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Adventure : Climbing

Forecasting Everest

Apologies to Bob Dylan, but if you’re climbing Mount Everest you do, actually, need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

At 29,029 feet, that wind is the jet stream, and for a lot of teams on Everest, the weatherman is Michael Fagin, a Seattle-based climber who runs a forecasting service called Everest Weather. He’s never been to Nepal, but from his station in Washington he averages international weather models, monitors the movement of the jet stream, and traces storms coming north from the Bay of Bengal.

Fagin is one of the only people who forecasts specifically for Everest. His main competition is a Swiss company called Meteotest. Together, they’re the guideline for climbers trying to figure out the tenuous weather windows on the mountain, and decide when to make their summit push.

Fagin, who is working with six teams this season, is a little slow to talk about his forecasting background, because it’s pretty untraditional. He doesn’t have a degree in meteorology—he worked in marketing until he was 50—but he became fascinated with mountain weather when he started climbing in the Cascades with the Seattle Mountaineers. He convinced a University of Washington professor to be his mentor and sat in on the classes that he though were necessary. Then he dorked out, ordering faxed copies of weather forecasts and shadowing local meteorologists. In 2003 he sent a free sample forecast to a few of the Everest climbing parties and it was so accurate that the next year some of them asked him to do it again. “It was an unknown commodity at that point,” he says.

Meteotest had started making forecasts a few years before, in the wake of the deadly 1996 storm, but before Meteotest, and then Fagin, started making Everest-specific forecasts, climbers made their bids for the summit based on long-range forecasts and luck, guessing at when they thought the weather would be good. Teams usually need a four-day weather window to move from Base Camp to the peak, and Fagin says that even with every bit of technology at his fingertips, he can only confidently build a forecast for three to five days.

It’s tricky to forecast for Everest: storms move fast, the mountain is at the mercy of the highly variable jet stream, and there’s nothing that gives accurate readings from the summit. “There’s no weather station up there, so it’s all conjecture," Fagin says. That’s why remote forecasters can put together forecasts that are just as accurate, if not more so, than local forecasters, although Fagin takes into account feedback from his teams on the ground. “If my radar says it’s clear, and my teams tell me it’s snowing at Base Camp, that means something,” he says.

Wind and snowfall are the limiting weather factors. Winds on the peak can easily reach 125 mph, and storms can reduce visibility to nothing, that why May is prime climbing season. It’s when temperatures, winds, and storms all tend to be moderate. The jet stream moves off in the summer, but precipitation tends to be higher after monsoon season starts in June.

The availability and accuracy of weather models has changed a lot in the last 10 years. Fagin says that precipitation models haven’t changed but they have become much more accurate at predicting the movement of the jet stream.

A lot of weather models are in the public domain—anyone can go on the Global Forecast System website and looks at the models. The hard part is using them to make accurate predictions. Add that to the increased Internet access at Base Camp and some of the teams are trying to cobble together their own forecasts, often with dismal results. “I’ve heard from my teams that some of the smaller teams who don’t have the resources for the weather forecasts, will just follow the bigger groups when they make their summit push,” Fagin says.

Fagin’s relationships with the climbing groups who pay for his service vary. He says some teams will buy a single forecast off of him, but usually he’s locked in with a team for their entire trip.  He’ll send forecasts every other day as they trek to Base Camp, then update them daily while they’re thinking about summiting. He says he’s in touch a lot, especially if the weather changes. “My forecast is just one piece of the information,” he says. “The weather window might be perfect, but if their group needs another day of rest, they have to consider that. They have their own realities to deal with.” He charges $100 for a single forecast, and around $1000 for a whole expedition. Meteotest forecasts run $2,000 for a trip.

He thinks he’s been able to be accurate over the years because he’s detail oriented and because he’s constantly tweaking his forecasts. “The trick is to never get locked into your forecast,” Fagin says. “If Monday you said there was going to be no jet stream, on Tuesday you’ve got to be willing to retrench. Things change really fast up there.”

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What Does it Cost to Climb Everest?

High-altitude mountaineering is a pay-to-play game. If you’re going to attempt to climb Mount Everest you're going to shell out a minimum of $30,000. Most western guiding companies charge around $65,000, and if you’re going all-out on a private expedition with an imported chef and constant access to Instagram, your trip might run as high as $100,000.

The median cost hasn’t changed much over the years, despite more technology and rescue options, additional guide services, and increased government regulation. Many operations that were charging $65,000 in the ‘90s are still selling trips at that same rate in 2013. Cheaper expeditions have increased their prices due to legislation from the Nepalese government that mandated how much Sherpas and porters have to be paid, and there are more “budget” Sherpa-guided operations available, but, for the most part, Everest might be one of the few places in the world that has escaped inflation.

There are some fixed costs that every climber has to pay, regardless of how they climb or who they climb with. Climbing permits, issued by the Nepalese government, cost $70,000 for a party of seven, or $25,000 for an individual climber. Every group pays camp fees, like a garbage and waste deposit, and pays a local government liaison to stay in camp with them. “They’re there to make sure that if you’ve got a permit for Nutpse, you’re not climbing Everest,” says Gordon Janow Director of Programs for Seattle-based Alpine Ascents, which has been guiding Everest trips for 15 years.

At Base Camp, all the teams combine forces to pay for the camp doctor and to pay Sherpas, commonly called Icefall Doctors, to set the fixed ropes, so that the equipment that everyone uses to traverse the Khumbu Icefall is in place.

Then there’s gear, and getting to Base Camp, which is pretty consistent, price-wise, across the board. For instance, oxygen costs $500 a bottle, and climbers typically bring 6 bottles; a yak to transport your gear to Base Camp will run you $150 a day.

Because of that, Everest season is a boon for the local economy. “About $3 millions comes in to the Nepalese economy through permits,” says Alan Arnette, a journalist and climber who runs a detailed blog following each Everest season, “And I bet half of that again goes to the tea houses, the local guides and food, heli companies, and hotels in Kathmandu.”

Some of that is regulated. Because a percentage of the money from the permit goes to keeping Everest and the surrounding areas clean, and having local representatives in place to monitor the teams, the government pays local workers as do the climbing groups. The Nepalese government has mandated a minimum wage for Sherpas, but Janow says that Alpine Ascents, and many of the other western groups, will pay their crew more than that to assure that they have the same local teams in place year to year.

That wage range is a significant cost factor. The biggest monetary variable is which group you chose to climb with, and how they run their operation. Smaller climbing  teams with higher guide-to-client ratios, and larger support systems are more expensive.

Lower budget companies tend cut costs by having smaller staffs, which drops their overhead. They also can keep costs low by hiring local base camp staff instead of flying teams in, and then not paying those people very much “It used to be that you only had western guides. Guides from Europe, New Zealand and the U.S. were the only ones that had the skills to fix ropes and trained in medicine, but now the Sherpa community has improved their skills,” Arnette says.

Western guides are more expensive—Janow says they pay their guides $20-50,000 for the season—and the higher budget companies also shell out for things like customized weather forecasts. Janow says that they bring a backup for all of their gear and mechanical systems to basecamp, and that they also have a deep staff. “To keep it running smoothly we want to always have someone available to heli someone out, or deal with anything like that. So there’s always a backup manager on,” he says.

Then, there are extravagances, like a personal film crew, or elaborate meals, which some crews deem necessary to keep climbers, who typically loose their appetites at altitude, eating. “If all you want to eat is dal bat, that’s pretty cheap,” Arnette says. “But some guides will fly in steak, others will have beer and wine, a lot of people have sushi. Jagged Globe prides themselves on having a chef from Europe.”

Even in a highly planed environment like Everest, where logistics teams work all year to make sure expeditions go smoothly, there are some uncontrollable variables.There’s a sliding scale of everything,” Janow says. “You’ve got these general ideas of how it going to work, but then you never know. This year I have over $10,000 in freight, just paying airlines. Last year I had a $4,000 Wi-Fi bill.”

More of Outside's Everest Coverage

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Fight at Everest's Camp II (UPDATE)

On Saturday April 27, professional climbers Ueli Steck, Simone Moro, and their photographer, Jonathan Griffith, were attacked at Everest's Camp II (23,000 feet) by an angry group of Sherpas. The Sherpas, we were told, were upset that Steck, Moro, and Griffith had been on the route that day above Camp II, even though all of the teams in camp had agreed that only the Sherpas tasked with fixing the safety ropes should be on the mountain that day. Moro wrote in a press release that the "lead Sherpa was tired and cold and felt that his pride had been damaged as the three climbers were moving unroped and much faster to the side of him." Here, for the first time, we hear from Sherpas who were on the route that day and spoke to Alpine Ascents International leader Garrett Madison in Base Camp.

As this story has emerged in the media it has become clear that the Sherpas have not been given a voice. The press releases, the blogging, and reports from the European climbers have dominated the headlines. Meanwhile, the Sherpa are quietly continuing to fix the rope and continue their work at nearly 8,000 meters on Everest. These Sherpa help realize the dream of many western climbers and will continue to be honored and respected by the foreign climbers who climb with them on Everest.

I have pieced together an objective version of events different from what is currently in the media headlines. These details are directly from what I heard on the radio on April 27, my discussions with many people in base camp over the last two days including expedition leaders, western guides, and clients who were at Camp 2 during this incident, and Sirdars (head Sherpa) who directly supervise the fixing team.

April 18

All expedition leaders and Sherpa Sirdars were invited and attended a meeting in Everest Base Camp to discuss the rope fixing strategy for this season on Everest. At this meeting everyone had a chance to suggest the best strategy and route to safely climb the mountain. The meeting concluded with the nomination of fixing Sherpas (the best available) and the suitable dates to complete the work. It was also agreed at the meeting by all the expedition leaders that nobody would be climbing on the route on these dates except the fixing team. That while these young men were working to fix the route for all expeditions at base camp, no expedition would disrupt or create a distraction for them. Unfortunately, Simone Moro did not attend this meeting and might not have been aware that this protocol is an unwritten rule on Everest.

Over the next few days all the teams at base camp pitched in and Sherpas carried over 50 loads through the Khumbu Icefall to Camp II. The fixing started on April 26: For two days the Sherpa were scouting the best route on the Lhotse face, and by April 27 they were less than an hour from reaching Camp II. 

The three European climbers set out the morning of April 27 heading for the Lhotse Face. After suggestions from both guides and Sherpa at Camp II and below the Lhotse Face to turn around (because fixing the Lhotse Face demands strict concentration), the three climbers continued on to the Lhotse Face moving up and to the left of the fixing route. The three climbers moved alpine style up the Lhotse Face and were headed towards their camp (just below Camp III on the Lhotse Face).

At this time the Sherpa fixing team was working on the Lhotse Face and had reached one of the steeper and more exposed areas. The temperature was dropping and the winds were picking up. As the fixing team was moving through a steeper section of the Lhotse Face, the three European climbers met with the fixing team. The fixing team alerted the three climbers to not touch or cross the rope. This is a high intensity environment where people’s instincts are at a heightened state. The lead fixing Sherpa spoke with one of the three climbers, at which point physical contact was made. At that point Simone came in verbal contact with a number of the fixing team who had now congregated at one of the anchors to secure themselves from sliding down the face.

Simone began to shout, many of the words in Nepali language, and many of the words were inflammatory. At this point the fixing team made the correct decision to drop their loads of rope and hardware, attaching them to the installed line, and to descend without any further interaction or confrontation with the three climbers. The fixing team descended to Camp II and went to their respective camps as a number of expedition teams work together to fix the route on Everest. As the fixing team descended to Camp II, Simone radioed down requesting to know what the Sherpa were talking about. At one point Simone stated over open radio frequency—fixing frequency, tuned in by all the fixing teams and anyone listening on the mountain—that if the Sherpa had a problem he could come down to Camp II soon and “f---ing fight”.

As Simone returned back to Camp II he again spoke over the fixing frequency a demand to speak with the fixing team comprised of 16 Sherpa (of eight different teams) back at Camp II. He explained that he would meet them at one of the expedition camps. When he arrived in Camp II he went to his tent. At this pointm, some western guides went to Simone’s camp to explain that he should apologize for the situation his team created during a very dangerous workday.

As the western guides spoke to Simone, Sherpas from many different teams congregated as a result of his radio call from the Lhotse face and wanted to speak with Simone and get an apology, and to explain to him how difficult their job had been that day. The Sherpas who were together felt that Simone’s words and interactions were both hurtful to the individuals, as well as grave and serious insults to the entire Sherpa community. As the Sherpas approached Simone’s camp, tensions were high and they wanted to have a discussion with an already angered Simone. Then Simone came out to talk and both sides approached each other in loud discussion, at which point a careless western climber who had not been involved up on the Lhotse face arrived and entangled physically with a Sherpa. This was the ignition for what ensued next.

It is safe to say that the Sherpa thought this western climber was part of Simone’s team and had initiated a dangerous confrontation. At this point the Sherpas felt as if they needed to defend themselves as they had just seen one of their colleagues attacked. The tense situation ignited and a brawl ensued.

The brawl was stopped by a group of western climbers and Sherpas working together. Simone’s team was protected by both a Sherpa group and a few western climbers and guides. As the group separated, Simone asked to apologize for his actions. After things calmed down, Simone’s team descended to Base Camp. 

The following day, April 28, was peaceful.

April 29

To Simone’s credit, he did not want to leave Everest until he had a chance to make peace with the furious Sherpas. The Sherpas met in Base Camp and discussed peacefully the events of the fixing day (April 27), and both parties recognized the errors in what they said and did, and apologized to each other. Simone reiterated his respect for the Sherpas and for the work they do, and both sides agreed to work together in the future to make sure something like this never happens again.

The Sherpa community understands this unfortunate and avoidable situation was unacceptable.  The Sirdars have committed to educate these hard-working young men about handling the stresses of a very intense job.

In climbing the Nepalese side of Mt. Everest, all the teams collaborate in working together to ultimately achieve a mutual goal, to reach the top safely, and the Sherpa are a major part of this goal. The first summit of Everest in 1953 was made by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, a foreigner and a Nepalese Sherpa. The first American ascent in 1963 was Jim Whittaker and Nawang Gombu Sherpa, also a foreigner and a Sherpa.

I sincerely hope that this incident does not damage how the Sherpas perceive the foreigners who come to climb on their mountain. We aim to uphold the spirit of climbing together to accomplish our common goals and to respect one another throughout our mountaineering endeavors.

UPDATE: Simone Moro reached out to us over email to offer this response, refuting Madison's version of his provocative radio call [Emphasis Moro's]:

It makes me crying to read that false, false, false and pure invented fact. I NEVER, NEVER, NEVER, NEVER, did that radio call and provocation. (I have a lot of witness who can confirm.) Madison INVENTED those words to try to change the facts and give me responsabilities for the tension. I'm not so crazy, stupid and violent to provocate and challenge the Sherpas in C2 with that words.

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Rakkup Climbing App

Beta. Sometime that’s the hardest part of any outdoor adventure. Getting to the trailhead, the base of the climb, the start of the mountain bike ride, then knowing if you should go right or left at the first dog leg can mean the difference between a day of inspired adventure and un unwelcome epic. Guidebooks abound, but by the time a print guide hits the shelves at your local bookstore or outdoor store, it’s probably out of date. And its heavy and bulky, and often the photos are shot from far away in a different season, and seem to bear no resemblance to the wall or trail that you’re looking at.

That’s where Rakkup comes into play: digital guidebooks for rock climbers. Rakkup’s first climbing app/guidebook, a free guide to Red Rocks in Nevada, was released this month in partnership with Outdoor Research and print guidebook publisher SuperTopo, and coinciding with the annual Red Rock Rendezvous climbing festival.

Rakkup was developed by Rob Price and Todd Kutzke, climbers frustrated by not being able to find their desired routes, and former Microsoft employees with 25 years experience in software development between them, as well as ten years of experience developing GPS navigation tools for aviation. 

What’s better about Rakkup guides? They use turn-by-turn GPS waypoints, combining the GPS capabilities of smartphones with digital trail system mapping to help climbers get to the base of their desired route. The free app lets you access ‘Belay View’ photographs of each climb, so you can accurately get to the start of the pitch you’re looking for. And even when there is no cell service, 3G, 4G or satellite reception, you can still get to the info you need. The app downloads guidebooks, photos, and trail maps so that climbers can navigate and view the guide even when out of range. 

Rakkup lets climbers browse routes via an interactive trail map as well as criteria like grade and type of climb, all through the touch screen of your phone.

The app is free, and guidebooks to specific climbing areas are for sale at the apple store. Digital guidebooks include topo drawings, route strategy, history, climbing beta and rack beta for around $10 for a year access. Proceeds from sales of the Red Rocks digital guidebook during the Red Rock Rendezvous will be donated to the Access Fund.

Available now, $10 per guide, rakkup.com.

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