The 2015 Ever­est climb­ing sea­son is under­way, and if pre­vi­ous years have been any indi­ca­tion, it should be anoth­er inter­est­ing year on the world’s high­est peak. Over the past few sea­sons we’ve seen every­thing from awe inspir­ing per­son­al accom­plish­ments to unbe­liev­able tragedy play out on the slopes of the “Big Hill,” mak­ing it a sym­bol for both incred­i­ble inspi­ra­tion and extreme sor­row. Add in grow­ing ten­sions between a vari­ety of fac­tions oper­at­ing on the moun­tain, and we enter this sea­son with a con­tin­ued air of uncer­tain­ty sur­round­ing the pro­ceed­ings. It is dif­fi­cult to say just how this sea­son will unfold, but here are some things to keep an eye on in the weeks ahead. 

Back to Busi­ness
Climb­ing Ever­est is big busi­ness, both for the com­mer­cial guide ser­vices that oper­ate on the moun­tain, and for the gov­ern­ments of Nepal and Chi­na. The two coun­tries issue per­mits for climb­ing on the South and North Sides respec­tive­ly, and col­lect hefty fees in the process. Fol­low­ing last year’s unprece­dent­ed shut­down of the South Side after a trag­ic acci­dent claimed the lives of 16 porters in an avalanche, there were some ques­tion as to whether or not that busi­ness would be impact­ed this year. While some of the com­mer­cial teams have shift­ed from the South Side to the North, there does­n’t appear to be any slow­down in the demand for Ever­est. Most com­pa­nies report full ros­ters for 2015, which means the moun­tain is like­ly to be as crowd­ed as ever. And with prices con­tin­u­ing to go up each year, there is clear­ly a lot of mon­ey to be made.

But Not Every­one is Back
While most of the com­mer­cial oper­a­tors are return­ing to Ever­est this year with plen­ty of clients in tow, some have decid­ed that the polit­i­cal cli­mate, chang­ing envi­ron­ment, and con­tin­ued uncer­tain­ty on the moun­tain are ample rea­sons to stay away. The Peak Freaks, a com­pa­ny that has been lead­ing moun­taineers up Ever­est for near­ly 25 years, has can­celled its 2015 and 2016 expe­di­tions. Instead, they will focus on other—less crowded—mountains in the region. The Peak Freaks may not be alone in that deci­sion either. If the Ever­est 2015 sea­son does­n’t go smooth­ly, there could eas­i­ly be oth­er high pro­file com­pa­nies jump­ing ship as well. No need to wor­ry about find­ing a com­mer­cial guide ser­vice to lead future expe­di­tions how­ev­er, as more and more Sher­pa-owned com­pa­nies are pop­ping up in Nepal, bring­ing new, less-cost­ly options with them.

Ice Fall

Increas­ing Dan­ger
The avalanche that claimed the lives of the 16 Sher­pas last year was the result of the col­lapse of a hang­ing serac—a giant piece of ice—over a cru­cial sec­tion of the climb on the South Side. That ser­ac had been in place for years, but final­ly gave way due to the increased impact of cli­mate change on the moun­tain. The Ice Fall Doc­tors, a group of Sher­pa charged with main­tain­ing the treach­er­ous route through the Khum­bu Ice Fall, feel that the dan­ger still remains in 2015, and as a result they are shift­ing a sec­tion of the route in an attempt to avoid a repeat of last year’s dis­as­ter. But chang­ing con­di­tions on the Lhotse Face have brought increased dan­ger to oth­er parts of the moun­tain as well. As the glac­i­ers on Ever­est retreat, all phas­es of the climb are start­ing to be impact­ed. That means that it could be even more dif­fi­cult to safe­ly climb and descend from the sum­mit. Add in the grow­ing crowds on the moun­tain, and Ever­est could be as dan­ger­ous now as it has ever been. 

High Alti­tude Inspi­ra­tion
As always, there will be a pletho­ra of inspir­ing sto­ries that make their way out of Ever­est Base Camp. For exam­ple, U.S. Marine Char­lie Linville lost his leg to an IED in Afghanistan back in 2011, and he is now prepar­ing to climb the moun­tain as part of the Heroes Project. Linville’s efforts will no doubt serve as inspi­ra­tion to oth­ers who are fac­ing adver­si­ty of their own. He’ll be joined on the expe­di­tion by oth­er vet­er­ans with a sim­i­lar sto­ry, as the team works togeth­er to over­come phys­i­cal and men­tal chal­lenges on their way to the top of the world. Each spring, a num­ber of inter­est­ing per­son­al­i­ties arise from the Ever­est scene, and I’m sure 2015 will be no dif­fer­ent. As we get clos­er to the start of the sea­son, which typ­i­cal­ly comes around the start of April, look for oth­er inspir­ing sto­ries to emerge. 

"Kilian jornet Grand raid 2010" by Cecuber - collection personnelle. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kilian_jornet_Grand_raid_2010.JPG#/media/File:Kilian_jornet_Grand_raid_2010.JPG
“Kil­ian jor­net Grand raid 2010” by Cecu­ber — col­lec­tion per­son­nelle. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wiki­me­dia Commons

Kil­ian Jor­net Goes For Speed Record
Acclaimed moun­tain run­ner Kil­ian Jor­net is hop­ing to set a speed record for the fastest climb on Ever­est this spring. He’ll be climb­ing on the North Side in Tibet and hopes to make a round-trip jour­ney from Base Camp to the sum­mit, and back, in rough­ly 35 hours. That would indeed be incred­i­bly fast for any climber, but it pales in com­par­i­son to Pem­ba Dor­je Sher­pa’s mark of 8 hours and 10 min­utes to the sum­mit on the South Side. Pre­vi­ous­ly, Jor­net has set speed marks on Denali, Aconcagua, Mont Blanc, and oth­er high peaks, but he has nev­er faced a chal­lenge like Ever­est. This will be the first 8000-meter moun­tain of his career, and it will cer­tain­ly test his skills. 

A New Route
Three elite climbers are fore­go­ing the more tra­di­tion­al routes up the North Ridge and the South Col of Ever­est in favor of attempt­ing a com­plete­ly new path to the sum­mit. The team includes Cana­di­an climber Raphael Slaw­in­s­ki, and Ger­mans David Goet­tler and Daniel Bartsch, each of whom has exten­sive expe­ri­ence on big moun­tains. The trio will attempt to sum­mit with­out the use of bot­tled oxy­gen, fixed ropes, or Sher­pa sup­port along the dif­fi­cult North­east Face. If suc­cess­ful, it will be the first new route opened on the moun­tain since 2004. 

Expect the Unex­pect­ed
There was once a time when an Ever­est sea­son moved along like clock­work and you could accu­rate­ly pre­dict with some degree of cer­tain­ty just how events would unfold. That cer­tain­ly has­n’t been the case in recent years how­ev­er when we’ve seen unprece­dent­ed shut­downs on both sides of the moun­tain (Chi­na closed the North Side in 2008 to take the Olympic torch to the sum­mit), high pro­file brawls between west­ern climbers and the Sher­pas, and wealthy moun­taineers going rogue to fur­ther their own ambi­tions. Watch­ing some of these events unfold on the biggest stage in all of moun­taineer­ing has been both appalling and frus­trat­ing at the same time. But these events have also taught us one thing—when it comes to Everest—expect the unexpected.


The Sum­mit is an award-win­ning 2013 doc­u­men­tary that fol­lows the sto­ry of 25 climbers who in 2008 attempt­ed to sum­mit K2, a Himalayan mon­ster that’s con­sid­ered one the world’s most per­ilous peaks.

K2 is only 237 meters short­er than Mt. Ever­est and one out of every four climbers who attempts its sum­mit dies. The climb­ing is bru­tal with steep tech­ni­cal sec­tions on ice pitch­es and unpre­dictable weath­er. Some years its sum­mit goes com­plete­ly untouched.

The Sum­mit, which picked up the Edit­ing Award in the World Cin­e­ma Doc­u­men­tary cat­e­go­ry at the Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val, attempts to explain why K2 has a rep­u­ta­tion as The Sav­age Moun­tain and explain what hap­pened on that fate­ful day in August 2008 when 11 climbers died attempt­ing the fabled peak.

You can catch this grip­ping doc­u­men­tary in the­aters now. 

Grayson Schaffer

Grayson Schaffer

Since before Edmond Hillary stood atop Mount Ever­est in 1953 the Sher­pa peo­ple of Nepal have assist­ed climbers hop­ing to sum­mit the tallest peak in the world. In an econ­o­my with lim­it­ed prospects for finan­cial gain many Sher­pa have few choic­es but to face the rig­ors of com­mer­cial climb­ing expe­di­tions in order to feed their fam­i­lies. And when these men die while per­form­ing extreme­ly haz­ardous tasks, their sur­viv­ing fam­i­ly mem­bers are not only left with­out a pri­ma­ry wage earn­er but they sel­dom receive ade­quate insur­ance ben­e­fits to help com­pen­sate for their loss. 

In his fea­ture report, “The Dis­pos­able Man,” which appeared on the cov­er of the August 2013 edi­tion of Out­side mag­a­zine, senior edi­tor Grayson Schaf­fer explores the rea­sons behind the star­tling one per­cent mor­tal­i­ty rate (lat­er we’ll show you why that’s real­ly high) of Sher­pa guides and reveals some of the cold real­i­ties sur­round­ing this dead­ly profession.

In an occu­pa­tion with one of the high­est death rates in the world, are com­mer­cial climb­ing oper­a­tors and their clients ask­ing the Sher­pa to pay too high a price for their adven­ture experience?

Below, The Clymb talks with Grayson Schaf­fer about some of the issues involved in cre­at­ing a Sher­pa safe­ty net:

The Clymb: Can you describe the cir­cum­stances that brought the issue of Sher­pa safe­ty to your atten­tion and what prompt­ed you to write about it?

Schaf­fer: In the spring of 2012 I was at Ever­est base camp with an Eddie Bauer team and from the first day that I got there, Sher­pa were dying. Last year I think there were three, maybe four. It seemed like there wasn’t a lot of atten­tion paid to these deaths. Then all of a sud­den on May 18th we had six west­ern climbers die and the world news media went into over­drive. The cable news chan­nels start­ed erupt­ing. I began doing a lot of inter­views from base camp and it stuck in my mind that there was this miss­ing piece.

grayson-schaffer-disposable-man-featured2Every few years you have these big dis­as­ters, like in ’96 or in the David Sharp year, which was ’06 over on the north side, where west­ern media does this sort of hand-wring­ing thing where we won­der whether Ever­est is safe enough for peo­ple to climb. And yet there’s this denial and steady blood­let­ting, this trick­le of local work­ers’ deaths that doesn’t get reported. 

I became curi­ous about what hap­pens to their fam­i­lies when they die and what the safe­ty net looks like. Nepal is verg­ing on being a failed state. They’re still oper­at­ing with­out a par­lia­ment. The types of infra­struc­ture that they have—like health­care and life insurance—is very weak in the rest of the coun­try. I was curi­ous to know how far that lack of safe­ty net intrud­ed into the climb­ing world as well. So I went back last Octo­ber and Novem­ber with Melis­sa Arnot to the Khum­bu to try to meet some of these fam­i­lies that had been affect­ed by the climb­ing industry. 

The Clymb: In your arti­cle you com­pare the dan­ger­ous work that Sher­pa do with that done in the most haz­ardous pro­fes­sions in the U.S., specif­i­cal­ly com­mer­cial fish­ing. What is it about Himalayan climb­ing that makes peo­ple not raise a greater sense of out­rage over a one per­cent mor­tal­i­ty rate?

Schaf­fer: The thing about that mor­tal­i­ty rate is it’s hid­ing in the num­bers. The rea­son that peo­ple aren’t out­raged about it I think is because the actu­al num­ber of dead is fair­ly small. But the rea­son for that is because you’re get­ting those casu­al­ties in the span of one to two months in the spring and then maybe a few months in the fall among a very small work­force. So you’ve got this local pop­u­la­tion of Sher­pa that are right around 100,000. Of those maybe about 10,000 are reg­is­tered as work climbers or sir­dars, and among those only a small per­cent­age are work­ing. And they’re work­ing only about two months out of the year in these dan­ger­ous places. But in that amount of time, in those dozen or two dozen laps that they’re mak­ing through the Khum­bu ice­falls and up the Lhotse face car­ry­ing loads there is a very high per­cent­age of mor­tal­i­ty. When you take a look at how much time they are actu­al­ly spend­ing there and how often they’re hav­ing seri­ous acci­dents that’s where that 1.2 to 1.5 per­cent mor­tal­i­ty rate becomes significant.

We’ve heard these num­bers for years giv­en as a sort of chest-thump­ing claim among moun­taineers. When­ev­er some­body writes about Ever­est we hear that only one per­cent of peo­ple who go up the moun­tain die. Those num­bers are adven­ture stats for peo­ple who are going there to climb and go for the sum­mit and climb for the record. But they are work­place safe­ty stats for the peo­ple who work there, the Sher­pa who are car­ry­ing the loads. The thing that we don’t do is make that next log­i­cal step to say that the guys who are help­ing these west­erns get to the top as part of their job are sub­ject to the same forces, the same dan­gers as the guys who choose to be there. 

The Clymb: What’s fas­ci­nat­ing about this is look­ing at this as a work­place safe­ty issue as if were any oth­er job, in any oth­er indus­try. Do you sup­pose that is one of the fail­ings in rec­og­niz­ing the impor­tance of a one per­cent mor­tal­i­ty rate?

Schaf­fer: That is the cen­tral fail­ing because you can’t look at a one per­cent mor­tal­i­ty rate in any work­place and say “that’s great.” It’s only when you dress it up in this his­tor­i­cal con­text of old-school siege-style expe­di­tions with noble ambi­tions that you can will away the cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance. I think it’s help­ful look­ing at that num­ber and com­par­ing it with the jobs we know to be dan­ger­ous, that we make real­i­ty TV shows about, that trum­pet and cel­e­brate the dan­gers. Look­ing at mil­i­tary jobs is anoth­er one. Sta­tis­ti­cal­ly the dan­gers of work­ing on Ever­est are prob­a­bly more dan­ger­ous than being a sol­dier in Iraq and prob­a­bly a lit­tle less dan­ger­ous than being a sol­dier in Viet­nam. That should give you a good idea of how dan­ger­ous it is work­ing in that environment. 

The Clymb: Despite the enor­mous fees that Himalayan tour com­pa­nies charge clients for an Ever­est expe­di­tion why is it that they can­not secure bet­ter salaries and ben­e­fits for their Sher­pa employees?

Schaf­fer: It’s real­ly expen­sive to climb Ever­est. And that’s not just because of the per­mits. You’ve got to fly and car­ry every­thing you need those 35 miles from Luk­la to base camp. It takes a lot of man­pow­er to get the route set and get the moun­tain to where a mid-lev­el west­ern­er that’s decent­ly fit but prob­a­bly not a bril­liant climber can make it to the top. It’s $60,000 to $80,000 when you break down the cost and you’re pay­ing a Sher­pa work­force $4,000 to $6,000 for the spring. You get to these climb­ing rates between $30,000 and $100,000 with the big dif­fer­ence between those being the lev­el of crea­ture com­forts that peo­ple have at base camp and the lev­el of expe­ri­ence of the west­ern guides. If you were going to pay the Sher­pa work­force the same as your west­ern guides across the board it would prob­a­bly cost clos­er to $200,000 to put a west­ern climber on the sum­mit of Ever­est. So there’s a cost issue.

The Ever­est econ­o­my hinges on hav­ing cheap labor to help get all the gear and equip­ment up the moun­tain. I think that one of the things we will see chang­ing here in the next few years is these local out­fit­ters are going to get big­ger and more pow­er­ful. I think already there’s a com­pa­ny called Sev­en Sum­mits Trek that’s come out of nowhere and will prob­a­bly became the largest com­pa­ny oper­at­ing on Ever­est. In the next cou­ple of years it’s going to become local­ly owned and local­ly run. That can real­ly com­pli­cate things. On the one hand you’d think that we’d be in favor of local Nepalese and Sher­pa tak­ing own­er­ship of the indus­try and becom­ing cap­i­tal­ist work­ing for them­selves and mak­ing more of the prof­its. On the oth­er hand, as I wrote about last year, the safe­ty record of a lot of these local out­fit­ters is not yet close to where it needs to be com­pared with your top west­ern out­fit­ters like Alpine Ascents or Rainier Mountaineering.

I think you’re going to see prices falling as some of these larg­er local com­pa­nies assert con­trol. But I also think you’re going to see casu­al­ties prob­a­bly rise among clients and among Sher­pa as guides who are less well trained and clients who are less well pre­pared are tack­ling the moun­tain. At the same time, the Sher­pa fam­i­lies whose hus­bands are work­ing for these local out­fit­ters by far are worse off than the ones work­ing for the top west­ern out­fit­ters. I think some of that is cul­tur­al where the local out­fit­ters, the Sher­pa-baser out­fit­ters, have a some­what more fatal­is­tic view of the dan­gers of work­ing on Ever­est: If it all goes well you’re going to make a lot of mon­ey. If it doesn’t you’re going to die. There’s an insur­ance pay­ment and that’s about it. That’s basi­cal­ly what I saw on the ground last Octo­ber. If a climber had died work­ing for one of these local out­fit­ters they felt bad about it, but the lev­el of addi­tion­al help beyond the basic gov­ern­ment-required insur­ance pay­ment was pret­ty minimal.

The Clymb: What does the future hold for the improve­ment of work safe­ty con­di­tions or at least a bet­ter safe­ty net for Sher­pa?  Will sweep­ing gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion of the busi­ness make a difference?

Schaf­fer: I was pret­ty heart­ened by the government’s deci­sion to bump up the insur­ance rates last June. That was right when we were going to press with this sto­ry and it shocked us. We didn’t expect the gov­ern­ment to get involved and act. When they did that, the biggest push­back that they got was not from the west­ern out­fit­ters but from the local out­fit­ters. As far as build­ing up a safe­ty net that’s where it real­ly needs to be done. When a lot of these local com­pa­nies have prob­lems, whether it’s with their clients or with the work­ers, there’s not real­ly a very big PR cost for them to pay. But when peo­ple like me are snoop­ing around and writ­ing about every mis­take that the big west­ern out­fit­ters make there is a real penal­ty but the local out­fit­ters can kind of slide under the radar.

I think hav­ing those stiffer man­dates is impor­tant. I think there will con­tin­ue to be grow­ing pains with local com­pa­nies con­tin­u­ing to be able to out-com­pete west­ern out­fit­ters on price. West­ern climbers want to climb Ever­est, but so do Indi­an climbers and clients from all over Asia—the demand is not just from the U.S. and Europe any more. Look­ing at price is one of the ways that they’re shop­ping and I think there is still an assump­tion on a lot of people’s part that one Sher­pa guide is as good as the next. There is no real under­stand­ing of how wide­ly the skill lev­els vary and what you’re actu­al­ly get­ting. Things will con­tin­ue to be in flux, but I think they will be able to get it togeth­er and offer a trip that’s safe for the work­ers and safe for the clients, where they’re deal­ing with object haz­ards and less with human error.

Read “The Dis­pos­able Man” from the August 2013 issue of Out­side online here.