The Snow Report
Most other outfitters, by staying, signaled that they thought Brice was overreacting, though nobody aside from a few disappointed Himex clients has actually criticized him. Still, his departure had consequences. Himex’s Sherpas were supposed to fix at least one-third of the route on the upper mountain, with International Mountain Guides and Alpine Ascents fixing the other sections. With Himex gone, some of the smaller teams would have to pitch in and provide volunteer Sherpas to carry gear. But that’s not what happened during the summit-fixing planned for May 11–12.
“Many of the teams that had committed to bringing ropes to the South Col did not follow through,” says Garrett Madison. “There was talk of the weather being bad, but I think the real reason was that there just wasn’t enough gear up there.”
The failure to fix the route by May 12 should have been a small setback; there were, after all, 18 more days before the typical June 1 arrival of the monsoon that signals the end of spring climbing. As it happened, the lost time was compounded by the unintended negative consequences of a technological advance: accurate weather forecasting.
"THE BEST THING THAT ever happened to them and the worst thing that ever happened to me are the weather reports,” says Todd Burleson, 52, who owns Alpine Ascents and lives outside of Talkeetna, Alaska. Burleson, who no longer guides at Everest, is referring to budget operators on the mountain who know exactly when the best weather will occur and all tend to rush the summit at the same time.
Summit-day crowding happens for an obvious reason: forecasts are exponentially better now than in ’96. “When I was guiding Everest in the early '90s, there were no weather reports except ‘rainy in the Himalayas,’” says Burleson, who led clients up the mountain’s South Col route in ’92 and ’96. In ’96, as Krakauer recounted, expedition leader Rob Hall held a Base Camp meeting with other guides, “hoping to avoid dangerous gridlock on the summit ridge.” (Hall, who owned Adventure Consultants and guided Krakauer, died that spring along with his friend and competing outfitter Scott Fischer, owner of Mountain Madness.) He chose his May 10 summit date without any knowledge about upcoming winds, temperatures, or blizzards. As Krakauer wrote, Hall simply reasoned that “of the four times I’ve summited, twice it was on the tenth of May.”
The situation is radically different now. Each day that First Ascent climber David Morton wasn’t “upstairs” on the mountain, he would trek 10 minutes out to a rocky mound where he could get a 3G signal, then download the latest reports from the Swiss company Meteotest. Soon he and several other climbers would gather in our mess tent to strategize about rest days and load carrying, so they would be ready for a summit push right when the weather cleared. Even with the obvious traffic problems this pattern can cause, Nepali climbing officials have shown no sign of intervening. How could they? It would be impossible to force some teams to launch during less-than-ideal conditions.
A prominent figure in Everest forecasting is Michael Fagin, a self-taught meteorologist in Redmond, Washington. Fagin launched Washington Online Weather in 1996 and offered his first Everest forecasts in 2003. (Fagin and Meteotest are the two main forecasters on Everest.) “There are a lot of eyes in the sky,” says Fagin, 62. “Real-time data, satellites that can estimate cloud cover, temperature, wind, and humidity in the upper atmosphere.... The reports are a lot better now.”
At the time he started offering his forecasts, Fagin, who’s never been to Nepal, needed to prove himself. He sent free reports to several expeditions in 2003 that were scarily accurate at predicting mountain wind speeds. He also pulled the weather maps for May 1996 and did a little Monday-morning quarterbacking.