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Prayer flags above Dingboche. Lhotse and Island Peak in the background.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Feelings about Everest and basement-bloggers

My Thoughts and Feelings

I have been repeatedly asked how I feel about the accident, the two main Sherpa responses to it and the cancellation of the climbing season. I'm only human and so I obviously have my own thoughts and emotions about this. But a large part of me says that I really don't matter much in all of this. I never want to allow my disappointment to ever be compared with the bigger picture; the tragic loss of 16 people.

However, since I can't seem to escape the questions, here goes. I didn't know any of the killed or injured men so to a certain extent I'm not personally affected by what happened. Although it's not a perfect analogy, it is a little like witnessing a bad traffic accident involving people you don't know. You are upset and disturbed. You feel sorrow. But it doesn't hit you in the same way as it would if the victims were family or close friends.  This is not in any way meant to diminish the loss; I'm just not as personally affected as those who were their family and friends.

When it comes to my thoughts on the Sherpa response, things grow more complicated. My fear is that anything I say will be purposely misinterpreted by the 40-year-old haters hiding in their mother's basement as they blog away in their underwear with atrocious spelling and grammar. The Sherpa community has traditionally been very close knit but seems to now be fracturing which makes sense given the influence of outsiders and technology. The "old school" Sherpa such as our team tend to be stoic while some of the younger guys are quite vocal and perhaps more media savvy.

It appears that many, but not all, of these younger guys were significantly influenced by the Maoists (communists) during Nepal's civil war. The Maoists probably had some reasonable grievances, as the Sherpa certainly do, but they lost all credibility when they resorted to violence and extortion (which continues just a little, even to this day). Most at base camp that I spoke with felt the Sherpa demands made sense until they demanded that everyone join their cause and physically threatened anyone who opposed their ideas. Might does not make right. Beating somebody up (or threatening their wife and kids) doesn't prove the merits of your case. In fact it does just the opposite. I lost all respect for those particular individuals once the intimidation began.  They became typical "union thugs", or perhaps more like mafioso demanding "protection" money.

But more important than this, they also have financially damaged many many families. If dad doesn't get his paycheck, little Johnny can't attend his quality school. Food can even become an issue. Progress towards a secure future reverses. There will be a lot of unnecessary hardship for these families. I know one of the demands was for the teams to pay all the wages as if the staff had worked the full season, but how do you force a private company to do this in a country that has a barely functioning government staffed by corrupt bureaucrats? Many of the reputable foreign guide companies will likely do this, but some won't or can't, and the abusive, low-budget Nepalese operators certainly won't pay more than they must. And all the climbers simply lose their money - $20,000 to $100,000 depending on who they climb with.

Finally, how am I processing the cancel of my own climb? I've told a few people that I feel a little like a spouse who was cheated on. I have put so much effort and emotion into this project. I began climbing and training in earnest eight years ago so I would be ready in every regard. I dream about Everest daily. I train extremely hard at the gym six days per week, have traveled to all seven continents to gain skills and experience in climbing, neglected many important family events, spent a significant amount of money and been away from home and work for months at a time. I have fallen in love with Nepal, her people and especially the Sherpa. I was as prepared for this climb as I knew how to be. After three weeks of trekking and acclimatizing at high altitudes with the associated cold, boredom, hard work and occasional loneliness we were finally ready to start climbing and suddenly everything was on hold and then canceled. Something far bigger than a mere dream slipped away.

What about the future? I am unable and unwilling to go next year because my beautiful older daughter graduates from university then. I also am not confident enough that the situation has stabilized. I expect to try again in 2016 (my fourth attempt, if you can count this year as an attempt) provided things go very smoothly in 2015. I trust this time will prove successful as a fifth attempt seems a bit much.

Everest Myths

Lastly, I'd like to address some of the untrue things said about climbing Everest by the aforementioned basement-bloggers. First, in spite of what the cadres of uninformed and inexperienced people (who have never seen the Himalaya in person) say, climbing Everest is not easy and never will be. It is long, cold, dangerous, extremely physically demanding and mentally exhausting. The Sherpa may carry our tents, oxygen bottles and other equipment for us but they certainly never carry their clients anywhere except possibly down in a rescue situation. Can Western climbers summit without Sherpa help? For 99.99% of us, the answer is an emphatic "no". But in truth virtually no one has ever climbed this peak without the help of a giant team. Beginning with Mallory and company in 1921 through to Hillary in 1953 up to this year, there have always been huge numbers of people all cooperating and doing their part to get a minority of the team to the top.

What about the accusation of bucket-list, super-wealthy, middle-aged white guys ticking something off their list for bragging rights with no concern for the virtuous Sherpa dying around them to make this possible? I suppose that guy exists, but in three expeditions to Everest, three other Nepal climbs and virtually an entire year in the country during the course of 12 trips here, I've never met him. To a man, everyone I've met has nothing but respect and admiration for the Sherpa members of their team and for the Sherpa people they meet all along the trek and climb. We care deeply about these wonderful people and typically leave thinking of them as brothers and equals. Nobody I've ever met wants anyone injured, let alone killed for their dreams.

What about the disparity of income and net worth? Of course it exists, but prior to Westerners climbing in Nepal it was far worse than today. Hillary's porters in 1953 were paid 1/8 of a Rupee per day and 1 Rupee per day for work above about 22,000'. Today the porters get 2,000 to 4,000 Rupees per day and climbing Sherpa who work above Base Camp earn 8,000 to 12,000 or more Rupees per day whether they are actually climbing or just resting in camp. (95 Rupees are worth about $1 as of today) Of course there has been some inflation, but the point remains that climbing and trekking has been very good for the earnings of almost all Sherpa people. Climbing has lifted the average Sherpa family from subsistence farming to being among the wealthiest of all the Nepalese. They own nice tea houses, travel the world, put their kids into good private schools, are becoming airline pilots and doctors and enjoy world-wide fame. Do they earn enough? No, but reducing or eliminating Western climbers and Western guide companies will only hurt them. For all of the naysayers decrying the money situation, how many of them have lifted a finger or given even a dime to help the Sherpa people or any other poor person in the world's 150+ Third World countries?

How rich are Everest climbers? How rich is your neighbor because that's who is climbing Everest. Some are quite wealthy and pay their own way. Others borrow the money or sell their car or house to finance their dream. Should they spend this money helping the poor vs climbing Everest? Perhaps, but what is very seldom talked about is how much these same people spend and do to help others. But this is the case for any expenditure. Should you forgo a new car or a bigger house, a nice restaurant meal or a new pair of shoes you don't truly need so you can give all that money to others? If we are going to be honest, we are all selfish to a degree.

Thanks for putting up with my ramblings!


  1. Robert....from one who has climbed Cho Oyo and Everest, very well said/written...thanks for sharing your thoughts and feelings and good luck on your future climbs....Kevin

  2. good post, good luck in 2016, the entire situation is a bit crazy

  3. Expeditions always carry objective risks. Instead of bad weather, injury to yourself, political chaos, ailment at Camp 3, etc, this year's risk ended up being the sad situation the Everest 2014 teams are facing.

    Maybe try from the Tibetan side next time?

  4. "But in truth virtually no one has ever climbed this peak without the help of a giant team. " I mostly agree with you, but still I need to say this, read your history. Reinhold Messner, North Face.

  5. to the comment above, i would have thought by using the phrase "virtually no one" instead of " no one" indicated that he is fully aware of Reinhold Messner.
    Robert i have read all of Mark Horrells blogs and books and understand you were both on the same team this year? Although he was going for Lhotse. His take on it is exactly the same as yours, it seems as usual the actions of a militant few will spoil it for everyone else. Good luck for 2016 ! Bev Jackson

  6. When you finally summit it will be even more meaningful to you than if it came easy. Looking forward to following your journey in 2016.

  7. Very well said.
    Looking forward to reading about your climb to the top in 2016.
    Bob Lincoln,Ne

  8. You are incorrect. Reinhol Messner in 1980 summit via North face. The first solo new route on Everest. Without oxygen and obviously without any Sherpa's support. Daniele Preti, Italy

    1. I apologize to those who don't speak English as their native language. I said "virtually no one" which is different from "no one". Current estimates say that about 4,000 people have climbed Everest and many of these have made more than one climb. From these 4,000 people, only one (Reinhold Messner) has climbed alone and without oxygen. I stand with my original comment, "virtually no one". Perhaps there is a reason only one person has soloed Everest? Maybe it is a difficult climb? Thus is sarcasm, in case you are uncertain.

  9. Monsieur, Robert, well put. You should write a book!
    Hope to climb with you in Switzerland, hopefully..

  10. I thought Alison Hargreaves climbed Everest, carrying all her own gear, without support or supp. oxygen, in 1995?