Take a Number
In the 16 years since Into Thin Air, Mount Everest has become safer in many ways, with better storm forecasting and amazing high-altitude rescue helicopters. So why did 10 people die in 2012?
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Lakpa Rita, the top sherpa for Seattle-based Alpine Ascents, was the first to see it. Just visible in the glow of his frost-covered headlamp, a body dangled from a fixed line. This was the second corpse his team had met on their overnight summit bid.
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It was 4:30 a.m. on May 20, just beyond Everest’s South Summit, the dramatic rise and dip at 28,700 feet where climbers swap in fresh oxygen cylinders for the final push to the top. The frozen body hung from a line strung along the knife-edge ridge that leads to the Hillary Step, a 40-foot cliff 100 feet below the summit. Lakpa Rita, 47, and Garrett Madison, 33, the company’s head guide, paused to consider the unfortunate soul for a moment. The wind whipped by at nearly gale force. The sun, still below the horizon, barely brightened the fierce lenticular cloud that wrapped the upper mountain.
In tight formation with Madison and Lakpa Rita were six clients from the U.S., Britain, and Australia, a third guide, 46-year-old Jose Luis Peralvo of Ecuador, and six veteran climbing Sherpas. Later they would learn that the dead man was a German doctor named Eberhard Schaaf, who’d arrived at the summit the previous afternoon. Schaaf, 61, was guided by two Sherpas from a Nepal-based outfitter called Asian Trekking, and he likely succumbed to cerebral edema during his descent. The Sherpas had stayed with him for hours before one and then the other left to save themselves.
Madison’s group had avoided the crowds by going up on the night of the 19th, in worsening weather. For them, Schaaf presented a different kind of problem: he was blocking the way. “Lakpa went up and cut him off the fixed line,” Madison recalls. Schaaf’s body tumbled 15 feet down Everest’s southwest face, stopping among some rocks.
All night, the Alpine Ascents group had met with the carnage of the previous day, when four climbers died along the 29,035-foot mountain’s most popular route—the Southeast Ridge, which ascends the Nepalese side from the foot of the Khumbu Glacier. In addition to Schaaf, they were Nepali-Canadian Shriya Shah, 33, Korean Song Won-bin, 44, and Chinese Ha Wenyi, 55. There were other fatalities as well—two on the mountain’s north side and four earlier in the season—along with serious injuries that resulted in roughly two dozen helicopter evacuations. In all, 10 people perished on Everest in April and May of 2012, making it the third deadliest spring season on record, behind 1996’s total of 12 and 2006’s total of 11.
The Alpine Ascents team encountered all four of the doomed May 19 climbers on its way up, either dead (Schaaf and Shah), too far gone to rescue (Song), or not yet in distress (Ha). Had Madison and Lakpa Rita believed they could help Song, they would have been duty-bound to try. “Since there was nothing we could do,” client Rob Sobecki later blogged, “we carried on climbing upwards.”
In the days that followed, the international media would seize upon these deaths as the latest proof of a now familiar claim: that the climbing scene on Everest is out of control. Flocks of ill-prepared novices were crowding into Base Camp, paying outfitters between $30,000 and $120,000 for what, to a lot of sane people, looked like assisted suicide.
Comparisons between this single-day tragedy and the one that claimed the lives of five clients and three guides in 1996—and led to Outside’s publication of Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air”—were on the lips of commentators from CNN to NPR. Even in the climbing community, which is still deeply divided by the differing accounts of the 1996 episode, people began to ask: Has anything changed?
I was embedded on Everest with a team of climbers, the four Americans of the Eddie Bauer First Ascent West Ridge expedition: David Morton, Jake Norton, Charley Mace, and Brent Bishop. Unlike Krakauer in ’96, I wasn’t trying to climb the mountain, which left me free to roam Base Camp reporting on the season’s events.
What I saw was a situation that resembled ’96 in some respects but in most ways did not. As happened back then, some of the 2012 teams lost precious time waiting in long lines in the Death Zone, above 26,000 feet, and summited too late in the day. But 2012’s victims weren’t caught by a freak, fast-moving storm. Their deaths were the result of exhaustion, climbing too slowly, ignoring serious altitude sickness, and refusing to turn around—which is to say, the steady toll of human error. Nobody was killed by the mountain’s roulette wheel of hazards such as rockfall, avalanches, and blizzards.
This matters because it points to a new status quo on Everest: the routinization of high-altitude death. By and large, the people running the show these days on the south side of Everest—the professional guides, climbing Sherpas, and Nepali officials who control permits—do an excellent job of getting climbers to the top and down again. Indeed, a week after this year’s blowup, another hundred people summited on a single bluebird day, without a single death or serious injury.
But that doesn’t mean Everest is being run rationally. There are no prerequisites for how much experience would-be climbers must have and no rules to say who can be an outfitter. Many of the best alpinists in the world still show up in Base Camp every spring. But, increasingly, so do untrained, unfit people who’ve decided to try their hand at climbing and believe that Everest is the most exciting place to start. And while some of the more established outfitters might turn them away, novices are actively courted by cut-rate start-up companies that aren’t about to refuse the cash.
It’s a recipe that doesn’t require a storm to kill people. In this regard, things are much different now than in the past: they’re worse.
IT WAS BRIGHT, CLEAR, and hot when I hiked out of the tiny high-altitude outpost of Gorak Shep on April 18. I got my first distant look at the speckled tents of Everest Base Camp, which sits at 17,600 feet, from the lateral moraine of the Khumbu Glacier, just above the village.
Having worked at Outside for a decade, I’d placed the famous tent city on countless maps, right at the elbow where the Khumbu Icefall meets the valley floor and sweeps 90 degrees left. As I could see now, that bend is really where the camp begins. Roughly 1,000 tents, housing more than 900 climbers, stretch more than a mile and take almost an hour to traverse. Since 1996, the camp has roughly tripled in size.
The place was especially busy this year. In addition to the Eddie Bauer team, there was also a big squad from the North Face and National Geographic whose climbers, including Conrad Anker, Cory Richards, Hilaree O’Neill, and others, were planning to split up and try both the West Ridge and the classic Southeast Ridge routes. (Eddie Bauer and the North Face were there in honor of next year’s 50th anniversary of the first American ascent of Everest, which saw successful climbs on both routes in 1963.) Additionally, Swiss alpinist Ueli Steck was planning to summit solo without oxygen, Seattle climber Chad Kellogg was hoping to break the speed record without oxygen, and Briton Kenton Cool hoped to carry Arthur Wakefield’s 1924 Olympic gold medal for alpinism to the summit.
There were great expectations for this season, but as I arrived things were already going badly. The previous day, Karsang Nagel, a 40-year-old Sherpa working for a local start-up outfitter called Prestige Adventure, had suddenly died in camp—of mysterious causes. The following day, April 21, a Sherpa working for British Columbia-based Peak Freak Expeditions, 30-year-old Namgya Tshering, fell to his death after he neglected to clip a safety line while crossing a ladder over a crevasse.
Normally, during April, each team’s Sherpas spend their time carrying loads of equipment and provisions through the Khumbu Icefall, the precarious tumble of frozen blocks between Base Camp and 19,800-foot Camp I. Meanwhile, the guides and clients begin conditioning their bodies by spending short amounts of time sleeping at successively higher camps and returning to Base Camp to rest. The Icefall is always dangerous, but this year many climbers were especially worried because the route, set by a group of Sherpas known as the Icefall Doctors, needed to pass directly beneath a horseshoe-shaped hanging glacier that was prone to calving at all hours of the day.
By May 1, a team of mostly Sherpa volunteers from several of the stronger teams—including Alpine Ascents, Ashford, Washington-based International Mountain Guides, and Russell Brice’s Chamonix-based Himalayan Experience, or Himex—had established a roped route up to Camp III, at 23,500 feet. Since modern Everest guiding began on the south side in the early '90s, when Nepal started issuing permits to as many teams as could afford them, all the climbers on the mountain have generally cooperated, using the same route. This year a bad snowpack and dry weather were making cooperation difficult.
The mountain was down to bare cobbles, and many of them were melting out and raining down on the climbers. On May 1, 31-year-old Lhakpa Nuru Sherpa, who was working for Lakebay, Washington-based Summit Climb, was struck in the face by a rock and nearly killed. The next day, the various expedition leaders and sirdars (an expedition’s head Sherpa) held an impromptu meeting to discuss the dangerous rockfall.
The gathering was hosted by Benegas Brothers Expeditions, the camp run by Argentine twins Willie and Damian Benegas, two experienced alpinists. On that snowy afternoon, the procession walking down the trail included many of the greats associated with Himalayan climbing and guiding: Russell Brice, Ralf Dujmovits, Dave Hahn, Simone Moro, and David Breashears, among others.
Citing continued rockfall, Brice, 60, said that if conditions didn’t improve, Himex would pull out. Until a 2008 dustup with the Chinese government, Brice had operated only on the north side of Everest, where he gained notoriety for outfitting Discovery’s reality show Everest: Beyond the Limit. It was during the show’s 2006 filming that British climber David Sharp, another Asian Trekking client, was passed by 40 other climbers, including Discovery’s cameramen, as he lay dying. Since 2009, Brice has maintained one of the largest Base Camp operations on the south side.
Still, as other expedition leaders point out, Brice has been on the south side for only a few years. “He’s prone to being dramatic,” one veteran who was at the meeting told me later. The remaining guides, on the advice of Damian Benegas, decided to move the route between Camp II and Camp III into the shelter of some crevasses to the south, to help absorb the rockfall.
On May 5, Brice decided to pull the plug after one of his Sherpas, Dawa Tenzing, died of a stroke. “We can no longer take the responsibility of sending you, the guides, and the Sherpas through the dangerous icefall and up the rockfall-ridden Lhotse Face,” he told his staff.
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.
“The climbers said the storm came out of nowhere,” says Fagin. “But if there had been numerical forecasting models then, I don’t think they would have gone up, because there was a really obvious strong storm coming in.”
That’s the upside of better forecasting. The downside comes when the masses react to the info and clog the route. This year there were hundreds of permitted climbers and only two clear summit windows on the south side. Though Fagin sold his information to just seven expeditions, there’s so much blogging in Base Camp now that the windows are practically announced via carnival barker.
Word also travels on the Sherpa grapevine. Most days, our kitchen tent was visited by Sherpas from other camps, many of them relatives of our sirdar, Mingma Ongel. I spent many afternoons absorbing the best news and gossip in camp without even going outside.
When Brice pulled out, the scuttlebutt was that his Sherpas were spooked by the death of Dawa Tenzing —the husband of Mingma Ongel’s niece. With the May 11–12 opportunity lost, the fixing would need to happen just ahead of the teams. By May 14, both Fagin and Meteotest were calling for relatively calm winds from May 17 through 19. Online news reports, including one that I wrote from Base Camp, estimated that some 200 people might try to summit on the 19th. Madison and the Alpine Ascents Sherpas decided it would be safer to brave the worsening weather on the 20th than to fight the crowds.
Burleson recalls talking to Fagin from Alaska just before the largest group went up. “I said, ‘Do you know how much power you have? When you tell them to go, 200 people are going to risk their lives.’ If he had been off by one day and they had climbed on our summit day—May 20—there would have been 20 deaths. We would have been walking over them left and right. Someday that’s going to happen.”
THE FIRST BODY MADISON'S group encountered, around 11 p.m. on May 19, was that of Shriya Shah, who’d been outfitted by Utmost Adventure Trekking. Shah’s red-and-white down suit was blanketed by a Canadian flag. She was lying at 27,000 feet, near the top of the Triangular Face, which sits 500 feet from the Southeast Ridge and a promontory called the Balcony.
Shah, like the rest of the clients who died that day, had opted to forgo a Western guide in favor of what some outfitters call a Sherpa-guided trip and others, including Burleson, call non-guided. Routinely, I heard the problem reduced to a scourge of local budget outfitters, though Nepali operators aren’t the only ones who offer cheap trips. Nor are they the only ones who have problems.
It’s hard to say which outfitters are truly dangerous and which were just unlucky. There are roughly a dozen companies that fall into the category of Kathmandu-based budget outfitters, including Thamserku Trekking, Asian Trekking, Prestige Adventure, Monterosa Treks and Expedition, Mountain Experience, and Utmost. In 2012, Thamserku was the only one of these to avoid having a client or Sherpa die. Himex and Peak Freak—which aren’t budget operations— lost Sherpas as well.
As some of the company names suggest, several began as trekking outfits. But in the first decade of this century, as they saw American outfitters having success using Sherpas as guides—a cost-saving measure, since Sherpas don’t have to buy permits to climb or guide—they wanted a piece of the action. Rather than simply provide logistics for professional Everest expeditions, as Asian Trekking has been doing since 1982, they began selling guided trips. Of the hundreds of Sherpas on Everest, a handful really are qualified to guide, while others are just strong climbers. But potential clients can rarely tell who’s who.
According to Burleson, if Westerners are even aware that Sherpa refers to an ethnic group and not just a job title, they tend to believe that one is as good as another. “We treat the word Sherpa like it’s one individual,” he says.
The Sherpas know this and resent it. “For me, it’s enraging when we are all painted with the same brush,” says Dawa Steven Sherpa, 28, who runs Asian Trekking, the company that had been hired by Schaaf. “The problem right now is that anyone can set up a company on a laptop. And if they get clients, they can borrow their cousin’s tent, find a cook, and grab a ragtag bunch of guys and set up an expedition. It’s so dangerous.”
On May 19 and 20, Madison witnessed the results of this broken system. The Alpine Ascents group next came upon several Sherpas from Mountain Experience lowering a Chinese woman, Li Xiadoan, 40, who couldn’t stand up. “They said they had it under control,” recalls Madison. “They were taking her back to camp, though it didn’t seem like she could walk under her own power.”
Ultimately, the woman survived thanks to the efforts of the Sherpas and a daring helicopter rescue on the 20th, at a record 21,680 feet. But another Chinese climber, Ha Wenyi, did not. When Madison saw Ha shambling downhill, he was concerned enough to check his oxygen bottle. “He was by himself,” says Madison. “He took a break, drank some tea. He seemed to be doing OK. He was moving just fine toward the South Col, but unfortunately he didn’t make it a whole lot farther.” Ha was later discovered near Shah, his head pointing downhill, suggesting that he’d fallen or collapsed suddenly.
Just below the Balcony, the team encountered Song Won-bin, who had been climbing with the Chungnam High School Alumni expedition. Madison says Song was “unconscious but moving somewhat. We tried to rouse him, to wake him, but got no response. Nothing. He had no oxygen mask, no backpack, nothing.” A number of later reports, though somewhat sketchy, more or less agree that Song had become disoriented and combative before a teammate and one or more Sherpas he was climbing with left him.
“If we had known he was in distress, we could have tried to bring up an extra oxygen mask,” says Madison. “But I don’t know if he threw his pack and oxygen mask away or if he even had them at all that day or they’d fallen off. At that point, I thought he was pretty close to death.”
Madison tried several radio frequencies to report what he was seeing but got no response. The Alpine Ascents party continued past Song into the gale and up the ridge toward their meeting with Schaaf. The last of the previous day’s climbers—anonymous and silent behind their oxygen masks and goggles—had descended past them.
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.
When I met with Utmost’s Kandel, in Base Camp on May 21, two of Shah’s three Sherpas, Dawa Dendi, 31, and Temba Sherpa, 31, were just returning to camp. They’d all set out for the summit at 8:30 p.m. on May 18, and almost immediately Shah began to lag. They climbed through the night and into the next afternoon. At roughly 2 p.m. on May 19, two other climbers, a Sherpa guide named Dendi, and his 16-year-old daughter, Nima, descended past Shah, still climbing, near the South Summit. They urged her to turn back, as did her Sherpas, Temba and Dawa Dendi. Shah, who was fluent in Nepali, had stopped speaking but gestured that she had no intention of turning around. An Utmost Sherpa named Onchhu told me, that, earlier, Temba and Dawa Dendi had tried to stop her and she’d said, “No, I have to go. I have to go.”
Shah made the top sometime after 2:30 p.m. In her summit photos, she’s wearing a Poisk oxygen mask, a Soviet model that few people still use. By 9:30, she and the Sherpas had descended to the Balcony, where she ran out of oxygen and deteriorated quickly. Temba and Dawa Dendi say they attempted to lower her but gave up after she lost consciousness.
Klorfine recognizes his wife’s “stubbornness and determination” but still has questions. “She really wasn’t listening to people who were trying to get her to come back,” he says. “The problem I have is, I’m not hearing the extent of the effort to get her to come back. And, more importantly, who’s supposed to be in charge of that?”
Todd Burleson was less reserved in his criticism. “You think that was guiding? These are logistical trips where they’re taking people with no prerequisites, as long as they can write a check. It’s like joining a cruise.”
AROUND 4:30 A.M. ON the 20th, Madison and his team filed off the South Summit and moved across the fixed line toward the Hillary Step, their last major obstacle. Jim Matter, a doctor from Minnesota, was suffering from numb fingers and could barely operate his mechanical ascender device. Lakpa Rita and Madison decided it would be best if Matter and his Sherpas went down, which they did.
Just after six, the rest of the Alpine Ascents group summited, lingering for a few minutes to snap photos. Neither Lakpa Rita nor any of the veteran Sherpas had ever summited in such harsh conditions, so they moved quickly to get down. When they passed Song, he was likely still alive but had stopped moving. By 10:30 a.m., the entire team was back at the South Col, where a massive, mountain-wide head count was already under way.
In Base Camp, the Benegas brothers were running from camp to camp, trying to figure out which teams might be missing a climber. At one point, Damian noticed that I was carrying two radios, a giveaway that I was scanning the traffic for news leads, and asked me to hold off on writing anything, which I readily agreed to do. It’s a generally accepted rule that you don’t report on deaths until family members have been notified—even though, with so many clients, guides, and Sherpas taking advantage of cell service, it’s rare now that news doesn’t hit Facebook or blogs within minutes of any event.
When it finally emerged that the four dead on the south side and the two dead on the north side had all been climbing with Nepal-based guides or trekking operators, neither Burleson nor Simonson nor Brice, the three most established Western outfitters, were surprised. Madison flatly told me that every person who died that day was part of a “substandard” team.
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.”
The problem comes when you try to describe each trip to prospective clients. Depending on the outfitter, terms like guided, non-guided, Sherpa-guided, hybrid, and logistics-only can mean different levels of service from people with wildly divergent levels of skill.
Dawa Steven thinks it’s time for the government of Nepal to step in and regulate Everest, but Simonson and Burleson are both wary of more oversight from bureaucrats in a country that’s on the verge of becoming a failed state. With millions pouring into the local economy annually from Everest climbers, it’s unlikely that the government will do anything to change the status quo.
ON MAY 26, THE second summit window of the season materialized, exactly as Fagin and Meteotest predicted. The Eddie Bauer team I was living with, having given up on the West Ridge, was striking camp, distributing porter loads, and preparing to walk the 35 miles back to the airstrip in Lukla. Their sister expedition, another Eddie Bauer-sponsored affair, made up of Leif Whittaker, Rainier Mountaineering guides Dave Hahn and Melissa Arnot, and cameraman Kent Harvey—had just summited in near windless conditions. Conrad Anker, whose North Face team had also abandoned its West Ridge attempt, had joined them on the summit, climbing without supplemental oxygen.
Then an odd thing happened. An officer from the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee had just arrived at our camp to verify that we hadn’t left any trash on the mountain. His radio was tuned to Asian Trekking’s channel, where a disturbing scene was playing out between Dawa Steven, in Base Camp, and an Indian woman, who was a client of his, at the South Col. Her Sherpas had told her she wasn’t strong enough to go up, but she refused to descend.
“Think about other people,” we could hear him say. “You’re putting other people at risk.” She was worried about losing face, disappointing her sponsors, and quitting so close to the top. “Four people died on the mountain last week, and they were all fitter than you,” he said. “If you go up, you’re not going to come back.”
The standoff went on for more than an hour. The climber’s brother was patched through from India. With a handset still tuned in, we shouldered our packs and began walking toward the buffet table and laundered sheets awaiting us at the Yak and Yeti hotel in Kathmandu. Dawa Steven stopped cajoling and told the woman that the Sherpas would drag her down if they had to. Eventually, she relented.
An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of HimEx Sherpa Dawa Tenzing. Outside regrets the error.