When you think of the summit of Everest, that tiny patch of ancient sea bed uplifted to become Earth’s most earnest offering to the heavens; how it defied the tread of human feet for so long; how its conquest enraptured a commonwealth of nations; how it’s called generations of climbers to their peril and tourists to stand and marvel; how it transforms the lives of those who survive it and accepts the sacrifice, often mysterious, of those who don’t; and how, for millennia, it’s been called the Goddess Mother of the Universe; you begin to understand why the summit of the world’s highest mountain is a sacred place. We make it so; whether by belief, imagination, curiosity, ego, or some combination of these things. Whatever it is that draws us to Everest, whether to climb it, worship it or simply gaze upon it, we are all pilgrims.
Mountaineering might be considered a relatively pointless pursuit, for beyond the personal gratification of its proponents, it does little to advance humanity. And yet there is a driving compulsion to do it, the material gain of standing on a summit to gaze at the world from a high place transcended by what it does for the human spirit. Although not easily measurable, it contributes significantly to personal growth and perhaps, by osmosis, to the evolution of our species.
The world’s great mountains symbolise strength and dominance. During the power games of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, nations vied to be the first to climb them, or rather, ‘conquer’ them. Like muscle-flexing bruisers in a pub, they wanted to have a go, and prove themselves as champions in an arena that celebrated strength. None more so than the British Empire which, unlike its rival super-powers, was able to access the Tibetan side of Everest from its colony India. But the mountain proved too much of a challenge, defeating five attempts to climb it until the Second World War forced a postponement of the contest while nations engaged in a much larger one. After the war, Nepal opened its borders to permit access to the more amenable south side of the mountain. The Swiss tried first, but it was a British expedition that finally achieved the coveted prize of the ‘conquest of Everest’.
The leader of the successful 1953 expedition, John Hunt, later commented, ‘Everest was not the kind of climb that we were accustomed to enjoying. At that point in time, it symbolised rather more than a mountain.’
At that point in time, it symbolised mankind’s dominance over nature and the greatness of a nation (or rather, a nation and its colonies, for it was a New Zealander and a Nepali who stood on the summit). Even so, in the same way that personal growth might trickle through to the advancement of our species, the symbol of climbing Everest remains as irresistible to an individual as it once was to a nation.
As John Hunt appreciated, climbing Everest had little to do with enjoyment. Such frivolity was to be had on much lower peaks, where the conditions were less harsh, climbers could gasp on wholesomely thick air and quickly return to the comforts of the valley whenever they pleased. The more forgiving European Alps became mountaineering’s cradle and kindergarten, bringing together those who possessed both the means and an adventurous appetite, with local farmer workers who welcomed the chance to supplement their meagre wage. With their ascent of Mont Blanc in 1786, Dr Michel Paccard and the shepherd Jacques Balmat are credited with triggering the dawn of recreational mountaineering.
From its birth place in the Alps more than two centuries ago, the profession of mountain guiding has expanded to every corner of the globe. Now there are guided and professionally led expeditions to all of the 8000m peaks, to unclimbed summits in remotest Antarctica, and to each of the seven continental summits. Those who take people into the mountains are, by necessity, risk takers, whose professionalism is centred upon the management of those risks. They might seek greater challenges as part of their professional development, and also be alive to their potential rewards – to both their reputation and their prosperity. Whatever they’re driven by, they will push boundaries.
The credit for breaking the trail into uncharted guiding territory must be shared by many, but the first operator to venture into the Greater Ranges was the commercial arm of the German Alpine Club, now known as DAV Summit Club. Under the visionary stewardship of Gunter Sturm, DAV led its clients up South America’s highest mountain, Aconcagua in 1969, and the Nepali peaks, Parchemo (6273m) in 1971 and Trisul (7120m) in 1976. It was a gradual process, as the market place needed to be prepared. Before a product or service can exist, it takes time, expense and conviction to be sure that someone will want to buy them. With due diligence DAV progressed cautiously, giving several years notice of a new expedition to test the waters, and to allow their clients’ aspirations to acclimatise to ever more challenging objectives. Eventually they were ready for a commercial expedition to an 8000m peak, with several clients joining DAV’s trip to Shishapangma (8013m) in 1982. It wasn’t successful, but their example proved that guiding high altitude mountains was possible. Even so, it was another eight years before DAV put its clients on an 8000m summit, with Cho Oyu (8201m) in 1990. By this time, other players were joining in, with a commercial expedition from the Netherlands climbing Gasherbrum II (8035m) in 1988, and French and American commercial teams succeeding on Everest in 1990. With still more warming up on the sidelines; the game of mountaineering was about to change.
In 1985, the American oil and ski resort tycoon, Dick Bass, paid $75,000 for a place on a Norwegian expedition’s permit to climb Everest. He’d already climbed the highest mountain in each of the other continents, and was one mountain away from being the first person to climb all seven of the continental summits. Because Bass bought his way on to the trip, and was effectively guided by David Breashears, his climb has been described as the first commercial ascent of Everest. However Dick Bass’s ascent doesn’t meet the criteria of ‘being a professionally led expedition with places being sold on the open market’. It is highly likely that Bass was far from the first person to buy his way on to an Everest expedition and although, at 55, he was then the oldest person to get there, he certainly wasn’t the first person to be assisted to the summit by a fellow climber or Sherpa.
However Bass’s ascent was significant, because it was a public announcement that there were people prepared to pay big money to climb Everest. At around $170,000 in today’s (2017) money, he paid double the cost currently paid for a place on a top flight commercial expedition. Although Bass paid the most, he had the most to gain: he was racing Pat Morrow to become the first person to climb the Seven Summits. The Texan businessman will be remembered for winning long after his oil wells have dried up or his ski fields rendered redundant by global warming. (Morrow went on to win his own race, by moving a continental boundary.)
Dick Bass’s example highlights another point: that Everest is much more than just another mountain. Die-hard climbers might scorn the fact that it’s achievable by tourists who have little mountaineering experience, and that it is more easily bought than it is earned. There is no greater symbol of achievement than overcoming risks and weakness to reach the apex of our planet, and it has the power to change lives. For such a profound benefit, the price will never be too high. The only thing that’s changed since Dick Bass handed over a small fortune to the Norwegians, is that a growing number of operators and individuals are now competing for those client dollars. Now the Everest shuttle to stardom has more seats than can be sold, and competition has driven prices down. Meanwhile, Everest has become lower too.
If there was a turning point in the fortunes of Everest, it was 1988. It was the year that Stephen Venables became the first Briton to reach the summit without using oxygen (via a new route on the Kangshung Face), that Russell Brice and Harry Taylor solved the longstanding problem of the Pinnacles on the North East Ridge, that Lydia Bradey (NZ) became the first woman to climb it without oxygen, and that a huge tri-nation expedition traversed the mountain from both sides while millions watched it on live television. Since 1988, no major new routes have been added, despite the mountain being opened up by Nepal and China, more permits being issued each year, and many more people climbing it. Up until the end of 1988, only 237 people had reached the summit of Everest; by 2017, more than 7000 people can call themselves ‘Everest summiteers’. In 1988, the vehicle for this exponential growth had just started rolling. It hadn’t yet reached Everest, but it was quickly gaining speed, driven by enthusiastic entrepreneurs with an appetite for risk, who tapped the first trickle of interest with a keen eye on the promise of future prosperity. They were the vanguards of mountaineering’s commercial coming of age, but none of them would have foreseen how the game would mature. As Stephen Venables later described it, 1988 was the end of Everest’s age of innocence.
Apart from the tentative forays of the DAV Summit Club, the earliest probes into commercial expedition guiding were made by a handful of individuals and small-time operators. Initially, they merely sought to cover the cost of their expedition activities with a contribution from paying members to plug any shortfall in sponsorship. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement, where paying members paid the leaders for their climbing expertise and organisational ability, while giving both the leaders and the led a chance to climb a Himalayan peak. At some indiscernible point, this arrangement mutated into a business contract, with the paying members becoming clients who paid for a service, and the leaders becoming guides who were responsible for providing it. Their duty of care was an obligation to get their charges safely to the summit and back down again, which would become one of mountaineering’s most fraught on-going contentions.
But in 1988, I knew none of this. Apart from the odd fleeting moment of fancy, the idea of taking clients up major Himalayan peaks would have seemed preposterous. There were too many variables and too much uncertainty; how could a rational person take such a risk, whether as a guide or a client? Yet people were, and soon I would be too, thanks to a chance meeting in Tibet.
While Stephen Venables and his team battled their way up Everest’s difficult Kangshung Face, I was part of a large British military expedition attempting the West Ridge. Among the people who dropped in to our base camp was a compact team of New Zealanders. They were with a company called High Country Expeditions, which was running a trip to Changtse, the 7500m high peak that faces Everest across the North Col. The guides were Mike Perry and Shaun Norman, and we started a conversation that would launch me on a five year journey to become an Everest guide. At the moment that Stephen Venables became the first Briton to climb Everest without oxygen, I was setting out to become the first Briton to climb Everest for business.