Photograph by Michael Klesius, Nat Geo Image Collection
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The extreme terrain of Mount Everest beckons to climbers.

Photograph by Michael Klesius, Nat Geo Image Collection

Will Everest's Climbing Circus Slow Down After Disasters?

Avalanches and earthquakes prompted the cancellation of two seasons—and more soul searching about the ethics of climbing the world's tallest peak.

For the first time in 41 years, no one will climb Mount Everest this year.

The dubious milestone comes after deadly avalanches closed down commercial expeditions to the roof of the world for the second time in two years.

“It’s hard to think right now of what’s exciting and fun about Everest," says Dave Hahn, a guide who was stranded high on the mountain with seven others in his group after Nepal's April 25 earthquake set off an avalanche. “Right now, it’s starting to be a place of sadness and death.”

The magnitude-7.8 quake and Tuesday’s 7.3 aftershock have killed more than 8,000 people in Nepal, including at least 19 expedition members—10 of them Sherpas—at the Everest Base Camp. A geologic event, of course, is not a mountaineering accident. But every time people die on Everest, it triggers what has become a contentious debate about the commercialization of Everest and the ethics of climbing it. (Read about ideas for "fixing" Everest.)

Does the sheer number of climbers attempting to summit Everest compromise safety? Are the Sherpas asked to risk their lives too often to string out fixed ropes and carry multiple loads of clients’ gear—including espresso makers—across the treacherous Khumbu Icefall? Do affluent Westerners feel entitled to use whatever assistance they can buy to get up Everest—or, as in the case of the quake, to get off it?

Will anyone heed the call of Sir Edmund Hillary, who 50 years after becoming the first person to reach the summit, begged as far back as 2003 for Everest to be given a rest?

Not likely.

Barely a year after Everest’s worst disaster killed 16 Sherpas in an avalanche, the 2015 climbing season began as usual. A record number of climbers—359—assembled at the Base Camp, many of them repeaters from the aborted 2014 season. Even though April’s quake trumped the 2014 record death toll on the mountain, expectations are that 2016 will draw another large crowd.

“I’m afraid the next season will be as busy as ever,” says David Roberts, a mountaineer and author. “That is the allure of Everest. The death of the 16 Sherpas didn’t slow things down. There will be intense demand next year to open it up again.”

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An injured member of a climbing expedition is helped before being evacuated by helicopter from the Everest Base Camp on April 26, 2015. The bodies of those who perished lie under orange tents. 

Competing Goals

All debate about Everest revolves around two mainstays: the irresistible allure of the world’s highest peak—and money. There is no shortage of well-heeled clients willing to pay $70,000 or more in pursuit of this elusive prize. For Nepal, the mountaineers support its most stable industry: tourism. For the Sherpas, working on Everest provides some of the highest-paying jobs in the impoverished country.

The Nepali government has grown so dependent on the influx of cash from foreign expeditions that it resists placing limits on the number of permits issued to climbers or heeding calls to require a certain level of mountaineering competency of those who attempt the climb.

Thus, Everest has become just as famous for its “circus” as its adventure. Accumulations of trash and human waste have long been problematic. Outfitters still sell tickets to the top to inexperienced clients who don’t know how to put on crampons. The glut of climbers causes so many bottlenecks that a photograph of a “conga line” of nearly 200 climbers moving up the Lhotse Face in 2012 went viral. That year, climbers waited their turn more than two hours at the Hillary Step, the final, 40-foot technical rock climb before the summit.

The Everest game has intensified beyond mere mountaineering adventure; it is a notch in the belt, a pursuit of Guinness Book-ish records for being the first woman, the first black man (a South African), and, more recently, the first black South African woman to summit. This spring’s gaggle included Everest’s first vegan, who not only eschewed meat and cheese, but also leather boots and a down-filled sleeping bag.

“For the true climber, the story and the experience, exemplified by the way you go up the mountain, is more important than getting to the summit,” says Conrad Anker, an American mountaineer who has climbed Everest. “For commercial expeditions, it’s more about getting to the summit.”

After the quake, split-screen imagery of helicopters plucking stranded climbers off the mountain as relief workers scrambled for Kathmandu's few functioning helicopters to help the injured masses touched a nerve. The Internet lit up with criticism of the climbers, even though half of those stranded on the mountain were Nepali guides.

“As a traditional mountaineer, my first reaction was, 'Why can’t they find a new way down the icefall by themselves?'” says Roberts. “There’s a very traditional climbing ethic. You get into a predicament, you get yourself out. It sounds like these guys thought they were hiring a taxi.”

Hahn, who guides for RMI Expeditions, based in Ashford, Washington, says climbers on the mountain had few options, none good. A team sent down from Everest's Camp 1 to check out rebuilding the route through the icefall was deterred by continuing tremors.

Hahn thought he might get his small team down. The problem was the large number of climbers who needed to be moved to safety.

“Our concern was, what are we going to do with 200 people?" he says. “There is no question that our buying power is why the choppers were there in the first place. They are a private enterprise, not owned by the government. They are very expensive machines to operate and are doing a lot of good work, subsidized by being able to charge us full price.”

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Nepali Sherpas and other members of climbing expeditions watch a helicopter take off from the Everest Base Camp with some of the injured on April 26, 2015.

Resistance in the Ranks

Not every outfitter wants to participate in what climbing Everest has become.

“We haven’t guided on Everest in a while,” says Mark Gunlogson, who heads Mountain Madness, an outfitter based in Seattle. “It’s getting to be a little bit out of control. Too many people, too many people who are not qualified to be on the mountain. We’ve pulled back a bit.”

The Sherpas, who take the greatest risks in service of foreign clients, have also pulled back on how much risk they’re willing to take. After last year’s deadly avalanche, the Sherpas refused to return to the mountain, forcing the Nepali government to cancel the climbing season. They demanded, and won, higher insurance payments.

After last month’s quake destroyed the route through the Khumbu Icefall, the Sherpas who work as ice doctors, annually creating that route, could not rebuild it. Soon after, all of the expeditions pulled out.

“Sherpas are very superstitious and religious,” says Norbu Tenzing, the son of Tenzing Norgay, who accompanied Hillary on the first ascent to reach the summit. “Everest is a deity. It’s where the gods live and it’s been desecrated, and so maybe there is a message over here that the gods are angry about how the mountain has been trampled on and how it has been desecrated.”

Tenzing, vice president of the American Himalayan Foundation, lives in San Francisco and recently traveled to his home village of Thames, in the shadow of Everest and home to many of Nepal’s most famous Sherpa climbers. In the quake's aftermath, Tenzing says that many Sherpas are reconsidering whether to resume climbing next spring.

“They’re wondering, should they become guides and go on smaller mountains?" Tenzing says. "People will continue to climb Everest. The average Sherpa has to reconsider whether he wants to go back or not.”

Yet the mountain still beckons. The chance to stand at 29,035 feet works against changing the equation of how Everest is climbed, says Roberts.

It’s that way almost everywhere. “Mount Whitney is the highest peak in California,” he says. “It’s absolutely swarmed.”

A bit farther north lies a lovely peak, North Palisade. It’s a prettier journey, Roberts says. “No one climbs that. It’s 248 feet lower.”

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