Barely an hour had passed since Avedis Kalpaklian had left his tent at Camp IV at 7,950 meters above sea level. It is around 8:30 pm on May 22 when he sees movement above him. “I saw two Sherpas appear. They were dragging someone unconscious through the snow,” recalls the Lebanese mountain guide. Twice more, a similar fatal procession passes before his eyes. “I knew that the ascent of Everest was going to make me experience this type of scenario. I said a prayer and kept going,” he continues.
On May 23 at 5:03 am, he fulfilled his dream by reaching the top of Everest alone. Right now he doesn’t think at all about the $45,000 the expedition has cost him. A sense of euphoria washed over him, but ten minutes after he arrived, the first climbers joined him from the Tibetan North Face. Thanks to an earlier start than the rest of the climbers, he was able to take advantage of this moment for his team. Those who followed him had to wait two hours on the way up and two and a half hours on the way down.
Hundreds of down jackets
As Avedis Kalpaklian decides to return to lower altitudes, former Anglo-Nepalese Gurkha Nirmal Purja posts a picture taken the day before on Facebook. A line of people dressed in down jackets stationed at the top of Everest appears on screens around the world. On May 22, 320 people reached the roof of the world from the south face of Nepal. On May 23, another 170 climbers followed.
This image shocked the general public. But for Kathmandu agencies and regulars in the Himalayas, it’s common. In 2012, Ralf Dujmovits’ long-distance shot of a line of climbers approaching the Lhotse face provoked the same reactions: There are too many people on Everest’s southern route. “This is not the first time such a queue has formed on Everest. On the other hand, it is one of the few times that an image like this reaches the media”, says Thaneswar Guragai, manager of the Nepalese agency Seven Summit Treks.
small weather window
So it’s a classic situation. But this year, however, there is a difference. “In 2018, the favorable weather window lasted about 12 or 13 days. This spring, it was much shorter. That is why most of the ascents were made on May 22,” says Billi Bierling, a member of the Himalayan Database team, responsible for listing all the facts and gestures on the Nepalese peaks. According to the journalist, it was the first period of good weather after the ropes were placed on the route. At base camp, people couldn’t wait any longer and jumped at the chance.
Avedis Kalpaklian confirms: “Two months at base camp is a long time. We doubt a lot. Leaving finally sounds like a release.” No one yet knows precisely the number of Everest ascents this year. On the other hand, the Nepal Ministry of Tourism claimed to have issued 381 permits, at a unit price of $11,000. A figure that far exceeds that of China, where 142 permits of 8,000 dollars each have been distributed. Another figure that jumped into the headlines: the death toll. This year, 11 clients lost their lives: a record since 2015, when 11 Sherpas and three clients died following an avalanche triggered by an earthquake.
a demographic problem
For Thaneswar Guragai, the explanation for this high mortality rate is simple: “The world population is growing. Therefore, it is normal that more and more people want to go to Everest. The number of deaths is essentially due to the level and age of the contenders for the top. Traffic jams have nothing to do with it.
According to him, his agency is one of the largest operating in the Himalayas. “We occupy a large part of the Everest base camp. This season we have allowed access to the summit to 65 clients on the south side and 14 on the north”. Offering the summit from $33,000, his office offer is among the cheapest in the Nepalese capital.
From $33,000 to $150,000
According to Billi Bierling, the price can go up to $150,000. “It varies continuously,” she says. The same goes for the number of agencies offering Everest like sesame. Since the 1990s, their numbers have skyrocketed in Kathmandu.
And even within the same agency, prices change. The Swiss-Nepalese agency TAGnepal presents prices ranging from 45,000 to 60,000 dollars. “The price includes the permit, lodging, transportation, tickets, porters and guides. We attach great importance to their training and select our clients drastically,” says Tendi Sherpa, a guide in Nepal.
“It all depends on the service the customer wants,” emphasizes Thaneswar Guragai. According to him, everything is flexible: trip to the base camp by helicopter, trekking, separate tent, shower, internet, choice of food. A vacation on Everest can be as austere as it is luxurious. Regarding security, the manager adds: “Of course, clients can choose to be accompanied by an additional Sherpa. They can also request more oxygen cylinders. But above all, they must realize that they are about to climb an 8000. This choice is up to them and they do so at their own risk.
Levels that leave something to be desired
The inability of many climbers on the highest mountain in the world is again pointed out. “Some climbers didn’t even know how to put on crampons. Others had never worn jumars. At these altitudes, it is necessary to be able to collaborate with the Sherpa. In some couples, it is clearly the latter that does everything”, comments Avedis Kalpaklian. “The biggest problem lies in the use of goggles and the oxygen mask,” says Tendi Sherpa. At these altitudes the sun blinds you quickly and that’s where the problem starts.
Are the deaths due to not being able to get back to safety in time? Are they due to the physical condition of the unlucky climbers? Or are agencies neglecting safety in the name of individual responsibility? Everyone has their own theory. Billi Bierling sums it up: “Like anywhere else, you get what you pay for.”
Avedis Kalpaklian knew it himself. Abandoned on a whim this year, he climbed to the roof of the world thanks to a loan. “That’s why I bought half the insurance and the minimum possible oxygen cylinders. He had four available for the entire climb. For $6,000 it was possible to have an extra bottle of Camp IV. I have been lucky. It all worked out.” So good that now he only has one thing on his mind: climbing the other thirteen 8000s. Without having to run from the crowd this time.