AMGA and IFMGA certified guide and founder of Alpenglow Expeditions Adrian Ballinger recently returned from Mt. Everest and Lhotse and filed this essay, in which he argues that requiring or demanding certified guides is a key to reducing risk on the world’s highest peak. — Ed.
Over the past two years, I have read numerous stories about how to “fix” Everest. I’ve even written a couple of my own. I just read a great piece (unpublished) by accomplished mountaineer Brad Johnson, who just summited Everest for the first time. He wrote — accurately — that many teams got away with what could be fatal mistakes up high this year, thanks to perfect weather. These mistakes were mostly caused by oversized teams and inexperienced guides, Sherpas, and clients.
Brad’s email reminded me that the mountain will fix itself, or at least remind us of its power, if we don’t change. One of these years, there will be an accident that makes 1996 seem small. An unpredicted storm will hit the summit pyramid on a day when 100-plus climbers are above 8000 meters. Strong guides, clients, and Sherpas, with 8000-meter peak experience, strong technical skills, and smart decision-making will revert to their training and experience, and most will survive. Teams of inexperienced climbers with weak guides and Sherpas and insufficient logistical support will suffer many fatalities. When that accident happens, I hope we finally learn that for all we talk about Everest being “easy,” it is only easy on perfect days. It is still one of the most challenging, dangerous places on earth, and only our experience, skills, and tenacity can really protect us if and when a big storm hits.
But better would be for us to make some changes now that could avoid the awful accident all of us know is currently inevitable. Mark Jenkins has a good list of six “fixes” in his National Geographic article, Everest Maxed Out. But these changes will not be initiated by the Nepali government or by the big commercial operators, who have shown repeatedly that they will not make changes that affect the income Everest brings.
CERTIFICATION IS KEY
I believe that one change, initiated by Nepal, or more likely by client sentiment, would take care of many of the issues on Everest: Clients should require that their guides, and especially their expedition leaders, are AMGA/IFMGA certified, or at least aspirants on the way to qualification. Currently, the U.S. is the only developed country in the world that does not require guide’s certification to work on its public lands. In Europe, Canada, and New Zealand, this certification is a prerequisite to mountain guiding. And it is a challenging process to gain certification, taking a guide years of training and experience, as a climber and a guide, to attain it. (Read more about the certification process, in the USA and worldwide, at these links: http://www.ivbv.info/en/ifmga/vision.html, http://hireaguide.amga.com/)
When some major U.S. guide services lead expeditions on Everest, they, like many of the cut-rate operators from Nepal and other parts of the world, allow non-qualified guides to lead their clients on the mountain. While these trip leaders might be a lot of fun to spend time with, and many have previous Everest experience and experience on other peaks in the U.S. like Rainier and Denali, they often lack the technical skills and decision-making that come from the years required of certification. It is these years and dedication to the profession of guiding that are essential when conditions become challenging on Everest. We would not allow a doctor to practice who lacks training and testing. Why do we allow a mountain guide? The decisions we make have incredibly serious consequences. Too many times this season on Everest I saw poor decision-making that led to preventable frostbite. Had the weather been any less obvious and perfect this year, the accidents would have been much worse than lost toes and fingers.
AMGA/IFMGA certified guides are in no way the panacea for all of Everest’s issues. But requiring this standard for guides would be a first major step. Requiring guides and expedition leaders to have AMGA/IFMGA qualification would automatically limit the numbers of guided clients on the mountain. AMGA/IFMGA guides adhere to strict ratios of clients to guides based on the terrain. They hold to Leave No Trace standards wherever they work. And they require appropriate training and experience of their clients.
This is a standard that exists worldwide. Nepal was accepted to the IFMGA in 2012, and there are currently 31 Nepali Sherpa IFMGA guides. So this standard could be applied not only to Western teams, but also to locally organized groups. Local Nepali companies led by Sherpas are some of the most dangerous and irresponsible on the mountain. Clients, and the Nepali government, should require that these teams, the same as Western teams, are also led by AMGA/IFMGA guides. And if the team markets itself as guided (and not simply logistics-only), then all of their Sherpa guides should also be AMGA/IFMGA certified or aspirants. A guide’s role on Everest is completely different than a Sherpa’s. Both are crucial to success. But it is the guides who carry the burden of decision-making that most often leads to preventable accidents. If a Nepali company is offering guided trips, then their clients deserve and need much more than simply Sherpa support.
Guide services, especially those based in the USA who are currently taking advantage of a broken system, need to offer the standard of guiding that is expected in the rest of the developed world. This standard is represented and maintained by AMGA/IFMGA certification. Everest, the tallest mountain in the world, remains a dangerous and challenging place. Only guides who have spent years developing their skills and experience, and who have had those skills rigorously tested, should be taking clients on the world’s tallest mountain. Require AMGA/IFMGA certification of your guides!
Adrian Ballinger has summited Everest 6 times, all while guiding, and is the founder of Alpenglow Expeditions. He is also an AMGA/IFMGA qualified guide. And his opinion does not necessarily reflect the position of Adventure Journal.
Photo: Descending the Hillary Step, by Adrian Ballinger