Thursday, May 24, 2012

Traffic Jam on Everest

Been reading quite a bit about the sketchy situation that is taking place on Everest this season. I just contributed to a NBC Nightly News interview with Brian Williams, so I thought it time to chime in here.

Four folks died last weekend as the first short weather window appeared on the mountain and created a "mad dash" attitude amongst the hundreds of commercial operations up there. A veritable conga line of folks were strung along the Lhotse Face all jockeying for position up at the high camp. The next night, the masses took off from 26,000ft towards the 29,035ft summit. Due to the excessive lines, inability to pass, extreme altitude and cold temps, folks were forced to essentially "stand around" for upwards of 3 hours waiting their turns. The four that died are suspected to have perished from altitude related illness and exposure, surely in part to standing in place for hours at a time at over 8,000 meters.

There are several well documented variables that are playing out there this season that are cumulatively at least contributing to most of the deaths there this year (10).

Primarily you have a large demographic of folks that have a strong desire to knock off the "7 Summits", which by default includes Everest. The only problem with this is many of the folks that seek out that objective have summited a total of 6 the time they get to Everest. Many peak baggers these days fail to put in their apprenticeship prior to venturing up to the icy slopes of the Himalaya and arrive at Basecamp with minimal experience of how their bodies will react at extreme altitude and stress or even how to properly use their gear.

Now, I would never fault someone for setting a very high goal and set out to achieve it... but what is important to remind these folks is that lofty goals deserve a diligent amount of effort and work. Dozens of years in the mountains is important...understanding what altitude does to your body. Making decisions when you are ridiculously depleted. Establishing a sense of self reliance. These skills are only learned from years of working in the big hills.

Most of the Everest peak baggers are lulled into a sense of ease and complacency due to the fact that there are dozens of commercial guide outfitters that, for a lofty price tag will do everything for them except place their feet on the ground. This sets up a challenging dilemma for everyone. The Nepalese Ministry of Tourism will never turn down the huge money that Everest brings in to their impoverished nation (this year the Nepalese government reportedly issued around 340 permits at $10,000 each). The guide companies also have a hard time turning away such big $$$ (ranging from $25k up to $110k). And most frighteningly, the clients feel comfortable allowing the guides to do all the work and make all the decisions. There are plenty of stories out there about some dude or dudette with very limited experience making it to the top with just sheer conditioning and drive. What is typically not stated in these cases is how the guide provided all the critical decision making, life saving moves and logistical coordinating...which is what guide services do. I'm just not sure it's wise to coddle someone at 29,000ft.
You have the very young (13) and the very old (73) and I even heard...and I just can't believe this...a BLIND GUY summited Everest. What the hell? Must be easy.

Take all of the above issues and saddle them up with the fact that this season has been extraordinarily dry and windy on Everest. This has lead to very rocky conditions and lead to an excessive amount of rock and snow fall from the higher slopes which in turn has lead to several rock fall injuries this season as well as several abandon attempts simply due to the fact that the "route just wasn't in". My pals from the Eddie Bauer First Ascent team were attempting the very little climbed West Ridge and found the conditions to be horrific...mostly from poor snow coverage and high winds. That being said, these guys were bad ass for simply getting way up there and trying something VERY hard. Kudos to Charley, Jake, Dave and Brent.

The only humorous issue for me in this whole story is how on our summit night on Everest in 2001, all the other teams made it VERY clear they did not want to be around our team with Erik...assuming the blind guy would slow everyone down. Little did they know that Erik goes just as fast as everyone else on the type of terrain you encounter towards the top. I remember our expedition leader, PV telling the other teams..."yeah, you may want to avoid the night of the 24th. We might be really slow." That was some solid gamesmanship right there. We had summit night to ourselves. The only other humans we saw that night were these two guys that summited from the North side right around the same time we did. Otherwise that mountain was ours.

In any case, tonight another 100 or so folks are going for the top. I will send good warm and open space vibes to them as they push on.  May the stop lights remain green to the top.

Check out my contribution to the NBC Nightly News that aired on the 24th.