expeditions and Explorations (USX) to shed light on the uphill battle that veterans experiencing post-traumatic stress and suicidal thoughts face each day.
Perhaps the most important part of mountaineering is an ability to recognize the needs and limitations of yourself and others on the mountain. Almost every description of an Everest trip gone wrong recounts a situation where a healthy climber fails to help a struggling climber, ultimately costing a life. Ohlson’s 2012 documentary “K2: Siren of the Himalayas” clearly illustrates these dilemmas. The famed climber Fabrizio Zangrilli describes being within shooting distance of the summit on a previous trip, when encountering a climber in need of rescue and making the decision to help him down. On Ohlson’s trip, Zangrelli’s entire climbing crew was forced to turn back as they recognized they had lost the battle against the elements. Experienced climbers know how to effectively weigh their desire to reach the summit with the threat to their safety.
Less experienced climbers, and in particular climbers who take to the mountain as a means to prove something, are not as equipped to make adequate life and death decisions. Not only are they less able to recognize signs of their own fatigue or illness, they have paid $30,000 to $70,000 and given up two months of their lives for their one chance at the top. This may be the greatest paradox of opening Everest to amateur climbers — in the desire to get to the top, less experienced people will take more risks.
Behind the scores of adventurers whose dreams of climbing Everest have been opened by the fixed ropes and the oxygen are thousands of Nepali guides and porters risking their lives for a small portion of the fee.
A job in the trekking industry in Nepal is highly sought-after. A job on Everest is the most lucrative of these roles. The Nepali Government estimates that most guides earn about US$6,000 per expedition, but the range is broad, from camp cooks (perhaps US$2,500) to lead guides (US$10,000). In a country where the GDP per capita is US$729.53, these wages are lucrative. Most guides and porters only have an income during trekking season. Outshine Adventures is one of less than 50 out of more than 1,500 tour companies to provide a year-round salary for employees.
Tourism is also a rare means for social mobility in Nepal. Sapkota started his career as a porter in remote mountain regions, worked his way up to a guide, a manager and ultimately started his own profitable business. After two successful Everest Summit trips, Ang Dendi Sherpa of Om Sherpa Treks built a company and a reputation that now sees him traveling around the world as a trekking guide. I asked him why he no longer takes trips up Everest and he answered without hesitation: “It is too dangerous.”
The dangers of being an Everest Sherpa have been well documented. Sixteen Sherpas died during the 2014 avalanche, and 16 of the 19 people who died during the earthquake were Sherpas. In an article on Outside Online, Jonah Ogles postulated that the death rate for climbing Sherpas on Everest from 2004 until 2014 was twelve times higher than the death rate for U.S. military personnel deployed in Iraq from 2003–2007.
The key issue is that Sherpas are sent to do the hardest parts of the climb before and after foreign climbers. Sherpas are on the mountain fixing ropes for longer durations and in more dangerous conditions. Sherpas aren’t provided with as much bottled oxygen as foreign climbers, and they almost never have access to the same anti-altitude drugs as foreign climbers. They literally carry a far greater load (25 kilogram weight restrictions appear to be loosely, if ever, enforced), spend more time in the elements (erecting tents and catering to clients’ needs) and are the first ones up and last ones down from the mountain. Perhaps most importantly, for many Sherpas, the client is the boss. Their advice on weather, conditions and overall safety is secondary to the clients’ wishes. Abandoning a client, even when the client is making potentially lethal decisions, is a reputation-ruining decision.
It is important not to deemphasize Sherpa’s own agency in the process. Many can, like Ang Tendi Sherpa or Ang Dendi Sherpa, weigh the costs and benefits of Everest treks and decide the risks are too high. Conversely, like foreign climbers, many Sherpas are passionate about climbing and using their incredible skills on the mountain. Sherpas who regularly lay the ropes on Khumbu Icefall (the most dangerous part of the climb) are so skilled they are known as the “Icefall Doctors.”
Some climbers are sensitive to the risks they are asking their Sherpas to take in the name of their quest. Ohlson notes that in attempting K2, climb leader Fabrizio Zangrilli made the decision that no high altitude porter would be asked to go above Camp 3 (7,100 m) because to go to Camp 4 (8,050 m) or above was asking them to accept too much risk. As noted above, less experienced climbers need their guides and porters to make it to the summit. Others will be more forceful in their demands, particularly where reaching the summit is involved.
But there will always be a tension when there is such great inequality between those paying for the climb and those being paid to administer the climb. “Sherpas are very aware that a client that makes the summit is going to give a much bigger tip than one that didn’t,” said Ohlson. “You’re talking about someone’s livelihood, and a higher tolerance for risk means more money.” Culturally, many Nepalese are gracious hosts with a genuine concern for their clients’ – or any tourists’ – happiness. It’s impolite to push back.
There’s something very alluring about Mount Everest.
It sits over the Himalayas, often with a cloud halo around its tip. Views from the top are of only air. "From the moment it was identified as the highest mountain, it became an object of fascination," Maurice Isserman, a historian at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, told LiveScience. It is not hard to see why many consider it the ultimate challenge.
Even professional climbers who dismiss Everest as easy and commercial still want to get to the top. Famed Swiss climber Ueli Steck claimed to be done with the mountain after a brawl with a group of Nepali guides on the mountain in 2013, but last year he died in Nepal while preparing for another Everest attempt. It’s human nature that if there is a highest peak we want to be on top of it. Not the second highest, not the more skilled mountain: our egos crave the top.
It’s not only our egos. In our world, where we are contactable 24-7, where our eyes are glued to screens, where our lives are dictated by schedules and to-do lists, we are all looking for moments of purity. For moments of joy. Because as George Mallory said, “joy is, after all, the end of life.”
Ohlson was asked to climb Everest; it wasn’t something he sought out. But when the opportunity presented itself, he wanted to do it. Why? “It is the excitement of exploration,” he said, “to see what lies beyond the next ridge, to peer down upon the valleys below, to see the sky a darker shade of blue, and the clouds below you. It is a personal exploration as well, an inner exploration. The physical feeling of your body pushed to its limit, the outside world falls away as you exist only in the moment, focused wholly on the moment and each step onward. In our struggle for meaning it at least lets you know what it is to be alive when your existence is thrown into such sharp contrast with your surroundings.”
These are not bad motivations. The issue is that as our technological capabilities grow, and our adventures become more extreme, there has to be a way to protect against abuses — of people, the environment and the magic of adventure.
There is an increasingly urgent need to assess the limits of these adventures. If an American guide or rescuer was killed servicing a tourist, or the American government was asked to pay US$150,000 to rescue a tourist who willingly put him or herself in a dangerous position, our attitudes may shift. So why should it be OK when it is a Nepali, or the Pakistani government? It should not.
Ultimately, as Ohlson notes, “you can’t regulate human decency.” But there are measures that can be taken to protect those more vulnerable. Governments could require insurance, tourists could be required to pay a mandatory rescue deposit, rescuing bodies at high-altitudes could be banned. Governments can put in place rules simply banning rescue missions in extreme conditions. Perhaps more importantly, we can reassess the value we place on these feats and “unlike” the ego-tourist.