Annapurna, the New 8,000m Business Model

8000ers Annapurna
Line of people heading up Annapurna
The long line to the summit. Photo: Pasang Lamu Sherpa Akita

Mass-market 8,000m climbing has come to the Himalaya to stay. What are we to make of this new trend?

On April 16, Annapurna saw a record 68 summiters just two weeks after they landed at Base Camp. This, on the most dangerous of all 8,000m peaks. Everyone was elated, except the climbing community.

“This is not alpinism,” many said. The endless lines of climbers snaking to the summit killed the moment for many mountaineers. Virtually everyone was on oxygen. Three out of the few who climbed without it (three Russians and one Taiwanese), needed rescue on their way down.

In addition, the huge team depended entirely on fixed ropes. The outfitters failed to bring enough rope, so at 7,400m, everyone had to follow the Sherpa workers back to Camp 4.

A few years ago, that would have ended the summit attempt. This time, the organizers solved the problem by keeping their clients in Camp 4 overnight and tasking a helicopter to bring ropes and oxygen to their camp at nearly 7,000m.

Climber on the summit of Annapurna

Uta Ibrahini of Kosovo on the summit of Annapurna. Photo: Uta Ibrahini

Indeed, this is not the alpinism we grew up with. “If only Lachenal [the first Annapurna summiter, in 1950] was here to see!” complained Marc Batard, also on the mountain but not part of the massive summit bid.

Louis Lachenal was a model alpinist from the age of the “mountain conquerors”. He gave everything to reach the untouched summit of Annapurna, including his fingers and toes. He accepted that this was a true adventure and that sometimes the cost is high. By comparison, the 2021 motive was not a quest to write Himalayan history, but a carefully planned business venture where adventure is exactly what they try to avoid.

Mass 8,000m climbing

Winter K2 tested a new model that had already matured just two months later on Annapurna. Elements of the strategy had been in use for some time, but not this methodically. The idea is to get the most climbers to the top as quickly as possible, enlisting all available resources. Seven Summit Treks (SST) was the biggest outfitter and the leader of both expeditions, although seven companies had a presence in Annapurna Base Camp. SST’s polished business model involves a considerable risk but a good possibility of many more summits than its rivals previously dreamed of. This mass approach generates huge profits.

SST knows what their consumers want: attractive goals to sell to sponsors and fans, a solution to technical difficulties, enhanced safety, and maximal summit possibilities. All that, at the lowest possible price.

To achieve this, one can’t be picky about the methods. The strategy doesn’t take a miracle, just hard work, a huge Sherpa staff, kilometres of rope, and enough oxygen to colonize Mars.

None of this is illegal, and those wishing to keep faithful to the alpine-style school may choose a different operation, or none at all, to support their logistics.

Line of climbers heading up

The multicolored line to the summit. Photo: Waldemar Kowalewski

Winter K2 threw more shadow than light on SST’s business model, but with Annapurna, they hit the jackpot.

To begin with, they sold many climbers as a double-header, paired with Dhaulagiri. This was very attractive for 14×8,000m wannabes, and the promised speed appealed to those who wanted to climb an 8,000m mountain without investing three months in the project.

To save time, they flew clients from Pokhara, using their own helicopter company. Rather than an extra expense, the brief flight cut days of guiding and porter costs, and servicing climbers during the trek. Annapurna Base Camp is relatively low compared to other 8,000m BCs, which helped the mostly unacclimatized clients.

All outfitters agreed in advance to share the resources (material and human) needed for rope-fixing, to minimize costs. After all, everybody was going to follow the same line of ropes: No one planned an independent ascent via some other route.

A sunny day on Annapurna

Gorgeous weather on Annapurna. Photo: Lakpa Dendi Sherpa

A risky business

Even with all these resources, the weather always dictates the pace. On this extraordinarily dry year, progress was so fast that there was no time for the Sherpa rope-fixers to climb a day or two ahead of the clients. Everyone ended up together on a massive summit push without knowing what the final sections were like. Luckily, both weather and conditions were good enough.

On the other hand, the outfitters minimized risk by fixing every steep or scary spot where climbers might hesitate. This way, everyone could hurry up the exposed parts, as Mingma Dorchi of Pioneer Adventures explained to ExplorersWeb. That was one reason why they ran out of rope. However, they simply solved that problem with a swift helicopter drop. Air support has become key on today’s commercial expeditions.

Most of all, success deleted all possible objections from the clients: the long days at altitude, the unstable weather, the lack of leadership on the mountain, and the real peril that the climbers faced at times: Annapurna’s death rate is 32 percent. But no one died this time, so smiley Instagram shots from the summit and parties in Pokhara will dominate their memories.

A post-summit party back in town.

After-summit party in Pokhara. Photo: Maya Sherpa

A few climbers on the mountain assessed the situation differently. They criticized the strategy as dangerous and environmentally harmful. However, since they were the ones who didn’t summit, their bitter comments bore less objective weight.

The sheer amount of oxygen available astonished Yorick Vion, for example: “Most of them [climbers] only do one acclimatization rotation to 5,500m, and then they open the valves,” he said. “Some use oxygen from 6,500m. At Camp 3, I saw a tent completely filled with cylinders. Then they all spent four days at 6,900m waiting for the window, with all the food and oxygen they needed. I would be surprised if they brought everything down.”

Lu Chung Han of Taiwan, after summiting without oxygen, had superficial frostbite on two toes. He decided that he did not want to slowly cross the dangerous section between Camp 3 and Camp 2 during the descent. So Lu asked for a helicopter lift, his home team told ExplorersWeb. After this “rescue”, he recovered in Kathmandu for a few days. He has now flown to Dhaulagiri with others who signed on for this double-header special, including many of the working Sherpas.

View of Dhaulagiri seen from Annapurna

Dhaulagiri rises above the clouds, as seen from Annapurna. Photo: Lakpa Dendi Sherpa

The delay while Sherpa teams moved from Annapurna to Dhaulagiri is likely why no one had yet fixed ropes by the time the first climbers reached Dhaulagiri Base Camp. Stefi Troguet, Jonatan Larrañaga, Carla Perez, and Topo Mena climbed to Camp 2 last week and did not see a single fixed rope. Some days later, Carlos Soria said that Sherpas working for Seven Summit Treks had fixed the route to just above Camp 2.

The SWOT analysis of the 8,000m market

Nowadays, a business tool called the SWOT diagram charts the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats of an enterprise. Clearly, the Annapurna 2021 model has several points in the Strengths section. Opportunities abound too, thanks to social media and globalization, which allow local Nepali companies to service climbers from around the world. In fact, they are especially convenient for climbers from countries without a mountaineering tradition. Many try to be the first in their country to climb some or all the 8,000’ers.

As for Weaknesses, we are all comparatively weak in the mountains. Technology or not, weather and mountain conditions can stymie us. A mountain can change abruptly and dramatically. And thus, the greatest Threat in this model: When something doesn’t go as planned, the results can be catastrophic.

With climbers at a maximum and resources at a minimum, everything must go right. The failure of one element in the chain may collapse the whole edifice.

A helicopter rescue on Annapurna

Helicopter longline rescue at Annapurna. Photo: Waldemar Kowalewski

On Annapurna, avalanches often fell while the climbers were there. Luckily, no one was injured. But no one could guarantee that those heading to Camp 3 would not perish along the way.

Temperatures were colder than expected during the summit push, and snow fell intermittently the day before. Still, the helicopter had been able to fly in ropes and especially oxygen, which was running short, to Camp 4. If the weather had grounded the helicopter, climbers could easily panic.

Finally, a more subtle threat lingers at the edge of this model: too much success. All goes so well that more and more climbers flock to the high mountains, which get more and more crowded until the challenge becomes almost banal. Sponsors look other way, audiences get bored or angry at the pitiful show of climbers queuing, questions arise about the environmental damage and the conditions of people working for low-cost companies. Meanwhile, other companies try to horn in on the action, creating market saturation.

Where is this going?

In many ways, the future of commercial, or rather, industrial Himalayism is not very bright. But who can say it’s wrong? Local entrepreneurs just offer a product based on the natural riches of their country. As long as they are clear about what they are offering (which is open for debate), they are simply running a business.

For them, the limitless use of personnel, helicopters, and oxygen is not a problem, just a sign of the times. Free from the influence of the classical values of mountaineering, they embrace progress, technology, and business success. They might also argue that the old European Alps are not exactly pure either, with ropes and ladders and mountain huts and ski resorts everywhere. It’s their turn, now.

Like it or not, the model works, and there is no reason to think that it will change soon. Fatalities may force changes or improvements along the way. Perhaps eventually, clients themselves may decide they want something different and be willing to pay for it.

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About the Author

Angela Benavides

Angela Benavides

Senior journalist, published author and communication consultant. Specialized on high-altitude mountaineering, with an interest for everything around the mountains: from economics to geopolitics. After five years exploring distant professional ranges, I returned to ExWeb BC in 2018. Feeling right at home since then!

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CBW
CBW
3 months ago

Ummm…haven’t you heard of Everest, where these techniques have been evolving since the 1950s? In 1953 the Brits brought 50% more climbers and experienced Sherpas than the Swiss in 52, building the infrastructure they needed for Tenzing Norgay to guide Ed Hillary to the summit.

+4
Climber
Climber
3 months ago

This would be a good chance to climb dhaulagiri without rope fixing lines for those climbers who arrived earlier this season! Oh, wait they pay for the ropes right, so they supposed to wait or they have the opportunity to go?

0
Fran
Fran
3 months ago
Reply to  Climber

The climbers that have been on Dhaulagiri for some time now (like Topo Mena and Carla Perez and the other team (Slovenian)) don’t rely on fixed ropes. I think they are trying to make the most out of the situation before the big commercial groups arrive…

+1
With_or_Without_02
With_or_Without_02
3 months ago
Reply to  Fran

In 2019, Carla and Adrian Ballinger waited until Nims team broke the trail on K2 and used the ropes fixed by Nims team on the way to the summit. Without Nims and his team, they would not have summitted K2 that season. I don’t follow Carla on social media but I do follow Adrian, and he never credited Nims team explicitly for their success. He made it sound as if they climbed the mountain without any support. So it does not surprise me if the “independent climbers” on Dhaulagiri are waiting for the Sherpas to fix the rope and like… Read more »

Fran
Fran
3 months ago

Regarding Adrian Ballinger you definitely have a point. I also noticed two years ago that Alpenglow doesn’t bother to mention the names of the Sherpas they are working with in the first place which I think is not ok. But still, I think it’s not right to judge other persons because of the behavior some show… Carla Pérez and Topo Mena were originally on a different route (NW ridge) but abandoned their plans because Cory Richards left their team and they didn’t consider a team of 2 safe enough for their plans. Also, they don’t stay in the normal Base… Read more »

dude
dude
3 months ago

He is a mountain guide with a brand behind him. So there might be commercial reasons as to why he does not specifically mentioned that he used 3rd party service to get to the top.

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With_or_Without_02
With_or_Without_02
3 months ago

Dawa Yangzum also appears to have climbed Annapurna without 02. Source: Her Instagram.

+2
KPacs
KPacs
3 months ago

All valid points, including the one about European Alps. It’s amazing how everyone is concerned about the environment when finally the Sherpas, who have been poorly treated and compensated for decades, found a lucrative way to make $ on their own land.
The Sherpas only respond to the existing demand. Once the paying “climbers” realize it’s actually them negatively affecting the mountain, things will start to balance themselves. But I don’t think this will happen anytime soon. As the article says it, “commercial mountaineering” is here to stay…

+1
With_or_Without_02
With_or_Without_02
3 months ago
Reply to  KPacs

I agree commercial climbing is here to stay. On average, there have been about 10000 climbers on Mt. Rainier every year. I don’t hear people making a big deal about the number of climbers on Mt. Rainier. With each passing year (and the increasing number of successful summits), the companies are changing the perception of the risk of climbing 8000m among the general population. So I would expect more and more people with time and money preferring to attempt one of 8000m instead of climbing Mt Rainier or Mt Blanc. As long as the companies do something to avoid the… Read more »

Max Madera
Max Madera
3 months ago

And there are also other seasons and other routes in the 8000m. It is just that quite a few true-pure-climbers need to summit at the same day and hour (or an hour later) and using the same route than the commercial expeditions. Poor luck!

+1
ncropegun
ncropegun
3 months ago

There are plenty of mountains and routes far from the crowd. If you are not climbing for applause from the mob you will be fine.

+1
damiengildea
Editor
3 months ago

Good article Angela, with some nice balance and perspective. So – were all those bottles and ropes brought down? As for people saying that there are plenty other mountains to climb, yes, that is true, and I have often gone to them rather than the 8000ers – but I have also found that it is increasingly hard to organise such trips as everyone has become focused on 8000m commercial trips – the agents, porters, transport and the media. There is little or no profit for agents in small, lightweight expeditions to remote peaks so they are not interested in supporting… Read more »

With_or_Without_02
With_or_Without_02
3 months ago
Reply to  damiengildea

The comment above reveals the hypocrisy of self proclaimed guardians of the climbing community (“pure” climbers). There is no such thing as “unassisted” climbing. Everyone uses some form of support at some point. Those who claim to be “purist” created a set of rule that allows them to appear holier than thou. Why is it ok to ridicule climbers who use support above EBC when everyone (including the purist) appears to employ porters to carry their stuff from Luka to EBC.

+2
Max Madera
Max Madera
3 months ago

And they even use planes and cars sometimes. How dare they? You know, in some mountains you actually are forced to pay for staff in BC. Tourists might find it convenient to declare that purism is naked-solo and all the rest is about the same. That doesn’t change the fact that there are those, like the Slovak-Romanian team in Dhaulagiri, trying the NW ridge without masks, while there are others, waiting for the sherpa corps to put kms of rope from BC to summit to follow the guided journey. Neither are in Alpine style. But those who have climbed something… Read more »

daniela
Daniela Teixeira
3 months ago
Reply to  damiengildea

In the beginning of times, it was all called mountaineering. Over time, the various types of mountaineering emerged according to its specifications. Today we have ice-climbing, rock climbing, boulder, alpine style climbing, Himalayan climbing, etc. So, to distinguish this type of frequent going up the mountains with jumar, why not accept another type of mountaineering called “Jumaring”? Couldn’t it be an option/solution? The comment made to you about “support” to the ascent, referring to get all the equipment needed from somewhere to base camp to, assuming base camps are located at the base or near the base of a mountain,… Read more »

Anthony Martin
Anthony Martin
3 months ago

Points well taken; the quality of any journey is paramount. Human nature, being what it is,; collecting points as “Conquistadores of the Useless” allows one to ‘spray’ and to become a member of an ‘exclusive’ club. The game changes; first seven summits, then add the poles, then add 8000 meters and then add….? To experience “the freedom of the hills”, the creative ones will go where the crowds aren’t.

0
Jayant
Jayant
3 months ago

Better to say corporate expedition. The climbers are not Mountaineers. This is not sport of mountaineering. All are going far away from the sports.

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Kelly
Kelly
3 months ago

Very balanced article. 👍

+1
dude
dude
3 months ago

Isn’t Annapurna a bit too deadly to be a tourist spot

+1
Ben_A_gain
Ben_A_gain
3 months ago

I hope there will soon be a restaurant on top serving beers and chips.

0
Luís
Luís
3 months ago

This is about going up and coming down. Alive. Anyway, when you call the heli because you are afraid to descend…well, that’s a circus! That is not climbing mountains, it is a joke!

+1
Haroon Jatala
Haroon Jatala
3 months ago

Very detailed writing and very good effort.👍 But I think Sirbaz and Joshi from Pakistan climbed without oxygen .. Correct me if I am wrong

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Marcelo
Marcelo
3 months ago

Excelente Angela!!!

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Ronald
Ronald
2 months ago

Well it seems indeed this is going to stay. I also believe this is a big accident waiting to happen. On some 8000s all willl be fine. However on mountains such as annapurna , sooner or later 60 people (just saying a random number) will be swept of the mountain by means of an avalanche. I understand the commercialisation of the mountains but some should be left for the professionals.

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Marzi
Marzi
2 months ago

Since when Annapurna’s been considered as the most dangerous 8000 peak? This is not a reliable information, for K2 is said to be the one.

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