RENO — A recent ascent of Mount Everest exposed climbers Cory Richards and Adrian Ballinger to some of the most exclusive and spectacular views on the planet.
It also provided a close-up view of some of the biggest controversies on the world’s biggest peak — litter, safety breakdowns and bad behavior.
“The good far outweighs the bad, but there are issues,” Ballinger said. “If those things aren’t regulated or managed, those issues will become greater and greater.”
Ballinger, of Olympic Valley, Calif., and Richards, of Boulder, Colo., recently returned from their attempt to summit the mountain without the aid of supplemental oxygen. Richards made the summit, Ballinger turned back just a few hundred meters short of the peak.
It was the first Everest attempt for Richards, who was already considered one of the best mountaineers in the world. Ballinger, who had summited six times previously with supplemental oxygen, is recognized as a respected Everest guide. He’s also the owner of Alpenglow Expeditions, a guiding company on the mountain.
Their constant social media updates provided unprecedented coverage of an Everest expedition as it unfolded. And for the most part the updates celebrated the epic terrain and monumental challenge of the mission.
But they also identified human-caused safety and environmental problems on the mountain. And in subsequent interviews the climbers worried that litter, unsafe climbing decisions and theft and other bad behavior threaten the sanctity of the mountain and future expeditions.
“N. Side #Everest same problems as S. Side w/ cut-rate operators. Trash and human waste in camps + needless accidents,” Ballinger tweeted during the expedition.
After descending to base camp Ballinger elaborated on the tweet during an interview by satellite phone. Problems he cited included trash left behind, stolen oxygen bottles and people commandeering tents that belong to other people.
“That to me is just a complete affront to the mountain and it is going to ruin it north side and south side,” he said.
Specifically, Ballinger, said another group stole six oxygen bottles his camp stored in reserve in case of emergency. Also, on the return down the mountain they found people had used the tents they had fixed at three of four camps. At least one of the tents was damaged by a squatter, he said.
Richards said he was troubled by apparent safety problems. There were six deaths on the mountain around the time Richards and Ballinger were climbing.
“People were overzealous with their attempts at getting people to the summit,” Richards said. “That, to me, is inexcusable.”
Also Everest ER, which is operated by the Himalayan Rescue Association, reported a 2% to 3%increase in frostbite cases.
The organization, which reported seeing about 300 patients during the seven-week season, said crowding contributed to oxygen related issues.
“Yesterday a few climbers visited for care after descent,” an Everest ER blog post stated. “They described long waits on fixed lines, during which time they used more of their oxygen than they budgeted.”
To Richards the instances of frostbite were evidence that guided expeditions need a stronger emphasis on safety.
“The monetary value of putting someone on the summit is not worth that person losing fingers or toes,” he said.
Ballinger said many of the problems can be attributed to guiding companies charging costs so low they don’t have the money to maintain proper safety and cleanliness standards.
“One of the ways those guys cut costs is they don’t bring enough Sherpa power to do the work on the mountain,” Ballinger said. “The Sherpa aren’t bad, there just aren’t enough of them to do the work. So corners essentially get cut.”
Ballinger said the Chinese government, which controls access on the north side, where he and Richards climbed appears to be taking a greater interest in Everest. The south side is in Nepal, which is less developed.
For example, the north side now as a paved road to base camp and the Chinese government is also constructing rail access. To access base camp on the Nepal side requires a 10-day walk.
Ballinger said he’s hopeful the Chinese, who have more resources than Nepal, will expand on their efforts with greater environmental and safety regulations.
“China is really looking at the north side of Everest as a really important tourist destination,” he said. “They want the mountain to be pristine and special and important.”
Meanwhile, Nepal is struggling to cope with famine and a government that’s in perpetual crisis.
“When they are struggling with those types of issues, I can understand why Everest climbers are not their priority,” Ballinger said.
Although Richards and Ballinger were clearly troubled by some of the decisions and activity on the mountain, Everest blogger Alan Arnette said that, if anything, conditions on the mountain are improving.
Arnette, who blogs at AlanArnette.com, summited Everest in 2011 and has climbed it three other times. He’s also been called “one of the world’s most respected chroniclers of Everest,” by Outside magazine.
“I think it is one of the popular things to talk about,” Arnette said about problems such as trash, unsafe decisions and bad behavior.
He said trash deposit programs and bounties on used oxygen canisters have reduced the amount of litter left behind.
And he added that often times stories of bad behavior, such as stolen oxygen canisters, aren’t always verified.
“You hear these stories all the time, some of them are true,” he said. “I would say it occurs time to time. But is it an epidemic? I would say that is overstating it.”
As for safety, Arnette said 2016 numbers when compared with the Himalayan Database, which tracks mortality in the mountains over the decades, shows this season was typical in terms of mortality on Everest.
“Altitude kills,” Arnette said. “As long as we have human beings going to altitude we are going to have deaths.”