Once again, a natural disaster has ravaged one of the poorest areas in the world. Sorry, Nepal, but this time, it’s you.
It seems deeply unfair, if cruel, that those who already have the least always seem to be the ones who end up suffering the most. Meanwhile, those with the most not only suffer the least, but also seem to be the ones who are given the most help.
This ugly disparity played out this week on Mt. Everest, when, on Monday, at least 160 people—guides, clients, and their hired Sherpas—received helicopter rides off of the mountain, diverting a significant portion of crucial life-saving helicopters away from assisting with search and rescue efforts elsewhere in the country.
Early Monday morning, the “great Everest Air Show” began, as David Hahn, a mountain guide for RMI Expeditions, described it in his blog. Five high-altitude helicopters—about a quarter of all the helicopters in Nepal—ran throughout the morning. Pilots for the private helicopter companies Fishtail Air, Manang Air, and Simrick Air made a cumulative total of over 90 flights over several hours, bringing the 160 climbers that were stranded at Camp 1 back down to basecamp.
Alan Arnette, a prominent Everest blogger who was one of the guided clients rescued on Monday, clarified the situation of that day: “The stories of ‘climbers stranded’ in the Western Cwm are simply untrue or a matter of exaggeration. We were the highest team on Everest at Camp 2. Others were below us at Camp 1. All had sufficient food, fuel, water and shelter to survive for days.”
If that’s the case—that the climbers up on Everest had enough food, fuel, water and shelter to comfortably live for days—then there’s no doubt that these helicopters could’ve been better used elsewhere.
The BBC reported that various local government officials are frustrated by the lack of helicopter support that has been promised to them by Kathmandu, but has yet to arrive, and which is greatly needed to access the remote areas of the country that have been most heavily affected by the earthquake.
According to this BBC article, Jitendra Poudel, the assistant chief district officer of Gorkha, said: “Many of the affected villages are quite remote in our district. We should have been given most of the helicopter rescue and reliefs, but we have received the least.”
Dr. Prince Matthew, who works with Doctors Without Borders, has pleaded repeatedly on Twitter for additional helicopter support from the Lantang Valley, a location in the foothills just beyond Everest that has been literally entirely buried.
So why did an estimated one-quarter of all the helicopters in Nepal spend Monday and part of Tuesday shuttling climbers, who faced no immediate danger, off of Everest?
“They’re following the money,” says Mark Richey, a world-class mountain climber from Massachusetts who climbed Everest in 1991, and is also the former president of the American Alpine Club. “A lot of these guys are private operators. But they’re not just being greedy, they are obligated. When the climbers called in the rescue, [those helicopter operators] are obligated to go pick up them up.”
Carrying rescue insurance is mandatory for climbers on Everest. And those obligations are passed down through an incredibly cloudy and confusing network of insurance companies, rescue-service providers, and middle men who facilitate making it all happen. Most American climbers, for example, might be covered through a standard annual membership with the American Alpine Club, which provides up to $5,000 of coverage under Global Rescue, a service that works with a network of local companies and individuals across the globe to get its members out of bad situations.
“If you’re on Mt. Everest with the AAC and you want out, and you call and convince them that it’s a life-threatening situation, they gotta come get you,” said Richey. “I’m sure what’s happening is that people are freaked out. Twenty people are dead in base camp. They’re saying, ‘Fuck this. I want to get out of here. I got Global Rescue. Come and get me. Call the bat phone!’
“It’s not that rescue insurance or rescue services are a bad thing,” Richey says, “but it’s wrong when they’re abused, especially when it diverts vital resources like helicopters from saving real lives elsewhere. ”
While the helicopter operators are obligated, it’s worth mentioning that they are also guaranteed to be fully paid for rescuing those Everest climbers. Compensation for humanitarian work, however, is not such a sure thing. It’s not a leap to assume that people in the most heavily affected areas of Nepal could have used that helicopter support on Monday and Tuesday. Nor do is it a leap to say that people likely died because that support wasn’t there.
To recap: a 7.8 magnitude earthquake devastated Nepal on April 25. As of April 30, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reports 5,582 deaths, while Max Weiss, a respected analyst of seismic hazards at the International Center for Earth Simulation in Geneva, Switzerland, has released his chilling, death-total prediction at over 10 times the current report: 57,700.
On Everest, the earthquake triggered a major avalanche that tore through the infamous Khumbu Ice Fall—part of the climbing route known as the South Col route—and went on to demolish half of Everest Base Camp with a blast of debris. Those climbers who were inside of their tents fared worse than those out in the open, as tents were picked up and carried by the blast upwards of a quarter-mile. Ultimately, 18 people died in the event, making it the deadliest day in Everest’s history—but also a relatively minor, if lucky, outcome compared to what happened elsewhere in Nepal
The need for helicopters on Everest this week can be explained by what happened in the Khumbu Ice Fall, which is the heavily crevassed section located at the head of the Khumbu Glacier. The avalanche reportedly wiped out most of the infrastructure—ropes and ladders, etc.—that climbers use to navigate through it. This explains why over 160 climbers were “stranded” at Camps 1 and 2 in the Western Cwm. With the Ice Fall’s ropes and ladders demolished from the avalanche, they couldn’t simply walk back down the way that they had come up.
“We also hoped the Ice Fall would be fixed,” wrote Alan Arnette, “but after the third major aftershock in 24 hours it became clear the entire area was unstable and the safest decision was to get out as quickly and safely as possible.”
The climbers called in the choppers rather than waiting several days to see if the Sherpa would be able to fix the route for them to be able to walk out.
When climbing Everest via the South Col route, the Ice Fall is the first obstacle, and by far the most dangerous one of all. It is an extremely volatile place in which you walk beneath shifting towers of ice as tall as buildings, and cross over bottomless crevasses thanks to a series of ladders that have been pre-installed by a team of Sherpas that have come to be known as the “Ice Fall Doctors.”
The treacherous job of “Ice Fall Doctor,” by the way, has 1.2% mortality rate, according to an article in Outside Magazine, statistically making it the deadliest profession on earth. A majority of Everest deaths occur in the Khumbu Ice Fall, most of those deaths being Sherpa. For this line of work, these Sherpas can expect to receive upwards of $2,500, a shit-ton of money for any average Nepali, but a pittance when you remember the fact that most Westerners who climb Everest typically pay between $60,000 and $120,000 to be guided up the mountain.
Last year, 16 Sherpa died while establishing the Ice Fall route when another avalanche crushed them. After two successive years of tragedy on Mt. Everest, both of which have involved the Khumbu Ice Fall, it’s apparent that climbing Everest from the south side is an irresponsible route at best, and should no longer be considered a viable way to climb, or, to be more precise, to guide this mountain.
Choosing to climb/guide through the Khumbu Ice Fall is indefensible considering that Everest can be climbed via the north (Tibetan) side of the mountain with far less risk. The northern route is much, much safer as there is no major ice fall to cross—but the route is also technically a bit harder, requiring slightly more skill and fitness out of its climbers. Also, the politics of securing permits for the northern side are much more challenging, as you need to deal with the Beijing government, as opposed to Kathmandu, which is much more climber-friendly.
In case you’re not a climber, here’s the deal with Everest today: Ever since the Into Thin Air tragedy, Everest has gotten more popular. The guiding industry has catered to this increased demand by making practices that are completely out of sync with traditional mountaineering ethics the status quo all so that when rich Westerners show up in base camp with little to no climbing experience, they not only expect special treatment, they demand it.
Alan Arnette, the Everest blogger, is a good example of the type of dude who is drawn to the slopes of “The Big E” these days. On the one hand, he does incredible things like raise money for Alzheimer’s by climbing mountains. On the other hand, he writes stuff like this, describing the situation with the Ice Fall:
“The Icefall Doctors retreated to Gorak Shep after their camp was destroyed. … It is disappointing to the climbing community here that the Doctors did little to assist those in the Cwm.”
In other words, the climbers up on Everest were reportedly miffed because a bunch of guys who are paid to take all the risk for them, all for a pittance salary, didn’t want to go back up and risk their lives in the aftermath of an earthquake that devastated their own country, affecting their families, friends and villages. Poor climbers. Instead, they had to take helicopters instead of doing what they could to fix the Ice Fall route themselves.
Each and every year, Everest’s biggest critics like to point out that guided clients on Everest don’t belong there. Climbing and mountaineering is a game of self-reliance and balancing one’s skills with the natural risks presented by the vertical challenge. Guiding eliminates most risk, lowers the skills needed to be there, and all but removes the element of self-reliance from the equation.
The thing about guiding is that, when it all works out, it’s great. People get the enjoyment of climbing in wild places and having life-altering experiences that they can bring home.
But when things go wrong, then it becomes much harder to justify bringing inexperienced people into the big mountains.
This past week on Everest, we have witnessed a situation in which almost two hundred people found themselves in a climbing situation that they couldn’t get out of without a rescue. They were either unable or unwilling to descend under their own power partly because they lacked the skills needed to do so, partly because it was an extraordinary and dangerous situation, and mostly because when you go to climb Everest these days, you expect the royal treatment, including on-demand helicopter rides off the mountain when things get a little bit uncomfortable.
The climbers prematurely called in a rescue and diverted Nepal’s limited helicopters away from other potential humanitarian and rescue work because they didn’t want to sit around on a mountain whose summit they would no longer be reaching.
People like to proclaim that Everest is “easy” and no big deal. The reality, of course, is that Everest would be one of the toughest mountains in the world, if it were actually approached and climbed in its natural state—meaning, without oxygen, without fixed ropes, without a network of ladders, and also with the knowledge, perhaps even the expectation, that anything could happen, even an 80-year earthquake, and that in the game of mountaineering, one should ultimately be self-reliant and equipped to handle those challenges.
It’s widely known that the climbers who are guided up Everest’s trade routes don’t have the climbing skills needed to be there by themselves. But the more important thing that they are lacking—as we have seen this week—is that they lack the self-reliant mentality that climbing mountains demands. And, once again, they have proven that they are willing to put their own interests above others.
I suggest donating what you can to these groups. Thoughts and prayers to all those affected.