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Where is Climbing Everest Headed?

Two mountaineers navigating a glacier on a Gasherbrum II Expedition

As the Alpenglow team sits in Base Camp and waits for the jetstream to shift to allow for Everest and Lhotse summit attempts (and skiing!), we have been having lots of discussions with friends and peers about the future of climbing Mount Everest. Alpenglow is planning some significant changes to our Everest expeditions to maximize Sherpa and climber safety and success. Stay tuned for details on our 2014 Everest season. In the meantime, here is a short piece from Monica about the future of climbing on Everest, originally written for an upcoming book by Simone Moro.

I am writing this short piece for my good friend Simone Moro in March 2013 as I sit in a heated cafeteria at 3842m close to the top of L’Aiguille du Midi in Chamonix. From the huge window beside me, I can see the summit of Mont Blanc with her feathery cloud of windblown snow wisping off the top and making it quite clear that now would probably not be a good time to be up there. The majestic glaciers and rock ridges that complete the view are truly breathtaking. In stark contrast to what I see, the warmth of the cafeteria, the familiar buzz of conversations and coffee machines and the smell of espresso make me ponder on what it really means to be “in the mountains” nowadays. 

Simone and I met at Everest Base Camp in Nepal a few years ago. Since then we have become friends and have had many conversations about climbing, flying, guiding and rescuing both on Mt Everest and on other mountains. Simone’s experience in the world of 8000m peaks is formidable, and I cherish the relaxed times we have spent at base camp exchanging ideas and opinions about the strange and varied world of Himalayan climbing.

When he asked me to write these words, Simone said, “just write an impression about what is happening right now on Everest ” and as I sit here with my espresso at 3842m wearing jeans and street shoes, I think that what is happening on Everest, happened already in the Alps many, many years ago. When Fernand de Bouillé ascended L’Aiguille du Midi for the first time in 1856, little did he know that 150 years later there would be a telecabine taking hundreds of tourists to the top every day. Tourists who largely have no intention of ever learning what a crampon or a rope is, let alone learning what to do with either.

Everest’s South East Ridge is becoming like the Gouter Ridge of Mont Blanc, or the Hornli Ridge of the Matterhorn. Frequently climbed, frequently guided, and frequently catastrophically failed at. Every year, more and more people attempt to climb Mount Everest via it’s “normal” route. Every year more of those people are less experienced, and as a result of this, every year there is the potential for more deaths, more accidents, more disasters and more need for rescues. When climbing in the Alps exploded, and mountain guides began making a living out of taking people to the summits of the 4000m peaks, there were no helicopters, or gendarmes who were willing to jump out of a hovering heli onto a 50cm rock ledge where a climber with a broken leg was awaiting their arrival. These heroics came after…they evolved to meet the demand.

To me, it is not surprising that people want to climb Mt Everest. It is an incredible achievement, it is an incredibly beautiful place, and, it is possible (or at least it is possible to try), and given that those things are true why wouldn’t we try to make all these attempts as safe as possible.

Incredibly technical, dangerous, medicalised helicopter rescues have been a part of every day life in the Alps for many years now. I believe that that will become the case in the Himalaya. With the help of people like Simone and his team of helicopter pilots from Italy with unparalleled experience in technical mountain flying, the possibility of rescuing ill or injured climbers from the highest mountains in the world, is becoming a reality.

Surely this is a good thing! It isn’t a question of encouraging people to take bigger risks because they know they have a “get-out” clause, nor is it a case of trying to attract less experienced climbers to the mountain; it is a case of offering the best service possible to everybody such that fewer people die.

Of course, there is endless controversy about all of this. In part it comes from people who deplore the increasing accessibility of the mountains; but that is happening whether we like it or not; it is a result of “progress”, air travel, media, films and slideshows by professional mountaineers showing the amazing things they do in amazing places, the expertise of mountain guides in Himalayan guiding, the increasing expertise in the field of Mountain Medicine, the increasing expertise of helicopter rescue pilots, the increasing power of helicopters…etc. To deny that the number of people going to Everest is increasing will not help, nor will it prevent accidents or deaths.

There is also a fair amount of criticism and outcry from “alpine purists” who have perhaps dedicated their lives to their passion of climbing in order to gain the skills that allow them to climb a giant peak unsupported, or unaided, or by a new route, or without oxygen. Some of them feel that their achievements are belittled by the hundreds of inexperienced climbers who reach the top of Mt Everest every year with the help of mountain guides, Sherpa, supplemental oxygen, and sometimes a helicopter rescue from a high camp on their descent. But in truth, if there is honest and open documentation of the way in which people have climbed a mountain, there should be no need for concern. Clearly, Simone Moro’s winter ascent of G2 without the use of supplemental oxygen is a different achievement to the ascent of Everest via it’s normal route, using fixed ropes, Sherpa support and 4L/min of supplemental oxygen: but so long as in the world of professional mountaineers, this information is available and transparent at all times, I see no reason to curtail the provision of expertise, safety and rescues at extreme at altitude.

Once upon a time, only a handful of people had climbed Mt Blanc. Now many, many thousands have. Once upon a time, only a handful of people had climbed Mt Everest; now a few thousand have. There are still many thousands of mountains out there in the world that have yet to be trodden by human feet. Those searching for a solitary challenge without support, without people, without aid or assistance, are in the wrong place if they are on the summit ridge of Everest in good weather on a day in late May; and those climbers who find themselves on the summit ridge of Everest in good weather on a day in late May, have the right to be helped down if they need it, taken by helicopter to safety if it is possible and treated by doctors who are experts in high altitude medicine if they require it.

 -Monica Piris, Alpenglow Expeditions