Everest: the ultimate challenge or playground for the rich?

With some tour companies offering rich adventurers a safer route to the peak, is climbing Everest the accomplishment it once was?

Richard Whitehead October 25, 2015

Kathmandu evenings at the yak & yeti, where the conquerers of everest get to eat and drink for free for life, can get rowdy. Deep in the alleys of Durbur Marg, the Yak might have been transplanted from the Wild West, such is the pioneer spirit inside. Its boisterous atmosphere comes from a thrill-seeking clientele that reveres the few who have summited Sagarmatha, as Mount Everest is known locally; and collectively, they gather there to celebrate a shared dream.

There may be two main approaches to the summit of the great mountain, though only one reason why any mountaineer would yearn to reach it: the sheer joy Mallory had described before he himself became lost to its magnificent seduction in June 1924, dressed in “a jacket of tweed and woollen knickers”, destined to lie frozen just a few hundred metres beneath its 8,848-metre peak. This dream is now more accessible than ever, with a growing number of tour companies offering monied adventurers safer and more reliable means to tackle Everest’s peak.

Whenever Everest witnesses a disaster, like the one earlier this year that killed some 20 mountaineers and sherpas, television news channels cannot resist beaming pictures of snaking queues of climbers near the summit in a bid to highlight just how busy the route to the peak can be because, they claim, anyone with the means can now book a place on a package tour to the summit, regardless of their expertise.

Everest Khumbu icefall.jpg The Khumbu icefall on Mount Everest.

We hear of climber jams and stolen ice ladders; stories of unprepared amateurs on the South Col who believe their wealth will save them when their energy and determination run low; and tales of “helicopter climbers” turning one of the planet’s great challenges into no more than a fun trip. Technically, these people might have bragging rights, but not deep down, say the critics. Everyone closer to sea level seems to have a view on it. 

This supposedly over-commercial approach to mountaineering is often blamed by the press for unnecessary loss of life, with experienced climbers forced to slow to the speed of the novices in front of them. In mountaineering, slowing down is not best practice. The number of mountaineers of modest ability and limited experience being drawn to one of the toughest challenges known to man and then spoon-fed through it by tour operators has generated concern for some time.

Nothing is cut and dry on the ceiling of the world, however. For one thing, this perception among the general public is far, far beyond the reality, the old hands will tell you in the Yak & Yeti.

They will tell you that the media fixates on how easy it is for anyone with a backpack and the requisite bank balance to book a place on an expedition, while at the same time ignoring the bravery of anyone who sets out to ascend it. Pragmatic sherpas will concede from their own experience that it is a great achievement for any human to conquer the great summit no matter how much pampering one gets on the way.

Mount EverestAt 8800m on the rock traverse to the final summit ridge.jpg At 8,800m on the rock traverse to the final summit ridge.

Having spent the better part of two decades adventuring and then reporting back to others, New Zealander Grant “Axe” Rawlinson embraced the traditional meaning of the word “expedition” when he set out in a party of experienced mountaineers to scale Everest in 2012. He reached the summit on a day which also saw the deaths of six mountaineers of all abilities.

But Axe doesn’t believe mountain tourism was directly responsible for the fatalities. Out of those deaths, none could be attributed directly to crowds, he says. Instead, they were down to altitude-related issues which pose a risk to any climber.

“Unfortunately, the kind of information that people are given comes from very small articles written in the press which quite often don’t give all the facts, or don’t have enough room to give all the facts,” Axe tells EDGAR.

Everest Base Camp trail.jpg Porters on a trek in the Khumbu Valley resting on the side of the Everest Base Camp trail.

“They report the most controversial stories to the general public, who are probably not as aware of the situation on Mount Everest and the difficulties of climbing a mountain, and this leads to difficulties in perception of what’s happening up there.

“There is a massive fascination about Everest. It’s synonymous with so many great things in life, and metaphorically, it’s a fantastic challenge, the greatest thing on earth, so it attracts great interest every year.”

Yet we are also under no illusion that this part of the Himalaya was not meant for humans, leaving those who do not suffer from tall poppy syndrome to view anyone who has made it in this tremendously hostile environment as really very special.

Mount Everest Climbing fixed ropes on the North Col at 6500m.jpg Climbing fixed ropes on the North Col at 6,200m.

“The problem comes from the commercial operators because Everest is a business these days,” continues Axe. They take people's money. Anywhere between $30,000 and $70,000 is needed for the level of support you want. Some commercial operators will take anyone at all,” he says.

“There are people turning up who have climbed one or maybe two mountains in their lives. These people have very basic knowledge even of how to put on their mountaineering equipment.”

As Axe approached the summit from the more technical North Col three years ago, he was among 60 climbers, though he estimates that four times that number had been approaching from the easier southern approach. “I came to the first major bottleneck of the night. A line of around 15 climbers were waiting at the base of a cliff. Ahh, this must be the second step I thought,” he recalls on his blog.

Mount EverestYaks carrying to ABC.jpg Yaks carrying gear to ABC.

“The climbers trying to climb the cliff were going so slowly, pulling on the rope and not trying to climb the rock at all. There were two climbers in particular who both had teddy bears on the outside of their packs who were struggling.” This is significant, he tells us later, because canny mountaineers will plan their equipment down to the final gram. The idea of adding more weight to an already onerous effort through fluffy toys would be anathema to most.

But tourist traffic is not a new concept, and neither are tragedies on the mountain face. It was only after a disaster in 1996, when eight people died in a blizzard on both approaches that the reality of mass commercial mountaineering first came to light. The event generated widespread interest because journalist Jon Krakauer was on an assignment for a magazine as the disaster struck, and he subsequently wrote a book outlining the tragedy. The story was recently made into a blockbuster movie Everest starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Jason Clarke.

Krakauer is an accomplished mountaineer, but prior to that attempt he had never experienced an 8,000-metre climb. He had been commissioned to write about the growing popularity of commercial expeditions to Everest, so it is morbidly ironic how the disaster ensured the subject gained worldwide attention. 

Mount Everest An exhausted Jim Morrow escaping the death zone in 2011 with frost bitten fingers after a failed summit attempt.jpg An exhausted Jim Morrow escapes the death zone in 2011 with frostbitten fingers after a failed summit attempt.

Yet these stories are at risk of overshadowing the achievements of climbers, Axe believes, and he's saddened in many ways about the negative aspects of the coverage, even if he can understand it. "There are perceptions of the mountain that it’s covered in rubbish, that people are being flown out by helicopters and all sorts like that. The reality is that climbing to the summit of Mount Everest by any means is a magnificent challenge. It’s still very dangerous and very tough no matter which way you make it.

“I think the mountain will always be extremely popular and it will stay in the limelight. It will always be attractive to people, and show interesting sides of the human personality.”

For example, he says, whenever a disaster happens on the mountain, more people come the following year. “It will always be a magnet for people to put themselves against it, and I’m sure it will remain controversial in years to come.”

View of ABC at 6200m from the North Col.jpg View of ABC at 6,200m from the North Col.

Standing on the top of Everest is so emotive because it is something most of us yearn to do, though very few will ever try. The sublime settings, the bravery it requires, the camaraderie and the sense of achievement it offers are just some of the reasons why people fly to Base Camp. When we see cases of people who are not offering Everest their full respect by bypassing long apprenticeships, we blame them.

If we believe tourists are not actually the cause of all that is bad on the mountain, it would serve to question our outrage at the vanity of such people who we believe should not be allowed on the top of a mountain. But as Axe and many of his colleagues at the Yak & Yeti believe, everybody has the right to take on the challenge and tour companies now have the facilities, resources and support that can help unaccomplished climbers reach the top. 

These companies also provide work for Sherpas, inject money into the Nepali economy and raise the profile of mountaineering. Maybe we should accept that queues at the Sagarmatha summit are the price we must pay now that more people than ever have the opportunity to strive for Mallory’s own “sheer joy”

Images: Grant 'Axe' Rawlinson. Getty Images.