After the April 18, 2014 avalanche that killed 16 Sherpa in the Khumbu Icefall low on Mt. Everest, the mountain’s South (Nepali) side was essentially closed for the season. Teams went home for a variety of reasons, including grief, fear, respect for the Sherpa community, and politics.
It was the politics that got the most press in the media – some Sherpa, mostly working for local operators that underpay and under-support their staff, used the accident to demand much needed minimum standards of pay, insurance, and support from the Nepali government. And while the government ostensibly agreed to most of their requests, it is unclear whether these rules will actually be put into effect, and whether they will assure fair treatment for Nepali high-altitude workers (Sherpa and other ethnic groups) from local guide companies.
But the 2014 spring Everest season did not end there. The Nepali government encouraged teams to stay and climb. While all of the experienced Sherpa were finished for the season and went home, a few climbers attempted to climb from the Base Camp without support. They quickly deemed the route too dangerous and difficult to maintain without additional strength in numbers (from Sherpa and climbers).
But the season was still not put to rest. Two motivated women, Wang Jing and Cleo Weidlich, each decided to continue their separate expeditions (to Everest and Lhotse respectively), and based on the danger and difficulty of the icefall, to take helicopters all the way to Camp 2 (skipping 4,000 vertical feet, about 1/3 of the actual climb). While Weidlich turned around near Camp 3, Wang Jing and her Sherpa continued, and on May 23 became the only team to summit Everest from the south side in 2014.
BEGINNING OF DEBATE
While that did truly bring an end to the climbing season from Nepal on Everest, it was only the beginning of debate. Is Jing’s summit legitimate? Will it be documented in the history books differently than a climb that begins and ends in Base Camp (perhaps with an “aviation assisted” notation)? Will flying helicopters over the icefall become standard for climbers, Sherpa, or equipment?
Nepal’s government has been sending mixed messages. First they awarded Jing a summit certificate, a tacit endorsement of her style of climb. But then they said she did not have permission for her flights (Jing’s team flew as many as 12 heli flights over the icefall to carry her inexperienced Sherpa team, herself, and all her equipment). Then Nepal announced that heli flights above base camps for purposes other than rescue would not be allowed in future seasons. And then a report was released that the extremely talented and experienced Italian pilot who flew Jing and Cleo, Maurizio Folini, would no longer be allowed to fly in Nepal, and that Fishtail, the heli company that made the flights, was under investigation.
Maurizio reports on his Facebook account that the claims that he has been banned are part of a smear campaign by another Nepali aviation company. But regardless of his status as a pilot in Nepal (and I strongly hope he continues to fly – Maurizio holds the record for the highest helicopter rescue ever, has flown countless challenging flights for my teams, and this year saved the life of one of my Sherpa injured in a construction accident at a local monastery), what I struggle with is Nepal’s lack of clarity on how to improve safety on Mt. Everest. We all know the icefall is dangerous, and that luck plays a significant part in whether climbers survive their trips up and down. No regular on Everest was surprised by this year’s accident. Devastated yes, but not surprised.
A LACK OF LEADERSHIP
Nepal needs to step up and regulate the mountain, as other countries have for their natural wonders. We need regulations that limit the abuse that disreputable companies cause on the mountain, their clients, and their staff. These regulations should include:
– required experience levels for clients, guides, and Sherpa
– limits on team sizes
– reasonable minimum wages, insurance coverages, and disaster fund for Sherpa
– require infrastructure by all operators to ensure adequate comms, medical and rescue supplies, oxygen and equipment for staff
– a skilled, prepared, and well-funded rescue team based on the mountain
Should helicopters be allowed to fly equipment or climbers over the icefall? I don’t believe this is the correct solution for Mt. Everest. In fact, I believe it to be an impossible long-term solution. If this was to become standard, and hundreds of flights were flown each season, helicopter accidents would occur, and insurance companies (an essential component of getting funding to buy and operate a heli) would ban the practice.
And, as long as a route option exists where climbers can, with a reasonable level of safety, climb from a traditional base camp to a traditional summit, this is the option I strongly believe matches my ideals of what mountaineering means. I believe there are two ways to do this. Teams can move to the north side of Everest (Tibet), where a reasonably safe but challenging route exists. Or teams can continue to climb from Nepal, through the icefall, by dramatically reducing their trips up and down the mountain. This is possible, if teams raise the bar of minimum experience needed of their climbers, and if they get rid of all the extra infrastructure currently being carried to the upper camps.
Those changes will only happen if Nepal takes clear steps to regulate the industry, and does so with the input of expert climbers, guides, Sherpa, companies, and perhaps managers of other countries’ big mountains. It’s a big ask of a country struggling in so many ways. But Nepal has no choice. It cannot afford to further damage the worldwide perspective of its mountains, and the trekking and tourism industry they anchor.
Adrian Ballinger is an AMGA/IFMGA mountain guide, founder of Alpenglow Expeditions, and has summited Everest six times, all while guiding the South Side. Ballinger cancelled his expedition this spring after the fatal avalanche. Photos of the Khumbu via Alpenglow Expeditions Collection.