What Went Wrong on Everest This Season

Garrett Madison had high hopes for the 2016 climbing season on Mount Everest.

The veteran mountaineering guide, who is president and founder of Madison Mountaineering in Seattle, had survived the devastating avalanche at Everest Base Camp, triggered by the magnitude 7.8 earthquake that rocked the Himalayas on April 25, 2015. At least 20 other climbers and Sherpas had perished. The previous year, Madison had watched an avalanche bury 16 Nepali mountain workers in the Khumbu Icefall, and he had helped dig out the victims.

Madison returned this year “to remember what a beautiful climb it can be” and to lead others toward Everest’s peak. With an international team of 15 Sherpas, seven clients, and four other guides, Madison summited the world’s tallest mountain—for his seventh time—on May 18.

But they changed their plans for summiting neighboring Lhotse the following day after a Sherpa who was fixing ropes died in a fall. Three more climbers died from altitude-related conditions on Everest, while two climbers went missing and are presumed to have died on the mountain. Many more climbers have been evacuated by helicopter for pulmonary edema, frostbite, and other illnesses.

Madison spoke with National Geographic Adventure about what’s gone wrong this year, how climbers can ensure their own health and safety, and why choosing the right expedition company for an Everest ascent can be a matter of life and death.

Why do you think so many climbers have lost their lives this season?
I don’t know what happened in each case; I’ve only heard rumors. On the day we summited Everest, while we were on our way down, we looked over to Lhotse, which is the nearest peak to Everest. We could see a line of climbers going up the Lhotse face, but as they were going up, they turned around. I couldn’t figure out why they turned around—they were only a few hundred meters from the top.

[Later we heard] that the Sherpa who died on Lhotse fell at that moment. They’re supposed to use modern safety equipment. No one knows why he fell, but the climbers turned around, most likely because no one continued fixing the ropes.
That night we had a team talk, and we discussed the fact that there had been a sad accident. We didn’t feel like it was ethical to continue our plan to climb Lhotse the following day. It just didn’t seem right.

A shot from Garrett Madison’s successful 2016 Everest expedition; Photograph courtesy Garrett Madison from Instagram.

This is speculation, but it’s possible that the Sherpa was piecing together ropes from the last time Lhotse was climbed, in 2013, with new ropes from this season, and perhaps the old rope broke. Nobody knows for sure. But all teams have backed off from climbing Lhotse this year because of the death as well as the uncertain safety of the ropes.

In past seasons, climbers have died because of sudden storms and unpredictable weather. But weather has been good lately, right?
The weather been very good this season. But when I think about mountain conditions, I always have to anticipate bad conditions and be prepared for them. There are some things you can’t anticipate—with an icefall or an avalanche, you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it can take you out.

In general, mountaineering is dangerous because the weather can change suddenly. In 2012, on May 20, which is the day we summited Everest and came down OK, four other climbers behind us on other teams didn’t make it.

Has the growing number of climbers and different outfitters made Everest less safe?
What we’re seeing now with recent Western climbers is people getting in over their heads. A lot of climbers are buying into logistics support—that includes permits, maybe a camping setup, some oxygen, some Sherpa support—but they don’t climb together as a true team. They’re individuals going up and down the mountain who are sharing logistics and services. When they get into trouble, they’re on their own. They don’t have [a] support network in place to get them down the mountain to save them.

That’s a lot of what I’ve seen on Everest, these ragtag groups of amateur climbers who get in over their heads and don’t have a support network, i.e., a professional mountain guide, to make decisions and intervene and try to save them. If I have a client who’s struggling, we try not to get to the point where they are incapacitated and helpless. I try to address problems lower on the mountain and head off issues before they become life threatening. That’s why three of our folks went home [before ascending the summit].

I feel like a lot of people don’t know when to stop pushing themselves, and they don’t have a guide who can tell them when it’s far enough and what’s too much. It’s like swimming out into the ocean—you don’t want to get so far out that you can’t swim back. I see a lot of amateur climbers without the knowledge and experience pushing themselves so far that they can’t get back down.

That’s what we saw in 2012: Four climbers couldn’t get back down from summit day to high camp. And that’s what we’re seeing now: Climbers can get down to high camp, but they’re so wiped out that they’re dying that night of cerebral edema or other causes—no one’s really sure what at this point.

Is that partly because some guides on Everest lack the experience to be able to help their clients if they’re in danger?
Well, I wouldn’t refer to those individuals as guides. I’d say some group leaders, or business owners who offer services on Everest—they’re not in the business of guiding. They’re providing services and logistics for climbers who want to come up and make their own attempt. So, there really isn’t any guidance there. It’s just, “For x amount of dollars”—which is a lot less than I charge—”we’ll give you the permit, the oxygen, some Sherpa support, some food, everything you need to make an attempt on Everest.” But that’s it.

For many people, the discount in money is a big deal, and maybe they think it’s the right thing for them. But I think a lot of people get in over their heads, and unfortunately they pay the price. That’s what we’ve seen happen this year.

As a guide, what is your role in helping your clients when they’re ailing?
We had a member with pulmonary edema at Camp 2, and we immediately addressed that with medications and supplemental oxygen. We helped him get to Base Camp. Helicopter rescues are available; because of advances in technology we can evacuate people from Camp 2. But we’d rather have them walk down under their own power. That was the end of the expedition for him, though, because it takes a while to recover from pulmonary edema.

As a guide, my role is dealing with these issues as they come up and helping them get down safely. I’m responsible for my clients’ lives. I feel compelled to ensure that they return to their families and loved ones. That’s a special service that’s part of our expedition. If you sign up with us, that is part of the deal, you’re a part of our team. But on the other end of the spectrum, with these logistics support companies, no one’s looking out for you.

For some climbers who do have a lot of experience, logistics support is all they need and want. They don’t need a guide. I think that’s fine for some people, but for others, they should have a lot more supervision and guidance so they can get down alive.

Because there’s no regulation of Everest in terms of guides services, anybody can offer an Everest climb, so there’s a whole spectrum of services and packages available, from the ultra bare-bones, low-end basic program to the ultra high-end program, which is kind of where we are. Climbers have to make educated decisions about who they decide to go with, based on their ability and skill set.

Do you think in the future there will be more regulation of these companies on Everest?
Perhaps eventually, but I think it will be a long time coming. The Nepalese government makes money off the number of climbers who decide to try Everest, at $11,000 per foreign climber. If they start to regulate how things are done, I think that will diminish the number of climbers, which diminishes the royalty fee the government gets. Right now, I think they want as many people as possible to climb, and they accommodate every type of service those climbers want. That’s what they’re focused on.

What has the mood been like between the Western climbers and the Nepali workers there? Some have said they’re dissatisfied with the working conditions on Everest. Are the relationships positive??
Oh yeah, very good. Relations are great—in fact, the media always blows [any conflict] way out of proportion. It’s not representative at all of the cohesive relationship between foreign climbers and Nepali high-altitude workers.

I think the economic part is certainly a big reason why Sherpas and other castes in Nepal work in the mountains. They’ve got to feed their families somehow, and it certainly can be a way to do that. But I feel like all the Sherpas that we climb with really enjoy climbing in the mountains, and they love climbing on Everest.

The reason I started working as a guide in 1999 on Mount Rainier is because I love being in the mountains and sharing that with other climbers. I found a way to do that and actually make a living at it. I remember thinking, Wow, this is as good as it gets! I’m living my dreams, my passion, and I’m getting paid for it.

I think a lot of the Sherpas, if not all of them, feel the same way. It’s their identity; it’s in their blood. All the guys I climb with on our team are very happy to be climbing, and the camaraderie that we share is really powerful.

There have been reports of some climbers taking oxygen tanks and tents from other climbers. Have you heard anything about that?
I heard some rumors. I think what happens is that people get into trouble. People go up high, and they become incapacitated and desperate. They just want to survive. They do whatever they have to, meaning they’ll take somebody’s oxygen, which is cached up high, or they’ll get into someone’s tent, or they’ll take someone’s food. It happens on every mountain all over the world when people get desperate for their lives.

I think we see it on Everest because there are a lot of people up there for a very short period of time, a very small window. There are a lot of amateur climbers who do get into trouble, and they’re just trying to survive. I mean, if I was in that situation, I’d probably do everything that I could to try to help myself survive. I’ve been fortunate not to have been in that situation.

If I did need to take someone else’s oxygen or use their tent for shelter, I hope that I would at least be able to let them know. Maybe I could talk to them by radio so they didn’t get there and find their oxygen gone or their tent occupied. I think it’s just a condition of human nature that when people get into trouble, they do whatever they can to survive.

What could climbers do to increase their own safety and avoid that kind of survival situation?
I just hope climbers do a lot of research before gong to Everest, and make very informed decisions about the selection of the companies that they go with. I wish [climbers] had some coaching, or some screening process to help them not go so far, or be with somebody who could make decisions for them. It’s just really sad to see people push themselves beyond their ability, become incapacitated, and then not have the support to help them get down. That’s my main thought and takeaway from this season.

Now that your whole team has summited together, are you planning on retiring from Everest?
No, I think I’ll come back one more time. Our next big project is K2, and I have to be in Islamabad by June 12 to start that expedition, so for me, it’s one mountain at a time. I’ve got a few climbers who really want to go to Everest next year, so I’m planning on another trip in 2017. I’d like to climb it a few more times.

But this season, it was great to have a safe, successful, drama-free expedition, especially after the last two years. Sometimes you get lucky.

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