The Real Cost to Climbing Mt. Everest

Once or twice a year the Western World turns its head toward Nepal to glance for a fleeting moment at that country and its great mountain. April and May are the prime newsworthy months in Nepal, as the climbing season on Everest opens during this short window.


Increasingly, the news emerging from Nepal is filled with death, bad news and stories of things going dreadfully wrong on Everest, from trash, to long lines up the mountain on summit day, to dreadful delays and terrible mishaps along the way. Of course even amateur Everest-lovers understand that part of the allure of Everest is the flirtation with death and has been since George Mallory.


More problematic has been the gradual and almost overwhelming increase of climbers, many of whom lack the technical skills to truly climb Everest. With this increasingly unqualified, but wealthy influx of climbers has come an even greater reliance on the Sherpa people, native to the Himalayas. Many writers with more skill and knowledge than I have have written about the dangers to the Sherpa people and the growing resentment therein.  Tensions erupted last year between Westerners and Sherpas on the mountain, exposing a rift that has been building for years.


However, this is not a history of Everest, nor is it an expose on the number of climbers on the mountain or even an opinion piece on the treatment of Sherpas or Western Climbers.


Recently, I found myself reflecting on the most recent tragedy and its ensuing fallout.  On April 18th  an avalanche crashed down onto Sherpa climbers in Khumbu Icefall. Twenty-five people were in the avalanche, 16 died and three remain missing. The primary concern from major news organizations was whether or not the Sherpas would consent to climbing the mountain at all and what would happen to the 300 plus climbers with permits to climb Everest this year.


News organizations worried over the $2,000-$8,000 of income the Sherpas would lose this season, a substantial amount as the average Sherpa earns just $600/ year.


And yet most Sherpas insist they cannot climb the mountain. Mt. Everest is more than a mountain to the Sherpa people, she is a goddess. Chomolungma, or Goddess Mother of the Land, is respected as a holy personality. Some Sherpa have said this year is a black year, that she is angry.


Westerners are largely confused by this response.


It occurred to me that perhaps the reason for this is that we in the West have decided everything worth having comes from the dollar. In our twisted minds there is nothing odd at all about paying $60,000 to fly across the planet, to pull oneself up a mountain while someone behind you and before you drags up all of your food, your tent, your oxygen. Someone places the ropes, lays the ladders and makes the way. Someone holds your hand, guides your every step and in some cases saves your life. And yet, that still counts as 'climbing Mt. Everest.'


Until now that logic has held. The Sherpa people did climb; they risked everything for the paltry amounts of money they collected out of the grand total paid.


But this year the Sherpa (and three other ethnic groups) lost 16 people in one terrible moment. And finally they are telling Westerners there are some things money cannot buy: snow on a spring morning, a baby's laugh, a beautiful woman, the quiet moments before dawn in your lover's arms, respect for the gods, grieving.


Mt. Everest will be there next year and the year after. It will tower high into the sky long after we have died. Climbers will soon scale her heights again, but perhaps the time has come to think about more than dollar amount it takes to get there, and consider the real price. The human price.


And then decide if it's really worth it. If anything is worth that price.



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