I follow Everest climbing season on and off -- my ex's father and sister are mountain climbers, and that got me into following mountaineering, especially the 8000-meter big ones. Today, news broke of an ice fall in the Khumba Icefall
, on the South Col route
-- historically one of the most deadly spots. Initial reports are saying anywhere between 12 and 16 dead, all Sherpas, with over a hundred people stranded above the Icefall (where they were trekking gear to Camp 1 or Camp 2), and unconfirmed reports that the ladder in the Icefall has been damaged or destroyed.
If the ladder is gone and can't be repaired, that pretty much drops the bottom out of this year's window -- maybe 10% (or less) of people who are trying to summit Everest these days have the technical skill and high-altitude mountain climbing experience to handle that area of the climb without the help. It's going to be an ugly season.
I can hold forth for a while on the state of Everest these days. I have a lot of opinions for somebody who would never dream of getting anywhere near it myself. Long story short: Everest climbing has turned into a perfect storm of the Western world marketing "climbing Everest" as one of those 'hardcore life-altering experiences', a number of unqualified people setting themselves up as guides to cash in on that marketing, a 'free market' for guiding where there's no regulation or objective standard of quality guiding so clueless hardcore-sports-tourists have no means by which to evaluate the capabilities of the expedition leaders to handle shit if shit gets ugly, a tendency to try to compete on price because aforementioned clueless mountaineering-tourists balk at paying what the non-shady expedition leaders charge, and over it all, the driving motivations (and associated ethical complications) of the Nepalese government depending on that Western money for support, thus creating incentives for them to maximize the number of people who buy permits every year. There's a lot
of additional factors, but all of those combine to create a perfect storm of completely unqualified climbers being led by completely inadequate expedition leaders who rely on the Sherpas and don't give them anywhere near enough credit -- or pay -- which leads to resentment that's been bubbling for a while, to the point where last year there was a confrontation that nearly turned deadly. Everest is full of people who are trying to commit suicide in the messiest way possible and take a lot of people with them, and the honest and capable expedition leaders not only have to clean up the mess on the mountain but also deal with the market forces and the fallout later.
The fact is, though, that nobody would climb Sagarmatha (which is what the Sherpas call the mountain, although that's a recent coinage; before they used the Tibetan name, Chomolungma) without Sherpa aid and Sherpa knowledge. The Sherpas set the ropes up the entire mountain ahead of any other climbers, carry supplies up the mountain from camp to camp before any climbers start behind them, serve as porters for climbers throughout the process of climbing, and pack out all the trash (and I do mean all the trash, including human waste) behind. They're the first ones in at the beginning of the season and the last ones out at the end. Every person who's summitted the mountain in modern times has done so relying on the work of a Sherpa, and -- although this is changing somewhat (but not fast enough for a lot of the Sherpas) -- often without giving any credit to the Sherpas that make it possible.
So I'm saddened to hear that a dozen (or more) Sherpas died yesterday on the mountain (because the moutain will kill you as easily as not; it will not notice, it will not care), but I'm even more sad that they were there on that mountain because of alpine adventure tourism and Western demand. I've been pleased to see several news articles about the icefall include and acknowledge some of the ethical quandaries and the stark realities of Everest tourism. I wish this could help make meaningful change in how the commodified "climb Mt Everest" industry runs these days, and helps to get some of those unqualified people being duped by unethical expedition leaders off the mountain until they're at least a little more qualified, but I doubt it will.