The Snow Report
There are two issues at play in all this: The first is the proliferation of upstart outfitters. The second, touchier point—given Everest’s location—is a widely held belief that Sherpas aren’t capable of guiding Westerners on their own. I heard this voiced again and again.
“I have only one Sherpa who I let guide on Everest, and that’s Lakpa Rita,” Burleson says. “He’s been in America 15 years. He’s trained. He has the ability to say, ‘Sons of bitches, get out of bed—we’re going now or we’re going down.’ These other guys, they are such great climbing Sherpas and amazing people. But I can only imagine that, with the Canadian woman, it was, ‘Yes, ma’am. OK, ma’am. We’ll go at 2:30 in the afternoon.’ They walked until she died. That has been the case forever. It’s a cultural issue.”
One person who understands both cultures is Dawa Steven, whose father, Ang Tshering, started Asian Trekking by providing logistics on Everest in 1982. (Dawa Steven’s father is Sherpa, his mother is Belgian, and he was educated in Scotland.) “It’s definitely a problem in the Sherpa culture,” he says. “Sherpas are not assertive people, so that’s something that needs to be trained.” But he chafes at the idea that Sherpas, a few of whom have graduated from top international guide schools, can’t convince a Westerner to turn around. “That becomes slightly discriminatory,” he says. “Sometimes there is no difference between a Sherpa and a Western guide. They’ve both got certification.”
In the case of his client Eberhard Schaaf, Dawa Steven points out that the first sign that Schaaf may have been suffering from cerebral edema—combativeness—came at the Hillary Step, where Sherpas Pemba Tshering and Pasang Temba suggested that he turn back.
“Eberhard started shouting something like, ‘I paid so much money and now you want me to turn around just below the summit?’” Dawa Steven recalls, noting that Schaaf was normally agreeable.
But getting high-dollar clients to turn around isn’t just a Sherpa problem: accounts of the 1996 disaster make it clear that the same issue cropped up then. Anatoli Boukreev, the head guide for the Mountain Madness expedition, recalled in his book The Climb that he was reluctant to send clients packing, because they “had paid big money and had given Scott [Fischer] that authority.” Krakauer heard the same point from another of Fischer’s guides, Neal Beidleman. “It was supposed to be Scott’s job to turn clients around,” Beidleman said. “I told him that as the third guide, I didn’t feel comfortable telling clients who’d paid $65,000 that they had to go down.”
Unlike Alpine Ascents, International Mountain Guides does routinely employ Sherpa guides and, in fact, pioneered Sherpa-guided trips on Everest in the early 2000s. Burleson cites Simonson’s success at offering a $40,000 Sherpa-guided package as one of the things that drew local trekking outfitters into the game.
But, like Burleson, Simonson also employs top Western guides and has long-established relationships with the most experienced Sherpas, many of whom have more than a dozen Everest summits to their credit. “One of the things we strive to do,” says Simonson, “is empower the Sherpas to make decisions without having to be deferential.”