I WAS SADDENED to hear that an Australian woman died on Everest in the last few days and that a second member of the same team also died, separately but in the same summit attempt.
I've done about 10 media interviews in relation to this latest incident, all asking how highly experienced climbers could succumb to the altitude in this way. I would question however, whether the victims were highly experienced climbers, or highly experienced clients. And that is a very big difference because irrespective of how many times they’ve been guided on other mountains, clients depend on others for appropriate leadership, risk management and care. At high altitude, that includes a depth of understanding of altitude’s physiological impacts and various manifestations.
At 8848m, Everest is the world's highest mountain. More than 280 people have died trying to reach the summit. (Image: Wikimedia)
Positive guided climbing experiences in western countries, due to proper industry regulation, create an expectation that most guides are consummate professionals. As they should be. There is no such regulation in the Himalaya. There is neither the requirement for, nor assessment of, training, qualifications, experience, risk management or leadership skills amongst the leaders, guides and support teams. Similarly, as yet there is no requirement for either guides or clients to have prior 8000 metre experience before going to Everest. As a result there is a multitude of companies offering ‘guided’ ascents of very different standards to clients of greatly varying experience, on Everest and many other peaks.
The actual cause of these unfortunate deaths is as yet unclear, although no doubt altitude contributed. Whatever the physiological cause though, the real question is why the signs and symptoms weren’t recognised early enough to prevent the deaths. One person slipping through the net, maybe. But two?
Learning to climb under one’s own skills and experience, without guides, seems to have gone largely out of fashion. Ok, that’s the way things have evolved. But if anything is to be learned from these fatalities, it is this. Everest is just as high as it has always been, as are the other 8000ers.
Learning to climb under one’s own skills and experience, without guides, seems to have gone largely out of fashion.
The fact that it is being overwhelmed by unregulated, indeed unaccountable commercialism, does not make it safer. Low end operators may claim impressive summit statistics but without guides who possess skills and experience to an international standard, combined with a high guide to client ratio, there may not be sufficient leadership and individual oversight to identify emerging issues before they become a problem, let alone respond to them when they do. If you choose to hand responsibility for your ascent and safe return to others, be sure that the company you go with is of the highest standard. That isn’t being discriminatory; it is being practical and honest from a leadership and risk management perspective. It will cost more and you still won’t have a guarantee of success. But you’ll certainly have a better chance of coming home.
Andrew Lock OAM is the first and only Australian – and the 18th person in the world – to climb all 14 of the world's 8000m mountains, including reaching the summit of Mount Everest twice*. He was the first Australian to lead a commercial expedition to the summit of Mount Everest. Andrew was awarded the Australian Geographic Society's 2009 Adventurer of the Year.
This is an edited version of a post originally published on Andrew Lock's Facebook page.
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*This previously stated Andrew reached the summit of Everest without oxygen or Sherpa support, which was incorrect.