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Life and Death on Everest: A Panel at Outdoor Retailer

The Outdoor Retailer Show started with a bang today in Salt Lake City. Tons of new products, bright colors, innovative trends and the beautiful faces of old and new friends.  As always, the show bursts with infectious energy as we gather to celebrate the creativity, smarts and passion of the outdoor industry.

One huge highlight of today was a panel entitled “Life and Death on Mt. Everest.”   If you follow climbing news, you know that this year on Everest was one of the deadlier on record; 10 people met their demise on the mountain within the short climbing season. This drew a lot of media attention and sparked various debates within the climbing community. Of note this year was the fact that it wasn’t blizzards or avalanches or the mountain that claimed  lives; it was as Grayson Schaffer, senior editor of Outside Magazine put it “a steady toll of human error.”  Many of those who perished did so because of poor decision-making; captivated by summit fever, they pushed on despite altitude sickness and guide orders to turn around.

The panel, featuring premiere climbers and journalists Conrad Anker, Melissa Arnot, Chad Kellogg, Mark Jenkins and Grayson Schaffer, provided a public forum for healthy dialogue about what happened on Everest this year and what its implications are for the future of climbing.  These extremely seasoned climbers, who were all on Everest this season,  had the chance to answer a few tough questions. Is the climbing scene on Everest out of control? Should there be mandatory prerequisites for climbing the highest peak on Earth? What roles do guides and Sherpa play and how can we strengthen them? How is climate change affecting climbing on Everest?

Here are some of the highlights from the panel.

  1. What happened this year on Everest? “In past years, it was the mountain that killed people. But this year, most people literally killed themselves. It was pilot error,” said Mark Jenkins, a writer for National Geographic. “There is this misconception that Everest is this nasty and awful place, but it’s not the mountain,” he continued.    Kellogg agreed. “There were only 4 summit windows this year and with over 100-150 people going for the summit each of those days made it really dangerous. I’m surprised more people didn’t die to be honest. “
  2. Should there be mandatory prerequisites for climbing the highest peak on Earth? After one of the deadliest seasons on record, many people wonder if this could be a solution to preventing further tragedy.  Anker agreed that prerequisites would help ensure that people on Everest were more skilled and would help the Nepali government by contributing to the economy.  Arnot agreed with Anker’s idea about prerequisites, but also expressed her belief that “the peak should remain accessible to all people who want to go there.”
  3. What impact did/do media have in situations like this? Grayson Schaffer , who was embedded in basecamp this year, tackled this one. “With advances in technology, everyone there has become a reporter. Within minutes of anything happening on the mountain 50 to 100 people have Tweeted or Facebooked about it already – before we even know exactly what has happened. There are so few barriers to getting information out now that sometimes it gets reported prematurely.”  A discussion ensued about ethics that guide media and the role that media should play in reporting about mountain climbing and associated tragedy.
  4. What is it like to be a journalist on the mountain?   Jenkins said, “It was interesting for sure. It saved me because you lie in your tent for days and it gave me something to do – saved me from boredom.” Schaffer said that people met him with differing levels of acceptance. “Some guides and groups were very open to talking to me while others were not. Everyone believes there is this thing called the Everest circus, but no one believes they are part of it.”
  5. Are Sherpa able to be strong enough with their clients? Are they empowered enough?  This question arose because Schaffer found – as a result of his post-tragedy research while embedded in basecamp – that there was “one consistent element in all the deaths. Each person who died had been told by a Sherpa that they had to turn around and people pushed on anyway.” Schaffer explained that Sherpa are trained and knowledgeable enough to make decisions based on the pace people are walking, the amount of oxygen they are using and how they look to know if people can continue climbing. In all cases, people disregarded the advice of their Sherpa and pushed on.  Anker said that the answer to this question all depends on the relationship a Sherpa has with his client and that he is working to help Sherpas become more professional and gain more credentials so they can become more empowered.
  6. How is climate change affecting the experience on Everest?  Anker said that he has seen an undeniable change in the Himalaya since he first started climbing as glaciers continue to disappear.  Jenkins said that the change in snow levels and snow coverage on the mountain will change things for climbers and clients who are inexperienced and unskilled – especially those who refuse to turn around. “It used to be that if a person collapsed, a Sherpa could drag them down the mountain over snow. But, now from the Balcony down it is all rock so you can no longer get them down safely.”

Panelists touched on other topics  – including the role of technology and the use of helicopters and they expressed their varied opinions about the benefits and drawbacks of going to Everest.  I applaud the Outdoor Industry AssociationOutside Magazine and Verde PR for bringing these heavy hitters together to discuss a controversial and complicated topic and hope that our community will continue to come together to look at this year and learn from it.

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