Despite record deaths in recent years and a slew of bad press, interest in climbing Mount Everest is at an all-time high. After closing the mountain due to COVID-19 in 2020, the Nepali government issued a record 408 permits in 2021, representing more than 4,000 people attempting the summit.
If you follow climbing, you’ve no doubt heard the list of Everest critiques: dangerous overcrowding, mounds of human waste at upper camps, graveyards of oxygen canisters, and increasingly risky conditions for the Sherpa guides who make commercial climbing possible.
And yet, the mountain continues to call to adventurous spirits. You may even be among them. Is pursuing the dream unethical? Not necessarily.
To better understand the landscape of climbing on Everest, we sought insights from two veteran mountaineers: Mark Jenkins, a 2012 Everest summiter with a decades-long resume of 20,000-foot climbs, and Alan Arnette, a 2011 Everest summiter with four total Everest climbs to his credit.
Although Jenkins and Arnette hold largely opposing views about commercial climbing on Everest, their common ground is helpful for anyone who aspires to reach the top. Here are three tips based on their collective wisdom.
Gain (Lots of) Experience
Jenkins and Arnette agree on at least one point: the safest way to climb any mountain is to take the sport of mountaineering seriously. This means climbing when no one is watching, sometimes for years, building on previously learned skills and becoming accustomed to harsh environments.
“The best way to reduce deaths for members [of an expedition] is for them to come to the mountain understanding how their bodies perform above 8,000-meters,” Arnette says. “This means climbing a ‘lesser’ [peak] such as Manaslu or Cho Oyu before Everest.”
Jenkins, who roundly opposes commercial climbing on Everest, offers similar advice to anyone determined to make an attempt: “Before ever stepping foot on the mountain you should have climbed several 6,000-meter peaks, at least one 7,000-meter peak, and at least one 8000-meter peak.”
Building a climbing resume over time not only ensures better physical and mental preparation for high altitudes, but it also encourages a healthy mindset. When you’re focused on the experience, rather than bragging rights or acclaim, the satisfaction of reaching a summit comes from learning what your body can do, not where a certificate says your body has been.
Experience also makes it easier to make tough calls. Note that both Arnette and Jenkins have more attempts on Everest than they have summits.
Thankfully, the world is full of interesting and scenic mountains to climb on your way to an Everest-worthy resume. Your pursuits may take you to Patagonia, the Alps, New Zealand or Alaska. Find some of our favorite destinations below in Recommended Guides with experiences from three respected companies: Mountain Madness, Beneges Brothers and Alpine Ascents.
Understand Your Motivation
Part of the ethical debate around Everest is how to interpret the achievement — and this is perhaps where Jenkins and Arnette disagree most. Understanding your own motivation will help you decide where your own ethics lie. Here are the arguments:
Climbing is a Sport – Play Fair.
Jenkins doesn’t mince words about his views on the support afforded modern climbers, particularly bottled oxygen. “Oxygen is the blood-doping of mountaineering,” he wrote in an email.
He explains: “On oxygen, physiologically, you are not climbing to 29,032 feet, the highest point on earth. You’re climbing up to perhaps 26,000 feet, which is lower than over a dozen other mountains.”
Jenkins also takes issue with the amount of Sherpa support commercial climbers receive. Writing for Outside magazine, he described the experience of summiting with the 2012 National Geographic 50th anniversary team as less than satisfying. “I was both appalled and vaguely ashamed,” he wrote. “With all the Sherpa support and bottles of oxygen and fixed lines, it wasn’t a fair fight.” His first attempt, an expedition with The North Face in 1986, did not involve the use of oxygen.
Jenkins’ views align with those of the The International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (UIAA), which state clearly in its Tyrol Declaration: “Good style on big mountains implies not using fixed ropes, performance-enhancing drugs or bottled oxygen.”
Simply put, if you see mountaineering as a sport, commercial climbing on Everest goes squarely against the rules.
Climbing is a Pursuit – Play Safe.
Arnette takes a more inclusive view toward Everest. Since he encourages a wider variety of people to make an attempt, he sees the fixed lines, oxygen (Os in mountaineering speak) and Sherpa support as part of modern safety. “It simply makes sense not to take any chances,” he writes on his site. Responding to criticism of oxygen, he points to the increased risk of going oxygen-free for climbers and Sherpas alike:
“The theory is that by banning Os, it will reduce traffic thus trash,” he wrote in an email. “But the reality is that it would increase deaths dramatically and put more people at risk for body retrieval and rescues, with Sherpas taking the largest burden on these tasks.”
The safety argument for banning canned oxygen on Everest is that climbers are more likely to turn around sooner, leading to fewer Death Zone emergencies.
Your own values will dictate which view you support.
If you’re a mountaineering purist, Jenkins is right — Everest won’t do it for you. Climbing with Sherpa support and fixed lines will never be as satisfying for you as, say, summiting Denali under your own power.
If you consider Everest a bucket list pursuit, you probably aren’t concerned about the ethics of the UIAA. In this case, Arnette’s “safety first” mindset is the right one to take to a commercial climb.
It’s worth noting, however, that both Jenkins and Arnette place a higher premium on big mountain experience than any other safety precaution, including oxygen. Whatever your motivation, particularly if you fall in the “bucket list” camp, make experience your top priority.
Choose a Responsible Tour Operator
The final point of agreement between Jenkins and Arnette is perhaps the most important if you’re determined to climb Everest and have the resume to take on the challenge: choose an established, responsible mountain guide.
Some budget operators will suggest you can pay as little as $15,000 to $30,000, but our research suggests that bare-bones operators irresponsibly undercut the resources needed to safely climb. Some articles have even suggested that budget expeditions are only possible because they siphon resources, such as oxygen, tents, food and even doctors, from better prepared expeditions.
Good guiding companies will also ensure that the entire team is experienced. Since climbing is in many ways a team sport, the experience of your fellow climbers matters. As Gordon Janow, Director of Programs at Alpine Ascents, advises: “Any potential guided climber on Everest should be asking the guide service about the backgrounds of the other climbers.”
Jenkins and Arnette take different routes to reach the same conclusion: spend enough to be safe.
For Jenkins, $50,000 is a good baseline. Lower-budget operators mean lower-quality tents, food, and resources, and, importantly, less inexperienced Sherpas. “If you get in trouble, they may not have the capability or experience to save your life,” he warns.
Arnette doesn’t recommend a specific dollar amount, but if you read the Selecting a Guide page on his website, you’ll probably end up close to that amount. You can find individual guide suggestions on his Guide page.
Although expense and safety generally go hand-in-hand, Arnette also warns against ‘luxury’ focused expeditions, which unfairly increase the risk for Sherpas. He explains:
“The best way to reduce Sherpa deaths is to reduce the number of supply rotations. In other words, reduce the amount of ‘luxuries’ above Base Camp, like tables, chairs, and heated dining tents. All of this requires Sherpas to carry loads through the Icefall multiple times. On Denali or Aconcagua there are no such luxuries. Only on Everest do you find such extravagant support, and it comes with both a financial as well as a human price. If you are tough enough to climb the highest peak in the world, you should be tough enough to suffer a bit.”
Heated dining tents, indeed. In some ways, Everest earns its own bad rap.
The Bottom Line: Can You Ethically Climb Everest?
This article only scratches the surface of the debate over commercial climbing on Everest. Environmentalists argue that more could be done to keep the mountain clean. Proponents of Everest tourism point to the 4 in 5 people in Nepal who depend on Himalayan tourism for their livelihoods, according to the Nepal Mountaineering association.
Our take on whether commercial climbs are inherently ethical? It depends on who you are.
If you’re patient enough to become a seasoned mountain climber with high altitude experience and, at that point, have no qualms going against the Tyrol Declaration, then you can responsibly climb Everest by choosing a reputable guiding company, committing to Leave No Trace principles, and limiting your on-mountain luxuries.
If Everest is one line of a bucket list that includes many non-mountaineering adventures, it’s not a responsible pursuit. Make Base Camp your goal instead, and explore some of the world’s other, safer, gems.
Below are our own recommended expedition guides, based entirely on research into their safety protocols, environmental impact, and support for local Himalayan communities. We have no relationship with any of these companies and include them purely to demonstrate what to look for as you research guides.
What We Like: More than 25 years after Scott Fisher’s tragic death, the company he founded is one of the most reputable in the industry. We like MM because it doesn’t sugar coat the difficulty of climbing Everest. Aspiring climbers must demonstrate high altitude experience, technical climbing proficiency, familiarity with extended hypoxic conditions, and experience with sleep strain.
Safety: In addition to the standard 1:4 guide ratio and 1:1 Sherpa ratio for high-end companies, Mountain Madness goes an extra step by promoting a team mindset that prioritizes health and safety and adopting a leisurely acclimatization process.
Environment: Mountain Madness is a registered member of Leave No Trace and follows the organization’s principles.
Community: Mountain Madness participates in numerous community initiatives, from clothing drives for women porters in Uganda to helping local Nepalese recover from natural disasters.
More Experiences: Mountain Madness offers diverse experiences across the globe, including countries we don’t typically see as part of a mountaineering portfolio. Here are some to peruse:
- Bhutan Snowman Trek
- Rwenzoris Mountains of the Moon
- Dolomites Multi-Sport Trek
- Scotland Highlands Trek
Benegas Brothers Expeditions
What We Like: One of the world’s only companies to climb in the fall season, rather than the traffic-jammed spring, Benegas Brothers has a safety-first mindset that emphasizes experience before making the climb. They offer a host of training expeditions to build climbers’ resumes and confidence. Novices can start with the basics at rock-climbing clinics and avalanche courses in Utah, and as they progress, move on to more interesting climbs in the Alps and South America.
Safety: Benegas Brothers surpasses the industry standard for safety with small groups and well-trained guides. You can expect:
- A Sherpa ratio of 1:1 on Summit Day
- A maximum of 6 climbers in a group
- On-call doctor 24/7
- Daily oxygen saturation monitoring
- State-of-the-art radios
- Guides trained to a minimum level of WFR or EMT-B
Environment: Benegas Brothers commits to Leave No Trace principles.
Community: Benegas Brothers cares for its Sherpa team members with a living wage above industry standard and actively fosters support for local communities and the local economy.
More Experiences: Benegas Brothers hosts backcountry ski trips in the USA and Europe, rock and alpine climbing trips in North America, and custom trips to Ecuador and Peru. Here are some that caught our eye:
- The Ecuador Grand Triple: Ecuador Training Expedition
- Carstensz Pyramid
- Moab & Indian Creek Rock Climbing
- Ski Europe: The Pyrenees
Alpine Ascents International
What We Like: Alpine Ascents International is clearly passionate about climbing, and this extends to all mountains, not just Everest. Winners of the Mount Ranier Award, they’re known for running a well-prepared, highly organized operation. They also emphasize experience, requiring a previous summit of Denali, Cho Oyu, Aconcagua, Vinson or other comparable peak.
Safety: Alpine Ascents takes roughly half the clients on a given expedition than the industry average — about 15, rather than 30 — and only sells fully-guided experiences to minimize the strain on resources that partially guided climbers can cause. Other safety measures include:
- Access to a doctor at Base Camp
- 1:1 climber to Sherpa ratio on Summit day
- Extra rest day at high camp
- Experienced guides: all are Certified Wilderness First Responders
Environment: Alpine Ascents is an official partner of Leave No Trace and follows all LNT principles on the mountain.
Community: Alpine Ascents supports local Sherpa youth education programs through the Alpine Ascents Foundation, a non-profit 501(c) 3 organization. The company also commits to industry-setting wages for Sherpa team and staff.
More Experiences: Alpine Ascents hosts treks and climbs on every continent, a full lineup of mountaineering courses, and even a series of women-only climbs. Here are a few to check out:
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