Few climbers know Nepal like Pete Athans. Beginning in 1981, the Washington-based high-altitude mountaineer has made regular pilgrimages to Mount Everest and other regions of the Himalaya. At last count he had participated in 16 expeditions to the world’s highest mountain, attempted five different routes, and personally summited seven times. Along the way, Athans learned Nepali, won the David A. Sowles Award from the American Alpine Club for his selfless rescue efforts during the 1996 Everest season, and has participated in numerous film and media projects. As a member of the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation board of directors, he has played an integral role in developing the Khumbu Climbing Center’s instructional program and the Magic Yeti Library Project’s trajectory. Read Pete’s comments on the first 2012 climbing death on Everest.
Adventure: How bad was it in the mid to late 1990s on Everest, right after the mountain went “commercial,” but before the climbing Sherpas and high-altitude staff had figured it all out, i.e. how to operate safely and efficiently on the mountain and maintain the route for the masses?
Pete Athans: I’m not too sure anyone learned comprehensively the requisite lessons for safer practices following the 1996 events on Everest. The chief response was wall-to-wall fixed line, which solves some problems and exacerbates others. No one learned restraint or changed their behavior too, too much, and route crowding is still a tremendous liability at high altitude on Everest and on other high mountains But people did recognize the danger of complacency, even on straight forward climbing routes, and we haven’t seen another 1996!
A: As someone whose Everest career spans more than 20 years, what evolution have you seen in the overall culture of Sherpa guiding on the mountain?
P.A.: I believe we are seeing an overall upgrade in professional skills reflected in the services of trekking/mountaineering agencies and in individual guides themselves. We are also seeing a marked influx of Nepalese ethnic groups other than Sherpa in employment that, up until the mid-90s, seemed almost exclusively Sherpa-dominated positions. We are also seeing more women, both of Sherpa ethnicity and others, represented in the ranks of high-altitude guides and other mountain workers.
A: How have their technical skills, client-care and language skills, leadership ability, and financial picture have all evolved?
P.A.: In some cases, significant skill upgrades, either through training in Nepal or abroad, have been acquired. Leadership skills are frequently acquired on the job, but some guides/leaders have formal leadership training through NOLS or similar organizations.
A: Do you think the KCC, or other organizations/programs, have made an impact? How?
P.A.: I believe Khumbu Climbing Center has contributed significantly to the overall refinement and expansion of technical climbing, rescue, first responder, avalanche and leadership qualities in close to 1,000 students over nine years of operation. We just completed our successful ninth session, teaching 68 students our basic curriculum and 46 our advanced curriculum, which ran ten and eight days, respectively. Now we are seeing many trekking/mountaineering agencies looking favorably on job applicants with KCC diplomas.
A: What factor(s) do you think will have the greatest impact on how indigenous, “home-grown” guiding talent develops in Nepal, and the greater Himalaya, over the next 20 years?
P.A.: Enhancing the teaching and leadership skills of Nepali instructors who are currently involved in educating young guides will have the greatest impact, whether that is through KCC, NMA, or other organizations. Opportunities for Nepali instructors to travel abroad and participate in internal certification programs will also play a significant role. Further, motivating individual guides and agencies to improve will help implement a concession system for commercial climbing on Everest. By this, I mean that the foreign based agencies that currently only employ the Nepali will need to have greater profit participation for both Nepalese individual guides and companies. Needless to say, I think we are still years away from this concession system’s success being viable.
A: How might you connect the Khumbu Climbing Center’s work to the legacy created by Hillary and the Himalayan Trust?
P.A.: I believe the KCC efforts complement much of the work the Trust began in the ’60s by both Hillary and Tenzing. The Himalayan Trust focused much of the early efforts on basic community development and stewardship; I believe the KCC is concentrating on increasing the safety margin for the group of indigenous high-altitude workers–Sherpas and other ethnicities–plus, increasing the viability of guiding and leading as a profession. The KCC will, within the slowly developing village of Phortse, nurture the local economy with a handicrafts center, local guiding services for day rock and ice seasonal programs and fomenting literacy through the “Magic Yeti” children’s library project.