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Monday, December 29th, 2014 04:38 pm

I was chatting on Twitter last night about the disaster on Everest earlier this year. Michael Story asked me if "climbers mostly think Everest industry = Gomorrah?", and I found it hard to give an accurate answer in the form of Tweets. This post is that answer. I should first explain that though I've read several books about high-altitude climbing and Everest in particular, I've never been to Nepal and never climbed in the Greater Ranges; I'm very happy to be corrected by people with more direct knowledge.

Before we talk about Everest directly, we should talk about the notion of "good style" in climbing, which climbers sometimes grandly call "ethics". The best style of ascent is something like this:

  • climbing a technically challenging route
  • from the ground up, in a single push, using only what you carry with you
  • using only your hands and feet to gain height, not artificial aids
  • without using prior knowledge of the route
  • without using protective gear ("free-soloing")
  • and leaving no trace of your passage.

In short, you should be self-reliant. An ascent in this style is not always feasible, but the closer you can get to it, the better the style of your ascent. In particular, climbers will usually use ropes and protective gear, because dying can mess up your whole day. However, even here there's a hierarchy: if you place protection and use ropes but don't weight them ("free climbing") then you could, in theory, have free-soloed the route, so this is better style than either falling or using gear to gain height ("aid climbing").

The requirement is that you should climb in as good a style as you can, and that you should climb a route in at least as good a style as the first ascensionists used (it's perfectly OK, for instance, to aid-climb most routes on El Capitan). If you can't do that, goes the reasoning, you shouldn't be there: go and climb a route that's within your capabilities rather than bringing the mountain down to your level. The key texts here are Reinhold Messner's The Murder of the Impossible, Lito Tejada-Flores' Games Climbers Play and Cesare Maestri's Compressor Route on Cerro Torre (assuming a 300m line of bolts in a rockface with a diesel generator hanging off the top can be a "text").

You might object that these rules make no sense, or that if you climb in a way that violates my idea of "good style" then you're not reducing my enjoyment of my own climbs in any way, as long as you keep to the "leave no trace" rule. To which I say: welcome to the stupid world of human ingroup/outgroup dynamics and shibboleths. I subscribe to these rules to the extent that I think they enhance my enjoyment and capture something important about what mountaineering gives me, but it's certainly possible to be overzealous in their application - see almost any UKClimbing.com forum thread.

Now let's compare the ideal ground-up on-sight free solo climb described above to the typical guided ascent of Everest.

  • the route, while physically very difficult, is technically straightforward
  • it's climbed "siege style", by establishing a number of intermediate camps and stocking them with gear; worse, this is done by hired porters
  • clients make liberal use of bottled oxygen (it's hard to imagine a clearer case of "bringing the mountain down to your level")
  • clients pull on ropes fixed for them by Sherpas
  • clients are guided up by guides who have intimate knowledge of the route, and make no mountaineering decisions themselves
  • tents, oxygen bottles, human waste, dead bodies, etc, are all left in situ (though this is improving).

Given all that, it should be clear that the climbing subculture would look down on guided Everest ascents even if they didn't kill Sherpas in such numbers.

[The word "Sherpa" is ambiguous; it means a minority ethnic group that lives in the region of Nepal and Tibet near Everest, but is also used as a shorthand for "high-altitude porter". High-altitude porters are the highly-skilled people who carry loads and fix ropes above Base Camp; on Everest they are mostly, but not exclusively, ethnic Sherpas, who have various genetic adaptations which make them better able to do hard work at high altitude than most people. Ethnic Sherpas often use "Sherpa" as part of their names. From now on, I'll use "high-altitude porter" or "HAP" when referring to the job, and "Sherpa" when referring to the ethnic group.]

Now, let's talk about safe working conditions.

The standard Nepalese route up Everest goes through a region of broken glacier called the Khumbu Icefall. It's an objectively dangerous place: exposed to avalanche from above, full of ice-cliffs ("séracs") that could collapse at any moment, and riven with crevasses. Navigation through the ice-fall is complex, and must be completed quickly to minimise exposure to avalanche and sérac collapse. Many clients will not have the mountaineering experience to navigate the Icefall safely on their own (stories abound of clients putting on crampons for the very first time when they get to Base Camp), so at the beginning of the season a cross-expedition team of HAPs called the "icefall doctors" find a safe-ish route through the Icefall and prepare it for clients, fixing ropes along the route and bridging crevasses with ladders. As Jon Krakauer explains here, Western clients and guides now spend much less time in the Icefall - and consequently are at much lower risk - than twenty years ago: liberal use of bottled oxygen and prophylactic drugs means they need to take fewer trips through the Icefall to acclimatise for the summit. But someone still needs to fix the route through the Icefall, and make the necessary trips through it to stock the upper camps; this falls to the HAPs, who consequently have a fatality rate between 4 and 12 times that of US military personnel in Iraq.

This really gets to the core of why so many climbers find the Everest circus distasteful. Mountaineering is about challenging yourself in a beautiful environment, sure, but it's also about self-reliance and intelligent risk-management. If you're going to pay someone else to make all the decisions, remove all elements of technical challenge, and do the most dangerous bits for you, what's the point? Summits are meaningless, but the process of attaining them is not; guided Everest climbs dumb down that process, and risk people's lives for a goal that has had all the point sucked out of it.

[I'm talking about Everest guiding specifically, not the wider mountain-guiding industry. I've hired guides myself, and had some great days and learned a lot from doing so. But there the dynamic is different, more like hiring an instructor.]

I said above that the Icefall is an "objectively dangerous" place. This is climbing jargon, and it means that the dangers (like avalanche) are largely uncontrollable. There are undoubtedly more things that could be done to increase safety for HAPs (Krakauer's article suggests a few), but the Icefall is never going to be a safe workplace. The only way to manage risk in the face of objective dangers is to ensure you spend as little time in the danger zone as possible. But the entire business model of the Everest guiding businesses works against this. If you're going to take inexperienced clients on a siege-style ascent of the mountain then you need to fix a route through the Icefall and transport kit for all the intermediate camps through it. Someone has to do that. Per Krakauer, HAPs can earn between $2000 and $8000 in an Everest season; starting wage for a guide at Rainier Mountaineering Inc. is $125 per day entry-level or $250 for someone with the extremely prestigious and difficult IFMGA certification (and someone guiding on Everest is likely to be more experienced, and consequently better-paid). I'm not privy to Himex's accounts, but I doubt they're an obscenely profitable concern: mounting large-scale expeditions to countries with little infrastructure is an expensive business (small-scale Alpine-style expeditions, by contrast, can be done remarkably cheaply, even in the Himalayas). Paying Western rates to do the amount of dangerous load-carrying that a siege-style ascent of the standard route requires would vastly increase their costs, quite possibly to the level at which the business model would become unsustainable.

Now, let's talk about sex work.

As I tried to demonstrate above, Everest guiding is inescapably bound up with the existence of poor people who'll accept very low wages (by Western standards) to do an unavoidably dangerous job. I understand there's an extensive literature on the ethics of constrained choices under capitalism: if Sherpas can make a good living (by their standards) doing a ludicrously dangerous job, are their Western clients exploiting them? This, as various people pointed out on Twitter, is somewhat analogous to sex work, which is also a dangerous job which many workers are forced into by lack of better options. In both cases, reducing the choices available by banning the dangerous one seems unlikely to be a win. But I think there's one big difference: working as a HAP on Everest is unavoidably dangerous, and I'm not at all convinced the same is true of sex work. I'm on shaky ground here, but AIUI the dangers of sex work are mostly human in origin, and we can hope to make things safer for sex workers by, for instance, changing the surrounding legislation; no law you can pass will stop a house-sized lump of ice from falling off the mountain and triggering an avalanche.

[In the spirit of increasing available choices, let me put in a plug for Sherpa Adventure Gear, a Sherpa-owned clothing firm who do most of their manufacturing in Nepal, donate a portion of their profits to a scholarship fund for Sherpa children, and make really good kit.]