The 2014 Everest climbing season is in limbo and will probably stay that way for the next few days, but it’s too early to hang a “closed for business” sign on the world’s highest peak. Though one prominent outfitter has announced that it’s shutting down operations for the spring—Seattle-based Alpine Ascents International (AAI)—many others are still mulling over what to do next.
This process is playing out amid a Base Camp atmosphere that remains incredibly tense just days after the deadliest avalanche in Everest history, which killed 16 high-altitude porters, nearly all of them ethnic Sherpas. Over the weekend, Nepal’s National Mountain Guide Association (NMGA)—a prominent group representing climbing Sherpas—presented the government of Nepal with a 13-point list of demands that it says must be met if Everest’s workforce is going to stay on the mountain this year. The list was accompanied by stinging words from Pasang Sherpa, general secretary of NMGA, who said Nepal’s government has behaved abysmally in the aftermath of this historic catastrophe.
“We discussed this issue and felt that our government ignored us,” he said. “On Sunday, they called off the search operation. How can we step over the dead bodies of our fellow Sherpas to climb Everest? The Tourism Ministry didn’t have a single official at the Base Camp when the disaster occurred. Until now, not a single official has reached there. While they are eager to collect revenues, they don’t care about us. Therefore, we want our demands to be fulfilled as soon as possible. Promises won’t help this time around.”
The Sherpas, led by NMGA, are asking for an increase in the amount paid to the families of each fallen climber. Initially, the government promised about $400 on top of the $11,000 in insurance that each Sherpa is required to carry. Additionally, they want land in Kathmandu on which to build a memorial to the climbers, coverage of all medical bills for those injured in the accident, $10,000 in long-term disability pay for any of the injured who can no longer work, 30 percent of the royalties from all climbing permits, and an increase in the required accidental death insurance from $11,000 to about $22,000.
One thing the Sherpas are not officially asking for (yet) is a blanket shutdown of the 2014 climbing season. But one American guide on the mountain, who asked that his name not be used, wrote in an email to Outside that there will be pressure to comply if the majority of Sherpas decide not to climb this year. “The Sherpas have threatened teams that want to stay and climb the mountain with whatever means necessary to prevent them from climbing,” he wrote. “I cannot believe that it has come to this.”
“I think this will be really bad for the Sherpa community,” this climber continued, “because in forcefully shutting down the season teams likely may choose to go to the North Side in the future.”
While the government weighs the NMGA’s demands, expeditions and individual climbers are in the process of deciding whether it makes sense to go on in the wake of the deadly avalanche. In an April 21 post on AAI’s Everest expedition blog labeled “DECISIONS,” the outfitter mourned the loss of five Sherpas on its team (Nima Sherpa, Mingma Nuru Sherpa, Ang Tshering Sherpa, Tenzing Chottar Sherpa, and Dorje Sherpa), saying that the shock of the tragedy forced a tough group assessment. Gordon Janow, AAI’s Seattle-based director of programs, told Outside that ending the climb was a hard decision to make, and that it required factoring in all the effort and resources that clients and AAI staff had put in to be there.
“It wasn’t easy, because we want to be sympathetic to all parties involved,” he said. Janow was not able to get into specifics about the issue of refunds—that will be hashed out between the company and individual clients—but he said AAI will work hard to ensure that expedition members, some of who may be covered by trip insurance, are treated fairly, whether that means partial refunds or a discounted return expedition at some future date.
AAI was providing support to NBC as part of a Discovery Channel project aimed at capturing an attempt by climber and BASE jumper Joby Ogwyn to wingsuit off the summit of Everest in May. Discovery has canceled the stunt. Outside was unable to reach Ogwyn to find out if he’s planning to attempt the climb independently.
Meanwhile, Rainier Mountaineering Inc. (RMI), another major presence on the mountain, is apparently still in the process of deciding how to react. RMI guide Dave Hahn wrote in an April 20 dispatch on its expedition blog: “[A] very difficult decision for all involved ... [Fellow guide] Mark Tucker and I attended a series of somewhat tense and serious meetings between team leaders, Sherpas, and the few government representatives present in camp. It is very difficult to say what will happen going forward ... Our Sherpa partners love their jobs and love to climb, but nobody is climbing now and all are struggling to come to terms with how to proceed in a way that honors those lost and protects those left alive.”
In "Disposable Man" (August 2013), Grayson Schaffer's story about the risks Sherpas face helping paying clients up Everest, we wanted to know the fatality rate of ethnic Sherpas working on Everest. And we also wanted to answer another question: How did this rate compare to traditionally dangerous industries such as commercial fishing, wilderness aviation (a.k.a. bush pilots), and even military combat.
To do that, we used the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics' formula for fatality rates per 100,000 full-time equivalents. Determining fatalities was easy: the Himalayan Database keeps excellent records. But figuring out how many hours Sherpas work each season took some legwork—Sherpas don't punch in and out like miners do, and employers aren't paying them by the hour. But we consulted with guides, outfitters, and climbers to arrive at numbers we felt gave a fair picture of just how dangerous the job was (the results: far more dangerous than being a soldier in Iraq from 2003 to 2007). There was only one hitch: to be consistent with the Bureau of Labor Statistic's numbers, we only calculated the number for fatalities from 2000 to 2010. And fatalities have been rising since then. If we calculate the fatality rate for the past decade, the numbers become much more distressing.
Annual Fatality Rates by Profession
(Deaths per 100,000 full-time equivalents)
Miners (2000-2010): 25
Commercial Fisherman (2000-2010): 124
Alaskan Bush Pilots (1990-2009): 287
U.S. military in Iraq (2003-2007): 335
Everest Sherpas (2000-2010): 1,332
Everest Sherpas (2004-2014): 4,053
The reason for the discrepancy is simple. From 2000 to 2010, only seven ethnic Sherpas died on the mountain. Since then, 21 Sherpas have perished, including the 16 who died in the avalanche yesterday.
Number of Sherpas Killed on Everest By Year
This year is not just the mountain's worst tragedy. It caps the worst three-year period in Everest history.
For the entirety of its existence, Base Camp on Mount Everest has been self-policed. No more. After last year’s brawl on the Lhotse Face, in which European alpinists Ueli Steck, Simone Moro, and Jonathan Griffith clashed with a group of Sherpas fixing ropes, Nepal’s tourism ministry has decided to step in. Come April, a nine-member armed security contingent made up of Nepali soldiers and police will keep order in the temporary city, which swells to nearly 1,000 people during peak climbing season.
“By the time the first expedition team arrives in Base Camp, our group will be in place,” says Maddhu Sudan Burlakoti, a joint secretary of the tourism ministry. “The team will ensure security of the climbers and also get involved in rescue operations. We’ll also make sure that, in the case of such an incident, the accused doesn’t get away.”
Will this sort of warning, and the presence of a police force, have any tangible effect? It seems unlikely. Most of the action on Everest takes place higher up on the mountain. Last year’s brawl occurred at Camp II, nearly 4,000 vertical feet above Base Camp.
“Unless the soldiers or police officers are trained as climbers, they won’t be on the mountain,” says RMI guide Dave Hahn. “That fight was a sorry little episode, but this won’t do anything to prevent another one above Base Camp.”
So what’s the point? Many Everest vets consider the force to be little more than a publicity stunt engineered to stave off negative media attention. Everest expeditions, after all, add roughly $15 million annually, from permit fees and general spending, to Nepal’s struggling economy.
“Everest gets headlines every year,” says Hahn, “but I worry that this is just another layer of bureaucracy from a country having a hard time keeping the lights on in Kathmandu.”
“It will be business as usual,” says Russell Brice, founder of Himalayan Experience. “Everyone will work around the new rules, and very little will change.”
“Everyone’s still climbing Everest in exactly the same way as in the early nineties—in two and a half months,” says Alpenglow Expeditions founder Adrian Ballinger. A wiry, British expat who lives in Olympic Valley, California, Ballinger has some big ideas about how best to ascend the world’s tallest mountain. More specifically, he thinks it can be done in half the time that most expeditions take.
Starting this spring, the 38-year-old veteran guide will begin screening small groups of experienced clients, charging them top dollar, and requiring them to use hypoxic tents to begin acclimatizing at home, so they can fly by helicopter directly into the 14,180-foot town of Dingboche, a day’s walk from Base Camp. (Climbers more typically spend ten days trekking from the town of Lukla.) There he will outfit them with battery-powered boot heaters and the latest high-flow oxygen masks. The idea is to make it from the U.S. to the top of the world and back in just 40 days, paying $89,000 each, roughly twice the average cost of a guided Everest summit. Last year, in a trial run, Ballinger successfully led his first client in that ambitious time frame.
Ballinger’s strategy allows his clients to bypass the crowds that clog the most popular route up Everest, the South Col, where a glut of budget guided trips have caused recent traffic jams, contributing to several deaths. The crowds also take some of the allure out of an Everest summit: who wants to brag about standing in a high-altitude conga line? Ballinger’s clients, who have more experience than most paying climbers, have the freedom to unclip from the fixed lines when crowds bottleneck and bypass the mayhem. It’s a bold plan that promises to change what’s possible for commercial expeditions on Everest—and to place Ballinger among the mountain’s handful of power brokers.
“It seems more sporting than what some other people might offer,” says Conrad Anker, perhaps the most influential alpinist alive. “If someone called up and said, ‘Who should I go up Everest with?’ I’d say, ‘Oh yeah, Adrian for sure.’ ”
Until 2012, Ballinger played second fiddle to the most powerful guide on the mountain: Russell Brice, owner of Himalayan Experience (Himex), a respected outfit based in Chamonix, France. The two split after that season, unable to agree on a deal for Ballinger to take control of the company, and Ballinger took Himex’s head Sherpa, Dorji Sonam, with him. Brice declined to comment, but Ballinger acknowledges some acrimony. “If anything happened where we needed to work together, I have no doubt that we would,” he says. “But we don’t drink beers anymore.”
After leaving Himex, Ballinger immediately began putting together Alpenglow’s speed-oriented model. The strategy borrows from practices used by top Western guides like Dave Hahn, Dan Nash, and Tim Mosedale, all of whom have led boutique Everest trips for individuals and small groups. But no one has combined all the elements Ballinger uses—technology, helicopters, client screening—to such effect. Perhaps equally important, the Alpenglow founder is very good at selling himself. In January, he appeared on the Fox Business channel, and the rollout commercial for Apple’s latest iPad featured Ballinger and his girlfriend, the elite American climber Emily Harrington.
Not everyone thinks accelerated ascents are a good idea, and Ballinger’s approach has irked some of the sport’s purists. “A big mountain like Everest is not something that should be rushed,” says longtime Everest journalist and 2011 summiter Alan Arnette. “Everest is a climb that should be savored.”
But Ballinger maintains that his true motivation is safety—for both his clients and his workforce. He points out that Alpenglow goes beyond required insurance levels for Sherpas ($8,000), maxing out workers’ accidental-death coverage at $23,000. Ballinger also requires his Sherpas to train in rescue and emergency medicine at the nonprofit Khumbu Climbing Center, based in the nearby village of Phortse.
“We believe—we know a better way to guide these mountains, and that’s all we know,” Ballinger says. “We’re all in.”
I sit on a tiny ledge some 350 feet above abandoned railroad tracks running along a rock wall and try to reassure myself that I am not afraid of heights. After hiking up a wooded hillside and climbing the first two pitches, I can now see the green pastures and rolling hills that surround Suesca, a rural Colombian town about 50 miles northeast of Bogotá.
Off to my left stretch long rows of white greenhouses, where flowers are grown and exported to the U.S. Before me, the tree-lined Bogotá River snakes through the landscape. Off to my right, between the swaying eucalyptus trees, their leaves rustling in the late afternoon breeze, distant cliff faces turn orange as the sun sets.
Our Colombian guide, a Muisca Indian we call Carlitos, ties the anchor for the third pitch above me. He knows more than 300 routes like the back of his hand, and he’s selected one to match my skill level. I’ve climbed with Carlitos each of the dozen or so times I’ve come to Suesca. Each time, it’s like visiting with an old friend. Each time, too, we come across people he knows pretty much every 50 feet, which is convenient for sharing a top rope and for getting in a few extra climbs.
I scale the last 60 feet or so, past bromeliads blooming in the craggy rocks, and past hanging screens of Spanish moss, then make my way down to our camp in a cow pasture, trekking past mountain bikers and children flying kites.
Suesca is Colombia’s best hope for shedding its 1980s-era reputation as a hotbed of cocaine production and instead becoming an adventure sports destination. Some of Colombia’s national parks are in far-flung regions where guerrilla holdouts still roam and have been known to kidnap foreigners. The state of Cundinamarca, however, where Suesca sits in Colombia’s central Andes range, has been one of the country’s most secure regions for more than a decade. Here, Colombia’s premier rock-climbing site offers classic and sport routes that span beginner to 5.13c, not to mention mountain biking, kayaking, and spelunking. Any number of local outfitters can set you up the day you arrive with a quasi-English-speaking guide and gear—all for about 25 bucks for about four hours.
Suesca has the occasional problem of robbery in isolated areas on the weekends. For that reason, outfitter Andres Zamudio recommends always using a guide who knows their way around Suesca’s network of gravel roads and hilly pastures, some which are out of range of both cell towers and the town’s dozen police officers.
Despite the occasional crime, around 5,000 people (mostly Colombians) visit Suesca each month. They enjoy walking, picnicking, and horseback riding, and you can be sure the lower-level climbing routes will be crowded on weekends—all the more reason to hire a guide who knows the more secluded routes.
In 2013, about a dozen Suesca guides were certified by the Fernando Gonzalez Rubio Foundation, a nonprofit, which tested their knowledge of ropes, anchors, and climbing techniques. Graduates received climbing-guide ID cards.
Nelson Mestizo, Suesca’s mayor, has worked closely with FGR to ensure safety in the area and to promote Suesca as a tourist destination. Mestizo hopes to one day make the area a national park—which would be OK with Zamudio, who’s been climbing there for more than 20 years. “You can stay for two weeks climbing and mountain biking,” he says, “and you’ll never get bored.”
If You Go
Read: Suesca.com—a tourism page set up by some locals with fierce hometown pride—is a good place to start if you’re limited to English-only sites. Visit the city’s government-run site for restaurant, hostel, and outfitter information in Spanish.
How to time it: Because Suesca, like much of Colombia, is just a few degrees north of the equator, temperatures are pretty steady year-round. The area sits at 8,500-feet and is breezy and sunny most of the year, with two rainy seasons. The drier months generally run from December to February, and from June to August. During the rainy seasons, you’re probably going to get good weather in the mornings and sudden showers in the afternoons, so climb early.
Bring: A jacket, a rain poncho, bug spray, suntan lotion, and snacks. Vendors set up along the railroad tracks selling chips, soft drinks, and empanadas (fried cornmeal stuffed with ground beef or chicken and spices). If you’re lucky, an empanada lady might be trekking right by your climb site when you happen to be hungry.
Getting there: Suesca is 40 miles northeast of Bogotá and four miles off Autopista Norte, a major highway. Suesca is also accessible from Bogotá’s TransMilenio northern terminal (catch an Alianza or Ayacucho bus).
Stay: Pitch your tent next to some young Colombians for a lively local experience (cheap beer is available, which is useful for making friends). If you’d rather sleep on a mattress, there are several low-cost hotels and hostels within a ten-minute walk of the climbing wall.
Eat: Suesca boasts plenty of small Colombian cafés that serve pizza and typical Colombian dishes for a few bucks. If you want a serious meal next to a warm fire, try Vamonos P’al Monte, a stone’s throw from the wall. This restaurant-cum-hostel-cum outfitter, inspired by Indian, Nepalese, Chinese, and Thai cultures alike, was established by Luis Felipe Ossa, who in 2007 became the first Colombian to climb Everest without a supplemental oxygen tank.