Reinhold Messner on the Future of Climbing Mount Everest

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Reinhold Messner on the Future of Climbing Mount Everest

The legendary climber talks about the evolution of the climbing industry in Nepal.

Reinhold Messner on the Future of Climbing Mount Everest
Credit: Flickr/ Peter Stevens

This year’s climbing season on Mount Everest is about to begin, and many expedition companies believe it could be the busiest season yet on Everest. The last three years haven’t provided much enticement for adventurers aiming to scale the world’s highest mountain, mainly because of the massive avalanche in 2014 and earthquake in 2015. Climbing the world’s highest mountain has come under scrutiny, as the death toll since the last decades has inched close to 300 people. More Sherpas have been killed on Everest in the last three years than ever before.

With the world watching, the future of climbing Mount Everest is becoming unclear. It’s currently a big business, as more and more Western and European expedition companies are bringing in clients who pay between $40,000 and $50,000, but costs can even climb as high as $100,000. Yet Sherpa guides and porters get only a little piece of that overall amount and have begun to take a stand demanding a higher cut.

For a look into the future of climbing on Mount Everest, I spoke with Reinhold Messner, the legendary climber and one of the world’s foremost experts in climbing without supplementary oxygen. In 1978 the South Tyrolean, together with Austria’s Peter Habeler, became the first person in the world to climb Everest without supplementary oxygen. Just to prove he wasn’t lucky, he did it again two years later with supplementary oxygen in the first solo attempt on Everest. The climb was defined as one of the most astounding feats in mountaineering history. Messner is also the first person to climb all 14 of the world’s highest peaks above 8,000 meters. Below is an excerpt from an exclusive interview with Messner recently in Vienna, Austria, with the famous climber sharing his concern over the future of climbing on Everest. It has been edited for clarity.

Saransh Sehgal: As summer is soon approaching, climbers are gearing up to make their way to Base Camp. Do you think that the incidents in last three years (the avalanches, earthquake, and the increasing number of deaths) has changed climbing on Everest?

Reinhold Messner: Even though the last year was okay, there will also be deaths this year. It’s logical that if 500 people are going there, some of them will die. Around 10 will die; that’s the number [I would guess].

Climbing has totally changed. Today, climbing is a global issue. This year maybe 200 Indians will go to Everest on the piste [a track of firm snow] and since it is possible that Everest is prepared from the base to the summit, many people can go there. But this is not alpinism, this is tourism. People are buying the possibility to go up the piste on Everest. Everything is prepared: the doctors are there, the guides are there, the icefall doctors are there, and they go up. It’s not every year that they prepare them and if the Sherpas or local guides do not prepare the mountains, nobody goes up. Two years ago when Everest was closed after the avalanche and the Nepalese [government] allowed the Sherpas to prepare Manaslu. So immediately 200 people changed from [climbing] Everest to Manaslu because they had a piste built up there. They [climbers] did not go to Kanchenjunga where nobody had prepared anything.

So climbing on Everest has drastically changed over the past two decades. In your own words: “Now, anyone with enough money can pay a commercial guide service to take them to the top. This isn’t true alpinism.” What’s your take on that?

Climbing Everest is becoming more like a business. But I think a commercial guide is not enough; you need a piste. Most of the commercial guides will not be able to go on Everest without a piste. [When I climbed Everest,] I could not start at midnight because then there was nothing but snow — no trail, nothing. A head lamp does not help because you won’t see anything and at the least one might end up finishing on the south face or the east face of the Everest. Now there is a piste and you can start during midnight and follow the footsteps.

Sherpa climbers face various issues and resentment among Sherpas is increasing each year. What do you think is the real problem and what do you suggest to resolve this?

I think there are two problems regarding the Sherpas. The Sherpas know that they are the key figures for success for their clients and the young Sherpas are beginning to wonder why they [climbers] are coming with foreign organizers. They [foreign organizers] make a lot of money because they sell Everest climbs for up to $90,000 to $100,000. The sherpas do it now for about $30,000, all inclusive. They would like to have the market in their own hands and I think slowly they will be able to do it.

Before it was not a business for the Sherpa people. On my expedition, no Sherpa was able to go out in front one meter; he followed. We went, we put the ladders in, and we did some fixed ropes and they followed, prepared the food,  put up the tent, and went back again.

I remember very well I did the whole Lhotse face when preparing for our expedition. Only one of the Austrians helped me and partly I was alone. The Sherpas were following me and they had the ropes. But I went ahead. If I would say, “Now I’m tired, you go ahead,” They would say, “No, we follow on the fixed ropes.”

And, now it’s exactly the opposite. All this is done by the Sherpas. They are very good climbers and they can guide like the alpine guides. The best guides in the Himalayas are Sherpas today. And these organizers need the Sherpas to guide their clients up to the summit. The Sherpas have a lot of experience, they know where things are dangerous and how to behave.

What is your message or advice to climbers wishing to summit Mount Everest in 2017 given the season is soon approaching?

I think they have to be careful. We do not know what is happening and how the Sherpas will make the rope line. But I think now they are climbing again in the center of the icefall. When they had this big avalanche when 16 people died, they were too much on the left side. I was at the base camp and I told them that you’re too much on the left side, because if ice breaks, you’re under it. And this is what happened afterwards. Staying on the left and right side is dangerous. There are deep crevasses which can open and a ladder can break; many other things are possible.

Any special message is not helpful. People are not listening; they only listen if they die there – and then it’s too late. They have the feeling that nothing can happen, but still it’s dangerous. I would say that some non-climbers are starting to climb without some infrastructure. All these people are not able to climb Mount Blanc; they are blindly following this line and they do not know what is happening up there. Often when I give a lecture some young managers come to me and say, “Mr. Messner, I would also like to go to Mount Everest. How do I have to prepare?”  I ask them, “Which mountains have you have already climbed up to now?” And they say none of them, and I tell them it’s better to start learning about climbing and start with smaller mountains. And all of a sudden they’re saying, “But my secretary did it last year so I would also like to do it.” (big laugh).

Could you share your special relationship with Tibetan Buddhism?

My approach to Tibetan Buddhism is double.

First, Tibetan culture is a special culture. I’m not a Buddhist but the Milarepa [a famous Tibetan Yogi] is one of the most important mountaineers for me of all time. The European, American, and Japanese world is based on consumption and this is one of the world’s biggest problems today. The world is becoming more and more a consuming world. And the Milarepa philosophy focuses on doing exactly the opposite — that is to live and have a minimalist lifestyle and I truly believe in that.

Secondly, I wish that the Tibetan people would get autonomy. When I was in Brussels I had many contacts with the Dalai Lama and I also went to China to discuss these things but the Chinese were very strict. But you have to know that now there is a small hope. These Tibetan stones and Tibetan art are not mostly bought by the Swiss, the English, or by me. The market is now in Hong Kong and young rich Chinese are paying a fortune to get Tibetan art. That means they respect it and if they come in power they will change their behavior in front of Tibetans. I have hope now that slowly, by discussing the whole issue, it would be possible to give Tibetans their autonomy. And only if the Tibetans become autonomous and can save their culture and their religion will Tibet have more tourism. The Chinese will understand [that] because they always think in money.

Saransh Sehgal writes about Tibet and geopolitics in the Himalayan region. He is based in Vienna, Austria.