My phone always rings when someone passes away on Everest. In this world of one sound bites, whatever I say is in danger of being misinterpreted, or simplified. So here is what I feel, very strongly, about the beautiful, and at times unforgiving, freedom of high altitude climbing.
I am terribly sad when people die climbing. I think not of the climbers themselves, who were where they were because they made decisions that brought them to that fatal moment. I feel for those who love them, and now live with the terrible loss. I have been there, I know the feeling.
I hear of experienced climbers dying where others, many others have not, on a route that is pretty safe of objective dangers, and I wonder..
What is an experienced climber? Being guided up the Seven Summits does not give a solid experience of high altitude mountaineering. Being able to make timely decisions that save your life, in an unforgiving environment, that is what experience is about. It takes time, and not just training, but the accumulation of knowledge that comes from years of practicing the art of making decisions based on one’s understanding of how one’s body reacts to altitude, combined with decisions based on the weather, on the route conditions, on the team one is with. It is inconceivable to me that climbers should put their lives in the hands of others at such high altitude, without that personal understanding of what works for them, and what does not. Many do, and most times, it works out all right. Most times.
Twenty years ago, I was on the South Col, in the middle of a tragedy that cost eight people their lives. Much was written and said about it, blame was apportioned between various people and factors. Ultimately though, people died because of the decisions they made, or because they had given others the power to make decisions for them. Can one safely guide, at very high altitude?
The numbers, both of people wanting to summit, and of companies competing for the climbing dollar, mean that more and more support workers “Sherpas” have less and less experience. That is the law of supply and demand.
Choosing the right expedition for the level of experience one has is paramount. Cheaper outfitters, whether Nepali or Western, will not offer the same kind of support dearer ones give. And even then, a fair amount of research is a wise investment.
As a mentor to hopeful seven summiteers, and a mountaineer with over twenty years of private expeditions under my belt, I would never recommend going onto Everest without a solid base, and a suitable number of expeditions at high altitude, including on other eight thousand meter peaks.
If things go wrong, the cost is simply too high.
My sincere condolences to the families and friends of those, clients or workers, who die on big mountains.