As we all know this was a deadly season on Everest with 11 people losing their lives. I think it is time we re-think our approach to climbing the tallest and one of the most dangerous mountains on the planet. It is not my place to tell others what to do, but perhaps my insights, gained over 25 years of climbing, can help to save a life in the future.
So, the question: Can Everest be guided safely? The simple answer, in my opinion, is no. Guiding implies a professional leading the way and helping a novice climber accomplish what they otherwise could not. Above 7,000m and, especially, above 8,000m a guide’s capacity to assist is greatly reduced. According to the standards set by many worldwide guiding associations, guides can no longer meet the requirements of their jobs at these altitudes.
Another question is: Can Everest be professionally led safely? To this, I would say yes. A professionally-led expedition provides a leader to help organize the expedition and to be available for counsel on decisions, but the individual climbers need to be self-sufficient on the mountain. They need to be competent at all the skills required and must be able to do them without assistance. Therefore, I believe that guiding companies that offer such expeditions to inexperienced climbers are putting people’s safety on the line.
When I was on Everest in 2008, I was walking behind a climber in the ice-fall. This climber was connected to the fixed-line, as were we all. Every 50m or so there is an anchor and the tether connecting the climber to the fixed-line must be moved over the anchor and clipped to the other side. This is accomplished with what is called a lobster claw and is quite straightforward. The climber ahead of me had a guide walking right beside him. Every time the climber reached an anchor point the climber would raise his hands above his head and the guide would transfer his lobster claws for him. I could not believe my eyes. Did this climber actually have so little experience they could not be relied upon to transfer their lobster claws safely? I shuttered to think what might happen higher up on the mountain when things got complicated or if some type of an emergency situation cropped up.
I doubt that this climber made it very high, but it was wrong of that guide to take him on the mountain in the first place, and wrong for that climber to even think he should be there, to begin with. As I heard Pat Morrow say just the other day (Pat is the second climber in the world to climb the 7 summits), “People pluck this dream of climbing Everest off a shelf and they have absolutely no understanding of what it entails”. As a society, we have become accustomed to buying whatever we want and being told that anything is possible if we just want it badly enough. We have lost sight of reality.
I feel that climbers should earn their right to go to Everest. They should pay their dues on the mountain after mountain, building up the requisite skills. After learning on several 5,000m, 6,000m and 7,000m peaks, they can try a smaller 8,000m peak. If by that point they feel they are up to the challenge of Everest, go for it. But, buying their way onto a trip of this magnitude and relying disproportionately on others to execute tactical decision-making and satisfy the physical requirements, puts them and others at grave risk.