Updated: Oct 9, 2019
Everest has been in the spotlight recently. There’s startling pictures of long, Splash Mountainesque lines to the summit. So far 11 people have died this season. But honestly I don’t think that this is a super new problem. Lots of people we talked to on Aconcagua said that they encountered similar things on Everest, though maybe not to the same extent.
These lines are due to an attempt at democratizing the tallest mountain in the world. People wanted a summit at a cost that wasn’t prohibitively expensive, the market just supplied. An attempt at Everest used to cost $70,000 USD+ by Western companies with experienced guides. After 2014, more Nepalese/Tibetan companies began to emerge that offered lower prices at the cost of cutting corners and paying their employees less. If you can deal with inexperienced guides and poorly planned expeditions, you can get up the mountain at the low, low cost of 30,000~ USD. Everest is more accessible than ever but the average competence has declined. Inexperienced climbers can now make a summit attempt and these companies will enable them.
Armitage and I had our first encounter with commercial mountaineering on Aconcagua. It was really eye-opening. You could pay to have a cook and sleep in a bubble tent up to 17,000ft (5200m). We met a handful of people that really did not have a ton of experience. This kind of commercialization made people arrogant. Some people just did not seem to have a respect for high altitude conditions.
We heard some stories from some other climbers about their trip up Kilimanjaro earlier this year. In their group there were a number of inexperienced climbers some of which were suffering from altitude sickness. But they were encouraged to continue by their guides. That’s a dangerous proposition and blatantly irresponsible but an inexperienced climber could be coerced by a summit and some encouraging words. It’s all about experience. Fitness has very little to do with how altitude will affect you. That’s the scary part, Armitage and I were over prepared in terms of fitness, but I still got got. We met an American at half camp (11,000ft). He had done some serious through hikes in the states (PCT, AT, PNT). Super in shape. But then when he got up to base (14,000+) he felt the altitude really bad. Weakness, loss of appetite, hallucinations. He had to be evacuated by helicopter. It could happen to anyone and anytime.
We also met a Polish climber named Wojciech. He talked about ignorable factors while mountaineering. You can ignore a few but ignore too many and that’s where you get into trouble. On our summit day both Armitage and I ignored some factors. When I woke up I found my that my contacts had frozen overnight despite them being in my sleeping bag with me, so I had to wear my glasses which were fogging up due to my balaclava. 1 factor. It was also windy and snowing. 2 factors. Above 20,000 I started to get some nausea and lightheadedness. That’s 3 factors, Henry out. Armitage also had some troubles with his goggles fogging, his double boots weren’t working properly so his feet were freezing, the weather also worsened above where I stopped. That’s 3 factors, a summit was not in the cards.
For months before our climb, Armitage and I talked about pacing and about not getting greedy for a summit. Young guys often underestimate the altitude, go too fast, push too hard, get themselves into trouble. Which is arguably what we did anyway despite our conversations… but I digress. What’s more all this caution was for Aconcagua, a walk-up compared to the Himalayas.
It’s no joke. Even when tours were close-knit and experienced people still died every year. The fact that more people don’t die is honestly a little surprising. Just simply based on the increased population on the mountain I would expect there to be more deaths. In 2007 there were 460 people that climbed, 7 deaths. Compared to last year there were 715 and only 5 deaths. This year seems more in line with what I would expect from the population increase.
Here’s the thing: should the Nepalese/Chinese government regulate permits? Yes. Should they regulate the trekking companies to make sure that they’re vetting properly for both guides and climbers? Yes. Should trekking companies self regulate? Yes. Will any of that actually happen? Gun to my head, probably not. As I said earlier, where there is a demand, the market will supply left uninhibited. The consumer has to learn more respect for the mountains, I wouldn’t even think to attempt Everest without a ton more experience mountaineering. I hope that this season can teach us a valuable lesson to leave our egos off the mountain. Otherwise there’s gonna be a lot more people purchasing a $70,000 Darwin Award.