A line of climbers on the Lhotse Face, Mount Everest, Solu Khumbu Everest Region, Sagarmatha National Park, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Nepal, Himalayas, Asia
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A line of climbers on the Lhotse Face of Mount Everest, Nepal; Christian Kober/Robert Harding World Imagery/Getty Images
A line of climbers on the Lhotse Face, Mount Everest, Solu Khumbu Everest Region, Sagarmatha National Park, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Nepal, Himalayas, Asia

The Everest Moral Dilemma

As another Himalayan season approaches, media attention focuses once again on the Everest guiding industry. The loss last season of 16 Nepalis in a single cataclysmic avalanche that raked the Khumbu Icefall has intensified a long-standing debate over the practice of stringing the mountain with miles of fixed ropes and constructing elaborate camps—complete with pallet-loads of bottled oxygen—all so affluent clients, many of whom have limited climbing experience, can stand on top of the world. More and more people are asking: Is this form of fully-catered climbing—enabled by a small army of Sherpas and other mountain workers who are exposed to enormous risk—really climbing at all?

It was none other than alpinism’s grand master Reinhold Messner, the first person (along with Peter Habeler) to ascend Everest without supplemental oxygen in 1978, which he followed up two years later with the mountain’s first unsupported solo summit, who famously said that he would climb Everest by “fair means” or not at all. In his landmark 1971 essay, The Murder of the Impossible, Messner decried the growing trend of climbers using oxygen and excessive amounts of equipment to bring down a mountain’s difficulty, rather than rising up to meet the mountain on its own terms. He famously wrote: “Today’s climber doesn’t want to cut himself off from the possibility of retreat: he carries his courage in his rucksack…”

In an article last year in the Guardian that ran shortly after the deadly avalanche, British journalist and climber Ed Douglas addressed the essence of the Everest moral dilemma, i.e. the growing trend of guiding companies outsourcing the inherent danger of Himalayan mountaineering to Sherpas. “What if the term ‘Everest climber’ were given to the people who climbed the features of the mountain directly, rather than awarded to those who ascended its pre-fixed ropes? More honest accounts might result in a clearer vision of what takes place on Everest—the beginnings, perhaps, of real discussions about effective and lasting solutions.”

But the use of oxygen and strings of fixed ropes and ladders is a decades-long tradition, which the vast majority of people summiting Everest have relied upon, including the first ascensionists Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. So where do we now draw the line when it comes to defining fair means? For several years now, Everest outfitters have been lobbying the Nepal government for permission to use helicopters to ferry equipment past the Khumbu Icefall, thus limiting Sherpas’ exposure. To date these requests have been denied, but on Monday, 36 out of the 39 expeditions currently in base camp presented a jointly signed letter to the Nepal government requesting permission to airlift 1300 kg of equipment over the Khumbu Icefall to Camp 1. “It will reduce more than 80 trips for Sherpas if chopper ferries are permitted,” said Lakpa Sherpa, base camp manager for the Himalayan Rescue Association.

The request came a day after all climbing on Everest was suspended to mourn the victims of last year’s tragedy on the one-year anniversary of the deadliest day in Everest’s history. And on Friday, mountain workers were once again reminded of the dangers they face in the icefall when a section of four interconnected ladders spanning a massive crevasse in the center of the icefall collapsed. Luckily, there were no injuries.

If the Nepal government bows to the pressure and begins allowing equipment to be ferried by helicopter past the Khumbu Icefall, one has to wonder if perhaps people will be next. Last spring, the one non-Sherpa to summit via the Southeast Ridge, a 39-year-old Chinese woman named Jing Wang, used a helicopter to start and end her climb at Camp 2, which is situated well above the Khumbu Icefall at 21,000 feet. The legality of the flight remains unclear, though her ascent was certified by the Nepal Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Civil Aviation and she was even given—to the dismay of many—the International Mountaineer of the Year Award by the Nepal Government. The story, which was reported on by National Geographic, sparked an international controversy about just how much assistance can be rendered for a “climb” to be considered legitimate.

Of course, many who have been guided up Everest bristle at the mere suggestion that guided climbs are less valid than any other ascent. Alan Arnette, who climbed Everest in 2011 and last year became the oldest man to climb K2, at age 58, runs a popular Everest blog, where he defended the Everest client in a recent post entitled “Style Matters.” “Many people decry the use of hiring support for large Himalayan climbs,” he wrote. “While I get the idea of climbing with no support and admire those who have the strength, knowledge and fortitude to go totally unsupported, I don’t understand the criticism of those who choose to use it…I wish my body was strong enough to carry an 80 pound pack at 25,000 feet, but it’s not. I wish my knowledge of every mountain I had climbed was such that I didn’t need guidance on the route, but it’s not. Yes, at times, I cringe when I’m treated like a small child on a mountain, but I factor in the motivation of the support. I don’t take it personally, I take it with gratitude…”

An unfortunate result of the media’s focus on the drama that swirls around the Everest guiding industry is that more noteworthy ascents often go unnoticed. Who remembers hearing about the Russian North Face Directissima in 2004 or the Korean Route on the Southwest Face in 2009? The layperson seems to be generally unaware that Everest has 16 other routes beyond the two standard trade routes, not to mention thousands of acres of unexplored terrain. According to the Himalayan Database, Everest has been summited 7001 times. Of these ascents, 97 percent have been via the Southeast Ridge (4,421 ascents) and the North Ridge (2,580 ascents), so perhaps it’s not surprising that media attention is similarly biased, despite the fact that some of the most extraordinary feats in the history of mountaineering have taken place on these other routes.

In 1963, one of the classic tales in the annals of Himalayan mountaineering unfolded on Everest’s western flank. Two weeks after Jim Whittaker became the first American to stand on the summit via the Southeast Ridge, Tom Hornbein and Willie Unsoeld set off from their high camp at 25,000 feet on the West Ridge. High on the route, after surmounting a difficult rock wall that couldn’t be reversed, they found themselves committed, with no way off the mountain other than to reach the summit and descend the Southeast Ridge. They topped out just before dark and then endured an open bivouac at 28,000 feet on the descent. More than 50 years later, their traverse of Everest is still celebrated as one of the greatest high-altitude climbs in history.

The mountain’s most formidable aspect is undoubtedly its east side, known as the Kangshung Face. One of the most remote and dangerous alpine walls in the world, the Kangshung has approximately 11,000 feet of vertical relief, and its upper section is guarded by massive and unstable hanging glaciers that drop tons of ice down the path of would-be climbers with frightening regularity. It has only been climbed three times since its first ascent by an all-star American team in 1983. In 1988, the British alpinist Stephen Venables, supported by a small team, managed to summit a new route on the Kangshung Face without using supplemental oxygen. On the way down he survived a brutal open bivouac at 28,000 feet.
But in the pantheon of legendary Everest ascents, none stand taller than the alpine style blitz of the North Face in 1986 by two Swiss, Erhard Loretan and Jean Troillet. After weeks of being pinned down in camp by storms, the weather finally cleared and the pair set off carrying no bivouac gear, harnesses, ropes or oxygen. They summited 43 hours later, then glissaded back down the route in five hours. Afterwards, Loretan, who was tragically killed in a guiding accident in 2011, said: “We didn’t intend to climb Everest in two days. We didn’t think we were doing incredible things. It just all seemed normal.”

And for the next generation, Everest also has one of most daunting and futuristic of the Himalaya’s “Last Great Problems”—the Fantasy Ridge. It begins on the right side of the Kangshung Face, and was named by George Mallory during the 1921 British Everest reconnaissance expedition, supposedly because he thought it could only be climbed “in one’s imagination.” The route entails thousands of feet of climbing on a narrow, double-corniced ridge just to reach the halfway point on the Northeast Ridge, which itself is one of the most difficult routes on the mountain. Unlike many other Last Great Problems that eventually succumbed – routes like the North Face of Jannu (25,300’) and the South Face of Lhotse (27,940’)—the Fantasy Ridge is so far ahead of its time that to this day it remains virtually untouched.

This season, in addition to the hundreds of clients who will be guided up Everest’s two standard routes, there will also be some attempts at a few firsts.

The Catalonian sky runner, ski mountaineer, and speed climber Kilian Jornet, our 2014 People’s Choice Adventurer of the Year, will train to set a new speed record, without supplemental oxygen, on the North Face via either the Norton or Hornbein Couloirs.

Canadian Raphael Slawinski and Germans David Goettler and Daniel Bartsch will attempt a new route on the Northeast Face in alpine style, without fixed ropes, Sherpas or supplemental oxygen.

The Briton Kenton Cool, who enchained Nuptse, Everest and Lhotse in 2013, will attempt to climb Everest, Kanchenjunga and K2, the world’s three highest mountains, in three months.

Argentine guide Willie Benegas, who has 11 Everest summits, and Matt Moniz, 17, a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year for a record setting climb of the 50 US High Points in 2010, will attempt a double summit of Everest and Lhotse and the first ski descent of the Lhotse Couloir.

And so, as we media pundits stir the Everest pot from the comfort of our desks, the latest crop of Everest dreamers—cutting edge alpinists and eager dilettantes alike—are beginning to arrive in base camp. The Everest moral dilemma and the media circus surrounding it may never go away, but one thing is certain: There is high drama to be found on the world’s highest mountain, and as it unfolds this season, the world will be watching.