The Impacts and Hidden Costs of Climbing Mt. Everest

Culture Daily News Global Culture Op-Ed

Following weeks of sleepless nights, biting cold, and risky climbing, Mt. Everest climbers have the possibility of being offered the opportunity to ascend from Camp Four to the summit. They will stand for only a matter of minutes on the mountain’s summit, which is is the highest point on earth, standing at 29,035 ft.

Summit night was a maximum physical and mental effort,” said Lisa Amatangel, who climbed Mt. Everest with International Mountain Guides in 2012. “The desire to stop moving was consuming. That’s when I understood: this is how people die up here.”

Ice doctor
An Ice Doctor (center) carries a ladder while ascending through the Khumbu Icefall. (Photo: Courtesy of Lisa Amatangel)

Although climbing Mt. Everest takes training, experience, and technical climbing skills, there is another crucial human element that the climbers themselves are unable to provide: the help of the Sherpas who work as guides and porters.

“There’s so much lead work done in setting up the camps, that alone it would be impossible [without Sherpas],” said Amatangel candidly.

A majority of climbers ascend Mt. Everest as part of a guided expedition; guided expeditions offer pre-installed fixed ropes, food, shelter, guides for each client (depending on the trip), and a schedule based on weather and acclimatization of the clients.

The price of guided trips differs between company and depends on the amount of support provided. However all are high enough to significantly lighten every climber’s wallet. Prices range from $30,000 for basic trips with limited support to upwards of $100,000, for climbers who would rather climb with a personal western guide and receive all the comforts possible at high altitude (fixed gear, sprawling camps, and communication equipment.)

International Mountain Guides, the company of which Amatangel was a client on Mt.  Everest, will charge $44,000 for their most basic Mt. Everest expedition in the 2016 climbing season, and $114,000 for the more luxurious option which includes one-to-one client-to-western guide ratio and more technical support.

The process of executing a Mt. Everest climb takes weeks. After several months of planning, guides and clients must acclimatize, a time during which they will ascend and descend between base camp, camp one, two, and three. After several weeks of acclimatization, climbers spend the night at camp four, which sits at 26,300 ft., above the 26,000 foot line known as the death zone. At camp four, most climbers begin to breathe bottled oxygen, which they will continue to use until they return. Once the weather is clear, climbers head up to the South Summit, up the Hillary Step, and eventually arrive on the summit.

By the time a climber has reached the summit of Mt. Everest, they have traveled through the treacherous Khumbu icefall between six and eight times. The Khumbu icefall, which from an aerial viewpoint appears as a highway of shifting ice spilling out of a valley, is a glacial “collection” of precariously stacked blocks of ice (known as seracs), littered with gaping crevasses. The crossing can take upwards of seven hours, and must take place at night, as the heat of the sun makes the seracs prone to collapse, making the icefall too dangerous.

“Everyone was a little bit on edge,” commented Amatangel, recalling her experiences in the icefall. A lot of the Sherpa will chant [for protection] the entire time going through the icefall.”

While crossing the Khumbu Icefall is a dangerous endeavor with the aluminum ladders (used for walking over crevasses) and fixed ropes in place, it is a for more dangerous task when these safety measures are not in place. In order to ensure the safety of the clients, it is the climbing Sherpas’ job to set up and maintain the ropes and ladders throughout the climbing season.

Amatangel (right) uses an aluminum ladder set by a Sherpa to cross a crevasse in the Khumbu Icefall. (Photo: Courtesy of Lisa Amatangel)Furthermore, Sherpas are expected to establish and maintain fixed ropes on nearly every difficult pitch of the climb, including the Lhotse face and the Hillary Step.

Amatangel (right) uses an aluminum ladder set by a Sherpa to cross a crevasse in the Khumbu Icefall. (Photo: Courtesy of Lisa Amatangel)
Amatangel (right) uses an aluminum ladder set by a Sherpa to cross a crevasse in the Khumbu Icefall. (Photo: Courtesy of Lisa Amatangel)

On guided expeditions, clients are often treated to the most comfortable conditions possible at high altitude. Separate tents for eating, communication, and medical services are provided. Fax machines are sometimes available (although less often now, given that the mountain has 3G cellular service in many places). Oxygen bottles must also be stashed at several locations between camp four and the summit.

“There’s an immediate respect, because you see the ability of the climbing Sherpas,” said Amatangle.

Sherpas are generally paired with one client, with whom they will climb to the summit. In 2012 Ueli Steck and his teammates began to ascend above Sherpas who were fixing ropes above Camp 2. A fistfight broke out in the camp between the climbers and the Sherpas, who felt both that the climbers had endangered them, and that they had been disrespected. Events such as this one are often used to represent a mutual dislike between climbers and Sherpa, this is generally not the case.

“The climbers and Sherpa must be good friends. They should share their problems with each other so they are known well by each other,” says Ang Dawa Sherpa, the founder of the Nepal-based guiding company Peak Himalaya Adventure. Ang Dawa Sherpa worked with Amatangel when she climbed Imja Tse (better known as Island Peak), a 20,305-foot tall Himalayan peak. “The climber should respect the Sherpa and the Sherpa also must respect the climber.”

As though setting climbing gear was not enough of a risky and dangerous endeavor, Sherpa guides must carry all of this gear between camps, with the exception of a small amount of the client’s personal gear.

“It’s not just the climbing gear, but it’s refrigerators,” Amatangel said frankly. “It all gets walked in on people’s back, or on a yak.”

Clientele climbers are treated with respect, cared for as much as possible and in some cases physically pulled up the mountain (called short-roping), as was the case in 1996 with New York socialite Sandy Pitman, according to Jon Krakauer’s 1997 non-fiction thriller “Into Thin Air.” However the Sherpa porters and guides do not enjoy the same conditions, despite the fact that it is the Sherpas who short-rope clients if necessary. Of the tens of thousands of dollars that clients pay to be on a guided expedition where they will risk their lives daily, the guides risking their lives hourly only see a small fraction of that money.

“Normally, a climbing Sherpa in one Everest expedition earns about 3500 to 4000 US dollars,” said Ang Dawa Sherpa.

While guiding was once a competitive field in Nepal, Ang Dawa Sherpa says this is no longer the case.

“In the beginning there was a really tough competition between the Sherpa as they were very large in number,” commented Ang Dawa Sherpa, when discussing the beginning of his career. Due to the large number of Sherpas killed while working on Mt. Everest in recent years, Ang Dawa Sherpa said that “most of the Sherpa have stopped working on mountains as they found it really risky and very dangerous. So there is not so tough competition currently between the Sherpa”

Ang Dawa Sherpa did note that even today, Sherpa who have been on the summit of Mt. Everest often demand increased wages.

Aside from the physical dangers of working on Mt. Everest, the commercialization of the mountain has had an unchangeable impact on the climate and landscape.

Amatangel stated that the trash she saw on the mountain was less than she had expected after hearing stories, and even went so far as to say that “If everyone was going and trashing the mountain, that would be terrible,” but said, “I haven’t seen that.”

Ang Dawa Sherpa, on the other hand, has a different perspective.

“If we go back to 20 years past, The Everest base camp and all the other mountains had huge glaciers. Currently, the glaciers have no sign of existence at all. In my opinion, this is all due to the pollution and overpopulation.”

Remnants of past expeditions serve as a flagrant marker of the permanent change to the physical landscape of the area. The mountain is literally littered with dead bodies, empty oxygen canisters, and fixed ropes from previous years’ expeditions, according to Ang Dawa Sherpa. Amatangel noted that each climber receives a monetary reward for every oxygen bottle brought off the mountain. Despite this, Nepal’s lack of a federal trash recycling system has contributed to the amounts of trash on Mt. Everest.

“We have National Parks that are beautiful, they would be much more pristine if no one went,” argued Amatangel.” But isn’t part of the beauty of the whole thing to … share, to get people there and hopefully they’ll treat it well and protect the area.”

Despite this unchangeable environmental impact, both climbers and Sherpa alike recognize that the climbing industry the sustains many Nepalese.

“The government of Nepal is highly benefitted by the money or royalty it gets from the climbers. This money has helped a lot in development of our country,” says Ang Dawa Sherpa. “Many people have been employed due to the mountains like the hotels, Sherpa, potters, guides etc.”

Amatangel also made the point, “What’s the alternative?” Of the 14 peaks that stand over 8,000 meters, 8 of them lie within Nepal’s borders. One proposed solution that could help the trash problem and maintain some industry is to limit Mt. Everest to climbers not using bottled oxygen. This carries a significant risk, as a lack of bottled oxygen means the body has a harder time keeping itself warm, and suffers from decreased brain functionality, which leads to poor decision making and impaired climbing ability. The consequences of such a law could also squash the necessary revenue currently collected by those who serve climbers.

Ultimately, Ang Dawa Sherpa seems to think that such a law would be all right.

“It’s all right if only oxygen free climbers would be allowed to climb the Everest. As this would help a lot in maintaining the environment.”

Climbing Mt. Everest is a dangerous endeavour that risks the lives of climbers, guides, and Sherpas. Each climb takes a toll on the health of those involved and the Himalayan environment. These expeditions also support the Sherpas who guide them, the tea houses the climbers stay at along the way, and the Nepali government (due to revenue collected from permits). While every Mt. Everest climb has both benefits and drawbacks, and is ultimately both destroying the environment and supporting a national economy.