Tipping Point on EverestEverest 2012 was the most blogged, tweeted and promoted of all time. Reports of hundreds of climbers logjammed and poised for disaster dominated the news. Ten climbers did die. Has Everest reached a tipping point, or was 2012 simply big business as usual?
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 205 (October 2012).
Everest 2012 was the most blogged, tweeted and promoted of all time. Reports of hundreds of climbers logjammed and poised for disaster dominated the news. Ten climbers did die. Has Everest reached a tipping point, or was 2012 simply big business as usual?
In the spring of 2012, Russell Brice arrived at Everest base camp for his 21st season there. As owner-operator of Himalayan Experience, or Himex, one of the biggest Himalayan guide services in the business, he was a well-known and highly respected leader. Over the years the New Zealander’s mercurial temperament had earned him many fans, plus a few detractors, while his role in the popular Discovery Channel show “Everest: Beyond the Limits” made him famous beyond mountaineering circles. Meanwhile, Brice’s managerial skills and entrepreneurial attitude helped him refine the way the mountain could be commercially climbed. Brice, 60, outfitted his climbing Sherpas in matching uniforms, served the best food, got the most accurate weather forecasts, and kept scrupulous records of everything. To make his clients more comfortable, he constructed a custom-made, cavernous white dome tent nicknamed “the Pod,” which contained a widescreen T.V., couches and a cash bar. The Pod hosted the best parties in base camp.
This year Brice was responsible for sending a combined team of 71 clients, guides and climbing Sherpas through the Khumbu Icefall to attempt either Everest, Lhotse or Nuptse. A Rolodex of other mountaineering personalities congregated as well on the sprawling, rubble-skinned Khumbu Glacier, including Simone Moro, Ueli Steck, Conrad Anker, Chad Kellogg, Kenton Cool, Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, Dave Morton, Mike Hamill and David Breashears. A handful of individuals hoped to climb the mountain without using supplemental oxygen, including a few serious goes at existing speed records, and two well-sponsored and marketed American teams headed to the West Ridge. The number of high-profile attempts put the mountain squarely in the media spotlight.
Two months later, when climbing Sherpas began removing the ladders in the Khumbu Icefall at the end of May, effectively ending the climbing season on the South side of the mountain, the only thing clear was that events in the interim defied any easy explanation. Was the 2012 Everest season a harbinger of a more dangerous chapter in the mountain’s history? Or merely business as usual, another example of the number of summits that can be achieved as guides and legions of climbing Sherpas further refine the brand of high-traffic, institutionalized route-fixing that Brice, as much as anyone, helped to invent?
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the summit season was that Brice himself wasn’t a part of it.
n the morning Russell Brice landed in Lukla to begin the journey to base camp, he smelled smoke. A series of forest fires raged in the middle hills of Nepal, blowing an eerie, shifting haze about the Khumbu Valley.
“The Sherpas called us from base camp in the beginning of March,” Brice recalls. “Phurba said, ‘Russ, it’s kind of wild this year—we are here in our T-shirts instead of our down jackets.’”
I reach Brice via Skype shortly after his return from Nepal. Two months earlier, we had both been in base camp—I wasn’t climbing the mountain but had climbed some 6,000-meter peaks with my friend Ueli Steck while he prepared for an oxygenless ascent of Everest.
Brice speaks in a deliberate, reasoned voice that belies the level of stress he has lately been under. Yet I notice he slumps a bit toward his computer, his body language bearing little resemblance to the hyper-energized reputation he’s earned over his 38-year Everest career.
“Something was going wrong,” he says, “even early on.”
Dr. Luanne Freer, also reached recently, echoes the same early concern. “I saw ponds that usually don’t start appearing until May on the first or second of April,” she says. The founder of Everest ER, a non-profit medical clinic at base camp that serves that community and provides free health care to the local population, Freer has been in place every year for the past decade. “It wasn’t that much different in terms of the number of people on the mountain,” says Dave Morton, a Seattle-based climber and member of the Eddie Bauer First Ascent expedition that was hoping to repeat the 1963 American route on the West Ridge. “But a lot of us noticed on the approach how dry many of the faces in the Khumbu looked.”
According to an estimate by Everest blogger Alan Arnette, on the mountain were 737 foreign climbers and native climbing Sherpas attempting Everest from Nepal, and 209 on the mountain from Tibet. Though both the North Ridge and South Col are considered normal routes, the two lines have subtle distinctions. Climbing Everest from the north, the Tibetan side, is cheaper and less prone to objective hazards, but carries increased risks on summit day, owing to the longer horizontal distance to reach the summit and then return safely to the high camp at 8,300 meters. Summit day from the South Col in Nepal is shorter in terms of distance, though the high camp is 400 meters lower. From the North, most of the route follows a ridge, so there’s little that can fall down and hit you. From the South, from base camp up to the South Col, you are in a more dangerous basin, the Western Cwm, between the horseshoe-shaped ring of Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse.
Brice switched his guiding operation to the south side of the mountain after 2008, the year of the Beijing Olympics, when Chinese authorities closed down the mountain so that a torch could be carried to the summit without fear that pro-Tibetan activists would interfere.
He would not be comfortable returning operations to the Chinese-run Tibetan side, he says. “How do you ask someone to pay 60 grand, come to Kathmandu, and then … ‘We’ll see if they’ll open the border or not’? This year they didn’t open it until April 8th. That’s too late—we should already be at advance base camp by then. When you miss out on that bit of acclimatization, you’re putting more risks at the end of the expedition.”
Since moving operations to Nepal, Brice has helped solidify a working arrangement under which the entire route—approximately 33,000 feet of rope—is maintained. From base camp through the Khumbu Icefall to Camp 2, the responsibility falls under the purview of the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee, or SPCC. The “Icefall Doctors,” as they are known, led by Ang Nima Sherpa, work constantly throughout the season to maintain the myriad ladders and fixed ropes on this portion of the route as conditions change, blocks move, and icefall and avalanches occur. They also enforce basic waste management in base camp. Every foreign climber must pay $500 to the SPCC for these services. For fixing the rest of the route, from Camp 2 to the summit, Brice created a separate fund, which requires $195 per person, to distribute costs for equipment. Manpower is supplied by an ad hoc consortium of the strongest teams.
“It’s mainly the big higher-end guide services working together,” explains Mike Hamill, lead guide for International Mountain Guides (IMG), and author of Climbing the Seven Summits. “I’ve done 10 Himalayan expeditions with Russell and AAI. Back in the day, one of us would take the lead, and it was hard to get cash from the smaller guys. Now we all know each other and there’s a third party—the SPCC. Everyone gets along.”
“I found the level of coordination to be impressive,” says Chris Klinke, a Himalayan guide who had previously summited the mountain from the North and was attempting the South Col route for the first time. But if the politics of Everest have calmed down, the physical hardship required to fix the mountain and stock each camp hasn’t changed much—and, as has been the case throughout Himalayan history, in 2012 it fell to the climbing Sherpas to bear the brunt of that staggering load.
And maybe, in retrospect, that’s where Russell Brice’s problems started.
According to the statistician Eberhard Jurgalski, of 8000ers.com, 24 individuals have died in the Icefall: 11 in ice avalanches, five in serac falls, four in snow avalanches, two in crevasse falls, one of a heart attack, and one due to “slipping.” The first person killed there was an American, Jake Breitenbach, in 1963, and the last (before the 2012 season) was the climbing Sherpa Lhakpa Nuru, in an ice avalanche underneath the West Shoulder in 2009. Indeed, as many Everest veterans are quick to point out, the terrain above it, particularly the serac walls and avalanche slopes that lead to the West Shoulder of the mountain, is as much a hazard as shifting blocks of ice and crevasse trap doors in the Icefall itself.
The exact route through the maze-like formation must be reinvented by the Icefall Doctors every year. Until 2006 they tended to favor a line toward its center. That year, however, a serac tower collapsed, killing three people—all of them climbing Sherpas. Since then, the Doctors have inclined toward a line that begins center-left of the Icefall, ascending some 600 meters of weaving crevasse fields and “popcorn”—smaller, relatively more stable blocks—before drifting under the West Shoulder, a gleaming pyramid of rock buttresses, serac walls and avalanche slopes a thousand meters high. The new line has fewer ladders than the former central line, and is faster and more direct. The tradeoff is that users must travel directly under a line of seracs at the base of the slope leading to the West Shoulder. It was this section of route that this year provoked the most dismay.
In the first weeks of the season, as teams of climbing Sherpas methodically stocked Camp 2 with provisions, and most Western climbers made their first rotations on the mountain, one question more than any other seemed to dominate mess-tent conversation. How dangerous is the Khumbu Icefall? Inevitably, the subject provoked a spectrum of opinions.
At one end was Cory Richards, a professional climber and photographer who had been through the Icefall previously, during a 2009 ascent of Lhotse. With Conrad Anker, Richards was to try an alpine-style ascent of the West Ridge, and document it for National Geographic. He was quoted on the Nat Geo website as saying the Icefall was “VERY VERYVERY scary this year.”
“There’s no way you’d ever take these kind of risks on any other mountain,” he told me over a nip of whiskey one evening, referring to the West Shoulder seracs.
Luanne Freer remembers that the Icefall Doctors themselves were noticeably uneasy. “Normally they are unflappable,” she says, “but they were pretty nervous about the overhanging serac[s] off the West Shoulder.”
Some others, particularly veteran guides who have seen the mountain in a range of conditions, seemed willing to take the risk in stride.
“The current route follows a debris-compression zone near the edge of the glacier that has greater exposure to hanging seracs on the West Shoulder,” Hamill says, “but allows climbers to move more quickly through the danger zone and is less exposed to unstable blocks … Honestly, I feel that overall this spring’s route is probably safer than the route we took years ago.”
As Conrad Anker explains it: “The terrain is either heavily crevassed, or you’re walking on avalanche debris. You just have to hope your karma’s good.”
Talk about the Icefall is only natural: It looms above Everest base camp like a snarling animal, and on a daily basis produces loud creaks, icefalls and avalanches that are clearly audible from camp. Climbing Everest, however, entails less visible risks as well. If all the discussion about the Icefall did anything, it distracted attention from a string of human errors and unfortunate accidents that occurred elsewhere on the mountain. People were dying—just not in the manner expected.
The Casualty List
On April 18 Karsang Namgyal, a longtime climbing Sherpa, collapsed in base camp. Luanne Freer rushed to the scene.
“People were doing compressions, but nobody would put their mouth on him” for CPR, she recalls. “I started doing rescue-breathing—it’s like, ‘Come on, people, this is a human being, too.’” Sadly, Karsang Namgyal died anyway. It was later determined that the 40-year-old Sherpa most likely died due to complications from longterm alcoholism.
“He used to work for us, and he was a good and strong guy,” says Brice. “However, his drinking habit made employing him increasingly difficult. We sent him on three rehabilitations but it did not seem to work.”
Three days later another climbing Sherpa, 21-year-old Namgyal Tshering, fell off a ladder in the Icefall while attempting to cross unprotected. Chad Kellogg arrived at the crevasse moments later. “It was this totally preventable, stupid thing,” he says. “There were two lines right there. All he had to do was clip in.”
Although neither of these deaths was directly attributable to conditions on the mountain, several other near misses and bad accidents compounded the sense of danger, particularly within the climbing Sherpa community. Conrad Anker was in Camp 2 on April 27 when a massive avalanche ripped down the Northwest shoulder of Nuptse, very near to Everest’s Camp I, some two miles away from him.
“Everyone in camp, even the Sherpas, stopped and stared and collectively went, ‘Oh, fuck!’” Anker remembers.
Rescuers, expecting the worst, raced to the scene from both camps. The avalanche blast had blown from the Nuptse side of the Cwm clear across to the West Shoulder of Everest, debris obliterating the path. Miraculously, only a single person was injured: Nima Sherpa, who had jumped into a crevasse to survive, sustained three broken ribs and two broken vertebrae, and had bitten most of the way through his tongue.
Immediately before the avalanche, a Himex guide with two clients had left Camp I for Camp II, but then decided at the last minute to turn around and return to Camp I, owing to their slow pace and the late hour.
“It was a very narrow escape,” says Brice. “Normally, on a busy day, there would be a heap of Sherpas in that area.”
When fixing began on the Lhotse Face between Camp II and Camp III in late April, rockfall was an immediate problem. A half dozen more casualties occurred, including broken hands and arms, lacerations and a severe head injury to 26-year-old Lhakpa Nuru. According to reports from Chad Kellogg and writer Grayson Schaffer, his Western employer initially refused to cover the $5,000 cost of a helicopter evacuation, but then relented.
Simone Moro, the climber-pilot at the helm of the B3 helicopter that evacuated Lhakpa Nuru from Camp II, reported that so many rocks had collected at the base of the face it looked like a stone patio. Chad Kellogg, who had joined Benegas Brothers Expeditions, run by longtime Everest guides from Argentina who are credited with many rescues on the mountain in recent years, and a team of climbing Sherpas to help fix rope on the face, was nearly struck by a two-foot-diameter piece of rock.
Kellogg recalls, “It had so much momentum, the thing only struck the face once every 500 feet. It tagged my backpack.”
Overall, patient numbers at Everest ER, says Freer, “weren’t up that much. But we were seeing more trauma, especially from the rockfall.”
Meanwhile, the seracs under the West Shoulder continued to be unusually active, burying sections of fixed lines on a near daily basis—so much so that the Icefall Doctors began running out of rope. “They were using 200 or 300 meters of rope every day to replace parts of that section,” Brice says. “They’re saying, ‘Well, it’s more dangerous than it’s been normally.’ They were figuring it was 50 percent more dangerous.”
According to Brice and others, the majority of Everest climbers remained blissfully unaware or woefully ignorant of the potentially increased dangers from rockfall or in the Icefall. “I don’t think many team members or even team leaders talk to the Icefall Doctors,” Brice says. “They pay $500 and then when a ladder falls down they get on the radio and go, ‘Hey, could you send someone up to fix this?’”
Others witnessed overt displays of recklessness in the Icefall. “I saw one group stop for 15 minutes in the West Shoulder avalanche zone,” relates Klinke. “I yelled at them … I remember being in C2, and someone said, ‘The Icefall’s like a wonderland.’ Wrong—it’s overhanging death!”
As Brice grew more and more concerned that something catastrophic might happen, however, others in the Everest guiding establishment quietly demurred.
“I have total respect for Russ, but, personally, I didn’t think the mountain was more or less dangerous than in previous years,” says Kenton Cool, who hoped to summit for his 10th time this season, carrying an Olympic medal that had been awarded to the survivors of the 1924 British expedition.
Others expressed similar sentiments, including IMG’s Mike Hamill, former AAI guide Dave Morton, who was a member of the First Ascent West Ridge expedition, and RMI’s Dave Hahn. Some pointed out that the first two deaths—caused by alcoholism and human error—didn’t mean the mountain itself was more dangerous.
There had been near misses aplenty, but as of May 1, Everest hadn’t actually killed anyone, yet.
On May 3, a member of Brice’s own team, Dawa Tenzing, collapsed near Camp 1. Although evacuated to Kathmandu via helicopter in only three hours, he passed into a coma and slipped away several days later in the hospital, the victim of a massive stroke. It was the third climbing Sherpa fatality in three weeks, and Brice had personally worked with two of them.
On May 4, a meeting was held to address concerns regarding rockfall and route-finding on the Lhotse Face. The dry conditions on the upper mountain were enabling countless small stones to rain down, yet no significant snowfall was in the immediate forecast to cover and glue down the matrix.
Unlike the unavoidable Khumbu Icefall, however, this section of the route contained an alternative: a line of serac benches and ice faces that began further to the right, under the Nuptse–Lhotse ridge, and contoured into the center of the face. It entailed more circuitous travel, but less exposure. Plans were immediately made with Damian Benegas and Chad Kellogg in Camp 2 to reconnoiter the new line.
Despite some pressure on the Icefall Doctors to consider other possible lines, the tough cadre held fast. Many guides and climbers trusted their judgment.
“Those guys know what they are doing,” says Dave Morton, a member of the Eddie Bauer West Ridge Expedition. “They go up and down it every other day. They don’t want to be subjected to any more danger than necessary, and they clearly felt that it was safer to do it this year the way they did.”
The same day as the meeting about the rockfall danger, Brice announced he was putting a hold on his operations pending more information. In the evening Himex hosted one of Brice’s signature parties in the Pod, a raucous event. The soirée culminated in a heartfelt tribute to Brice by Conrad Anker, who called him his Everest mentor and acknowledged the dangerous conditions on the mountain. It was a preamble, really, to the song that played next: Johnny Cash’s “Personal Jesus.” Brice was conspicuously absent from the party.
The next morning, on May 5, a flash flood streaked down the Seti River drainage in the Annapurna Region of Nepal, 200 miles away, killing more than 20 people.
On Everest, Brice gathered his entire team in the Pod, and told them they were going home.
A Dangerous Business
One of Brice’s clients, Greg Paul, captured the scene in a blog: “Jaws dropped and shock spread throughout the room. Long-held dreams, years of training, big time and financial commitments all down the drain … The clincher for Russ was the fact that his experienced Sherpas were scared to death of the Icefall. In fact, in a rare display from folks that don’t talk much and usually just follow instructions, three head Sherpas spoke up and expressed the concern about the mountain and how dangerous it is this year. They were truly concerned about exposing their Sherpa team to further danger … One of the most experienced Sherpas on Everest broke down in tears apologizing to us but at the same time not backing off one iota.”
The news that Himex was pulling out reverberated around the mountain.
Later many would speculate that the early accidents and near misses combined with the unusual amount of media focus this year to create, both near and from afar, a perception that the mountain was more dangerous than it really was.
“There’s 3G service all over the mountain,” Kenton Cool says. “They’re bloggin’ and Tweetin’, but the people sending the most information back don’t understand mountains that well … Mountains are dynamic, and constantly moving.”
A quick search of first-hand internet reports from the mountain at the time reads more like war dispatches than a vacation: “Days of Drama,” “Serious Climbing Begins—Death Update” and “Second Death on Everest.”
Yet it’s worth remembering that Brice, as is the case with many of the most successful operators on Everest, like Eric Simonson and Kari Kobler, excels at the job in large part because he is an extremely capable technocrat and logistician. When asked about the thought process behind his decision, Brice is straightforward in explaining that his biggest fear was a catastrophic accident in the icefall, and he peppers his reasoning with figures and statistics.
“It wasn’t [just] a feeling,” he says. “We take records of temps when the Sherpas leave for the Icefall, and only on five occasions was it less than 10 degrees C [14 degrees F]. Normally it’s -14 [7 F]. The last day we went through the Icefall, it was 0 degrees C—32 degrees F.”
Brice tasked a Himex guide, Adrian Ballinger, to record the time it took him to walk under the West Shoulder seracs. “It took Adrian 22 minutes, so that means it’s taking about half an hour for each one of my Sherpas. When you send 30 Sherpas half an hour up and half an hour down each day, it’s 30 hours of exposure just for the Sherpas alone.
“Every one of my Sherpas has a radio, so I listen to them,” he continues. “Just about every time the Sherpas came through the icefall, they are calling out to each other, ‘Run, get out of the way, something’s falling’… So, we are hearing this from our Sherpas every night—it’s scary. It’s like sending guys out to the war. You don’t know who’s going to come home.”
Billi Bierling, a climbing journalist who works seasonally writing dispatches for Himex, notes, “Russell cares a lot about his Sherpas. They are his family. It shows in how happy he is around them. Whenever he can, Russ eats with the Sherpas. And he wakes up every morning at 2 a.m. when they wake up to go through the Icefall.” Himalayan Experience provides every member of its climbing Sherpa team with radios, avalanche beacons, helmets, clothing and other technical gear.
“Your typical Western climber on a supported expedition will each go through the Icefall six or eight times,” Conrad Anker observes, “but the Sherpas are going through there 14 or 20 times. For a lot of those guys, it’s carry a load, take a rest day, carry another load—and it goes on like that for weeks.”
Brice himself estimates that for every Westerner who goes for the summit, four loads must be carried up the Icefall, plus another two back down it. “It’s the same ratio,” he adds, “whether you’re on a one-person expedition, a four-person expedition, or a 60-person expedition like us.”
The change of route up the Lhotse Face has been an underappreciated success story from this year—an example of how, with proper communication, coordination and manpower, Everest guides can mitigate risk. Yet, as Kellogg tells it, the bulk of the work fixing from Camp II to the summit fell to a small handful, stepping up handsomely, while others did not. The absence of the Himex climbing Sherpas, normally some of the most reliable contributors to fixing the route, was clearly felt.
The second week of May was unusually windy, and several attempts to fix lines from Camp IV to the summit were thwarted. On May 16 a serac toppled over in Camp III, in the middle of the Lhotse Face, burying some 15 tents. Miraculously, only a single climbing Sherpa was injured. As a crew of climbing Sherpas finished the job on May 18, several hundred aspirants rushed up the mountain to get into position for a summit.
“In the past years, you could see dots when people were up on the Lhotse Face,” says Charley Mace, who on May 18 was cross-valley from the route, cresting the West Ridge with the Eddie Bauer expedition. “It was like a Magic Marker line this year. Insane.” A continuous line of approximately 150 climbers ascended one 300-meter section of fixed rope.
“There was so many people in front and behind me,” says Simone Moro, who, like Steck and Ralf Dujmovits, was hoping to climb the mountain without oxygen. “Even in a car, I [have] never been in so long and slow a line. I was without oxygen and the risk to get stuck was too high. … It would be a nightmare above the South Col.” Moro abandoned his attempt low on the Lhotse Face.
Somewhere in that line was Shriya Shah, a 33-year-old Nepali-born woman who had moved to Toronto, Canada, and was hoping to climb Everest to honor her adopted country. “Nothing is impossible in this world,” her website proclaimed. “Even the word ‘impossible’ says ‘I M POSSIBLE.’” Shah was a client of Happy Feet, a Kathmandu-based outfitter, and was accompanied by two climbing Sherpas. She hadn’t hired a guide for Everest, though the trip was her very first Himalayan expedition.
Shah left the South Col at 8:30 that evening. More than 17 hours later, at 2 p.m. on May 19, she had only reached the South Summit, due to a combination of traffic jams and her own slow pace. Although warned repeatedly by her sirdar and climbing Sherpas that she was moving too slowly to make the summit and descend safely, Shah pushed on. After reaching the top late that afternoon, she slowly descended to the Balcony, ran out of oxygen and faltered. At 10 p.m. she collapsed.
“These people… they just keep going,” says Ueli Steck, who himself summited without supplemental oxygen on the 18th. “It’s crazy. She used nine bottles of oxygen. Then she ran out, and she died.” Most Everest climbers are allocated six or seven bottles (which cost a little over $600 each).
Also that day, Dr. Eberhard Schaaf, a 44-year old German, was fatally stricken with high-altitude pulmonary edema near the South Summit. Ha Wenyi, 55, of China, was found on the Triangle Face, not far from where Shah had expired. Song Won-Bin, a 45-year-old Korean climber, became combative and disoriented, suffered several short falls on his descent, and died.
If there was a common factor among these four deaths during the first summit window, it’s that none of the people were climbing with one of the high-end commercial expeditions.
“If you look at the people who got into trouble on the 19th, it was the guys from the small operators,” says Hamill, who notes that proper planning and manpower can stave off certain potential summit-day problems. “We knew there might be a bottleneck, so we sent up extra climbing Sherpas with more oxygen, so our clients wouldn’t run out.”
“Nepali outfitters are becoming more and more prevalent, and there’s zero screening,” observes Dave Morton. “With the internet, people are realizing if you directly hire a Nepali outfit it’s half the price.” He adds that those people may then rely on the resources of the larger groups if they need a rescue, more oxygen or medical supplies.
David Breashears has a broader explanation. “This is what happens,” he says, “any time you have ambition that is not matched by experience.”
A Season of Mixed Blessings
In the end, those who found success this season were those most adaptable to change, and open to failure.
For the two American teams attempting to climb it, difficulty on the West Ridge was expected even before the weather stabilized enough to permit serious attempts. The route was in exceptionally bad condition, with huge patches of exposed, desiccated blue ice and frequent rockfall. Anker’s bid for the West Ridge alpine-style was effectively sidelined when his partner, Cory Richards, was evacuated from the mountain on April 28 with an undetermined respiratory illness. The Eddie Bauer First Ascent team continued its effort, even knowing there was little chance of completing the ascent.
“The cards were pretty obvious,” Charley Mace admits, “but we wanted to keep trying. I feel strongly we were one of the only true teams on the mountain.”
Anker, meanwhile, shifted focus to the South Col route. He arrived in Camp IV on May 24 with no set plan, and a willingness to fail. “I’d already been to the summit,” Anker explains, “so I wasn’t interested in doing the same thing again.” After taking a rest day, he, like Steck, would go on to make a rare oxygen-less ascent of the mountain (something done by fewer than 180 people). Even more significantly, Steck and Anker found ways to work with the climbing Sherpas on the mountain during their ascents. Anker carried a load of hardware from Camp II to Camp IV, and Steck, in a display of mentorship, partnered with Tenji Sherpa, age 20, who summited on his very first big Himalayan climb.
One of the most noteworthy efforts of the season came from Chad Kellogg. On the afternoon of the 25th, he set off up the icefall, wearing Gore-Tex sneakers and micro spikes, in hopes of besting Marc Batard’s base-camp-to-summit speed record of 22:30. Hampered by soggy conditions on the lower mountain and a stomach illness that struck him above Camp III, Kellogg realized he was slipping off pace. With little chance of beating the record, Kellogg continued on to 8,650 meters, turning around at 2:40 p.m.
“Our summit turnaround time was 4 p.m., and I realized I wasn’t going to make the summit. I was hoping to finish this project this year, so I wouldn’t have to go back to the circus… but I’ll be back,” Kellogg concedes.
Everest in Flux
Early in the season, on the afternoon of April 18, Ueli Steck and I left Gorak Shep, a dusty cluster of a half-dozen lodges perched athwart the Khumbu Glacier, and walked toward Everest base camp. That evening, over garlic soup and sausage pizza, we met the other climbers who shared Steck’s permit: three hardscrabble Slovakian mountaineers, and also Shriya Shah. There was no pretense that these five individuals, from vastly different cultures and climbing backgrounds, shared anything but a common base camp.
When I observed that the four men, all of whom planned to climb without supplemental gas, were greatly increasing their chances of frostbite or worse, Shah responded emphatically. “Don’t say such things!” she chastised me.
She struck me as outgoing and kind-hearted—but also terribly naive.
While interviewing subjects for this story, I was fascinated by how such vastly different realities could co-habit the same piece of geography. At times it felt as if people were describing different mountains in different seasons altogether. The diversity of experiences was partially a reflection of the sheer numbers of people on the mountain. In total, an unofficial 548 climbers summited this season, making it one of the most successful in history (official tallies were unavailable at press time), and 10 lives were lost, tying with 1988 for the fourth-deadliest year on the mountain.
On balance, the 2012 season raised more questions than it answered.
Many feel, despite the widespread concerns, that the mountain is only getting safer for competent mountaineers. Kenton Cool argues, “The Yellow Band [located between Camp III and Camp IV] is bolted, and so are parts of the ridge on summit day. At the end of the day, it’s a safer working environment for the Sherpas now than in previous years.”
“I think it’s a great thing that Russ isn’t afraid to pull his team off the hill,” says Mike Hamill. “I have a lot of respect for his mountain sense. I do think you can guide Everest safely, and I think there are a handful of companies that are guiding Everest safely. Look at how the mountain was fixed a decade ago. There was a hodgepodge of ropes. Now we’re clipping into new ropes.”
Meanwhile, some bemoan the effects of commercialization. “Everest has been sold out, hook, line and sinker,” Kellogg states unequivocally. “There are very few real climbers on the hill. It’s almost all clients, and guides and Sherpa support.”
Anker describes the route-fixing as “the alpine equivalent to sport climbing,” admitting to conflicted feelings about Everest’s commercial culture. He relates a telling interaction he observed while descending the mountain for the last time: “I passed this guy at the top of the Icefall, and he’s on his Sherpa’s radio, calling down to base camp, so that somebody could pack his bag and meet him at the helipad and he could fly directly to Kathmandu. The guy wasn’t even off the mountain yet, but he was too impatient to spend one last night in base camp.”
Others wonder if members of the Everest guiding community have gotten so good at what they do, it’s only a matter of time before they are tripped up by success. “More and more people are summiting and the summit-death rate is going down,” says David Breashears. “You can’t argue with success, but is that success based on good fundamental values? If there are no limits placed on the number of people, there’s a point when it will become untenable, five or 10 years from now… When do we get to the point when there are too many people on the ferry, and it capsizes?”
Chad Kellogg echoes these concerns. “I respected Russell’s decision, but at the same time, like, what are you doing with 31 clients on the hill, man? Keep it small, keep it safe.”
The larger-scale tragedy that some feared this year fortunately did not materialize. Of the deaths that did occur, the majority resulted from errors in judgment, particularly climbers who overextended themselves on summit day and desperately needed a strong mentor or leader. One also has to wonder how different it all would have been, if, for example, the Nuptse avalanche had struck on a busy day, or the Camp III serac fall occurred 24 hours later. Losing 15 or 20 people in a single event is a real possibility. In such a case, the world would now be praising Brice’s judgment.
As it turned out, his decision brought mixed blessings—although a few clients left base camp disgruntled, he has won indelible respect from the climbing Sherpa community.
“It’s difficult to underestimate how empowering Russell’s decision was for Sherpas,” Anker says.
Brice sounds at once introspective about the 2012 season, concerned for the future and, ultimately, at peace. “We’ve made this monster out of Everest,” he says. “But I believe, with good control, you can put 150 people up and down in a day. But you’ve got to have strong leaders.
“You know, in 1981, when I first went to Everest on the South side, we did 12 trips through the Icefall even before we got to put the route fully in,” Brice adds wistfully, suddenly sounding much more like the climber he was in younger days than the responsible guide he became. “There were no Icefall Doctors, so we had to do the work ourselves, and we took that risk ourselves. Now people who are coming to Everest put the risk on someone else.
“I think the real debate is: Just because people pay to climb Everest, how much risk do the staff—the guides, the Sherpas—put toward those people getting to the summit?”
Freddie Wilkinson lives in Madison, New Hampshire.
April 18. Karsang Namgyal Sherpa dies of causes related to alcoholism.
April 20. On the North side, Ramesh Gulve has a stroke in Camp II. Dies back in India.
April 21. Namgyal Tshering Sherpa is killed in fall off ladder.
April 27. Massive avalanche off Nuptse hits Camp 1. Nima Sherpa jumps into crevasse for protection and breaks back.
Late April. Constant rockfall on route from Camp II to Camp III injures six. Lhakpa Nuru sustains a severe head injury.
May 3. Dawa Tenzing has stroke, dies later in Kathmandu.
May 16. Seracs break loose, bury 15 tents. One Sherpa injured.
May 19. Shriya Shah takes too long to summit, runs out of oxygen and dies; Eberhard Schaaf dies of HAPE; Song Won-Bin falls at Hillary Step and dies at the Balcony; Ha Wenyi collapses and dies.
May 19/20. On the North side, Juan Jose Polo Carbayo dies of exhaustion after summit; Ralf Arnold breaks his leg on the Second Step and dies.
Route through Icefall hugs West Shoulder to avoid crevasses, but is exposed to dangerous seracs. This line requires fewer ladders and is fastest. Over the years, 24 have died in the Khumbu.
Original line from Camp II to Camp III was direct, but after many injuries from rockfall, is abandoned for more protected but circuitous line toward Nuptse, then back to Camp III.
The Yellow Bands. A steep rock section fixed with bolts and fixed rope. The first section of technical rock.
Route is around the ridge out of view. Most climbers use oxygen from Camp IV to the summit, in effect lowering the elevation by 3,000 feet. This section includes The Balcony, which can be either an ice cliff or a rotten rock band, both fixed with ropes.
Difficulties include the Hillary Step, a 30-foot cliff with fixed rope that is a notorious bottleneck. Crowding causes waits of 1 to 2.5 hours. Typically, climbing from Camp IV to summit takes 7 to 12 hours, and half that to descend. In spring 2012, 946 climbers converge on Everest. 548 summit.