Is It Ethical to Climb Everest? Conrad Anker’s Take

Mj 618_348_should we still be climbing everest conrad anker on the ethics of mountaineering
Photograph by John Lloyd

On October 9, Japanese mountaineer Nobukazu Kuriki abandoned his Everest climb due to extreme weather conditions, confirming that the world's highest peak would go without a successful summit bid for the second year in a row. This wrapped up a catastrophic climbing season on Everest — in April, an earthquake killed more than 10,000 people in Nepal, 18 of them at Everest Base Camp. The entire mountain was evacuated, and Sherpa returned to their villages to find them completely demolished.

The disaster, coupled with the 2014 avalanche (which killed 16 Nepalese guides and porters), years of dangerous overcrowding, Sherpa strikes, and a rise in inexperienced climbers, has some industry veterans questioning whether Everest should continue to be climbed at all. We sat down with Conrad Anker, fresh off of a summer promoting the climbing documentary Meru, which chronicles his first ascent of the 21,000-foot Shark's Fin on India's Mount Meru, to discuss.

You've summited Everest three times; do you ever plan to climb it again?
I'm done. Three times is good. It takes a lot of resources to climb Everest, and a lot of other people. But you should go do it.

So you're still in favor of people climbing Everest?
People should absolutely still climb Everest. It's a fun climb. There are two standard routes on it — the north side and south side — and they're both fixed-rope, so they're unique to the Sherpa-supported expeditionary type of climbing. 

And we're better off as a society for it. If people want to go do some big outdoor thing for their ego, have them climb snowy mountains rather than shoot animals. No, seriously — there's a really simple, pure appeal to climbing and mountain sports that we don't have in our ball-sports-dominated society. Those sports — football, baseball, tennis — they're spatially and temporally restricted by humans. We designate an area, and an amount of time, and we create these rather complex rules about how to compete with each other, human versus human. And in doing so, we're contriving excellence based on our own human parameters.

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Climbing is completely different. The goal is to get to the top. And there are all these variables you can't control — from the weather to the rock to your own physiology. To be successful, you have to trust the other people you're climbing with, and to be inherently playing on the same team, pardon the cliché. From a climbing standpoint, gravity is the adversary. You and your fellow humans are striving together to get to the same place at the same time. And I think that's a really good way for humans to interact.

Are you inviting inexperienced climbers on Everest? How do you balance accessibility and safety?
Hopefully the government of Nepal starts limiting that ease of access by requiring people to have previous expeditions to Nepal, and by doing an overview of the carrying capacity of Everest. We have that for Denali — and manage the mountain quite well with that knowledge in mind. 

In 2012, after my last Everest summit, I went to the Nepal Ministry of Tourism. As an expedition leader, I'd paid $125,000 in peak fees for our team. It was brutal. The single largest amount of money for any line item we paid for on that expedition was for the permission to climb the peak. But it shouldn't just be about money. I told them there should also be a carrying capacity on the mountain — right now, we don't even know what that number is. And climbers need to have a minimum of two expeditions in Nepal prior to attempting Everest, so they're used to eating dal bhat, and they'll know what high altitude is about, and how to put crampons on. And having the guide services accredited, like on Denali. If you want to guide on Denali, there's one of seven permits, and it's not easy to get.

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What about the Sherpa? Are they being exploited?
The Sherpa do all the hard work, all the dangerous work on Everest, and so there's always a question of balance. It's difficult because every spring [when the Everest climbing season begins], the press is like, 'Oh, the wealthy [climbers] are exploiting the people there.' And yet it's such sought-after work in Nepal. I mean, 10 guys step out, 20 guys will want to step in. It pays really well relative to other work there, and it's only available for a couple months. It's also high risk for those couple of months. You also have to understand that the Sherpa enjoy it. They enjoy climbing, they enjoy the camaraderie, the scene at Base Camp. We all do.

How can we help make it more equitable?  
You look them in the eye, you pay them directly. At least that's what I've done when I've done Everest expeditions. There's also the Khumbu Climbing Center, which my wife Jennifer and I founded. It's vocational training for Sherpa. It's my way of giving back. We've been going out for 14 years now, training them, climbing with them. We do exchange programs with ranger patrol in places like Yosemite, and the Tetons, and Denali. Ideally in Nepal, all the climbing and guiding businesses would be owned and run by the Sherpa, and all of the profits would stay with the Sherpa.

What's next for you?
I've got Thalay Sager on my bucket list. I wanted to do it this year, after the monsoon season, but couldn't with all the work promoting Meru. Not that I'm complaining. It's such an honor to be part of the film. Still hoping to get to Thalay, with Jimmy [Chin] and Alex [Honnold], but we don't have it officially scheduled at this point. 

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