Surge in Everest Climbers Year After Mountain's Worst Tragedy

The new climbing season begins with a "safer" route through a killer icefall.

Just as it does each spring, a small city is taking shape at the foot of the world's tallest mountain. Legions of climbers from around the world—each paying an average of $50,000—have made the annual pilgrimage to Everest Base Camp in Nepal, the first major staging point en route to the highest point on the planet.

Supporting these climbers are platoons of outfitters, guides, porters, cooks, and other people who will build, maintain, and resupply this instant settlement of roughly a thousand people until late May.

As with every Everest climbing season, strings of Tibetan prayer flags will snap in the wind, outfitters will plot their summiting strategies, and excited new climbers will struggle to catch their breath in the dauntingly thin Himalayan air.

What's different about this year is that basically there wasn't a last year.

On the morning of April 18, a massive avalanche roared off the mountain's West Shoulder and swept down over the Khumbu Icefall above Base Camp, killing 16 Nepalese porters. Thirteen of them were ethnic Sherpas, who form the backbone of the Everest climbing industry. It was the worst accident in the history of mountaineering on the world's highest peak.

A week after the tragedy, a vocal group of young Sherpas shut down climbing on Everest from the south side for the season. All the climbing teams agreed to cease their expeditions out of respect for the lost Sherpas and their grieving families. (However, a wealthy Chinese woman hired a helicopter to lift her and a team of Sherpas over the icefall and was able to make it to the summit from there.)

One might imagine that because of the great loss of life last year, many mountaineers would have second thoughts about attempting the mountain. Ironically, it's just the opposite. Despite calls to reduce the number of teams and climbers on Everest, Nepal's Department of Tourism recently stated that more than 350 permits have been issued for the south side of Everest—more than were issued last year before the avalanche shut down the season.

This same contradictory phenomenon occurred a year after the infamous 1996 tragedy broadcast around the world. More than 95 percent of climbers who attempt Everest are guided climbers, and apparently, the more the perceived danger, the more they're drawn to the mountain.

So the question is: Has anything actually changed on Everest?

Better Insurance for Sherpas

"In terms of life insurance for Sherpas, absolutely," says Jiban Ghimire, managing director of Shangri-La Nepal Trek, one of the major Everest outfitters in the country.

In the aftermath of last year's accident, a coalition of Sherpas and Everest outfitters presented Nepal's Ministry of Tourism with a 13-point list of demands. At the heart of the petition was a request for a large increase in life insurance payouts for high-altitude porters who die while working on the mountain. Prior to the 2014 avalanche, families of Sherpas who perished on Everest were usually given about $5,000.

"The government met the primary demand of the petition, and all high-altitude porters are now covered by a $15,000 policy," says Ghimire.

He also notes that the families of the Sherpas killed last year each received that amount from the government but that additional donations from wealthy client climbers, international organizations, and other sources boosted the total that the families received to more than $25,000 each.

Efforts to educate the children of the deceased have also increased. The Nepal Mountaineering Association, in partnership with the Himalayan Trust, has promised to pay to educate, through high school, all of the children who lost their fathers.

The mountaineering outfitter Alpine Ascents International, through its Sherpa Education Fund, founded in 1998, enlarged a school in Namche Bazar to include a nursery as well as kindergarten and first-grade classes.

"We've been sponsoring the education of Sherpa children down in Kathmandu for years," says Gordon Janow, Alpine Ascents' director of programs, "but we're hoping to improve the educational infrastructure enough to attract good teachers into the Khumbu region, so the students don't need to leave their families. We want Sherpas to have the opportunity to become doctors and attorneys and pilots, not just high-altitude porters."     

The Juniper Fund, founded by Everest veterans Dave Morton and Melissa Arnot in 2012, has committed to providing five years of living expenses, roughly $2,500 a year, to every family that loses a high-altitude porter in the mountains of Nepal. Last fall the fund gave $3,000 to each of the Sherpa families as well as to two others who lost family members carrying loads on Kanchenjunga, the planet's third highest mountain, at 28,169 feet (8,586 meters).

"After losing the family's primary breadwinner," says Arnot, "what they often need is simply cash to purchase staples like rice and butter."

(Arnot, who has summited Everest five times—the most by an American woman—is returning to Nepal this year to attempt Everest without oxygen or Sherpa support.)

Despite these changes, will there still be Sherpas who no longer want to work on Everest?

"Of course, but very few," says Ghimire. "Of the 400 or so Sherpas who work on Everest every year, the vast majority want to return this year. They need and want the work."

The average income in Nepal is less than $1,000 a year, and a Sherpa can make $5,000 in just three months of work. Though the dangers are well known—every Sherpa in the Khumbu knows someone who has died mountaineering—many still see the work as their best career option. Furthermore, there's a growing contingent of young, skilled Sherpas who are intent on becoming high-altitude guides and owners of Everest outfitting companies.

Government Honors Climbing Permits

Although the Nepali government will honor the $10,000 peak permit fee paid by all Everest climbers whose expeditions were abruptly terminated last spring, many of them will not be returning in 2015. For example, only four of the 38 Everest clients Shangri-La Nepal Trek had in 2014 are returning to attempt the mountain this year.

"I think last year's climbers are waiting to see what happens," says Ghimire.

Following the deaths last year, the Nepali government did not restrict the size and number of Everest teams, but it effectively raised the price of summit permits by setting a flat rate of $11,000 per climber. Previously, climbers were able to join together in teams of 7 to 15 to pay the equivalent of $10,000 each.

Despite the increased cost-—relatively modest given that the average cost of climbing Everest hovers around $50,000—their boots were quickly filled by hundreds of other people who still aspire to climb Everest.

This means hundreds of Sherpas, guides, and clients will once again be passing through the treacherous Khumbu Icefall, an unstable labyrinth of massive ice formations and crevasses. Crossing it is the mountaineering equivalent of playing Russian roulette. Although the average client will pass through the Khumbu only six to eight times (three or four round-trips up and down), the average Sherpa will easily do ten times that number, dramatically increasing their risk. By having high-altitude porters hump all the food, tents, oxygen bottles, and ropes through the icefall, clients essentially pass much of their own risk to the Sherpas.

Last year Guy Cotter, owner and operator of Adventure Consultants, lobbied to allow helicopters to ferry loads from Base Camp over the icefall to Camp II to reduce the number of trips Sherpas have to make through the Khumbu. But the Nepalese government has not issued permits for such flights this year. Critics of Everest helicoptering point out that unpredictable weather makes flying loads up to 21,000 feet especially dangerous and that such flights would be prohibitively expensive for most climbers, costing ten times as much as ferrying loads by foot.

New, 'Safer' Routes

Because of the risks, two Everest guiding companies, California-based Alpenglow Expeditions and the Austrian company Amical Alpin, have moved their 2015 operations from Nepal to China to access Everest from the north side. This route is longer and involves more high-altitude climbing—which for most guided climbers means more bottled oxygen—but there's no icefall to contend with.

"I hire Sherpas," says Alpenglow's owner and operator Adrian Ballinger, "and I decided the risks were simply unacceptable. Especially since there is a very good alternative, the North Col route."

But could the route up the south side via the Khumbu Icefall somehow be made safer?

"Since the 1990s, the route up through the Khumbu has gradually shifted to the far left-hand side," says Pete Athans, one of the most experienced climbers on Everest. "Although this is a faster, easier route through the icefall, it is right in the line of fire from avalanches off the West Shoulder."

Every Everest climber pays $600 to the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee (SPCC), which functions like a city council for the sprawling Base Camp on the south side. In turn, the SPCC pays six Sherpas, known as the "ice doctors," to determine the season's best route through the constantly shifting icefall and to set the series of fixed ropes and aluminum ladders climbers will use to traverse it.

This past January, Athans spent several weeks training the ice doctors at the Khumbu Climbing Center in Phortse, just a few days' walk from Everest.

"The ice doctors have worked in the icefall so much they know how to manage ladders and fix lines," Athans says. "What I was working on was improving their technical skills and encouraging them to look at the bigger picture in terms of safety."

This year the plan is to put the route near the center of the icefall, which may be safer. It should be out of the path of avalanches coming off the West Shoulder of Everest and the neighboring peak Nuptse, but it also contains much bigger seracs and deeper crevasses that must be negotiated.

"They will have to use a lot more ladders and keep them maintained," says Athans, "which will make the journey up through the icefall slower and more difficult."

Because of the risk of seracs collapsing, Ballinger recently wrote in Adventure Journal that he believes this change is "pure theater" and does not "herald a positive change for the safety of Sherpas, climbers, or guides. The danger of the icefall is now too high to ask large numbers of workers to spend countless hours hauling unnecessary equipment for climbers who are all too often inexperienced."

Cotter and other Everest guides maintain that "the Khumbu icefall is just as dangerous as it has always been; so nothing much has changed."

Dave Hahn, who holds the American record for number of ascents—15—is on Everest again this year, leading another team to the summit. He summed up the 2015 season in a note to me yesterday: "Basically business as usual."

Mark Jenkins is a regular contributor to National Geographic and an avid mountaineer. Read his account of National Geographic's 2012 Mount Everest expedition.

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