In the first of this 2 part article I looked at success rates, fatality rates and the implications of going with the wrong team. In this article I am now looking at what the 2014 tragedy may mean for the 2015 season.
The tragedy on Everest in 2014 led to the South side effectively being closed. There was a lot of confusion about whether Climbing Sherpas were willing to continue working, whether they feared to step foot in The Khumbu Icefall, or whether they feared that there might be repercussions because of threats from the militant Sherpas who were holding the government, the Westerners, and therefore the mountain, to ransom.
This article is not about the tragedy, the cause or the aftermath; it is not about the morality of having Climbing Sherpas working for teams on Everest; and it is not about the working relationship between companies, their staff and their ‘rich’ Western clients (although I do touch on this briefly). This is about the implications for the forthcoming season(s) on Everest and what the future might hold for an entire community who are so reliant on trekking and expeditions as their major source of income.
The differences between S & N
There are two main sides to Everest for aspiring clients who want to climb to its summit. There is the South (Nepalese) side of the mountain and the North (Tibetan) side. Amongst a lot of the big companies the South has been long been favoured due to a number of factors –
· it is easier to descend from Base Camp (5,250m) to lower elevations (4,400m and lower) for periods of rest whilst waiting for the weather;
· it is warmer than the North side. There isn’t that much temperature difference at night as they are both chilly places to be, but by day Camp 2 (South side) and ABC (North side) whilst both being at 6,400m are drastically different – at C2 (S) you can be in a
t-shirt during the day whereas at ABC (N) you may well be eating lunch whilst shivering away in your down jacket;
· the respective camps on the mountain are situated at lower elevations (Camp 1 – 6,000m (S) vs 7,100m (N), C2 – 6,400m vs 7,500m, C3 – 7,100m vs 7,900m and Top Camp 7,950m vs 8,300m);
· it is not without its tricky sections but on The South side there is less technical terrain and less objective danger on summit day;
· despite there being a higher elevation gain on summit day from the South it is easier to descend back down to the comparative safety of The South Col and lower elevations – this is particularly relevant if there is a rescue scenario;
· and lastly there is the possibility of helicopter evacuation of a sick or injured climber / Sherpa out of The Western Cwm to Kathmandu.
The North side Base Camp is typically reached by jeep, which makes it harder to acclimatise to the rarefied atmosphere, but it also means that it is cheaper to supply logistically (tonnes of food can be brought in by truck instead of employing teams of porters to carry loads from the airfield at Lukla to the Nepalese Base Camp which is a 10 to 12 day round trip). To that end the North side has the advantage of being cheaper (partly because of the cheaper climbing permit and partly because of the cheaper logistics) and the North side doesn’t have the objective danger posed by the, now infamous, Khumbu Icefall in which 16 Climbing Sherpas lost their lives on 18th April 2014. Being cheaper does have its drawbacks though as you tend to get some people there who are going purely based on price rather than having done their research and due diligence.
Despite assurances from the Ministry of Tourism that expedition permits would be carried forward and be valid for 5 years it would appear that only the permit, and not the individual places, will actually be credited against expeditions in the near future. (This is still subject to clarification but it would seem to be the case).
By playing with words the Ministry of Tourism have managed to wangle their way out of a commitment that everyone believed was in place as they departed Base Camp empty handed at the end of last season. This emergency measure was put in place to appease the expedition members, leaders, Sirdars and Climbing Sherpas and was supposed to go some way towards smoothing things over. The fact that things had already gotten well out of control due to their inaction in the first place is another matter – but suffice to say that a letter was produced showing a commitment to carry forward the permits for the next 5 years.
Understandably there were those of us who were sceptical at the time but carrying on had become an untenable situation.
The fact that a lady summited the mountain with helicopter support up to C2 and evacuation back again from The Western Cwm does not mean that the mountain had always been open – which is what the MoT are trying to say as a justification for why they have changed their tune.
Anger all round
The Sherpas were representing their concerns to the government regarding, amongst other things, insurance payouts and the future welfare of the families that are left behind. Meanwhile the Western companies were representing their concerns to the Ministry of Tourism to try and make sure that they (The Climbing Sherpas) don’t die in the first place.
Due to the dynamic nature of the Khumbu Icefall it is almost impossible to create a health and safety document or do an in depth risk assessment, but that is what we are endeavouring to put forward. We are looking at better protocols for fixing ropes and ladders as well as better training for the Icefall Doctors and Climbing Sherpas alike. The use of helicopters is being proposed for taking essential freight to C2 at the beginning of the season to minimise the loads that need to be carried, and therefore reduce the journeys that are made through the Khumbu Icefall. And we are looking to be allowed to store freight at Camp 2 between seasons – again to minimise the journeys that have to be made through the icefall at the beginning and end of each season.
Perversely the Sherpas are concerned that these last two measures will mean less work for them and therefore less pay.
Obviously there were the angry voices out there (mainly non-mountaineers and office or couch bound self-proclaimed aficionados on all matters relating to Everest) who claimed that the fallout had been a long time coming and that this was payback time for the years of abuse and lack of respect that we had given our Climbing Sherpas. This is simply not true and, indeed, anyone who has trekked or been on expedition with the Climbing Sherpas will have come away with a profound respect for them and have been humbled in their presence. Many people are so taken with the whole life changing experience that they sponsor Sherpa children through boarding school or stay connected with their Sherpas for life.
And then there was the matter of wealth and fatness that was brought in to the fray. How anyone decides to spend their well earned ££s is entirely their business. Please don’t cycle in to work on your £3.5k+ roadbike and preach from your £2k+ MacBook Pro 15″ with Retina Display about how anyone else can spend their money. And as far as clients being fat / unfit / technically inept … well admittedly there will always be those there who shouldn’t be there (why were they accepted by their company?) but generally speaking most clients on Everest have been not only saving for years but also training for years and have many expeditions under their collective harnesses.
By all means remind me of the David Sharp (North side, solo, no Sherpa, no radio, Asian Trekking client) and Shriya Shah-Klorfine (South side, very little oxygen, inexperienced, poor Sherpa support, Utmost Adventure client) type clients and I will hand you a list as long as your arm of people who summited in great style who were experienced climbers and approached the mountain with due caution and due diligence.
And in a sense I will also agree with you about the Sharp’s and Shriya’s of the world – they should not have been there; or should have been trained and mentored and looked after better; or perhaps advised to either not come at all; or perhaps come in a few years’ time. But they are a fact of life that gives Everest a really bad name.
Anyone in their right mind who wanted to do anything remotely risky would probably get themselves trained to the appropriate level. A person who wanted to do freefall parachute jumps would probably start with static line, progress to tandem and then on to freefall. A wannabe scuba diver would do a PADI* course and build up their log book experience before committing to a complex wreck dive at 45m. Indeed even with less risky activities lessons and experience count for a lot – from driving a car to riding a horse, from learning the piano to flying a plane. Mountain biking, rock climbing, kayaking, being a doctor, speaking a foreign language – years of experience is the key.
(*it should be pointed out that other branded courses are also available).
So why is it that there is a perception that you can just turn up and have a go on Everest? The fact that some chap, who was apparently a non-climber, did it one year doesn’t mean that other non-climbers can do it in the future. Maybe he had actually done more training than he admitted to. Perhaps he was naturally predisposed to being good at altitude. Maybe he was with a very good outfit and had plenty of oxygen and lots of support. Maybe the weather was great or, indeed, perhaps he was just plain lucky. But whatever you do don’t then assume that you can sign up with a crap company, with little or no experience, with little or no oxygen and attempt to get to the summit – because you can’t do that without endangering your life and the lives of everyone around you. And that includes endangering people from other teams (because of your suspect practices and lack of competence) or endangering the lives of the Climbing Sherpas who may well be coming to try and help you down.
Any skills that are required to attempt Everest should be part of your muscle memory and, in a sense, shouldn’t require much in the way of thought processes. Adapting to the ever changing weather, environment and conditions should come naturally from years and years of experience on other hills and mountains.
So let’s look in to the crystal ball and see what is going to happen next season. It’s obviously impossible because of the variables to be clear and concise about what will and what won’t happen; what will be in place and whether it will make a difference; how the conditions on the mountain will affect the general situation etc etc.
Some future clients will be concerned that there may be a repeat closure on the South side and that no refunds will be given. So what does the future hold for Everest?
As mentioned earlier it would appear that when a permit is cashed in then it is cashed in and individual places will not then be carried forward. Some of the 2014 clients will undoubtedly not come back – their time was 2014 and they have had their chance to climb (or not as the case may be) and have gone home empty handed, never to return. The majority, I suspect, will see Everest as unfinished business and will be back in the future. Whether 2015 will be an option partly depends on whether their team permit is being cashed in and their ability to justify the expense (and get time off work) so soon – as well as the gamble and hope that the next season won’t be interrupted.
If it is the case that when a permit is cashed in then it’s cashed in then maybe some 2014 clients will feel impelled to try again in 2015 because they don’t want to lose out on the US$10,000 credit note. Others, who cannot raise the funds that quickly, are going to have to accept that they will have to start all over again.
Suffice to say that there are a few scenarios that can be mooted. Presuming that people will not be put off all together I foresee, in no particular order, the following permutations:
Busier North side, roughly the same numbers, or quieter, for the South side.
Due to the problems with the mountain closure in 2014 there may well be a migration of clients to The North who would otherwise have gone South. Their time is 2015 and they have everything lined up for that season and for whatever reason(s) would not want to delay another year – but they may hedge their bets by going North to avoid the scandalous situation that occurred in 2014.
To that end there may be hugely reduced numbers for the South (some going North – some not coming in 2015 as they had originally hoped) being joined by a number of people who were there this year cashing in their peak permit credit note.
Result – Bearing in mind that the North side summit day is so much more hazardous than the South summit day there will inevitably be far more deaths on the North side as a result of increased numbers.
Busier North side and busier South side
Again there may be a migration of some potential Southerners to the North side as well as a lot of people from 2014 returning for unfinished business on the South side. Depending on who goes where it may well be the case that both North and South will be busier as a result.
Result – more deaths on both sides (more so North) but potentially record numbers summiting as well. Expect long queues … depending on weather windows.
Some people put off all together.
Some migration Northwards.
Some repeats coming back.
Result – a standard season (although, again, possibly a bit busier on the North side).
Busier North, another interrupted season on The South
Again there may be a migration of some potential Southerners to the North side as well as an interrupted season on The South.
The militant faction of Climbing Sherpas (who, incidentally, were from outside The Khumbu) may try and stir things up again.
This would be financial suicide for the South side because the 2016 season, and beyond, will dry up as a result. The Khumbu is hugely dependent not only on the seasonal trekkers but also the expeditions for April and May (as well as the Oct / Nov season – but teams don’t tend to do Everest post monsoon).
The Khumbu community have never really been politicised because there’s always been a steady flow of income from trekkers and expeditions and as a result have never had any Maoist tendencies. But when they were listening to the politically motivated shop steward types, and cheering for them, they were in effect voting for these people to be their (self-appointed) spokesmen. They (The Khumbu Climbing Sherpas) are probably regretting that decision ever since because they have kids in boarding schools in Kathmandu, they have loans on teahouses, they have bills to pay and they didn’t get their full pay for the season and they didn’t get their summit bonuses.
Business is business and it’s open as usual.
Whilst trekking out this year it was patently obvious that most of the lodge owners (many of whom have previously summited Everest) were very concerned about the repercussions for future seasons in The Khumbu. Unlike the militant Sherpas who stirred the whole crazy mess up in the first place they are businessmen and businesswomen who understand their demographic. Without trekkers and mountaineers there will be insufficient funds coming in to the region to support the various strings of the local economy. The region is already over-subscribed with teahouses and, as mentioned already, many Sherpas have children who are at boarding schools in Kathmandu. The local economy has been rocked by the early departure of teams this year and if it happens again the consequences will be very far reaching.
I expect that, having only received 1/2 to 2/3 of their regular pay, a lot of families will now be wondering ‘now what?’
Never mind the US$3 million or so that the Ministry of Tourism collects in peak permits – that is nothing compared to the in excess of US$12 million that pours in to the region during the Spring season as a result of trekkers and Everest expeditions. Even the porters from outside the region are spending almost half of their daily pay to live in The Khumbu. This is basic economics and everyone will suffer if there is a problem – from the vegetable seller in Namche Bazaar to the teahouse owner in Dingboche, from the person who sells NCell mobile top up cards to the bakery owner in Pangboche they are all hoping for a trouble free season.
To that end I think it is very unlikely that the 2015 season will be interrupted and, if it is, then I imagine that the course of events will not result in closure as happened this season.
Watch this space.
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