Has the world’s tallest mountain has become the ultimate trophy climb? Since guided climbing began on the mountain in the early ’90s and Sherpas took on all the heavy lifting, reaching the rooftop of the world has strayed from the qualities most mountaineers value in mountaineering. Is it worth the $50,000 price tag, on average, to stand on the summit via the two standard routes, the North or South Col? Depends on who you are, says writer Mark Jenkins, a Wyoming native with 35 years of climbing experience.
Last spring, Jenkins was part of a National Geographic team to climb Everest in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the first American ascent via the West Ridge in 1963. He wanted to see how the mountain had changed from a historical perspective and since his own attempt at the north face in 1986 with the first North American team to give it a try. There was no commercial climbing to speak of on the mountain at that point.
Today there is almost exclusively commercial climbing on Everest. And the 2012 climbing season was dry, cold, and unwelcoming. Still our team, Jenkins included, made it to the summit via the South Col and safely down. His feature article on the experience will appear in a 2013 edition of National Geographic magazine.
Here Jenkins tells us how “Everesting” came to be this way, why Leave No Trace ethics need to be instituted, and how a few regulations could help make the entire experience as important as the summit.
Adventure: This year we all saw the photos of the ant line of climbers marching up to the summit. Have the curtains been pulled back? Has the mystique of climbing Everest finally been shattered?
Mark Jenkins: I hope so, to be honest with you. When climbing the two standard routes on Everest—I have to call it “Everesting” and not “climbing”—the Sherpas do so much now. They put in all the fixed lines. They put in all the cams. They carry the loads. They find the route through the icefall. They find the route up through the Lhotse face. They fix lines from South Col to the summit. That is not typical mountaineering—at least not in the way that most of us who climb a lot admire. You do that stuff yourself. You may have a porter carrying some of your loads or a Sherpa helping you. But you still do hopefully most of the climbing and exploration yourself. And that is not what is happening on Everest.
The reason why there were so many crowds this year is because we really only had two weather windows and four days of climbing to reach the summit. There were at least 100 to 150 people attempting the summit each of those four days. Just shy of 500 people summited this year. Very few of those people were experienced climbers. Most of them were clients going with a guide. They may have climbed a little bit, but they certainly are not good enough to climb the mountain on their own.
Has a veil been lifted? Are we suddenly seeing Oz for what it really is? I certainly hope so. I think that anyone who goes to Everest should really question his or her motives. It’s a trophy climb right now. That said, there are 15 routes on Everest. And this year, other than the minor attempts on the West Ridge—that never even reached the West Ridge, by the way—no one was on any other routes than the two standard, guided routes: the South Col and the North Col.
Adventure: Why are experienced climbers not interested in the other 13 routes?
M.J.: I can’t really say. For one, “climbers” has become a very broad term. To successfully climb one of the more difficult routes on Everest, first of all, you have to be a good high-altitude mountaineer. That quickly narrows the pool. If you are a rock climber, sport climber, ice climber, 14er, or Alaska climber, none of those count. What you need to be is good at climbing above 8,000 meters. And the historic routes with the greatest prestige, other than the West Ridge, which was sent by the Americans, were done in the 80s. Everest is still in the public eye, and it’s still heralded. But mountaineers have gone off to other goals.
The other problem is the oxygen issue. Only 171 of the nearly 4,000 people who have summited Everest did it without supplemental oxygen. Now if you are going to plan your own trip and you plan to use oxygen, it’s a lot of work to get those bottles up there. So many of the high-altitude mountaineers have decided to do something somewhat smaller so they don’t have to deal with the oxygen issue.
A.: How did Everest become a trophy climb in the first place?
M.J.: The first guided climb was Dick Bass, who was the founder of Snowbird Ski Area in Utah, and he was guided by David Breshears in 1985. He was the first person, along with Rick, to do the Seven Summits. Guiding did not become popular on Everest until the early ’90s.
But guiding has a long history in mountaineering. The first ascent of the Matterhorn was guided. Most mountains that people recognize the name of—Denali, Kilimanjaro, Aconcagua, Rainier, the Grand Teton—they are heavily guided. Far more people climb Kilimanjaro, for example, that are guided than are not guided. As is the case with all these mountains. The guiding scene just moved to Everest.
Those other peaks are much simpler, safer, and cheaper to climb with a guide, for the most part. Now you can climb Kilimanjaro for about $5,000. I know you can climb Denali for $8,000. To be guided up Everest, the lowest tier guiding service is about $25,000. Then it goes all the way up to about $125,000. Most people pay in the $50,000 range, not counting gear or airfare.
Most of those who are on the mountain now were successful in some other walk of life. They were a doctor or a business person or an attorney and they grew up like I did, dreaming about climbing Everest. But they didn’t have the skills. They spent their time getting skills in their own walk of life, and they recognize that it would take another ten or 20 years as a mountaineer to develop the skills to climb Everest on their own, so they hire a guide.
That’s how it has happened. And I don’t think that is going to change. There will always be people who want to climb Everest and have the money to do it. It’s the biggest. It’s the biggest trophy you can get. Right?
A.: Maybe from a mainstream perspective…
M.J.: Certainly not from a mountaineer’s perspective, that’s what we have going on right now. The ordinary person who knows little about climbing, their sports are golf or basketball, when they hear of Everest, they see that as the pinnacle of mountaineering. To those in the know, those who are climbers, most think, well Everest is an odd place. Certainly doing the South Col route is a very surreal experience.
A.: Is the summit moment worth it considering the $50,000 price tag?
M.J.: I can’t answer that because National Geographic paid for my climb, and I was also paid to be there to write about our expedition and about the ’63 first Americans experience compared to what exists on the mountain today.
I would say to true mountaineers—people who plan their own trips and go do them—I deeply question whether it is worth it. Three months earlier I had gone to Tibet and climbed a peak for $2,000. That means I could do 25 expeditions around the world, climbing mountains, for the same price that it is to climb Everest.
That said, you’d have to talk to some of the people because I’m sure many of the clients would say, “Absolutely, this is the pinnacle of my life. I’m standing on top of the world. All of those other peaks you are talking about are not the top of the world. It’s worth it to me.” It’s a tough thing to answer.
For mountaineers, I think it’s questionably worth it. For people who see it as a trophy, like shooting a lion, then it’s worth it. And certainly if you have that kind of money you are better off spending it on Everest than cocaine and prostitutes in Las Vegas. It’s a much more worthy goal. Is it as worthy as spending a month helping the poor in Bangladesh? No.
It’s still a personal thing. Climbing mountains is a narcissistic thing. Period. You’re on Everest or you’re on the hill in your backyard, most of it is about you. There are all these different climbs now that say they are raising funds for x, y, z, but usually that’s just an excuse. If those people were to spend three months making phone calls they would raise much more money than climbing Everest because the cost is so high. Not that I am against charity climbs, but the reality is that most people climb for themselves and for the brotherhood of the rope, which is to be with your companions on the rope.
A: Several people died on the descent this season, in addition to other deaths lower on the mountain. Could this year’s deaths have been prevented?
M.J.: Yes, certainly. The primary cause of death on Mount Everest now—and it is statistically born out—is not going through the Khumbu Icefall, where you can suddenly be whacked by a falling serac or avalanche. The number one cause of death is by exhaustion or hypothermia coming down from the summit.
Why does this happen? They push too hard for their bodies. And in most cases, their Sherpa says you are moving too slowly, you need to turn around right now and they say, “No.” They are type As, and they say I paid so much for this and I’m getting to the top. When the peak was snowier, you used to be able to drag someone off a mountain. Now it’s drier and there is less snowfall on Everest, so you can’t drag a person off. When they sit down and simply can’t move anymore, they die. So could those deaths have been prevented? I would say in most cases yes. In most cases those people should have turned back earlier.
Turn back before you die. It seems to be a very rational thing, but people get summit fever and become irrational and emotional. Good mountaineers do turn around. They go to the limit, and they think if I go any further I am going to die, better turn around. Sometimes they are killed by avalanche or rock fall. But you can come back to climb another day, the mountain’s not going anyway.
A.: Just pay another $50,000 and you’re back. It was funny but also disturbing when you talked the human waste on the mountain. It looks like a pristine wilderness experience in the photos, but what is it really like up there?
M.J.: First of all, if you go to the east face, no one is going to be there, you are not going to be walking through piles of human shit. But along the standard two routes, Camp 2 is surrounded by old outhouses where the outhouse is gone and there are little piles of human excrement everywhere. It is not pristine, it is not a wilderness experience, you are walking through debris, old lines, and human shit. That is the reality on the South Col.
Of course, when you look at the mountain, it is massive. So the pictures that you see aren’t of the actual route that people are going up, it’s the scenery around you, and it’s completely gorgeous. And Everest is a gorgeous mountain—I don’t want to portray the mountain as defiled. It’s not. It’s just that one little ant line that goes up on the South Col and on the North Col where it’s kind of an ugly thing. All around it, it’s gorgeous scenery. When you are on the main track and there are people in front of you and people behind you, it is certainly not a wilderness experience. Climbing Everest by the South Col is an incredibly social experience.
A.: How come the Leave No Trace ethic doesn’t apply to Everest?
M.J.: Backpackers have been using the Leave No Trace ethic since the ’60s. The standard excuse has been that it’s too dangerous, it’s too cold, we can’t remove everything. If someone gets in a bad situation, we just have to leave and go down—and that happens occasionally. But for the most part, what they really need to do is institute Leave No Trace.
Charge people more on the expeditions to pay the Sherpas to bring everything down. Say the peak permit is $10,000, add an extra $2,000 charge to distribute to the Sherpas so they bring down all the excrement and candy bar wrappers and all the fuel bottles so it is pristine. It simply has to be a law that everything is taken down.
There are two or three companies that are factoring that into their client charges. But the low-end expeditions are not doing that and they are the ones making a mess on the mountain. It’s disgraceful and it has to change. And it would have changed if the experience were as valued as the summit.
Everest is this big trophy, and people are more into saying I got to the top than talking about the experience getting to the top. I know climbers absolutely hate rules … that’s why you are a mountaineer a lot times because you can’t stand football or golf because they are all about rules. But on Everest, we are going to have to have more rules to improve the experience.
A.: Climbers hate rules. So should there be a regulating system assessing people’s skills?
M.J.: Let me preface this by saying that everything I’ve said has been Mark Jenkins’s personal opinion. It doesn’t necessarily represent anyone else. I think there would be quite a few mountaineers who agree with me. But it certainly doesn’t represent the position of a client.
I am speaking from 35 years of climbing mountains. So yes, I think you should not be able to go to Everest without already climbing another peak in the Himalaya so you know what it’s like. In fact, this would be another way to help the Sherpa economy. If you just had a permitting system that said you had to climb a peak over 6,000 meters before you could climb Everest.
A.: You have to qualify for a marathon, but you don’t have to qualify to climb the highest mountain in the world?
M.J.: To that people would say that a marathon is a competition and climbing Everest is not about competition. But I think that you are missing out if you have not climbed other mountains before you climb Everest. A lot of those people haven’t. Some are Seven Summits people so they have climbed Kilimanjaro or Aconcagua. Well, those are not the same mountains.
Conrad Anker and I discussed at length that perhaps they should have to climb some other peak in Nepal that is fairly tall, like a 7,000-meter peak, and prove that you did it before you came to Everest. You would have so much more experience. And some people would probably say, “You know what? This isn’t my thing.” Which is good! You don’t need to learn that on Everest. Learn that on a smaller peak. If there were a requirement, a lot of people would hate that, too. They’d say this is mountaineering how could we possibly have this kind of rule? But it would make Everest safer, cleaner, and it would make climbing Everest a more meaningful accomplishment.
A.: And, as you mentioned, give the economy in Nepal a boost.
M.J.: Yeah, what if you had to go on another expedition? I don’t think that will be instituted because people would be scared that if people had to climb two mountains, they would not climb any because all they really wanted to do was climb Everest. And the response to that is, if you have climbed Everest after summiting some other peak, you really have increased your safety margin dramatically. Because you know your body. You know you have your skills down. Some of the expeditions did expect you to have some kind of climbing resume before you climbed Everest. Many of them didn’t. But I think that would be a worthy goal.
That, and finding a way to clean the mountain. And people are just going to have to pay for it. The Sherpas won’t do it if it’s messy. The teams will have to develop their own systems, like the bear canister, so it is cleaned up. And then you just throw it into someone’s pack as they are coming down from Camp 4, 3, 2, or whatever. These things can happen.
A: Has the mountain only gotten trashed since people started going up it?
M.J.: Guiding has only been going on truly on Everest since 1992, so 20 years. And now things are improving. They now have the SBCC, the Sagarmartha Pollution Control Committee, that’s a committee of Nepalis and Sherpas, and they instituted that you can’t just crap into the Khumbu Icefall. At Base Camp, you have an outhouse on top of a blue barrel. And when that’s full, you just take it down by porters. You can do the same sort of thing for Camps 1, 2, 3, 4, but you are not going to have yaks carrying it down, it will be people.
We can improve the experience. I don’t know we will change the crowds. It’s a roll of the dice whether the season that will have lots of days that are not too cold and not too windy when you can do to the summit. If you only have a few, and you have 500 people going to the summit then you are going to have lots of people. You could have two lines instead of just one going up to the summit. It would be like a highway, a line going up and a line going down. But the Sherpas would have to put it up so you’re going to have to pay them more. There are solutions.
A.: Once you are paying $50,000, what’s a little bit more?
M.J.: Exactly. These solutions are only a few thousand dollars more. I think they can be instituted, and Everest can be a better place. I would still encourage climbers to think twice about why they are going to Everest. What does it mean to them? What’s the value? And compare it to some other experience—maybe you could grab your buddies and train a little bit in Vermont or Colorado, then go do your own trip to Peru. I personally think that would be a better experience.
It’s a bit of bastardization of climbing to go to the South Col and have guides make all the decisions Sherpas do all the work. You still have to work your ass off to get to the top. You can’t breathe, you are suffering in your tent. But you are also not making decisions and you are not leading, and those are two critical aspects of what mountaineering is about.
A.: Are there too many helicopters whirling around Everest these days?
M.J.: That’s hard to say, because I think the helicopters save lives. There was the guy who was caught in the avalanche and thrown into the crevasse. He had three broken ribs and three broken vertebrae. He would have died had there not been a chopper at Base Camp. There are choppers going back and forth all the time now. And there are also people who get tired of climbing and use them to leave.
It definitely doesn’t feel like a wilderness experience when every morning you are in your tent at 6:30 a.m. you hear the choppers coming in. But then you are around 1,000 other people anyway.