Opinion: How to Make Mt. Everest Safer

AMGA and IFMGA certified guide and founder of Alpenglow Expeditions Adrian Ballinger recently returned from Mt. Everest and Lhotse and

adventure journal how to make everest safer

AMGA and IFMGA certified guide and founder of Alpenglow Expeditions Adrian Ballinger recently returned from Mt. Everest and Lhotse and filed this essay, in which he argues that requiring or demanding certified guides is a key to reducing risk on the world’s highest peak. – Ed.

Over the past two years, I have read numerous stories about how to “fix” Everest. I’ve even written a couple of my own. I just read a great piece (unpublished) by accomplished mountaineer Brad Johnson, who just summited Everest for the first time. He wrote – accurately – that many teams got away with what could be fatal mistakes up high this year, thanks to perfect weather. These mistakes were mostly caused by oversized teams and inexperienced guides, Sherpas, and clients.

Brad’s email reminded me that the mountain will fix itself, or at least remind us of its power, if we don’t change. One of these years, there will be an accident that makes 1996 seem small. An unpredicted storm will hit the summit pyramid on a day when 100-plus climbers are above 8000 meters. Strong guides, clients, and Sherpas, with 8000-meter peak experience, strong technical skills, and smart decision-making will revert to their training and experience, and most will survive. Teams of inexperienced climbers with weak guides and Sherpas and insufficient logistical support will suffer many fatalities. When that accident happens, I hope we finally learn that for all we talk about Everest being “easy,” it is only easy on perfect days. It is still one of the most challenging, dangerous places on earth, and only our experience, skills, and tenacity can really protect us if and when a big storm hits.

But better would be for us to make some changes now that could avoid the awful accident all of us know is currently inevitable. Mark Jenkins has a good list of six “fixes” in his National Geographic article, Everest Maxed Out. But these changes will not be initiated by the Nepali government or by the big commercial operators, who have shown repeatedly that they will not make changes that affect the income Everest brings.

I believe that one change, initiated by Nepal, or more likely by client sentiment, would take care of many of the issues on Everest: Clients should require that their guides, and especially their expedition leaders, are AMGA/IFMGA certified, or at least aspirants on the way to qualification. Currently, the U.S. is the only developed country in the world that does not require guide’s certification to work on its public lands. In Europe, Canada, and New Zealand, this certification is a prerequisite to mountain guiding. And it is a challenging process to gain certification, taking a guide years of training and experience, as a climber and a guide, to attain it. (Read more about the certification process, in the USA and worldwide, at these links: http://www.ivbv.info/en/ifmga/vision.htmlhttp://hireaguide.amga.com/)

When some major U.S. guide services lead expeditions on Everest, they, like many of the cut-rate operators from Nepal and other parts of the world, allow non-qualified guides to lead their clients on the mountain. While these trip leaders might be a lot of fun to spend time with, and many have previous Everest experience and experience on other peaks in the U.S. like Rainier and Denali, they often lack the technical skills and decision-making that come from the years required of certification. It is these years and dedication to the profession of guiding that are essential when conditions become challenging on Everest. We would not allow a doctor to practice who lacks training and testing. Why do we allow a mountain guide? The decisions we make have incredibly serious consequences. Too many times this season on Everest I saw poor decision-making that led to preventable frostbite. Had the weather been any less obvious and perfect this year, the accidents would have been much worse than lost toes and fingers.

AMGA/IFMGA certified guides are in no way the panacea for all of Everest’s issues. But requiring this standard for guides would be a first major step. Requiring guides and expedition leaders to have AMGA/IFMGA qualification would automatically limit the numbers of guided clients on the mountain. AMGA/IFMGA guides adhere to strict ratios of clients to guides based on the terrain. They hold to Leave No Trace standards wherever they work. And they require appropriate training and experience of their clients.

This is a standard that exists worldwide. Nepal was accepted to the IFMGA in 2012, and there are currently 31 Nepali Sherpa IFMGA guides. So this standard could be applied not only to Western teams, but also to locally organized groups. Local Nepali companies led by Sherpas are some of the most dangerous and irresponsible on the mountain. Clients, and the Nepali government, should require that these teams, the same as Western teams, are also led by AMGA/IFMGA guides. And if the team markets itself as guided (and not simply logistics-only), then all of their Sherpa guides should also be AMGA/IFMGA certified or aspirants. A guide’s role on Everest is completely different than a Sherpa’s. Both are crucial to success. But it is the guides who carry the burden of decision-making that most often leads to preventable accidents. If a Nepali company is offering guided trips, then their clients deserve and need much more than simply Sherpa support.

Guide services, especially those based in the USA who are currently taking advantage of a broken system, need to offer the standard of guiding that is expected in the rest of the developed world. This standard is represented and maintained by AMGA/IFMGA certification. Everest, the tallest mountain in the world, remains a dangerous and challenging place. Only guides who have spent years developing their skills and experience, and who have had those skills rigorously tested, should be taking clients on the world’s tallest mountain. Require AMGA/IFMGA certification of your guides!

Adrian Ballinger has summited Everest 6 times, all while guiding, and is the founder of Alpenglow Expeditions. He is also an AMGA/IFMGA qualified guide. And his opinion does not necessarily reflect the position of Adventure Journal.

Photo: Descending the Hillary Step, by Adrian Ballinger


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Showing 8 comments
  • Fitz Cahall

    A year and a half ago there was a great article in the New York TImes about the paradox of regulation and deregulation. An industry will fight regulation tooth and nail, but once it’s regulated it will fight deregulation with the same vehemence and call for the regulation of others and higher standards for entering the ranks because regulation provides a competitive advantage. It’s true for financial institutions and union/insured plumbers and it seems to apply to IFMGA guides as well. Yes, regulations do help the consumer, but you can still have a shady financial institution and deadbeat plumber or a full certified guide who just pushes the envelope to ensure profitability. Greed infiltrates everywhere, including Everest. As Adrian notes, Everest is and will always be a dangerous place no matter what anyone says about the difficulty.

    • Boonesdaddy

      Beat me to my post. It also creates a new “market” for certifications…which leads to a bunch of BS.

  • Steve-O

    This reads like a typical AMGA/IFMGA tome, but it’s a misfit, particularly for Everest. Certification can raise standards and professionalism in most industries, but all too often it’s just a protectionist mechanism, and getting AMGA/IFMGA certification is mostly about paying a ton of money to go through all the courses and testing scenarios. In Switzerland, getting your IFMGA certification is likely to be more about your family name, or your gender, as your qualifications. The AMGA’s U.S. meetings always include some discussion of how many members should even be allowed, and several AMGA guides I know are currently very stoked about having received their instructor status…because now they can make way more cash by running courses. The U.S. may be “the only developed country in the world that does not require guide’s certification to work on its public lands,” but there’s no evidence that has created higher accident rates, or less professional behavior, than Europe or Canada.

    More to the exact point of the article: Most certified guides on Everest are just westerners with merit badges who are themselves relative Himalayan newbies being ‘guided’ on the mountain by Sherpa-operated logistics. Those who aren’t expedition leaders are on the Big E primarily to translate for clients.

    • Steve-S

      Your claim that getting the IFMGA certification in Switzerland «is likely to be more about your family name, or your gender» is very biased and rather outdated. It is true that the SAC (Swiss Alpine Club) used to be gender prejudiced and it is equally true that, in Places like Zermatt or Grindelwald, there are Families with long running traditions of becoming mountain guides. But to conclude from this that being male and from the right family is key to get the certificate is plain wrong. You have to do several years of training and learning you have to do until you can get that certificate (see http://www.4000plus.ch/fileadmin/user_upload/Ausbildung/BBT-Regl030212dt.pdf for details – in German or French)

  • fkarcha

    I think it’s a little off base to say the IFMGA certification is just about forking over money. The courses for the basis for supervised experience guiding, and testing ensures the courses and experience have prepared a guide for the professional liability and scope of work to lead in mountain environments. The ACMG process takes about 10 years, hardly a “pay to play” process. The point about evidence is a good one: a well designed study of mountaineering accidents should indicate whether there are better outcomes for subjects in IMFGA guided parties vs. non IMFGA guided parties vs. amateur leaders vs. self-led, and if accident rates differ if at all. To my knowledge, no study has been done.

    To the second point, it’s quite clear that the article indicates certification of Sherpa guides is the ideal. It is not about guides being guided.

  • Aaron

    Having the certification helps put everyone guiding on the same page and relative skill level, certainly an asset that extends beyond simply “doing the course work”. Their professionalism and training is a reflection of their instructors, and any incidents involving them could be traced back to improper education as well as poor life choices. I don’t see a huge problem with this. Similarly, I have been diving for a long time and I find it extremely easy to do and always have. That being said, I was far more comfortable with a PADI trained diver instructing me through my first big dives. Sure, PADI can be just another organization that is working for the bottom line, and half their courses are complete bull-shit money grabs, but it doesn’t matter if the people they have as instructors are all on the same skill level when they get me under the water. However, with no intentions of climbing Everest until $45,000 drops into my bank account, I don’t really care one way or another. If people want to be congested up there with hundreds of random inexperienced rich people go right ahead.

  • Rocco

    Perhaps it would be safer if no guiding was allowed on Everest. Then the only people who could climb it are those that put the time and effort into learning the skills required (from a guide) and getting experience. No short cuts or the false-security of a guide that is going to be hard pressed to save their own skin. Well, it may not be safer in the end, but at least no one would have anyone to blame but themselves.

  • KJA

    Why, exactly, does Everest need to be safer? Isn’t that part of climbing it? To know and understand the risks, weigh them with the solemnity of someone risking their life knowingly, and to choose to climb taking on the full responsibility for your decision.

    I understand that some people truly want to climb Everest and do not know the risks, not really. Maybe, to make it “safer,” guides need to look their under experienced clients in the eye and say, “think about your life. what you have. is this truly worth risking losing it all for? Consider you might die, and what it will do to the people you leave behind.” Then maybe, they can make a more informed decision. Everyone knows there are reasons to climb mountains, it is not all somber and dark, it is often incredible and amazing beyond comprehension. But, clients should be made aware of the other side too, so they can be more informed with their choice to climb, or not climb.

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