Passion Points: Active/Adventure
Journalist Nick Heil investigates Mount Everest’s deadly 2006 climbing season in his new book, Dark Summit: The True Story of Everest’s Most Controversial Season (available through Amazon.com). A former editor for Outside and a contributor to Men’s Journal and Skiing magazines, Heil spent a year interviewing tour operators and climbers to discover what really went wrong in the well-publicized deaths of climbers David Sharp and Thomas Weber. Heil, who is a seasoned mountaineer, recently shared his thoughts on the current state of the Himalayas and gave some tips for trekkers preparing for their own high-altitude ascents.
Given your own background in mountaineering, do you understand what motivates climbers to risk their lives?
I feel like I do, but I don’t know that I can articulate it with great clarity. Mountaineering becomes part of your being. To do it and have these experiences is so rewarding. Let’s say you go climb Mount Rainier. In the global scheme, it’s not a particularly huge mountain, but it’s a great event to do something like that. You come back from it really empowered and hungry to do the next thing.
When you did climb to Everest’s North Col, what surprised you most? Is there anything you wish you had known before you set out?
What surprised me was just how hard it was, although it’s not particularly technical. North Col is billed as world’s highest trek; you go up to 23,000 feet, a higher point than anywhere outside of the Himalayas. I was in pretty good shape, but I was completely floored how difficult it was at altitude. I saw a lot of people who really struggled. You’ve got to understand what happens at altitude and be prepared. I brought along plenty of medicine and made sure I was in shape. To prepare, I read anything I could about what I could do to manage myself up high. You have to understand what happens to you at altitude and to take the steps to alleviate the problems. Make sure you’re not just depending on the outfitter that’s taking care of you. The Himayalas are big, wild, remote places, and there are lots of situations where you don’t have immediate access to your guide, no matter how good he is. So you have to be ready to take care of yourself. I think a lot of people look at the technical difficulty and think, I hike all the time, I’m in decent shape, but they can get overwhelmed.
What do you recommend to prepare for high-altitude climbing?
Going up to 14,000 feet in Colorado is great way to prepare. Notch your way up in experience. Once you get up to 20,000 ft, it’s the real deal. Respect the altitude and make your trips a progression. Before you head for the really big mountains, try Fuji or Kilimanjaro or some of the volcanoes down in Mexico, a big trip to a really respectable altitude. You can work your way up to these things. If you’re going to go do something like the North Col trip – a long, expensive, arduous adventure – the last thing you want to be is the armchair guy who blows it. It’s a rewarding experience, a real accomplishment getting up to the North Col. I’d recommend that someone spend a year getting to other destinations that take them to altitudes that are in between the highest they’ve been and the North Col. Lots of people struggle and need to acclimatize, so you need to know what kind of pace you can handle, what kind of food you need, how much you should be hydrating and with what kind of fluids. There are lots of personal things you need to dial in before you go off on a month-long expedition.
What drew you to the story of Everest’s 2006 climbing season?
I was a freelance journalist working on a story for Men’s Journal, which is what got me investigating what had transpired in 2006. At one point, people thought it was the deadliest year on Everest, but the final tally was eleven, which made it the second worst. The hook was that so many people had died that year, and a lot of the deaths had taken place on north side in Tibet. I’m a little bit of an Everest junkie and hadn’t heard much about north side or that aspect of the mountain. As I started my research, I got very interested in the character of [Himayalayn Expeditions’s founder] Russell Brice, the biggest and most successful outfitter and the guy that commercialized that side of the mountain. He ultimately becomes the story’s main character, a really interesting complex individual who was scapegoated in the death of David Sharp. [Sharp, a talented but underequipped mountaineer, fell ill and spent days dying as other climbers passed him without offering help.] The more I reported and deeper I dug, the more fascinating it got.
In what way do you think the commercialization of high-altitude climbing contributed to the year’s deaths?
I end up concluding in the book that the outfitters, Brice especially, aren’t the problem; they are the solution. Back in 1996, with the whole In To Thin Air debacle, there was a lot of finger pointing. People said the problem was that Everest was being commercialized. There were bottlenecks high up on the mountain and people were getting in trouble because of that. But in 2006, when weather was really good, the problem had more to do with the nature of the people who were up there. The deaths were individual and typically caused by different circumstances. Everest is an incredibly popular place and more and more amateurs are flocking there to climb it. The commercial operators have a vested interest in trying to manage the scene in a way that makes it possible to climb safely. And honestly the gold standard of climbing on north side is Brice. He makes sure everyone has a radio and is in touch, plus all clients climb with Sherpas. In the book, I take the side of the commercial outfitters and try to provide a bit of a defense of what they are doing, particularly in the case of Russell Brice, who is trying to raise standards overall. It’s both troubling and ironic that he was the one blamed for Sharp’s death.
Given your research, who is most responsible for a climber’s safety—the expedition leader or the climber himself? What part do/should other climbers play?
That’s the big question. I think ultimately the responsibility falls on the climber himself. I do think the expedition leaders have a huge responsibility towards the climbers and that depending on the expedition, the leader may or may not be committed to the level that they need to be. For the most part, though, the expeditions leaders are very committed; whether they are giving all the resources necessary is debatable. As for other climbers, their moral responsibility [to another climber] is really interesting. The popular perception is that most of the climbers up there are trophy seekers willing to ignore the troubles of another climber to get to the summit. I think that is the exception not the rule. There is far more chivalry, dignity and heroism than people realize, but the darker side of the story is so attractive that the media likes to pick up on that.
In wake of the 2006 season, climbers will think about what kind of responsibility they have. But before 2006, you were kind of in denial, hoping that no one would have problems that warranted your help. Stopping forward progress at that altitude means you are putting yourself at great risk; you are certainly giving up the summit and possibly endangering yourself. I think it’s hard for people to really appreciate the challenges, especially arm chair mountaineers who don’t fully get a sense of what it means to be up in this dangerous place. There’s only one third of the oxygen that you have at sea level. You are so beat down, your resources so finite, that what you can do as a rescuer is very limited.
Are there any situations where you think the guide did default on his responsibility for a climber’s safety?
I wrote the story trying to give everybody the benefit of the doubt and had several conversations with Thomas Weber’s guide, Harry Kikstra [Weber, a German banker with high-altitude blindness, collapsed and died during his summit bid]. He had taken on a climber with dubious credentials and a debilitating eye problem with only two Sherpas and a little bit of extra oxygen. I don’t think any guide in his right mind would expose himself to the problems that Kikstra did in that climb. But there’s a huge caveat emptor when it comes to contracting a guide or expedition. If you want to insure your safety, you’ve got to do your homework. I wish I’d had another six months to investigate, since what really happened remains a mystery. At the very least, Kikstra was guilty of really bad judgment, and you can level your accusations from there. I think it’s a cautionary tale for anybody that might be in the situation of a special needs climber. When you’re shopping around for an outfit, you need to understand what you are getting yourself into.
If someone is determined to attempt Everest, is there one operator you would recommend?
Go with [Russell] Brice. If you can’t afford Brice or don’t like him, there are a handful of other outfitters. Just do your homework. Vet the credibility, the history and the experience of the agency. If this is a new kid on the block, make sure they have some good references. If I’m an amateur, I want the most experienced person I can afford. Unless you’re a total cowboy and want to court problems, experience and longevity on the mountain is huge. Also be sure to find references that aren’t the ones that are offered to you by the outfitter himself. Whatever you’re doing in the Himalayas, there are so many operations, and they are running their show in developing countries. There’s not a lot of regulation or accountability. Just because someone has an operator’s permit doesn’t mean he should be trusted.
What else should travelers be aware of in the region?
Traveling in Tibet is such a different experience than trekking in Nepal. You’re dealing with two different countries, two different attitudes towards tourism. In Tibet, you’ll be chaperoned by officials the whole time. They keep close tabs on what people are doing and are not too psyched when people stray off the beaten path. In Nepal, you have a lot more freedom to roam around, and the experience itself is a lot more rugged. In Tibet, you drive to base camp – not the kind of ruddy adventure you get on the south side when you hike to base camp. If you want to hike the south side, you’ve got to be kind of ready for fairly rustic camping and tea house accommodations. Tibet has pretty comfortable hotel lodging, and you’ll be driving from destination to destination – a lot easier.
How has recent political turmoil in the region affected the climbing community?
The Tibet side of Everest was completely closed this past season, but they expect business as usual next year. Whether there will be any ongoing Tibet issues is hard to say. I’m sure there will be, but I don’t know how that will impact tourism. The Chinese are very sensitive, so if there is any trouble they put the clamp down pretty quickly. My sense is next year will be just like 2007. I flew to Llassa, a fascinating city, then did the five-day driving trip out to Everest base camp without any problems whatsoever.
What are the best philanthropic organizations in the region?
The biggest and best is Ed Hillary’s Himalayan Trust (www.himalayantrust.co.uk). There are a handful of others that do charitable projects over there, but Himalayan Trust has the most energy in Solo Khumu [the region near Everest and home to the Sherpas] and on Everest itself. The Hillary legacy is very respected and has quite a strong voice in the region. They are involved in building schools and hospitals and provide lots of support to the Sherpas. One of the nice upshots of commercialization and tourism is it brings more people to the region, and with that more awareness and more philanthropic and charitable organizations. People are quick to disparage tourism but it’s that community that’s doing a lot to help.
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