A Guide’s Perspective on Everest

Everest was front-page material again this year, which tends to happen only when disaster strikes, a high number of people die or attention-grabbing photos go viral on social media. Without meaning to sound too callous, really only one of these three things happened this year: photos depicting long lines of people waiting to claw their way past other climbers and dead bodies, to proudly claim, “I have conquered Mount Everest.”

As an Everest guide, I’ve learned that you always have take media reports with a grain of salt. For example, it is true that foreign climbers received more permits this year, but not by an overwhelming amount. Lines of climbers did obstruct some parts of the route for a couple of days, but the neverending conga line of wannabes along the entire summit route simply never happened.

Eleven climbers did lose their lives on Everest this season, but comparing the number of climbers to the number of fatalities, the percentage was only slightly higher than normal. And thankfully, there was no disaster on the mountain — no earthquake, no Icefall collapse, no killer storm.

What did occur could be interpreted in several ways, depending on the narrative you want to promote. I could say that there are too many inexperienced climbers, too much traffic and dead bodies lying all over the place. This seems to be the impression shared by most of the public, including my sweet 70-year-old neighbor in Boulder. Or I could do a pr job and say that it is still a pristine Himalayan wilderness with only top-notch guides and well-prepared clientele. The truth lies somewhere in between.

Busy summit on May 23. Photo: Tashi Sherpa/Mountain Professionals


Why the lineups?

The weather on Everest was strange this year, because of the cyclone that parked itself off the subcontinent and severely disrupted the normal jet-stream progression. An early window allowed enough time for rope fixing to the summit and for a few groups to complete their climb early. Then it slammed shut for over a week.

This created a backlog, in which everyone was waiting for a good summit day after May 20. Finally, we received a promising two- to three-day forecast from May 22 to May 24. But the weather gurus couldn’t promise that the season wouldn’t shut for good after that, so everyone — including those who normally try to summit earlier — penciled either May 22 or 23 as their go-to day.

So everyone headed up at the same time. This created a jam at the two-ladder section of the Khumbu Icefall on the way to Camp 2 and also on the ridge around the South Summit.

A second factor added to the slowdowns. Certain operators are accepting quite a few more inexperienced clients. These novices creep through areas that should be no problem for a seasoned climber. Normally, this has not been an issue, since veteran teams simply plan their movement days around those questionable groups.

Skills review in Base Camp. Photo: Ryan Waters/Mountain Professionals


What about those inexperienced climbers?

There are essentially two ways to guide Everest. The first is to have strong, skilled clients that have been appropriately vetted before being accepted on the trip. We then pair those climbers with a highly skilled guiding and climbing Sherpa, with a high ratio of staff to clients. These groups generally don’t create slow spots or drama. Not to say that they can’t have problems: Anyone can suffer a bad day, and mountains are dangerous, dynamic environments. But in general, things tend to work out. In this style of leadership, teams will send down someone who should probably not try to go further.

The other way to guide Everest, which is becoming more common, is to charge much less for a trip and attract a large number of clients of mixed abilities, then pair them with staff on a one-to-one basis. The staff themselves may not have much experience: Just because someone has “Sherpa” as their last name doesn’t mean they’re experts.

The marginally qualified clients may have no problem being short roped to Camp 1 by a single climbing Sherpa who is responsible for them the entire way. But this can lead to problems higher up. Here is a quick list of red flags: If you are not sure how to put on crampons, a harness or have basic skills when you arrive in Base Camp, red flag. If you require short-roping to reach Camp 1, red flag. If your “guide” has to hit your backpack with his trekking pole and yell, “Hurry up, can’t you see all the people waiting behind you,” red flag.

These are actual Everest situations. They are both the client’s fault for not being ready, and the leader’s fault for not sending them home for the safety of everyone else.

Are there dead bodies strewn all along the route?

This is a major exaggeration. In the past, I blamed this on the media, but individual climbers posting hair-raising messages on Facebook and Instagram are now more responsible. It’s true that if you climbed Everest this year, you may have seen three people who recently lost their lives. You might have even had to clip past a body on the fixed rope. These unfortunate victims will or should be brought down by their outfitter, but this takes time to organize.

Summit morning, May 23. Photo: Ryan Waters/Mountain Professionals


The vast majority of Everest climbers this season had a positive experience. They may have had to wait for another group to climb up a section of fixed rope, but they were free to pass a slow party at any time. And they had a chance to witness sunrise over the Himalaya, bond as a team and accomplish something that they will never forget.

Everest tourism does face challenges. Is government regulation the answer? I don’t know. Perhaps Nepal can consult with officials who have dealt with similar issues in other parts of the world. On Mont Blanc, for example, people do sometimes lose their lives, wait in lines or complain that there should be more restrictions.

Admittedly, I have a dog in this fight — it’s my business — but Everest can still be amazing. Just stack the odds of good memories in your favor by working with qualified operators, guides and Sherpa staff.