After 16 Mount Everest porters died in an avalanche on April 18, the world reacted with sorrow and outrage. Was any Westerner's adventure vacation worth so many lives? But the place of Sherpas, the ethnic group that supports climbers, in Everest's unusual economy is just one subject of confusion about the world's tallest peak.
1. Everest is one of the hardest mountains to climb.
Everest is very high - 29,035 feet the last time it was measured - and very dangerous. More than 250 people have died on the mountain since an avalanche killed seven Sherpa porters working for the doomed British explorer George Mallory in 1924. The mountain has more ways to kill you than a "Hunger Games" arena: glacial ice collapses, pulmonary and cerebral edema, falls, dysentery, stroke and hypothermia. But despite these dangers, the mountain is not technically difficult to climb.
More than 5,000 people have climbed Everest via two routes - the Southeast Ridge, from Nepal, and the North Col Route, from Tibet. These are what climbers call "walk-ups," or long, slow, plodding ascents. Guides such as Dave Hahn have climbed the mountain 15 times, while two Sherpas, Apa Sherpa and Phurba Tashi Sherpa, have climbed it an astonishing 21 times. Meanwhile, K2, the world's second-highest peak, is more difficult to conquer, as is Mount Nuptse, which is right next to Everest. Unlike its giant neighbor, this satellite peak is consistently steep and offers few safe places to camp.
2. Climbing Everest takes you into the wild.
To reach Everest's base camp, climbers fly to Lukla, a sketchy airstrip on a cliff at more than 9,000 feet. From there, they walk about 40 miles along a single-file path through traditional Sherpa villages, taking about 10 days to acclimatize to the altitude of base camp at 17,600 feet. But it's important not to confuse a high, harsh environment with wilderness.
The Khumbu region has wide-screen televisions, espresso bars, banks with ATMs and Internet cafes. In Namche Bazaar, the Sherpa capital at 12,000 feet, there are two familiar sounds: the "tink-tink" of rocks being broken for the construction of hotels and the "thwop-thwop" of helicopters shuttling gear. At the top of the Khumbu is the tiny outpost Gorak Shep, with a pair of seasonally operated tea houses, or hostels, and an outhouse that is continually overflowing with waste. Only two miles beyond is the shining city of Everest base camp.
Or at least that is what base camp feels like: a city. There's a helipad and a hospital. There are communications tents, commissary tents, kitchen tents and mess tents. In 2012, the mountaineering company Himalayan Experience even had a whiskey-tasting yurt to complement its golf-ball-shaped white dome tent, which has doubled as a nightclub.
Everest even has a sewage problem. When base camp's outhouse barrels are filled, porters haul them to open pits near Gorak Shep. Meanwhile, above base camp, most climbers straddle small crevasses to relieve themselves. The result: The peak has become a fecal time bomb, and the mess is gradually sliding back toward base camp. In 2012, Swiss climber Ueli Steck told me that he won't even boil snow for water at Everest's Camp II, because he thinks the lower boiling temperature at that altitude won't kill germs.
3. Sherpas are the best climbers on the mountain.
Sherpas - ethnic Tibetans who arrived in Nepal's Khumbu region centuries ago - have genetic advantages over their Western clients. A study released in 2010 by the University of California at Berkeley identified more than 30 genetic enhancements among Tibetans that make their bodies well-suited for high-altitude exertion. One of them, EPAS1, is known as the "super-athlete gene" because it's associated with a more efficient use of oxygen by the body.
But Sherpas sometimes lack training, experience and appropriate equipment. Historically, much of their climbing has been limited to humping loads. Until the late 1990s, it was common to see Sherpas in tennis shoes and cotton clothing.
That is changing. Better training and gear have become more accessible since about 2000, a result of vocational climbing programs. And a handful of Sherpas have earned certifications that allow them to guide clients, not just carry equipment. Dawa Steven Sherpa, who runs the Kathmandu-based outfitter Asian Trekking, says that, these days, "sometimes there is no difference between a Sherpa and a Western guide."
4. People who want to climb Everest tend to be thrill-seeking amateurs.
Each year, there are stories about people who show up at Everest with little or no climbing experience, hoping to fulfill a dream of summiting - or to indulge a whim. In 2012, I wrote about Aydin Irmak, a New Yorker who had never climbed and wanted to carry his 10-speed commuter bike to the summit. That same year, Canadian Shriya Shah-Klorfine trained for Everest by hiking with a heavy backpack but had never climbed a mountain. Irmak made the summit without his bike but had to be rescued during his descent. Shah-Klorfine died and became the subject of a "Dateline" segment about the dangers of Everest.
These cases are the exception. Climbing Everest as a commercial client of a well-respected outfitter requires several years of prerequisite climbs. Most people start by climbing Europe's Mont Blanc, or Mount Rainier or the Grand Teton in the United States. They may try Alaska's Denali, the highest mountain in North America, or Aconcagua in the Andes. Everest's price tag also deters amateurs: After prerequisite climbs, summiting can cost between $35,000 to $100,000 - and that's not including gear, airfare or tips for Sherpas.
5. The avalanche that killed the sherpas was unusual.
News reports made the April 18 avalanche sound like a freak occurrence. The New York Times wrote, "They creep one by one across ladders propped over crevasses, burdened with food and supplies, all the while watching the great wall of a hanging glacier, hoping that this season will not be the year it falls." In fact, this hanging glacier on Everest's West Shoulder calves daily, and everybody is terrified of its regular releases. In 2012, members of a National Geographic/North Face expedition took to calling it "the Fangs," while an Eddie Bauer group I was living with at base camp called it "the Horseshoe." That same year, Russell Brice, a New Zealander who owns and runs Himalayan Experience, decided to call off his expedition in part because of this same hanging glacier. I happened to be walking by as he stood on the helipad with clients who were questioning his decision.
"We're climbers, we're used to taking risks," they said.
Brice pointed to the hanging glacier and said, "That's what I'm worried about."
Schaffer, senior editor at Outside magazine, wrote "The Disposable Man: A Western History of Sherpas on Everest" in the August issue. Since this month's avalanche, he has been working with the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation to raise money for the Sherpa community through the sale of Everest photographs.