An expedition member steps across a bridge of aluminum ladders lashed together above a crevasse in the Khumbu Icefall; Photograph by Andy Barton, National Geographic

An expedition member steps across a bridge of aluminum ladders lashed together above a crevasse in the Khumbu Icefall; Photograph by Andy Barton, National Geographic

“Everest is a shit show,” said Aaron Huey, a National Geographic photographer who is currently documenting the culture of Sherpa guides. Ten years or more ago, I mused, that pronouncement would have stirred up protestations, or at least murmurs. But this May, the Friday morning crowd, coffee mugs in hand, spilling well out the doorway of the Ah Haa School for the Arts at the Mountainfilm festival in Telluride, simply nodded in rueful agreement.

The last three spring seasons on Everest have seen controversies spiral into disasters. In 2012, Russell Brice, the most experienced leader of guided expeditions on the mountain, sent his whole team home early (no matter how much money the clients had paid for their junket) because he deemed the Khumbu Icefall unjustifably dangerous. When some 500 climbers later reached the summit, second-guessers accused Brice of chickening out.

In 2013, ace mountaineers Simone Moro and Ueli Steck provoked an unprecedented riot by ignoring the agreement to let the Sherpas put in the fixed ropes on the Lhotse Face without interference by Western climbers. It didn’t help that Moro, alarmed by an apparent fracas between a Sherpa and his partner, yelled (in Nepali), “Motherfuckers, what are you doing?” At Mountainfilm this year, Sender Films’ High Tension, documenting the chaos, which culminated in a mob of angry Sherpas confronting the superstars and throwing rocks at their tent, packed the Conference Center and led to another heated panel discussion.

This spring, of course, Russell Brice’s gloomy prognostication came true with a vengeance, as an avalanche in the Khumbu Icefall killed 16 Sherpas fixing ropes and carrying loads on that treacherous passage. The tragedy shut down the season on the south side of Everest, and at Mountainfilm the repercussions bounced off the walls of several auditoriums.

At the Friday morning session, titled “Nepal and the Money Train,” Conrad Anker, who found George Mallory’s body on the other side of the mountain in 1999, argued that commercial guiding on the South Col route no longer amounted to real climbing. “It’s become a high-altitude luxury camping trip,” he offered. “Camp chairs, DVD players, a big-screen TV at base camp . . . . If you need nine oxygen cylinders on summit day, you shouldn’t be there.”  Wade Davis, author of the prize-winning chronicle Into the Silence, about the three British Everest expeditions in the 1920s, pointed out that the paltry 13 pounds that General Charles Granville Bruce offered the families of the seven Sherpas killed on the 1922 expedition actually amounted to more money than the $400 the Nepalese government promised to pay each of the families of the Sherpas killed in the icefall this spring.

An air of cynical distrust vis à vis the Nepalese government and the Nepal Mountaineering Association wafted through the panel. Ben Ayers, Nepal country director for the dZi Foundation, devoted to improving Sherpa village life, recounted an exchange with a government official who had come up with a solution to the “conga line” of hundreds of nose-to-ass climbers jumaring up the fixed rope on the Lhotse Face each spring. “We’ll just fix another line on the face,” said the functionary. “We?” queried Ayers. “The Sherpas,” emended the official.

Suddenly a young woman in the audience demanded the microphone. She had just returned from Everest, and she was pissed. “The reason I’m here is not the accident,” she declared. “The Sherpas leveraged the accident to make political demands on the government.” Evidently little fazed by the deaths of the 16 in the Khumbu Icefall, she was bent on trudging on up the mountain. But “an agitator threatened to burn down our Sherpa’s home if he continued on Everest.” Our Sherpa? I asked myself.

Norbu Tenzing, the son of Tenzing Norgay, gently summed up the modern corruption of the traditional way of climbing Everest that had made his father a hero. “Somehow the spirit is lost,” said Norbu.

The filmmakers of High Tension, who had set out to document Ueli Steck’s attempt to climb the West Ridge alpine-style and without bottled oxygen in 2013, had pulled a rabbit out the hat by capturing the violent confrontation between Steck and Moro and the Sherpas enraged at being called “motherfuckers.” “The story completely changed on us,” reported director Nick Rosen, in the panel discussion following the screening. On film, Moro tries to apologize for flinging an epithet in Nepali that reached the absolute nadir of insult (“This is a very, very bad word,” one Sherpa said). But in the next breath, Moro dismisses the rock throwers as “a few bad apples.”

To my mind, the sagest moment in the whole film came from the mouth of Tashi Sherpa, as he gazed back over more than 80 years of Sherpa service to Everest climbers. “The resentment was always there,” said Tashi. “This incident was waiting to happen, and it will repeat, as long as the Sherpas are humiliated.”

On Sunday, Wade Davis and Conrad Anker shared the lectern to talk about Mallory. Though both men are experts on the British expeditions of the 1920s, they had never appeared together on stage. It made for a curious back-and-forth. Having discovered Mallory’s body by deliberately poking outside the 1999 expedition’s designated “search zone,” Anker had deeply admired the Everest pioneer both before and after that fateful moment. “We all looked upon his mummified body with the greatest respect,” he said, “and with deep humility.” (Full disclosure: Anker and I co-wrote The Lost Explorer about the discovery.)

But Davis was having none of it. “The reason,” he pronounced, “that the deaths of the seven Sherpas in 1922 happened was the vanity of George Mallory.” And of all the members of the three expeditions, he added, “Almost every one of the 26 men was more likeable and more interesting than Mallory.”

Everest won’t go away, and the suggestions for ameliorating the mess it has become sounded to me like wishful thinking, if not pie-in-the-sky. It bothered me that only a few of the speakers on the three Telluride panels seemed truly devastated by the tragedy this spring. Sixteen deaths in a single avalanche matches the worst disaster in Himalayan history, equaled only by another avalanche catastrophe on the German expedition to Nanga Parbat in 1937.

The exception was Aaron Huey, who, though not a mountaineer himself, reacted strongly to the screening of High Tension. The end of the film dwells on the tragedy, “and yet,” said Huey, on the verge of tears, “it’s overlaid by happy music. There’s no happy ending to this story.

“Everest is completely out of control. It’s like crack.”

Meanwhile, on May 23—the same day as the first of the Telluride Everest panels convened—the Chinese woman Wang Jing reached the summit via the South Col. Originally a member of Brice’s team, she ignored the leader’s suggestion that she switch to the north side, hiring a “phantom operator” instead. (This sleight-of-hand could have caused Brice to be banned from Nepal for five years.)

With apparently limitless funds at her disposal, Wang convinced five Sherpas to guide her to the top. Those six were the only climbers to get up Everest on the south side this spring season. To avoid the unpleasantness of the Khumbu Icefall, Wang arranged to transport her teammates, herself, and all their gear and food directly to Camp 2 by helicopter.

Wang confessed that the deaths of the 16 in the icefall the previous month had made her “very sad.” But she had an agenda she couldn’t ignore—to complete the so-called “Explorer’s Grand Slam”—reaching the top of the Seven Summits and the North and South Poles—in record time. Missing out on Everest would have put the kibosh on her whole campaign.

 

 

Comments

  1. Josh McCue
    Bermagui , Australia
    June 9, 5:27 pm

    Money rules the world , and the ego ruins it. Everest was always my dream when i was young now i could not care for it.

  2. Stephanie Graham
    Oklahoma (unfortunately)
    June 9, 10:52 pm

    Give the mountain a rest. The bumper to bumper style of climbing on Everest reveals the deep insanity of being human on this planet. Instead of paying embarrassing amounts to climb, perhaps climbers (or “wanna” be climbers) could pay for improving schools, health and nutrition for Nepali families, dental and eye clinics, and educating locals on environmental sustainability. Yes?

  3. Surya Nath Adhikari
    Nepal
    June 9, 11:56 pm

    Very Serious and would like to raise this issue.

  4. Ranchez
    Colorado
    June 10, 1:33 am

    Everest has always been and always will be nothing more than pure exploitation by a steady parade of fat, lazy westerners with more money than ethic. Every person – save the Sherpa and a couple to true mountaineers – have had to have their sorry butts carried up that mountain. It is a trash-ridden graveyard that should be shut down until they figure out a way to clean it up and give proper respect for the mountain and true climbers of it the Sherpa. Which essentially means shutting it down permanently.

  5. Ellen
    salt lake city
    June 10, 7:17 am

    Hello, David. Well, I am that “young woman” you cite in the above article. Your accout of my comments is shockingly inaccurate. I did not “demand the microphone”; I actually raised my hand as were many other folks in the crowd and was handed the mic by the moderator. I was not “pissed’, only saddened by the events I had seen. I am a doctor and not only provided medical care that horrible day but also assisted in body identification at the heli pad. I definitely WAS “fazed” (perhaps traumatized is a better word) about events and questioned whether anyone should continue climbing. Your reporting of my comments is woefully inaccurate to be coming from a “reporter” like yourself, and your account above clearly shows your agenda. That said, please do not put words in my mouth or intentions into my heart because you truly do not know. For the sake of accuracy, I am always happy to chat with you to make sure you do get it right. Cheers.

  6. Ellen
    SLC
    June 10, 7:38 am

    (Note: Sorry, I typed in the incorrect email when I first sent this a few moments ago. Above is the correct aol email address. Thanks.)

    Hello, David. Well, I am that “young woman” you cite in the above article. Your accout of my comments is shockingly inaccurate. I did not “demand the microphone”; I actually raised my hand as were many other folks in the crowd and was handed the mic by the moderator. I was not “pissed’, only saddened by the events I had seen. I am a doctor and not only provided medical care that horrible day but also assisted in body identification at the heli pad. I definitely WAS “fazed” (perhaps traumatized is a better word) about events and questioned whether anyone should continue climbing. Your reporting of my comments is woefully inaccurate to be coming from a “reporter” like yourself, and your account above clearly shows your agenda. That said, please do not put words in my mouth or intentions into my heart because you truly do not know. For the sake of accuracy, I am always happy to chat with you to make sure you do get it right. Cheers

  7. Tanya Gold (possibly)
    Everywhere
    June 10, 4:30 pm

    Oh how pitiful how Ranchez calls Everest climbers ‘fat’, whilst he sits in the comfort of an armchair, behind the anonymity and safety of a computer screen that fools him into thinking his dick’s bigger than Everest and it’s 29,035ft elevation. Stephanie Graham is also ignoring the huge amount that Western guides give back to the local community, like the rest of these insipid journalists who are getting their words (and possibly incorrect facts, too) from a dictionary.

  8. Charles
    Florida
    June 11, 10:14 am

    David, I don’t see the point that you are trying to make, besides of stating the obvious that in any crowded and dangerous situation that will be conflict among people. BTW, I believe you are inaccurate, Wang tried to get a permit for the Tibet side, but did not get it. As far as all the comments about the “fat lazy rich clients”, you are basing your strong condemnation on what? Do you have statistics on the clients weight, financial situation and climbing abilities? Have you actually met any of them? They should donate their money to the community instead of handing it over as a salary… I am sure when you visit Niagara Falls, all you care about is the well being of the people of Buffalo, right? Maybe next you could visit Runnersworld’s website and tell then how anyone who cannot run under 3:30 marathon should just take their fat rear and hide it instead of crowding up the streets. Leave marathons to those who can run 2:03 for a man and 2:18 for a woman. Instead of spending their money on running shoes and outfits, donate it to inner city schools.

  9. Tomi Reynolds
    Richmond, VA
    June 11, 9:35 pm

    It seems that lately any conversation regarding Everest has become a “shit show” of its own. Including this one. I love that Dr. Ellen chimed in to stand up for herself, and I also agree with Charles from Florida. The rest is just more feces-flinging.

  10. Sara
    June 12, 10:52 pm

    It looks amazing! How do you carry your camera when you are outside? Maybe you’ll like this: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/quadclip-camera-clip-quick-release-system-for-digital-slr-photography#gallery

  11. JC Riquelme
    Rainier, Washington
    June 16, 9:47 am

    Just a few questions, you need answer: Who are the real climbing? Are They worthy to be called a mountaineer?
    You need help? ask a Sherpa to help you and
    more and more questions, and the end the answer is Sherpas

  12. Joe Pellegrino
    telluride
    June 16, 9:54 pm

    How about climbing a mountain where you can actually do it without fixed lines, oxygen, etc? It seems to me that if you are climbing on fixed lines which you didn’t help set up you are a sack of potatoes. If you paid 50k to climb a mountain you are either super wealthy and bored, sponsored, or completely out of your mind. If you need oxygen to make upward progress maybe you should attempt a 6 or 7 thousand meter peak instead. If you leave a bunch of shit and trash up there I hope it keeps you up at night. If you need a Sherpa then maybe it would be a good idea to share the risks etc. I certainly wouldn’t get on a fixed line with dozens of other people, but that seems like acceptable risk to the masses who make the summit without actually doing any mountaineering. It’s sad that it took a predictable disaster for people to start questioning the disrespect for the people and the mountain itself. The problem is on the demand side of things. As long as there are rich non climbers who will pay whatever it takes there will be guiding companies who will be willing to put their big ignorant ego’s on the summit.

  13. David
    June 17, 7:38 am

    I have an idea for an awesome comedy. Filming a fat lazy westerner climb Mount Everest. Since a “fat lazy” person has never successfully climbed Everest, I would think it would be funny as &$^^ watching one try. Could you see Rebel Wilson climbing it? How about Anthony Anderson? It might win an award for the funniest comedy of the year.

    Thanks for the awesome idea Ranchez.

  14. Pem Dorjee Sherpa
    USA
    June 17, 5:20 pm

    As climber and Sherpa felt so sad for all climber friends we lost on Everest. But Everest is high risk and high reward adventure. I think all climbers need RS: 50,00000 $ 50000 medical insurance and 100, 00000 $100000 death insurance for all climbing Sherpa on Everest and other 8000 meters peak or stop climbing Everest.
    If we continue climbing Everest, we will have more climbers death every year and we can’t cancel Everest like this year.
    I am so surprise to see so many news around the world but no one talking about how to make sherpa’s family life financial secure after there death. Pem Dorjee Sherpa 2 times Everest summiteer. http://www.pemmoni.com

  15. Bill
    Vancouver
    June 24, 12:44 am

    On your comparisons of the criticism of “guided” climbs of Everest to a hypothetical banning of slow marathon runners, Charles, there are a couple of important differences.

    First, nobody running a 3:30 marathon is getting dragged to the finish by Kenyans, only to then claim they ran a marathon. And, second, even if they were, it wouldn’t involve a substantial risk of death for the Kenyans.

    The problem is that Everest has become something that almost anyone can – and do – aspire to do, whether or not they’ve even ever been to the mountains. It’s that lack of personal experience and awareness that is the problem, especially when it’s combined with an attitude that says it’s basically okay to sacrifice the lives of Sherpas to get there.

    Given that risk, and all the garbage that’s strewing the slopes of the mountain, I say just shut it down for guided climbs. Or at least raise the standards for those doing it. Perhaps it’s time that people have to prove they’re qualified to get to take a swing at Everest.