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Everest, the Best and Worst

Two mountaineers navigating a glacier on a Gasherbrum II Expedition

Everest, in all its intensity and boredom, to me often feels like a stimulant-enhanced version of “normal” life at home. This heightened intensity of emotional and physical existence is not necessarily a good thing, but I am sure this is why many of us return year after year. It is an addictive way to exist.

The last 24 hours here on Everest has been an example of this intensity, in its best and worst forms. It all began yesterday at 2:30 am. I woke to a perfect night for climbing – cold, clear weather, a big enough moon to make a headlamp unnecessary, and my body feeling 100% rested. In these perfect conditions I had a quick Bialetti of coffee, a bowl of oatmeal, and, after a pass around our chorten where juniper was burning for good luck, I headed for the icefall. My goal was as much fun as work. Sure, I was carrying a small load of equipment for Camp 2, and I wanted to see the icefall condition before guiding it. But mostly, I just wanted to climb at my pace, test my newly acl-free knee, and put to rest some of the demons from last year. On my last trip through the icefall in 2012, Dawa Sherpa, a friend and strong climbing partner, died of a brain hemorrhage. It was an intense and awful experience to be with him as he passed, helpless, and it all occurred in the middle of a very dangerous icefall. 

Yesterday’s climb was cathartic. Passing through the icefall in under two hours to Camp 1, I remembered and honored Dawa, and felt the strength that this place, and all of the climbers here, gives me. I cranked. It felt amazing. While still a dangerous place, the icefall felt fun, and the risk felt acceptable for the joy moving like this gives.  

In these perfect conditions I continued to Camp 2, managing the cold and dreaming of the sun and warmth that would soon hit. I passed countless friends, Sherpa and westerner, in both directions as I climbed, and this is where things began to change. While it was fantastic to see friends, everyone wanted to discuss only one thing – the fight that had occurred the previous day in Camp 2 and on the Lhotse Face. This incident, already being dramatically covered by the western and local media, transformed a perfect climbing day into a mess of politics. I have been a lead guide on Everest the past 5 years, and in two of the past three years was the only non-sherpa chosen to rope-fix to the summit of Mt. Everest. From this position I feel lucky to have strong relationships with Sherpa, western guides, professional climbers, and clients. In this case that meant every side wanting to explain their case, and their reasoning for what occurred.  

To me, the bottom line is that multiple mistakes were made by both sides. On Everest, the professional climbers (even when attempting new routes) also benefit from fixed ropes, trails broken, and rescue caches placed, primarily by the Sherpa. The professional climbers involved could have and should have chosen somewhere else to acclimatize on this day, instead of solo climbing above the rope fixing team. Everyone knew about the rope fixing effort, and other teams that would have liked to be climbing where the incident occurred respected the rope fixing effort and stayed off the Lhotse Face. Even if no rock or ice actually was knocked off by the professional climbers, and even if no rope-fixing sherpa was injured, there was still a perception of disrespect for the effort. As part of past rope-fixing efforts on Everest, I can attest to the importance of not having other climbers pushing the team from below, or putting the team at risk from above.

With that said, the response from some (not all) of the Sherpa was inexplicable and inexcusable. Regardless of the disagreement, or the inappropriate language used by the western climbers, the threats and attempts at violence by the Sherpa involved were wrong. I was given numerous possible explanations for the severity of their anger, but none of them justify attempting bodily harm. This behavior would be wrong anywhere. Above 6000 meters on a mountain, where we all need to depend on each other to try to minimize accidents, injuries, and death, this behavior does nothing but undermine the bonds between teams and climbers that we depend on. It is my understanding that a small number of sherpa led and incensed the rest of the “mob” that formed. It is my opinion that these sherpa should be removed from the mountain for this season, and potentially prosecuted. The same goes for the westerners, if eyewitness reports stand true, that responded with violence. Their behavior stands in sharp contrast to the numerous westerners and sherpa that did not resort to violence and attempted to diffuse the situation, even at risk to themselves.  

Everest is a mountain where people pour an incredible amount of passion and money into their efforts. This is true for professional and recreational climbers, and for sherpa who earn most or all of their family’s annual income in these 2 months on the mountain. The constant pressure to break records, attempt new routes, and be the strongest, whether for personal pride, sponsors, future job offers, or media, can cloud the purity of our climbing here. And these pressures can lead to disagreements, arguments, and hurt feelings. But none of these pressures should be allowed to lead to violence, or to breaking the essential bonds that tie climbers to each other, and that normally can be counted on to surpass all competition when someone needs help in the big mountains.  

Here on Everest, we need to remember these bonds. We need to talk to each other, and to rebuild what has been broken. And, at the end of the day we need to remember that it is perfect climbing days, like mine through the icefall only 24 hours ago, that we are all here to experience. We are all here for the same base reasons – fun and challenge. The pursuit is selfish, but climbers are so often incredibly selfless, and this balance makes our climbing worthwhile and valuable in our community and beyond. I look forward to the upcoming days climbing on Everest, and to a summit push that will come all too soon. And I look forward to these efforts with my friends, team-mates, and co-workers from all the various teams and countries that make up this season’s Everest community. 

Here’s to the best of Everest. I hope we all remember it, and live it, over the next month of effort. 

-Adrian Ballinger, Alpenglow Expeditions