Can Independent Climbers Coexist With Outfitters on 8,000m Peaks?

8000ers
Photos: Left, Mingma Dorchi Sherpa. Right, Jontan Garcia

Is it possible for commercial and independent teams to coexist peacefully on the normal 8,000m routes?

In two weeks, the autumn expeditions in the Himalaya will begin on Dhaulagiri and Manaslu. Agencies are getting ready, offering VVIP services to their clients. Mass transfer by helicopter of mountaineers to base camps, full service, one Sherpa per climber, an army of rope fixers, porters carrying loads, hotels, luxury tents, 12 bottles of O2 per client, two sets of oxygen regulators, pampering in base camps and even high camps, tea, espresso…

All the client has to bring is fitness, a camera, and about $130,000. Then the “adventure” on the normal routes begins.

Stacked like ordnance, O2 bottles are ready for the helicopter shuttle to base camp and beyond. Photo: Tashi Sherpa

Independent teams will also show up. Currently, we are waiting for confirmation about who is going to the various 8,000m peaks. As usual, most will stick to the normal routes, but a few will try different ones. (We’ll do our roundup after Angela Benavides returns from vacation in about a week.)

For now, let’s consider the normal routes. In recent seasons, we’ve seen numerous conflicts, big and small, between commercial and traditionally independent teams on the same routes.

The swarm on the move. Photo: Mingma Dorchi Sherpa

Who is independent?

What exactly is an independent climber? If a team follows a well-broken trail and uses the fixed ropes of the commercial teams, are they really independent? Even if they don’t use oxygen, probably not.

But what if they decline to use all the advantages of a prepared route? Maybe they even arrive before anyone else. Can they avoid having to comply with the rules set by the commercial outfitters? Paying the outfitters a fee to be on that same route, for example?

Those who do not identify themselves as clients but go on the same routes as everyone else tend to think that they are different from commercial clients. But that’s a hard case to make. Some climbers claim to be independent but they use the fixed ropes. Others use the broken trail or have their own Sherpas. Even if they eschew all those things, they often still have to pay, because the commercial groups monopolize the mountain.

On Dhaulagiri: Stefi Troguet, Jonatan García, Carla Perez, and Esteban Mena. Photo: Jonatan Garcia

Conflicts on Dhaulagiri

Last spring, Spanish mountaineer Jonatan Garcia was on Dhaulagiri (8,167m). Remember how complicated everything became? COVID infected many people in Base Camp. Garcia returned home with a very bad taste in his mouth, not just because the pandemic had been rampant in Base Camp.

Garcia wanted to climb without Sherpas and without oxygen. When he and teammate Stefi Troguet of Andorra reached Dhaulagiri, they joined Carla Perez, Esteban Mena, and their photographer, Tommy Joyce.

They were the only five mountaineers with a plan to climb without supplementary O2 and Sherpas. They paid only for Base Camp service. The problem came when the clients and their outfitter arrived at the BC. Garcia described the situation in an interview that he later gave to Planet Mountain.

“I wanted to go up to C1 to get my things. But the head Sherpa of that company told us that we had to pay to leave BC…although we weren’t going to touch any rope. The Sherpas do not see the mountain, nor the customers. They only see the money. If you come to the BC paying only for the BC service, and an outfitter then comes to the mountain, exploits it, markets it, you are no longer welcome there. They told us: You five people who are without Sherpas have to pay $1,500 to set one foot out of BC.”

This won’t stop here

Garcia immediately decided that this atmosphere was not for him. “This trend won’t stop here,” he said. “It will continue until one day something happens.”

He also pointed out how on Annapurna, “a helicopter transported rope, food, gas, and oxygen to a high camp for the clients, and 67 people made it to the summit on the same day. There were also some climbers who were transported from C4 to BC by helicopter.”

Garcia returned home, lesson learned: In the future, he wanted no part of normal routes on the 8,000’ers.

Jonatan Garcia. Photo: Jonatan Garcia

Austrian David Goettler tried to climb Everest again this year, with famous Catalan trail runner and alpinist Kilian Jornet. Goettler’s last attempt was in 2019 when he had to turn around 100m from the top because of the large number of oxygen-sipping clients in a queue.

This year, he and Jornet reached the South Col by the normal route, without O2. Here, they finally decided to descend because they did not feel well enough.

David Goettler, who lives in Cantabria, Spain, gave an interview after the expedition with the newspaper El País:

I accept the Everest circus

“Of course, I am horrified by the queues [on] Everest, but I also do not understand queuing in the car in the heat of summer to go to the beach, something I have seen here for years. What I mean is that I do not feel entitled to tell anyone what to do or not…

“When I go to Mont Blanc, Matterhorn, Aneto, or Everest, I know there are going to be a lot of people. I assume it and do not raise hell. Behind the mountains, there is a business, and as a guide, I benefit from it. People want to consume mountains and they go unprepared.

“I accept the Everest circus. I am part of it. And only mountain culture education can resolve this, but unfortunately, I do not think we will succeed.”

David Goettler and Kilian Jornet on Everest. Photo: David Goettler

The 2013 riot

In 2013, Simone Moro, Ueli Steck, and Jon Griffith had a serious incident with Sherpas on Mount Everest en route to Camp 3. The three were climbing apart from the commercial groups. Moro said in an interview with National Geographic at the time:

“We knew there was a rope team fixing on the Lhotse Face…I know that on the day the ropes are fixed, nobody should hang on the fixed ropes. This does not mean that nobody is allowed to climb the mountain. Everest is not just for clients and guides. Everest is for all who pay the permit.”

Moro, Steck, and Griffith had no intention of disturbing the Sherpas or hanging on the fixed ropes. They were climbing alpine style, without a rope and parallel to the Sherpa team, 100m away.

After a while, they realized that their tent was on the other side of the fixed rope of the Nepalis, so they had to pass horizontally across it. This led to a tremendous blow-up later in C2. An angry group of Sherpas attacked them and threatened to kill them. Steck hid in his tent in fear, while Moro tried to appease the furious Nepalis.

Moro was kicked and hit. Such a horrible experience made them abort the expedition. Ueli Steck was traumatized. At the time, he vowed never to return to the Himalaya.

The 2013 incident. Screen capture of a video made by other climbers.

Despite this tension, Moro does not criticize the commercial style. Earlier this year, in an interview with Desnivel, he praised the first winter ascent of K2 by the 10 Nepalis.

“You can always evolve and there is always a place for better style and ethics,” he said. “The mountain must continue to be an oasis of freedom and respect for everything and everyone.”

Hard to be independent on normal 8,000m routes

Think back to the summer of 2019 on K2. Adrian Ballinger and Carla Perez summited without supplementary oxygen, supported by Gelje Pemba Sherpa, Palden Namgye Sherpa, and Esteban Mena (with O2).  Were they really independent?

It depends on how we look it at. Did they join forces with Nirmal Purja and his team by happenstance, or were they waiting for Purja to break the trail for them? Ballinger and Perez used the ropes that Purja and company had fixed from C4 (7,950m) to the Bottleneck (8,400m). This made the final part of the summit push easier for the no-O2 pair.

There were no bad vibes or tension. However, in this case, we really can’t talk about the commercial and independent teams coexisting. No team was fully independent.

Adrian Ballinger climbs the Bottleneck on K2. . Photo: Esteban Mena

As we know, this last season on Broad Peak (8,047 m) was not free from controversy.  Lotta Hintsa of Finland and her Canadian partner Don Bowie arrived at Base Camp long before the commercial groups. They fixed part of the route and climbed without O2, but could not make the final summit push.

That day, Hintsa wrote: “I get to C3, full of new climbers waiting to go up the next day. Don Bowie radios me and tells me that there is a high altitude porter [Mustapha] below C3 who needs help desperately. Because I was dehydrated, hungry, and had not slept in ages, I knew I was not the best option. I was trying to ask for help but everyone pretended they did not hear. So I packed my huge pack and started to go down. Belgian Jeff came after me and took over the rescue…I am down in BC, the masses are on their way to summit…”

Bad vibes or the thrill of solitude?

After the expedition, Hintsa reflected further about her experience: “I am pretty sure that I will not be climbing many normal routes in the future. Maybe for acclimatization, but the thrill I got climbing alone on the route for the first three weeks is something that cannot be felt on trafficked routes with ready-made infrastructure.”

Lotta Hintsa on Broad Peak Photo: Lotta Hintsa

The coexistence of commercial and independent teams on the normal 8,000m routes will continue to be difficult, as large groups spread to all the 8,000’ers. This spring’s Annapurna and Everest expeditions were highly successful, at least for the outfitters.  Even K2 in winter was successful, despite the five deaths. As high-altitude tourism becomes even more of an industry, with more infrastructure, more support, and even higher chances of success, more clients will come.

Both types of mountaineering will coexist in the long run, but likely in different places rather than on the same route. The commercial interests will dominate the normal routes up the 14 biggest peaks — how can it be otherwise? — while the parties who value their independence will continue their exploration of new lines and remote mountains.

K2 on the left, Broad Peak on the right, and Skyang Kangri (7,545m) behind. Photo: Graham Zimmerman

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About the Author

Kris Annapurna

Kris Annapurna

@KrisAnnapurna reports about outdoor activities, current expeditions, and stories related to the history of mountaineering in the Karakorum, Himalaya, Tien Shan, and other ranges.

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daniela
Daniela Teixeira
3 months ago

Is it fair that someone who wants to climb a normal route on an 8000, and doesn’t want to use the fixed ropes, has to pay to go up the mountain because someone opened a trail before? Taking in account what happened in 2013, and other situations where the outfitters “rule” on the mountains, deciding if the mountain is “open” or “closed” to all climbers, not only their clients ( absolutely ridiculous!), looks like coexistence is impossible. It’s made impossible by those outfitters. The normal routes became their private property and that is not only not fair, but a shame.… Read more »

Lenore Jones
Lenore Jones
3 months ago

I have not seen any believable stories about sabotage. In fact, the only one I’ve seen at all was about cutting lines this past winter on K2, which has been disproven. Where are you getting that?

Also, I’m not necessarily defending asking for money, but most climbers going up are at least using the beaten track, which takes a lot of labor to create, even if they’re not using the fixed lines. If you use the fixed lines, you should definitely pay or take part in the fixing.

+1
daniela
Daniela Teixeira
3 months ago
Reply to  Lenore Jones

In lots of 8000m climbs. Already in 2008, it happened in Gasherbrum II, I was in a BC mess tent and two liders of outfiters were talking and one said to the other “… let’s close the mountain”. As I was climbing with my husband and not depending on the outfiters, we didn’t gave a dam about it, went up, and even did the trail before them. By the way, we didn’t ask for money to anyone, but later they asked us for money, as we were acclimatized on the normal route to try to climb another in alpine style.… Read more »

UberRox
UberRox
3 months ago

I think it’s ridiculous what the outfitters are trying to do. I love adventure, and I love watching all of the mountaineer’s trying to summit.

+2
John Smith
John Smith
3 months ago

I know the commercial climbing has got ugly face. But it was hight mountaineers themselves that have caused that in the past. All those books, presentations, paid interviews showing their fantastic adventure – people ware listening and wanted to gave the same experience themselves but to avoid most of the hardships and sacrifices. Like old fashioned and modern day safari. To don’t moan about something that you have created yourself. Nepalese people never wanted to climb those mountains themselves- they ware hired by westerners. So the current circus with its ugly face is of our making. Live with that

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Gene Logan
Gene Logan
3 months ago

Don’t worry, the Chinese will build a gondola to the summit of Everest from the Tibetan side and then the rot will really be set. I am very happy for the Sherpa people that they have been able to benefit from the commercial expeditions; it has raised their standard of living and brought access to opportunities that were simply unavailable before. However it was the earlier expeditions that laid the groundwork and built the climbing economy that makes all this possible. If you lose sight of whose shoulders you stand on you are in danger of becoming a dick like… Read more »

SummitCircus
SummitCircus
3 months ago
Reply to  Gene Logan

An obligation to have a restrictive clause in their contracts stating that guides have to at least try to help in cases of emergency rather than keep on guiding without any claims of compensation possible for tourists would raise chances for those in trouble. Certainly this rule wouldn’t end many other problems of high altitude mass tourism or could even lead to new ones but help should always be more important than fulfilling guiding contracts.

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jams
jams
2 months ago
Reply to  Gene Logan

Will never happen, the winds are too high most of the time (outside of the summer). Even a train tunnel is too dodgy given the geological instability of the area. Although the chinks are busy building roads and hotels towards basecamp the wild nature will curb their ambitions to go higher up.

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Apy
Apy
3 months ago

There will probably be no coexistence. Commercial outfitters will keep to the traditional routes. Independant climbers will chose alternatives routes our lower unclimbed or little climbed summits. This trend was clear in Pakistan this summer: alternative routes were tried on K2 and G2 and attempts were made on lower peaks.

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Marie
Marie
3 months ago
Reply to  Apy

Excellent article in my view which raises many important questions. The problem seems to be that independent climbers are not even “allowed” to climb alternative routes on the commercialized mountains starting from Basecamp. The outfitters may say that one cannot rule out the possibility that these climbers will still use their (the outfitters’) ropes, trails or whatever at some point higher up.

+2
Apy
Apy
3 months ago
Reply to  Marie

I don’t see any evidence that in Pakistan the climbers who tried alternative routes or climbed lower and/or more remote peaks had any problems with their BC outfitters.

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Marie
Marie
3 months ago
Reply to  Apy

I just referred to what was cited in the article: “”I wanted to go up to C1 to get my things. But the head Sherpa of that company told us that we had to pay to leave BC…although we weren’t going to touch any rope.””

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Nick Bullock
3 months ago

“Can Independent Climbers Coexist With Outfitters on 8,000m Peaks?”

No. I wrote this for Summit Magazine about ten years ago. http://nickbullock-climber.co.uk/writing/conquering-capitalism/

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Apy
Apy
3 months ago
Reply to  Nick Bullock

And things have only become worse since then… Not only mass tourism but mass consumerism has invaded the mountains as one of the first things the summiters do is brandish a banner of one of their sponsors, and then another and then another, and then… Mass tourism has destroyed most of the beautiful spots of the planet (Venice, Macchu Pichu, etc…). And now it is targeting space. For US$ 250k, you can go to the edge of space for a few minutes and call yourself an astronaut (astronaut Branson, astronaut Bezos, etc…). Soon to be socially acceptable you will have… Read more »

daniela
Daniela Teixeira
3 months ago
Reply to  Nick Bullock

Nick, I totally agree with you. Your text should be published over and over again . “Why shouldn’t the wild mountains remain as sanctuary for those who are willing, with reverence, to sacrifice and commit? Why shouldn’t the mountains be preserved as a remote arena where people who want to improve on previous standards can be free to try? Why should the mountains become the domain for the select few who can pay? Someone, please answer these questions, have a go at answering them with integrity.”

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Pawel
Pawel
3 months ago

I always wonder why most of this “individual ” climbers usually choose mountains and routes that are attempted by outfitters, last Spring in Nepal only one expedition decided to attempt new route(Dhaulagiri – Marius Gane, Horia Colibasanu, and Peter Hamor) all others focused on mountains that were attempted by outfitters, nobody attempted Kangchenjunga and Manaslu – normal routes were free! So looks like that most of the independent climbers simply needs fixed ropes, broken trail etc to exist. Will someone attempt Everest or Lhotse in Autumn? I think that the real independent climbers do not have problems with finding suitable… Read more »

MuddyBoots
MuddyBoots
3 months ago

This situation is already such a mess that I don’t think it can actually be fixed or even mitigated to any significant extent. With the exception of China, these peaks are in extremely poor countries that want, that NEED to maximize revenue. And large tourist expeditions that employ lots of locals bring in the most money. Now that local outfitters dominate the scene in Nepal, that is not going to change. However these large groups also do the most environmental damage, and sully the environments that should be preserved as wild. Unfortunately for independent climbers they just don’t bring enough… Read more »

Don Paul
Don Paul
3 months ago
Reply to  MuddyBoots

File under First World Problems. If someone wants a personal, even spiritual challenge, there are a lot of other mountains with no one on them. If they are working on a tick list and building their credentials, get in line and pay up.

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gian piero
gian piero
3 months ago

Furthermore, I know that currently in Nepal small expeditions on secondary objectives have problems to be carried out because the country prefers to issue permits to commercial expeditions for higher peaks (more profitable), discouraging independent mountaineers. This is another problem we will have to deal with in the future.
Money always creates problems (especially for those who don’t have it :-)!

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