Standing in Mt. Everest base camp—located at 17,700 feet—it is a little hard not to be overwhelmed. After all, it takes the better part of a week just to trek to that point, and when you do reach it you’re still standing more than 11,000 feet below the summit. The air is thin, of course, with about half the level of oxygen that you’re use to breathing at sea level. All around you, a tent city has been erected in an orderly fashion, with several hundred climbers, guides, porters, and various support staff buzzing about. It is a surprisingly vibrant place considering its remote and stunningly beautiful location. But at night you can hear the thunderous sound of avalanches as you huddle in your sleeping bag, while during the day you can witness that phenomenon first hand, as snow, ice, and rock tumble down the slopes above. It is a stark reminder of the dangers that await at higher altitude.
I made the trek to Everest base camp (EBC) in the spring of 2016 for two reasons. The first was to fulfill a lifetime dream of reaching the summit of the tallest mountain on the planet. The other reason was to support my ongoing mission to raise awareness of the challenges that U.S. veterans face as they transition from active duty back to civilian life. That’s a subject I know a little something about after serving a career as a Navy SEAL.
This year—more than any other in recent memory—there was a sense of nervous anticipation on the mountain. It was almost as if the men and women living in base camp were working hard to maintain a veneer of cautious optimism, all the while each of them was secretly waiting for the other shoe to drop. Considering the challenges that climbers on Everest have faced over the past few seasons, this was probably to be expected. After all, in the past three years we’ve seen a high-profile brawl break out between foreign mountaineers and Sherpas, followed in successive years by two massive tragedies that left the climbing community stunned and bewildered.
For anyone who follows the Everest climbing scene closely it is becoming increasingly clear that it is now a mountain in transition. Facing threats from climate change, growing disillusionment amongst the Sherpa guides, and even a fundamental shift in the way that mountaineering companies operate on its rocky slopes, the Everest that we know now will likely be a very different place in the not too distant future. It is evident that the recent turmoil that has taken place on the mountain is already reshaping the future of climbing there, and it is safe to say that Everest—and Nepal itself—may never be the same again.
Ironically, the one force that is having an undeniable impact on Everest, and the people who climb it, is something that continues to be feverishly debated in other corners of the globe. Climate change remains a hot button issue in the U.S. and Europe, but in Nepal it is a reality that is clearly spelled out in the quickly receding glaciers. As those snows recede, it is making it more dangerous to climb in the Himalayas, which are already challenging enough to begin with.
Back in 2012, Russell Brice, the expedition leader for a New Zealand-based company called Himalayan Experience (known in mountaineering circles as Himex) sent ripples through the climbing community when he abruptly canceled operations on Everest just days before a possible attempt on the summit. Brice expressed concern over the safety of his guides and clients, who had to pass through the shadow of an overhanging block of ice that clung precariously to the side of the mountain. He was worried that the chunk of ice—which had been there for decades—was about to collapse, potentially taking dozens of lives in the process. Most of the other teams on Everest that year stayed firmly in place and eventually went on to successfully reach the top of the mountain. But two years later that same block of ice did eventually give way, claiming the lives of 16 porters who were shuttling gear up the mountain at the time. It was the worst disaster in Everest history up until that point, and it was a sobering reminder that warming temperatures across the region were having an impact on Everest and other Himalayan peaks.
The impact of global warming hasn’t been seen quite so clearly since the accident of 2014, but as temperatures continue to warm the chance of avalanches and rockslides will increase substantially. Worse yet, the Khumbu Icefall—widely viewed as the most dangerous section of the climb—becomes more unstable, too.
Located just above base camp, the icefall is made up of large chunks of snow and ice that are calving off the end of the Khumbu Glacier. In order to pass through this perilous section, climbers must negotiate a series of ladders that are placed horizontally across seemingly bottomless crevasses. Walking across those ladders while wearing bulky mountaineering boots can be unnerving to say the least, but it is the only way to go from BC to Camp 1. Climbers must make that hike multiple times each season and it never ceases to fray nerves and test their patience.
The icefall is surprisingly fast moving, at least by glacial standards. It can shift up to one meter per day, which makes this already an inherently unstable area. But as climate change causes temperatures to rise, and the glacier to melt at a faster rate, the already treacherous path becomes even more dangerous. In fact, the route through the icefall collapsed multiple times this year, each requiring a considerable effort by a special team of Sherpas known as the Ice Doctors to repair. That higher-than-usual instability also prompted the Nepali government to authorize the use of helicopters to shuttle gear up to Camp 1 and 2, greatly reducing the number of trips required to move through the icefall. In the future, that could become standard practice, perhaps even carrying climbers there, too.
If there is anything more troubling than the effect that global warming is having on the mountain, it just might be the growing disillusionment amongst the Sherpa guides, porters, and support staff there. These hard-working men and women have been the backbone of nearly every Everest expedition for the past six decades, and usually they are the ones charged with doing most of the work for their climbing teams. Those duties typically include fixing the ropes to the summit, shuttling gear to the high camps, and ensuring that their well-heeled foreign clients are safely escorted up and down the mountain. For that honor they are paid relatively poorly, take on the vast majority of the risk, and more often than not are the ones who pay the ultimate price when something goes wrong.
The number of Sherpa guides who die on Everest is disproportionally high when compared to their foreign counterparts, and as a result a growing number of them are now beginning to question whether or not the benefits of working on Everest outweigh the risks. For an increasing number of younger Sherpas, the answer is no, and that could spell trouble in the future for both the leading guide services and the Nepali government, which makes a substantial amount of cash from climbing permits and other fees levied against climbers.
The most vocal showing of this mounting displeasure came in the wake of the devastating avalanche in 2014. Grief stricken by the loss of 16 of their comrades, the Everest Sherpa community refused to continue climbing, effectively bringing a halt to the entire season. Many were fed up with the low wages they were being paid and demanded increased life insurance premiums to help the family members of the fallen porters continue to maintain their livelihood. Nepal’s government initially planned to offer those families just $400 to cover funeral expenses, but later upped that figure to $5,000 in the wake of very vocal criticism and dissent. It took them months to finally make those payouts, however, something that continues to foster resentment amongst the Sherpa people two years later.
While some Nepalis are ready to abandon the mountain altogether, others are looking to capitalize on it. An increasing number of locally owned climbing and trekking outfitters are popping up across the country, and over the past few years they’ve started to become a disruptive force to the mountaineering establishment on Everest. So much so that some well-known guide services have announced that 2016 will likely be there last year on the mountain. It is simply becoming too difficult to compete with all of the low-end options offered by the Nepali companies.
Because they operate within Nepal, these local businesses work under a different set of rules than their foreign competitors. Those rules often result in lower operating expenses that give them an unfair advantage. For instance, since they don’t employ Western guides at all, they aren’t forced to pay for permits for their climbing staff. Those fees alone represent a savings of $11,000 per person. They also don’t have to contribute to the funds that pay the Icefall Doctors or the team of Sherpas who install the fixed ropes to the summit. On top of that, they aren’t required to pay for rescue services either, nor do they have to employ a government liaison officer in their camp. And since they’re not bringing guides in from out of the country, there are no significant travel costs to cover.
All of those savings are passed on to the clients, who can now make an attempt on Everest for as low as $23,000, provided they don’t mind going with an all-Nepali team, and a large contingent of other climbers. The largest team in base camp this spring was the locally owned Seven Summits squad, which had more than 45 members. In contrast, the Western teams typically have between 12 and 16 climbers, and charge $45,000 and up, with some exceeding $60,000.
But these low-cost Everest expeditions come with some caveats. They offer very few amenities in base camp for instance and their guides often lack training and experience. On top of that, there are lingering questions about their ability to keep clients safe on the mountain. Despite these issues, however, there are plenty of customers who are willing to take the risk if it means saving themselves thousands of dollars. Generally it isn’t until they’ve arrived on the mountain that they begin to realize you really do get what you pay for.
Climate change, unrest amongst the Sherpas, and a radically shifting business model are all signs of a mountain in transition. Add in two seasons of climbing disruptions, and the expectations for the 2016 were incredibly high. If ever there was a need for a “normal” year on Everest, this was the one. Fortunately, we got exactly that, and this spring has proved to be the calmest, most by-the-numbers season in at least three or four years.
My own Everest ambitions were sadly brought to an unceremonious end due to altitude sickness. While passing through the Khumbu Icefall, I collapsed several times, and doctors determined that I wasn’t just suffering from High Altitude Pulmonary Edema, but Cerebral Edema as well. The only cure was to go down, so a rescue helicopter retrieved me from the mountain.
But it is estimated that more than 500 people reached the summit this year, amongst them were teammates and friends that I made while in base camp. Considering the tumultuous climbing seasons that Everest has seen over the past few years, the success this year can be seen as nothing short of a triumph. But I can’t help but wonder what the future holds for the mountain and the people who climb it. In a few years time it could be a very different place, with both natural and manmade forces changing its fortunes dramatically.
What will the mountaineering scene look like at that point? Most likely it will be more crowded than ever, and quite possibly less safe, too. But the allure of Everest will undoubtedly remain strong, with no shortage of people still willing to take the risk to scale its legendary heights.
Don Mann is the author of the national bestseller Inside SEAL Team Six and a retired Navy SEAL. Don and Ralph Pezzullo are the authors of the popular Thomas Crocker thriller series, and mostly recently have authored Seal Team Six: Hunt the Dragon.
Kraig Becker is a freelance travel writer who has contributed to National Geographic Adventure, Huffington Post, Outer Edge Magazine, OutdoorX4, FlightNetwork.com, and a wide variety of other outdoor focused blogs and publications.