The Snow Report
Before Madison and his crew left the South Col for their summit bid at 8:45 p.m. on May 19, radio chatter had been surprisingly light, save for the channel used by International Mountain Guides, whose sweep man, 34-year-old Justin Merle, was shepherding clients back into high camp after 24 hours on the mountain, which was dangerously long. When, at one point, Merle’s Base Camp manager radioed for a status report, the response was deadpan: “Well, we’re all still alive.” One climber had a frostbitten foot, but everybody made it.
IT'S HARD TO BELIEVE, but there are no formal fitness or experience requirements for Everest clients. As a practical matter, good outfitters want people to have climbed other difficult peaks above 20,000 feet, usually with the guide who will take them up Everest. Even so, the mountain often plays host to greenhorns, a situation that would be inconceivable in other extreme outdoor pursuits.
In 1996, Sandy Hill, a client on the Mountain Madness team, was widely ridiculed as a New York socialite who had no business on Everest. By today’s standards, Hill’s résumé, which included ascents of Denali and Antarctica’s Vinson Massif, among other tough peaks, would be considered very strong. In 2012, there was no more compelling example of a flat-out beginner than Shah. Eric Simonson, who co-owns International Mountain Guides, calls Shah the poster child for high-altitude unreadiness.
Shah, who lived in Toronto, is survived by her husband, 44-year-old Bruce Klorfine. Klorfine says he met her in 2001 while the two were working on a cruise ship in the Caribbean. Shah was living in Mumbai at the time but immigrated to Canada, where the couple married in 2002. She started a business importing products from India in 2011.
Over the winter of 2011–12, she decided to climb Everest. It sounded like a bad idea to Klorfine, but he knew his wife had made up her mind. “She had it in her head for a long time,” he says. “She just called it her dream. It wasn’t like, ‘I want to be a mountaineer.’ It was that mountain. Somehow, she got in touch with these people over in Nepal, and they made her believe she could do it.” At the time, Klorfine says, Shah had never climbed any mountain at all.
According to Klorfine, Utmost’s Base Camp manager, Rishi Raj Kandel, told Shah to work on her fitness, which she did by hiking up stairs with a heavy pack and practicing a martial-arts routine. Utmost’s owner, Ganesh Thakuri, declined to be interviewed for this story, but another outfitter, Saujan Pradhan, a spokesman for Thamserku Trekking, explained to me the fairly widespread practice among budget outfitters of encouraging previous climbing experience but not requiring it. Among the things Thamserku recommends to clients are “enthusiasm” and “the potential to walk.”
Shah didn’t appear to know what she was signing up for. She thought she was going on a fully guided expedition, for which she paid $71,400, according to an invoice from Utmost. By comparison, each of Burleson’s guided Alpine Ascents clients paid roughly $65,000, while Simonson’s Sherpa-guided clients paid $40,000. And there are clear indications that Shah was fleeced.
For example, Shah was billed $25,000 for her climbing permit. That’s the rate Nepal’s tourism ministry charges if you buy your permit alone, which is why nobody does it this way. Instead, climbers from different expeditions usually chip in for a group permit that costs each of them just $10,000. And this is what Thakuri did, adding Shah to a permit organized by a local trekking outfitter called Happy Feet Mountaineers. Ngima Dendi Sherpa, who owns Happy Feet, confirmed that he’d charged Utmost $11,000 for Shah.