Posts Tagged ‘The Altitude Experience’
June 15th, 2013
In the spring of 2013 there was a well-publicized incident between Western climbers and Sherpas on the slopes of Mount Everest. Here are some links to the many new stories on this incident:
Rather than discuss the individuals involved and judge their actions, I want talk more generally about why such incidents occur (specifically the initial incident that sparked the more salacious events afterwards). If the issues were confined only to Mount Everest it frankly wouldn’t be all that important. But tactics used on Everest are spreading to other high peaks and other countries, so this problem will arise again. And the lessons of this incident can be applied in other situations.
You can’t understand the problem unless you understand the system on Everest and the parties involved. If you already do, skip ahead.
How it all works
On the standard routes on Mount Everest there are three groups of people: climbers, guides/companies, and staff. For over 20 years, the climbers on Everest have fallen into two groups: the vast majority are tourists with little or no mountaineering background and a small number are experienced climbers who are capable of climbing the mountain without guidance.
Climbing the normal routes on Everest goes like this:
1. Tourists pay tens of thousands of dollars to a guide/company.
2. The guide/company hires sherpas to do the manual labor and work with tourists.
3. The companies pool their equipment and manpower.
4. Sherpas install ropes all the way up the mountain and establish intermediate camps.
5. Guides and tourists ascend the ropes to the summit and back.
Tourists get their summits, guides and sherpas get their money and build a reputation.
There are three main actors in this drama: The high-altitude porters (sherpas), the elite climbers (Rockstars), and the guiding companies (who cater to tourists).
The sherpa stereotype is the happy, smiling, hard-working, high-altitude load carrier. In reality sherpas are no different than any other group of people – some are jovial, some are quiet, some are aggressive, and there are some real jerks. Note: since many high-altitude porters are not of Sherpa ethnic heritage I use the lower case ‘sherpa’ throughout.
As indigenous highlanders, sherpas have adapted to the thin air and they generally perform better than lowlanders at altitude. They have also adapted to the huge influx of hard currency brought about by the Disney-fication of Everest. Everest is the place where sherpas make the big money. They are rewarded based on performance: how high they go, how many loads they carry, and how much they please their clients. Their money comes from the tourists. A successful high-altitude sherpa can become a trekking leader and have a long career away from the hazards of mountaineering.
Sherpas work very hard in dangerous conditions. They all have friends and relatives who died in the mountains. A growing number are well-trained climbers who do not need a Western climber to make decisions for them (as happened in the old days).
European climbers practice their craft in a very crowded and ‘urban’ environment. The Alps are filled with cable cars, huts, and humans; they are totally unlike our North American mountains. Speed is safety in the mountains, and European climbers are accustomed to doing whatever they must to climb past the ever-present slower parties.
The crowds mean that your typical European climber will act more like he is on a crowded city street than on a mountain — he will hike or climb past you without even a look. And he probably won’t move out of your way on the trail or mountain. The most vivid example of this behavior that I’ve seen was in Pakistan, where two Italians wearing only Speedos walked down the trail side-by-side and forced porters carrying 50 pounds loads to detour around them.
The elite climber in Europe is treated like a rock star and will be a household name. These elite climbers are well known because they succeed on previously unclimbed routes (which by definition are not crowded).
Rockstars travel with a retinue of photographers, videographers, and Internet technicians to deliver gripping media coverage to the public. This same public seldom questions how the cameraman got above the Rockstar to photograph him boldly climbing up that ‘unclimbed’ route…but I digress.
It is important to note that the Rockstars in this case were not planning on climbing the normal climbing route, but they were climbing parts of it to acclimatize to low oxygen levels.
The companies who take tourists up Everest have one goal — to make money. This requires maximizing summit success and minimizing injury and death. Primarily of clients, as they get the most press. The best way to do this is to keep clients off of the mountain as much as possible. Much of the acclimatization needed to physiologically adjust to altitude can be done at base camp, and some companies are only having their clients sleep on the mountain for a few nights before attempting the summit.
The other method is to remove as many of the climbing obstacles as possible. This means installing a continuous ribbon of rope from bottom to top of Everest. On crowded mountains there may be two sets of ropes, one for ascent and one for descent. On Everest all of the work is done by sherpas.
The companies also know that they will be called upon to aid any person in need on the mountain and they are the ones with the manpower to do it. I’m Exhibit A for that unwritten rule!
Lack of oxygen affects people in different ways. Neither climbers nor sherpas had climbed so high on Everest in this case, so they were probably all affected to some degree. Severe fatigue is the norm; mood swings and decision-making difficulty go hand in hand with fatigue.
To acclimatize to the reduced oxygen levels it is normal to move up and down the mountain to gradually expose the body to the thin air. At the altitudes involved here (about 7000 meters or 23,000 feet) bottled oxygen is not normally used.
- The sherpas were burdened with extra ropes and equipment that was needed to install the lines of fixed ropes up the Lhotse Face.
- The Rockstars were on an acclimatization trip, climbing unroped on somewhat steep ground, and a single mistake would have led to death.
- Climbing below another person means you are exposed to falling ice which is dislodged by the upper climber.
I’m not going to rehash the incident on the mountain; you can read the ‘he said, she said’ drama elsewhere.
Causes of the Initial Incident
The sherpas’ (and guide /companies’) viewpoint was that the sherpas’ job was to climb the mountain and fixed the ropes. This had been agreed to by all of the companies and it is traditional (but only on Everest) that no other climbers interfere with this process.
The Rockstar viewpoint was that climbing below, alongside, and above other climbers is normal and that their superior skill and conditioning would prevent mishaps that might occur to less skilled climbers.
Mix in the mind-altering effects of altitude and fatigue and you have a Confrontation. Both sides were perplexed because each group’s actions (on the mountain) were entirely consistent with their normal approach to climbing, and each could not understand why the other group would behave so inappropriately (from each group’s perspective).
The Larger Picture
As a climber I find the transformation of Everest into a high-priced thrill ride quite appalling. Unfortunately the tactics are spreading to other high peaks (notably K2), where sherpa teams are brought in to pave the way to the top for under- or un-experienced ‘climbers.’
While on Everest I would have happily carried some token loads to help with the rope fixing process, but I realized that the best thing to do was to let the sherpas earn their money – my help would not be appreciated. I think that Western climbers must realize that the normal routes on Everest have a very different set of rules to play by. The Rockstars in this case did not understand that distinction.
Most climbing sherpas have a very narrow viewpoint of what ‘climbing’ is. The are primarily exposed to tourists on Everest, Cho Oyo, and Shishapangma (the three easier 8000 meter peaks) and seldom spend any time consorting with qualified climbers. The sherpas need to realize that they must coexist with real climbers and that the rules on other mountains are not necessarily those of Everest.
The companies need to realize that the independent climbers on Everest (not just the Rockstars) may need some special attention and guidance concerning the unwritten rules of Everest because these rules are unique. If the independent climber fails to heed this advice, then frontier justice will prevail on the mountain – just like it always has.
My $0.02 concerning this incident (as it has been reported)
- The Rockstars had no need to climb on that day. They should have retreated.
- The behavior of some sherpas at Camp 2 (threatening the Rockstars with death and injury) was inexcusable.
- The Company leaders and guides were equally at fault for not keeping their employees under control. The ringleaders of the sherpa violence should have been dismissed immediately.
- Instant media led to the incident being overblown and exploited.
If you have any comments, please email me (address above) and I’ll be glad to address substantive comments in the blog.
February 13th, 2011
I found out a few weeks ago that I had giardiasis, an intestinal parasite. I have no idea where I got it or how long I’ve had it. Maybe since this fall, or this summer, or since I’ve been back from Everest, or from K2—who knows? It certainly wasn’t a typical case; most cases of Giardia start ‘explosively’ but about 20% don’t follow the standard symptoms. One dose of drugs (Tinidazole 2 grams) took care of it and I feel like a new person. I’m thinking that I’ve had a subclinical case for quite some time. I blamed my constant fatigue on the frostbite injuries, but maybe the little critters deserve some credit as well.
My big project right now is the revision of my rock climbing guidebook. Once that’s done in June I’ll likely have some surgery to improve my fingertips. I have a bunch of topics in mind to talk about here so I’ll do my best to get started on those.
Here’s one little thing that I know I’ve touched on before. If you’re going to work on any stationary aerobic machine other than a recumbent bike, don’t read! I see people every day trying to read on an elliptical machine or treadmill and their biomechanics are completely screwed up. Put away the books and magazines, and while you’re at it, turn off your phone and quit fiddling with your music player. Keep your head up and look out at eye level. Your whole body will respond positively in your workout will be much more effective.
December 31st, 2009
Best wishes to all in 2010! Be happy, be safe.
Here’s an interesting article from Wired Magazine on the science of screwing up. Since proper decision making is critical at any altitude, I thought you might enjoy it.
November 9th, 2009
I urge you to avoid supporting the Walmart-Amazon-Target price war over books and DVDs. You might save a couple of bucks, but authors lose, publishers lose, and other booksellers lose. Do you really want the big-retailers to control what you can read and watch? Allowing these large corporations to kill off competition is a step in that direction. Please support your local independent book and video stores this holiday season!
October 13th, 2009
Dr. Charles Houston died recently at the age of 96. I first started learning about high-altitude physiology from his book Going Higher. He was the godfather of high-altitude medicine and climbed in Alaska and Asia. My book wouldn’t have been possible without the research he conducted and inspired over the years.
Read a fitting tribute by journalist Bill Moyers. Watch the 1953 K2 film there too!
August 7th, 2009
Neil Heil’s ‘Dark Summit’ and Lincoln Hall’s ‘Dead Lucky’ both describe events on the northside of Everest in 2006. Hall’s book talks about his person experiences (surviving a night out high on the north ridge after developing cerebral edema) while Heil covers the entire tragic season (11 deaths I think).
Also, famed Italian alpinist Ricardo Cassin died yesterday at the age of 100. Ciao, baby.
Photos: Namche Bazaar is the capital of Sherpaland This horse had to wait nerly 15 minutes to get into the Danfe Bar, Namche Bazaar
February 8th, 2009
If you’ve read my book, you know that I talk a lot about your uniqueness, and how that affects your response to altitude, training, etc. Here’s another study which confirms this.
Researchers at Tufts University published a study that examined differences among people’s glycemic index (GI) for white bread. Recall that the GI measures the degree to which a food changes blood sugar levels. Low GI foods (most fruits, pasta) have little effect on your blood sugar, while high GI foods (potatoes, carrots) cause a spike in blood sugar.
While white bread has a published GI of 72, the fourteen test subjects had average GI values that ranged between 44 and 132! And, the measured GI of white bread varied a lot within some individuals (they measured GI three times in each person).
So your response to a food might be quite different than you would expect, based on the published values. Knowing how your body responds to food, dehydration, altitude, etc. will allow you to tune your approach for better performance.
Citation: Vega-Lopez, S., L. M. Ausman, et al. (2007). Interindividual variability and intra-individual reproducibility of glycemic index values for commercial white bread. Diabetes Care 30(6): 1412-7
January 22nd, 2009
As we start the new year, I have a few suggestions for resolutions that you might want to adopt this year:
- Strive for quality in your activities. It does no good to lift big weights if you’re out of control, or climb ice by thrashing and dangling. Strive for excellence and control.
- Train your smaller muscles. Work the shoulder stabilizers, ankle stabilizers, and your pushing muscles (if you’re a climber).
- Don’t look for shortcuts. There is no simple way to succeed at altitude (or elsewhere). Understanding your mind and body is the key, and nobody (including me) can do that for you.
- In your training, emphasize things you’re not good at, especially if it has to do with your mind. If you get bored after 15 minutes on the elliptical trainer, you need to train your mind. Can’t go for a run/ski/walk without your iPod? You need to train your mind.
- Re-evaluate your training approach regularly. If you’re doing the same old routine, maybe it’s time to change. What works for a novice isn’t necessarily appropriate for a veteran, and vice versa.
In Chapter 12 of The Altitude Experience, I have a bunch of suggestions for training that apply even to low altitude activities.
November 25th, 2008
I will be out of the country until December 3. Any book orders that come in will be shipped on December 4. I get to lay on the beach a few days!
August 23rd, 2008
August 23: Finally, something to post about other than K2.
The Altitude Experience should be available in the next week or so. After I return from Pakistan, I’ll set up a link for you to get signed copies directly from me.
I’ve actually re-read parts of it in relation to the K2 accidents, and I’m still happy with what I wrote. I hope you are too!