Archive for February, 2010

Is Climbing Mount Everest Getting Safer? The Experts Weigh In.

“The potential is always there for some kind of catastrophe,” says Nick Heil, author of Dark Summit, a book that analyzes the events leading up to the climbing debacles on Mount Everest in 2006, the peak’s second-most deadly season.
The question Heil is responding to is a question that likely runs through the mind of every climber who has arrived at Everest base camp in the last 14 years: Can a tragedy the magnitude of the one that struck Everest on May 10, 1996, ever happen again? That day a fierce storm swept in and killed nine climbers, making it the worst disaster in the history of the mountain.
More than a decade after the accident, climbers, guides, and historians still fiercely debate the events of May 10, from who was at fault to how badly the climbers miscalculated the weather. But today most agree on one thing: Safety on the world’s highest mountain has improved since 1996.
“I couldn’t quantify how it has improved, but on the whole the process is much better,” says Heil. “Certainly the higher-end operators have tried to buckle down and be more strict on turnaround times and protocol on high, which has reduced the odds considerably.” But, Heil adds, with summit numbers as high as they are—330 climbers topped out on Everest in 2009—“it becomes a very complicated scenario.”
According to Russell Brice, the owner of commercial operator Himalayan Experience, which has been running guided expeditions on Everest since 1994, one of the primary reasons safety has improved since 1996 is that the quality of rope-fixing is much better than it used to be.
“We now put a rope from the South Col to the summit, so even if there is bad visibility, people can get back to their tents,” he says. “We are working hard to make rope-fixing even better in the future.”
Wally Berg, owner of Berg Adventures, the company orchestrating Jamie Clarke’s Expeditions Hanesbrands summit bid adds that the guides’ and Sherpas’ familiarity with the mountain also plays a huge role in safety.
“Rob Hall and Scott Fischer [two guides who died in 1996] had become fixtures on the mountain by 1996, but they had only been there for five years,” says Berg. “Today there are guides and Sherpas who have been on both sides of the mountain 16 or 17 times. It’s a whole different era.”
According to Brice, the most important change is improved communication.
“Rob Hall could talk to his wife at home via radio and satellite phone, but he hadn’t spent much effort in making good and reliable radio communications on the hill,” says Brice. “I now supply all my members, guides, and Sherpas with a radio so that everyone has contact.”
Today, most of the mountain communication is centralized at the Everest Base Camp Clinic, now in its eighth year of operation.
“Base camp ER has become a center of communication and coordination of all teams,” says Berg.
“This kind of coordination didn’t exist in 1996. If anything, we were secretive about the radio frequencies we were going to use back then. But today people cooperate and communicate much better. There are plenty of examples of rescues—both individuals and entire teams—who have taken a much more enlightened approach to climbing Everest in the last ten years.”