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Full Interview with Alan Arnette

Two mountaineers navigating a glacier on a Gasherbrum II Expedition
Everest and Lhotse.jpg

Alpenglow’s owner and lead guide, Adrian Ballinger, recently did an interview with Alan Arnette discussing Alpenglow’s spring plans on Everest and Lhotse, and our innovative rapid-ascent climbs. Here is the full interview:

Did you change your client experience requirements based on your 45 day program?

No. We hold to the same high standards (perhaps the highest in the industry) for both our traditional and express climbs. This includes a previous 8,000 meter peak expedition as well as at least 5 peaks over 19,000 feet, 30 days in crampons, a minimum of 3 days of steep ice climbing, 3 days of rock climbing (multi-pitch) and excellent familiarity with big mountain rope systems. The only exception to these standards may be with 1-on-1 privately guided climbs. But even on privates we encourage this level of experience.

Did you reject any clients based on your 45 day program requirements?

We turned away clients this spring that were not yet ready for Everest based on our standards. This was true for both the 45-day program and our traditional itinerary.

How long do the clients spend in the Hypoxico tents in total?

At least 4 weeks, although we recommend longer when possible. A longer timeframe is especially important if a member might occasionally miss a night in their tent due to business trips, etc.

Any concern of delays and the impact on preacclimitization?

It is something we consider. But we think that even if a week goes by during travel and possible delays in Kathmandu, the pre-acclimatization will still be effective.

Will you fly in and out of EBC and not trek at all in the Khumbu?

We include helicopter flights to Lobuche (16,210 feet/4,940 meters), and from EBC, as part of our 45-day climb. Lobuche is a good altitude to arrive at, and allows us to go straight into our acclimatization climbs of Lobuche and/or Island Peak. This is an attractive option for climbers who have done previous climbs in the Khumbu, and have previously experienced the trek.

This year, our group decided we still wanted to trek from Lukla, but on a rapid schedule. With our pre-acclimatization, we plan on hiking from Lukla to Dingboche in 2 days, and then spending a week on Island Peak climbing, skiing, and acclimatizing (including at least 2 nights sleeping on the summit). So we get to enjoy the trek and all of the fun the Khumbu offers, but in an unusual way.

Will you be taking the helicopter directly to C2 or starting from EBC at 17,500?

After acclimatizing on Island Peak we will walk to EBC, and we will be climbing from EBC.

 I personally believe there is a valid discussion to have regarding the use of helicopters to transport goods and even potentially people over the icefall. This could significantly reduce risk to the Sherpa, minimizing their trips through the icefall, as well as to clients. Many other peaks in the world (Mt. Blanc, Elbrus, Matterhorn, Denali, Eiger) utilize mechanical transport as an option as part of an ascent. I believe this could become a valid option in climbing Everest. Of course a climb that begins below the icefall is more difficult than one that begins in C2. But this has always been true and the starting point has always been arbitrary. A climb that begins in Lukla is easier than one that begins in Jiri, which is still easier than one that walks in from Kathmandu or even the closest ocean.

There is so much discussion currently on the various levels of assistance many climbers use during ascents of Everest. I believe the most important thing is that climbers acknowledge the “help” they utilize in their climbs, including oxygen, Sherpa, western guides, fixed ropes, helicopters, rescues, and medications such as dexamethasone. While I do not believe there is only one correct style to climb big peaks, it is important to recognize the different level of challenge and risk a climber takes on when they do or do not use these forms of help. I think all of our records of ascents should have a parenthesis after our name, with a description of the style we climbed in.

Will you spend a night at C3?

Yes we certainly plan on a night in C3. In my past experience, this night is valuable in each climber’s preparation and comfort with the upper mountain.

Our pre-acclimatization really only speeds the initial 2 or 3 weeks of the trip. Once we arrive in base camp, we plan on a complete acclimatization schedule. In my experience, and with the consideration of the icefall’s danger, I believe this is best accomplished by a week or so on another 6,000 meter (20,000 feet) peak, and then a single acclimatization trip through the icefall that will spend at least a week based in Camp 2, with a tag of 7,000 meters first, and then a night at Camp 3.  

What is your acclimatization process for your Sherpas given your clients are on the 45 day program?

Since our sherpa live in the Khumbu and have already been to EBC to establish our camp, their level of acclimatization will be similar to us through our use of hypoxic tents. In the first weeks of the trip, our sherpa will split their time between climbing with us on Island Peak, and beginning to work on Everest itself. Their acclimatization, as usual, will most likely lead ours!

We do want to be sure that even though some of us are arriving a bit later than the norm, our team still contributes to the group effort of fixing ropes on the mountain. Our sherpa and guides will be acclimatized and ready to help with load carrying, rope fixing and rescues as needed.

When will you clients start using supplemental Os?

We plan on beginning O2 use while sleeping at C3 on our summit bid. This has worked well in the past, and seems like a reasonable place to begin. I like the effort it takes to climb to C3 without supplemental oxygen, and I believe it gives everyone confidence in their own abilities, and their teammates.

What level of Os will you clients use 2, 3, 4 or higher lpm?

4 L/minute. This flow rate allows climbers to stay warm, perform at a high level, and move efficiently. I have seen the use of 4L/min to be especially effective on busy summit days. At this flow rate it is possible to pass slower climbers and to climb off the fixed ropes when necessary (generally roped and led by a guide or Sherpa). If more climbers had this strength, confidence, climbing ability, and support from competent guides and Sherpa, we could reduce traffic jams significantly. This is especially true in places like the Lhotse Face and the Triangle Face, where in periods of good snow conditions it is completely reasonable to climb off the fixed lines and utilize traditional mountaineering techniques – solid ice axe and crampon techniques combined with rope-work and competent guides, Sherpa, and teammates.

I believe Alps guiding on busy peaks like Mt. Blanc provide an excellent examples of these techniques. The technical standard of guiding on Everest is extremely low as compared to the Alps, and this limits teams’ solutions to problems like crowding. The vast majority of the terrain on Everest is appropriate for short-roping and short-pitching if and when the fixed lines are busy. While it is of course easier to rely on the fixed lines, all guides should have the ability to short-rope when needed, and they should have the strength, high oxygen flow-rates, and low guide to client ratios necessary to make this a viable option. I am really excited to see Sherpa begin to earn their IFMGA mountain-guide certification, and believe this should be standard for both foreign and local guides in the upcoming years.

Will you staff extra Sherpa support in case the pre-acclimitzation program does not meet expectations?

We provide 1:1 sherpa to member ratios, and 1:3 guide to member ratios. If the pre-acclimatization program does not meet our expectations, we will slow our itinerary as necessary to fully acclimatize. Since this is our second 8000-meter peak in the past 12 months where we are offering an express itinerary, we are confident the pre-acclimatization does work, and climbers will arrive into EBC strong and ready for their first acclimatization climb through the icefall.

On a opinion level, do you think this breaks the “spirit” of mountain climbing and encourages a peak bagging approach to Everest?

Absolutely not. I hope it opens the opportunity to climb a peak like Everest to some people who in the past could not take a full 2 1/2 months away from family, work, or other obligations. I do not believe it will cause an erosion of the spirit of mountain climbing. Our climbers will still have to train extensively, dedicate time and effort to preparation, perform at a high level throughout the expedition, and form strong partnerships with their teammates. They will be challenged physically and mentally by the climb and the mountain. I believe these are the key components of the spirit of mountaineering, and they remain true for an expedition to Everest whether it begins from a faraway ocean and takes months, or utilizes modern technology to fly into Lukla or Lobuche or beyond.

Finally, I had heard you will be skiing down from the summit. Is this true and any details on this?

If mountain and human conditions allow, Sergey Baranov and I plan to attempt to ski Lhotse (not Everest). I have been dreaming of skiing the upper couloir on Lhotse for years. But I have only seen it in condition once in recent years, in 2011. So we will have to wait and see. It will take a lot of luck to have the conditions necessary, and to be in position to attempt a ski. This goal is also complicated by our hopes to also climb Everest. We will have to see how summit windows shake out this spring to see if attempting both is possible.