Everest: The Mess at the Top of the World

Overcrowded with inexperienced climbers and polluted with waste, Mount Everest—one of the earth’s natural wonders—is in danger. How to fix the world’s highest peak.

By Mark Jennings
Also published in Reader's Digest Magazine October 2013

Camp IIAndy Bardon/National Geographic Stock

The Guide Dilemma
Russell Brice, 60, runs Himalayan Experience, the largest and most sophisticated guiding operation on Everest. Himex, as it’s known, has led 17 expeditions to Everest, and Brice is famous for running a tight ship. Despite the relatively large size of Brice’s teams—as many as 30 clients matched with 30 Sherpas—they leave a small footprint on the mountain, removing all of their excrement and rubbish, a practice not followed by most teams. “We can manage the numbers if all the operators talk to each other,” Brice insists. “It’s all about good communication.”

If only it were that simple. There are other factors at work. One is advances in weather forecasting. Lack of precise meteorologic information once led expeditions to attempt the summit whenever their team members were ready, meaning groups were staggered. Today, with hyper-accurate satellite forecasts, all teams know exactly when a weather window will open up, and they often go for the top on the same days.

Another factor: Low-budget outfitters don’t always have the staff, knowledge, or proper equipment to keep their clients safe if something goes wrong. The cheaper operators often employ fewer Sherpas, and those they do hire sometimes lack experience. “All of the clients who died on Everest this past year went with low-budget, less-experienced operators,” says Willie Benegas, 44, an Argentine-American high-altitude guide and co-owner, with his brother Damian, of Benegas Brothers Expeditions, which has led 11 trips to Everest. The brothers say that Nepalese outfitters need to be held to international standards, and that Nepal’s Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, which regulates climbing on Everest, should promote better education for Sherpas.

Next: “Everest is big business for Nepal, and they will never turn down the money.”

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