For those climbing Mount Everest, meeting the challenge has always relied on teamwork, friendship, communication, trust, dedication, and shared values. But those virtues have recently been undermined by crowds and misunderstanding on the mountain—and, late last month, by a fight between foreign climbers and the Sherpas who work on the mountain.
The situation has been resolved to the extent that both parties involved have made peace. But the Everest community must take this opportunity to address some big underlying challenges as more and more people look to climb the world's highest peak. (Read "Maxed Out on Everest: How to fix the mess at the top of the world" in National Geographic magazine.)
I have been climbing in the Himalaya for 25 years. Expeditions to the Karakoram of Pakistan, the Garhwal of India, and the Khumbu region of Everest have defined my career. My background includes three ascents of Everest, a high point, and the loss of friends to the vicissitudes of the high alpine environment, all low points.
After Alex Lowe died on Shishapangma in 1999, I realized we needed to give something back to the indigenous people who make our adventures possible. Now in its tenth year, the Khumbu Climbing Center that I co-founded offers technical training for the people of Nepal who work at altitude. I have worked on commercial Everest expeditions and was part of rope-fixing operations in 1999 and 2012. (See video: Everest Tourism Changed Sherpa Lives)
So my experience with both the Sherpa and the climbing community runs deep. Here are three major improvements we can make on Everest to help prevent another fight:
1. Limit the Crowds
The crowding of the majority of Everest's climbers on a single route is bound to be the tinder for conflict. The Ministry of Civil Aviation and Tourism of Nepal, the commercial operators, and the climbers need to address carrying capacity. The difficulty of climbing above 8,000 meters—a combination of jet stream winds, cold temperatures, and the paucity of oxygen—limits the days that climbers can summit safely. The narrow climbing windows that result exacerbate the crowds and the tense environment. We need to identify how many people can safely be on the South Col route, the main path up Everest.
Alaska's Denali National Park has set the quota of climbers there at 1,500 a season. Grand Canyon National Park has a set number of permits to float the river. What might the carrying capacity of the South Col route on Everest be? At the moment, there's no official answer. For the Nepali people who work on the mountain, respect, fair compensation, and a safe work environment will influence their take on what would make for a reasonable quota. For the government of Nepal, meanwhile, maximizing royalties from climbing permits contribute to the overall welfare of the nation.
Three ways to set quota levels for Everest are by experience, lottery, and fees. While an increase in fundamental skills of those climbing Everest is necessary, limiting the peak to professional climbers isn't the solution. Any climber, Nepali or Western, should have a previous expedition to Nepal to be granted a permit. This would familiarize the climbers with the challenges of altitude and benefit the people and government of Nepal.
Instituting a lottery system in which all applications are chosen at random is another way to address the imbalance between demand and supply. Increasing the cost of a climb, particularity the permit—which now runs about U.S. $10,000—is a third way of limiting people.
The now familiar images of climbers backed up at the Hillary Step, a steep section below the summit, highlight Everest's current congestion. Tempers flare when people are too close for comfort, helping explain the late April fight between foreign climbers and Sherpas.
2. Introduce a Rescue Team
On Denali and in the Alps' Mont Blanc, rescue teams are stationed to assist adventurers in distress. But such teams can do much more, offering education and helping ease tensions caused by increased visitation. Perhaps Everest is ready for a dedicated team of climbers that would be able to assist climbers, communicate with expeditions, oversee rescue flights, and facilitate a safe working environment. (Related: What Gives Elite Everest Climbers Their Edge?)
This team would be responsible for the ropes on the upper mountain. The South Col route is a climb with in situ protection; gear placed by earlier expeditions is left on the mountain and fresh ropes are fixed each season to ensure safe passage. With the Sherpas making multiple carries for their Western clients, the fixed ropes are a way to increase the safety margin for both client and guide. Given their importance to the business of Everest, the climbing community should commit to fixing the ropes with a dedicated professional team.
With 300 visiting Everest climbers a year, Nepal collects about U.S. $3,000,000 annually. By reinvesting a portion of this money into a team of Sherpas working on the mountain for the betterment of all climbers, we'd ease tensions between foreign climbers and Sherpa workers. Some Everest Sherpas have been on exchange to Denali National Park for the past four years and could act as the core of an Everest rescue team.
3. Improve Communication
The Everest community goes to great lengths to keep expedition leaders on the same page and to bring high-altitude Sherpas and support staff into the loop. While the general meeting at the beginning of the season is a good start, establishing a central communication hub that's not associated with commercial expeditions would help prevent the kind of conflict that broke out last month.
Having the kind of rescue team mentioned above—one that is not attached to a commercial guided group or an elite professional team—is one way to have a central clearing point for information on the mountain. The team could broadcast daily updates on conditions and estimates of people at each camp via a dedicated radio frequency. By noting where parties are on the mountain and the work they're doing, the congestion that was at the start of the recent dispute could have been avoided.
Good communication is aided by the knowledge that all climbers, from staff to guide to client, have the end goal of a safe experience on the mountain. When we treat each other with dignity and respect we honor the spirit of Tenzing Norgay's and Ed Hillary's ascent of May 29, 1953. We climb the mountain for the adventure and challenge. But we can only realize those goals through cooperation with other humans.