As we traversed the globe from Kathmandu to Anchorage, Alaska, the papers in Kathmandu headlined another death on Everest. Then the Guanzou, China flat screens rolled with Everest summit ridge footage, the sports broadcasts in Los Angeles were interrupted with Everest commentary and finally the Anchorage Brew Pub streamed Everest climber interviews.
It seems the crowding, the regulations, (and lack of them), and sadly, the deaths are the story this year on Everest. This is the story worthy of air time, as interviewers and major media outlets reach out to find sources and sound bites from Everest aficionados.
Meanwhile, rather untold, is that a host of guiding companies have had very successful years, with teams that have fortunately had no fatalities. With increased numbers on Everest, the experienced will naturally know there will be more deaths.
Are there a really a lot more deaths than would be expected, are there an unreasonable amount? Perhaps we are fortunate there weren’t a whole lot more, amidst the ‘madding’ crowds on the mountain this year.
It is easy to see what drives the story this year – a stunning setting on the worlds’ tallest and best known peak, visuals of hoards of people in a wild and dangerous place, people dying, and no lack of opinions and outspoken commentary.
This year is custom made for a great visual and a simple story that resonates with a wide audience.
Yet the story is not a simple one. It is a complex mix of an impoverished countries politics and corruption, opinions from the informed and certainly those less so, and the egos of climbers, both enthusiasts and denigrators (often whom haven’t climbed much of anything) of those who are fond of and wish to tread the heights of Everest, both literally and figuratively.
While the death and disaster side of this season has been well documented, the stories of success for many of the guiding companies has been pretty well buried.
For long time experienced companies like Jagged Globe, Adventure Consultants, IMG and Himex, as well as the newer Madison Mountaineering and CTSS, it has been a highly successful year.
There was also success again this year for Alpenglow and Furtenbach Adventures on the North Side of Everest with a mix of rapid, fast and super speedy ascents, including Roxanne Vogel’s remarkable 2-week door to door ascent of the North Ridge.
From these expeditions we get some excellent and mostly balanced reading about their approach and their summit stories, which provides a host of clues to why these operators are so successful.
I first climbed with David Hamilton at Jagged Globe and have had a long association with them – so I’m completely biased and find his opinions and approach very close to my own. David’s approach, on this his 10th successful ascent, is great insight as to how the little things make a big difference. From timing, to oxygen placement, to Sherpa support and how still finding time to lend personal support to a member of his team helped ensure her success.
His post makes good reading on the challenges, how they overcame them and changes that he thinks are needed.
For the now deservedly and much better known @roxymountaingirl, partnering her up with the highly experienced and respected Lydia Brady of Alpenglow, saw them sprint to the summit in a time frame which can only be considered remarkable.
Lost perhaps in the mix is the fact they entirely skipped the high camp (Camp 3 on the North Ridge) that is most commonly used and summited all the way from Camp 2 at 7,700 meters. That is an enviously fast summit day, indicating a fitness, acclimatization and experience level of the highest degree.
Furtenbach Adventures experienced a similar level of success with most of his group on top, after about a month on their total expedition. As much as many are still doubting these rapid tactics, their success is starting to speak for itself.
On the south side, long time and highly respected Adventure Consultants, with the mix of a larger but well qualified and vetted team, as well as a few private clients, quietly summited successfully. With a mix of guides who are some of the best on the mountain, from Mike Roberts to Rob Smith, we heard little drama from them.
Relatively new operators Madison Mountaineering and CTSS, led by Garrett Madison and Mike Hamill respectfully, both had a very good year, with a very high success rates for their clients and everybody now down safely.
So while the sadness of the deaths and the friends and families expected, there are a greater number of people than ever going home from Everest happy this year.
They have taken the time, done the training, picked their guiding company carefully and fulfilled a dream. Perhaps some climbed completely in the dark to the top like Kenton Cool and his client Michael Lavelle, avoiding the crowds and going early and quickly at the start of the season. They may have missed the glorious summit ridge sunrise, but perhaps a rather small trade-off for an early and fast summit.
Perhaps others, like the highly experienced Scott Woolums on the North Side, are taking a different approach and are waiting until now, and climbing alone and unencumbered towards the summit.
Even as I write this, Scott and his private client are climbing higher and posting photos of the completely empty and rather lonely looking North Ridge. We can only wish him the best of luck on this contrarian but perhaps very wise approach.
Robert and Peter at Base Camp, April 2019.
With a few final words from Peter Hillary, who just completed leading In Hillary’s Footsteps with me up to Everest Base Camp, who sums it up well:
“I really oppose any sort of regulations…What we really need is people to apply more common sense, to do their apprenticeship.”
And when asked about whether you should go up or just come down? “That is an incredibly important part of it, you can always come back.”
Perhaps simply knowing when to go up, and when to turn around and come down are at the heart of it – but that has always been at the heart of climbing.
Being honest and asking yourself that simple question, and being able to know enough about yourself and abilities to give yourself the right answer, is still at the heart of going high in the mountains.