Mountaineering :: Trekking :: Ski touring


 This Spring I led my 8th Everest expedition.  As with most of my previous trips this was from the Nepalese side of the mountain and I was working for Jagged Globe.  The expedition had been carefully planned and everything went very smoothly.  We had a comfortable and well-equipped Base Camp, excellent Nepali staff, 3 climbing guides and an 'international' team of 10 climbers.  On the 19th and 20th of May every climber, guide and climbing Sherpa (24 people) reached the 8848m summit of Mt Everest, enabling Jagged Globe to claim 100% success for the second time in 3 years.

A detailed daily 'diary' of the expedition is available on the Jagged Globe website.  What follows is a personal attempt to summarise some of the main issues arising from the 2013 Everest season.

The number of climbers attempting Everest increases every year.  In response to this, expedition companies and leaders grow more skilful at managing the situation.  In a 'good' year, with plenty of suitable summit days (like 2013) there should not be any major problems.  However, every few years there is a season with limited summit opportunities (such as 2012) and this leads to significant overcrowding at 'bottlenecks', causing several weak or poorly supported climbers to come to grief.

On the plus side this year, the fixed ropes were better quality than ever before and the majority of Sherpas working on the mountain were well clothed and well equipped (mostly wearing helmets where necessary).  On the negative side there was an alarming number of people attempting the mountain (many from India or China) who knew nothing about climbing and were totally reliant on being pushed and pulled up and down the mountain by their Sherpas.  A growing number of (mostly Nepali based) expedition companies cater for them.

2013 was the 60th anniversary of the first ascent of Everest.  In Nepal, several events were planned to mark this occasion and this ensured that international media would be more focused than ever on the highest mountain in the world.  No one could have predicted that on 27th May a minor argument between three European climbers and a larger number of Sherpas would command so much international news coverage.  I was not a witness to this incident and cannot give a first hand account. However the consensus among experienced expedition leaders and senior Sherpas was that both sides behaved badly: the Europeans in the original incident and some of the Sherpas in the subsequent over-reaction.

The leaders, senior Sherpas and a Nepali Government representative brokered a conciliatory 'compromise' statement at Base Camp.  Most climbers assumed the incident was over and the Sherpas returned to work.  The three climbers at the centre of the drama left Base Camp and quickly used their access to the media to present their version of events to the outside world.  These reports became the basis for ill informed analysis and speculation about the state of mountaineering in Nepal and, also, relations between Sherpas and western climbers.

Here is my attempt to put this situation into perspective.

More than 99% of the world's peaks are open to 'amateur' mountaineers to climb in any style they think appropriate.  In Himalayan countries there are usually 'peak fees' to be paid, and in addition, many areas have local traditions regarding style and ethics that visiting climbers are expected to respect, but having said this, almost all mountains are essentially 'unregulated'.

There are about a dozen peaks around the world that are disproportionately popular.  While these may attract some 'traditional' mountaineers they are characterised by the fact that they mostly attract inexperienced climbers, many of whom use the services of professional guides to facilitate their ascents.  By any measure these peaks are busy and in all cases ways have been found to manage the high numbers sharing the mountain.  Kilimanjaro is not a technically difficult climb but, nonetheless, all ascents are managed by the Tanzanian Govt via a National Park; similarly Denali is managed by the US National Parks Dept.  Access to Mt Vinson in Antarctica is managed by a private company (ANI) acting within the provisions of the Multinational Antarctic Treaty.  The French and Swiss governments do not formally manage Mt Blanc and the Matterhorn but the hut systems of the CAF and SAC together with the large numbers of IFMGA guides, effectively provide a managed infrastructure on these peaks.  Climbing activities on Aconcagua, Cotopaxi, Mt Rainier and a handful of other peaks can be explained in similar terms.  

Everest is unique in several ways, quite apart from being the world's highest mountain.   Naturally, it falls into the category of 'busy' peaks requiring a large amount of cooperation and coordination between climbers.  A large amount of preparatory work (rope fixing) is shared between all the visiting expeditions and the annual pre-monsoon summit window lasts only a few days each year.

Conflicts between climbers are no less rare than among ordinary members of the public.  The vast majority of climbs are incident free, but on busy mountains people sometimes lose their tempers and trade insults and occasionally blows (particularly where cross cultural misunderstandings are involved).  On any given day in August this probably happens several times on the Hornli Ridge of the Matterhorn! The fact that one such incident occurred on Everest during May 2013, in my opinion, does not say anything significant about the developing relationship between Nepali Sherpas and western climbers.  It does highlight the fact the Everest is now a very busy mountain where good cooperation and coordination between all the climbing teams is essential.  When small groups of climbers with their own agendas choose to act in a way that conflicts with the prevailing orthodoxy they should not be too surprised if problems result.

This may seem to fly in the face of traditional climbing freedoms, but on the standard routes on the world's dozen busiest mountains, that is the way it is, and everyone visiting these peaks knows this.  What are 'leading climbers' doing on Mt Everest's 'normal route' anyway?  Surely there are better opportunities for challenging new routes on K2, Kanchenjunga, and Nanga Parbat.

Apart from this incident and the disproportionate news coverage generated by it, 2013 was a 'normal' year on Everest.  The number of climbers continues to grow steadily and this provides the greatest challenge to expedition leaders looking to climb in the coming years.  Better ways of coordinating the resources of all the expeditions need to be found to give all climbers the best chance of reaching the summit with an adequate safety margin.  In the long term this may prove to be difficult, but in the short term providing double fixed-lines for most of the route between Camp 2 and the summit would help the situation.  At the height of the climbing season, Mt Blanc and the Matterhorn are climbed by several hundred people each day and infrastructure has been developed to enable this to be achieved safely - who is to say that Everest cannot support similar numbers in the future with correct management?

There seems little consideration in most accounts of Everest ascents about what levels of support are acceptable or desirable.  For most people 'getting to the top' is the only thing that matters and most commentators would not know the difference been ascents made with Sherpa support and bottled oxygen and those made without.  While not wishing to take anything away from those who have climbed Everest with a lot of oxygen and a lot of Sherpas I would like to see more recognition given to the small number of people who climb Everest the 'hard way'.  Prior to the growth in commercial Everest expeditions in the mid 1990s a significant number of Everest summiteers climbed without bottled oxygen.  As the figures stand at present there have been about 5,500 ascents of Everest by 3,500 individuals (the difference between the two figures is explained by guides and Sherpas who have made multiple ascents).  There have been fewer than 200 ascents without the use of bottled oxygen, and this figure is increasing far more slowly than the number of total ascents.

The few people who climbed Everest without bottled oxygen in 2013 received little recognition while ascents by an 80 year old Japanese man ('assisted' by 4 Sherpas and using 'lots' of oxygen) and others climbing multiple summits (with Sherpas and oxygen) made the news headlines.

Because of my responsibilities as an expedition leader and guide I have not had the opportunity to make an oxygenless ascent of Everest.  If I was going to attempt this I would probably have been best to try before reaching my mid 50s. However I have made five other 8000m ascents without bottled oxygen.  I usually climb to 8000m on Everest without supplementary oxygen, and have climbed to the summit several times using 'minimal' oxygen and without Sherpa support.  I can attest that this is much more difficult than a Sherpa supported ascent with 'maximum' oxygen.  I am under no illusions that a totally oxygen free ascent is much harder still.

Messner set the standards on Everest with his 1978 oxygen free ascent and his 1980 oxygen free solo.  It seems a backward step that today's climbers are seeking recognition for projects on Everest that use both Sherpa support and bottled oxygen.

I am not entirely happy with the direction that mainstream commercial and guided Everest expeditions are developing in.  However this is a complex picture with many different 'stakeholders'.  I think that the leading western guiding companies are a force for good on the mountain and the situation would be much worse without their presence.  I can foresee a time when these companies are squeezed out by Nepali based interests and it is likely that safety standards will suffer in such a scenario.  Presently the leading western guide companies have an almost zero accident rate on Everest, with the majority of serious incidents and fatalities concentrated among the low-budget Nepali operators.

I believe that my experience of 8 Everest expeditions plus 7 other 8000m expeditions gives me the knowledge and skills to offer a high quality service to the climbers who join my Everest expeditions.  As long as there are companies willing to hire me, and clients willing to join my expeditions I am happy to continue leading Everest expeditions for a few more years to come. Perhaps until my personal tally of Everest summits reaches double figures.

I shall certainly not be trying to set any age related records on Everest when I am in my 80s.  As far as I am concerned golf and fishing were invented to give 80 year olds things to do.

David Hamilton, Vallouise / Ecrins June 2013

David Hamilton
High Adventure
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