On his chaotic descent from the 29,000-foot peak of Mount Everest, Bruce McAdie had to clamber around the lifeless shells of climbers who didn’t make it.
Traversing the summit ridge is a relatively short climb, but one that takes a couple hours to complete because there’s a single safety rope shared by every climber going up and down.
“And a couple of them are dead,” McAdie said, recalling his grim realization at the time: they weren’t there on the way up just a few hours earlier.
“Whatever the reason is – some people are exhausted, or they have medical events – as soon as you stop moving, you freeze to death. That part’s not in the brochure,” he said.
“You’ve got two safeties coming in. So you have to take one off, like hug the other person, clip around, take that one off, clip around again. And then you’re looking at this guy like, ‘Holy shit, this guy’s dead?’” McAdie said. “This was a bad year.”
In one of the deadliest years on record to achieve the dizzying feat, the North Vancouverite summited Everest and lived to tell the tale.
At around 6:30 a.m. on April 17th, McAdie reached the world’s tallest peak. While it was a grand adventure and a bucket-list dream fulfilled, it was also far more dangerous than he ever imagined.
This year, an estimated 17 people died during Everest’s brief climbing season – including a Canadian doctor – matched only in 2014 when 17 also died, most of them local sherpas killed by an avalanche in the notorious Khumbu Icefall.
Now, as he regales friends and family with tales that echo the expeditions undertaken by legendary mountaineers, McAdie is also taking the opportunity to dissuade anyone except for seasoned climbers from attempting the feat.
More operators offer chance to climb Everest on variety of budgets
Since the 1990s, the option to try and ascend Everest has opened to an increasingly broader audience. What was once just a dream of Western explorers like George Leigh-Mallory in the 1920s later became a feat only attainable by professionally sponsored expeditions. But in recent decades, more and more operators have appeared that will take less-qualified customers up on a wide variety of budgets.
McAdie spent US$70,000 (C$93,000) on his Everest expedition, which he says is the going rate for most of the reputable operators.
“The guiding service was an easy choice,” he said, referring to Climbing the Seven Summits, a company run by his friend and veteran mountaineer Mike Hamill, who has climbed Everest more than half a dozen times. “His goal is always: everyone comes back alive with all their fingers and toes.”
The fee to do so may look eyewatering at first, but when you consider that the overall journey takes more than a month to complete – with multiple guides, a $13,000 permit, high-end weather reports and fairly paid sherpas, who pack a vast amount of supplies and life-preserving gear through the treacherous terrain – you start to understand why McAdie questions any operators that charge less.
Before he made the decision to take on the loftiest peak on earth, McAdie built up his mountaineering CV. He climbed Kilimanjaro in Tanzania around 20 years ago, as well as Elbrus in Russia, Aconcagua in Argentina and Denali in Alaska all within the last decade. The 51-year-old also kept up his fitness in the lead-up to Everest, as an avid backcountry skier.
In the past, prospective climbers had to have climbing resume before guiding services would accept them, McAdie said. “Now there’s guys putting on their clients’ crampons and their harnesses. I had lots of conversations with people up there where they were like, ‘This is the first time I’ve ever done that.’”
Apart from mountaineers and thrill seekers, Everest attracts a growing crowd of people with zero experience, hoping to tick off the achievement for the bragging rights.
“It’s that whole Type A thing where it’s like, ‘This is the highest in the world,’ and you get all these really driven business owners,” he said.
“We might as well have been climbing with Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg,” McAdie continued. “I’ve never seen so much money.”
In contrast to low-cost operators willing to take on clients with tight budgets, other companies offer experiences with as much luxury as you can cram onto the world’s most superlative mountain. There are extravagant tents built like hotel rooms, and some people hire private guides. Lofty additions like these put the price tag on some clients’ adventures in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Inexperienced climbers put everyone at risk
Between the absurd glamping and the towering peak are many things that can kill you. The aforementioned icefall is one, an ever-shifting section of glacial ice where deep crevasses open up at random, which climbers then must cross on improvised bridges made of metal ladders. Mountaineers must travel through this area numerous times as they ascend and descend from the several mountainside camps to acclimate for the eventual trip to the summit. On the day McAdie arrived at basecamp to start his journey, three sherpas died in the icefall.
The final ascent above 26,000 feet takes place in what’s known as the “death zone” where most people can’t survive for more than a couple minutes without supplemental oxygen. When McAdie’s crew was returning from the summit, someone had stolen their oxygen tanks that were cached below, so his guides had to negotiate for more with another group going up.
“This mountain is stupid dangerous,” McAdie said. “If you don’t know what you’re doing, that causes problems…. You put your guides at risk, you put your sherpas at risk, you put other climbers at risk.”
And being prepared to take on a mountain like Everest requires more than just physical fitness and technical skills. “Even the fittest people – you get some of these ultra marathon runners, and they get up there and their body just doesn’t do well at altitude.”
Given the big business that it’s become, and what that represents to Nepal’s economy, McAdie said he isn’t sure what the solution is to all the irresponsible risk-taking.
“The advent of pay-to-play and guided climbing started in the mid ’90s. Before, you had to be sponsored by The North Face or National Geographic or something to go, and now if you want to do it you’ll find somebody to go,” he said.
Everest in one word: 'more'
In the absence of any rules that are likely to come, McAdie emphasizes personal responsibility.
“Do a lot of research on who you go with – who your guides are, the operation you’re going with. Not just superficial. How do they treat the people in their local countries where they are?” he said.
Don’t underestimate the difficulty. “I thought, ‘Man, I’m a strong climber, and I’m super trained for this.’ And then you hit the first tip of the ice wall like, ‘Jesus, that was a shit kicker.’”
If your goal is just to tag the highest peak in the world, do a lot of prep, go climb some other mountains first. “[Everest] should not be the place where you’re learning how to use gear – you need to have that skill set before you go,” McAdie said.
In spite of all the trouble he witnessed, the North Vancouver climber is thankful for the great team he went with, especially as he can now share his experiences with all his extremities intact.
“Somebody asked me, ‘How would you describe Everest in one word?’ … I think it’s 'more.' It’s more everything: It’s more beautiful, the landscape is more vast, it’s more dangerous, it’s more chaotic. Just put more in front of any word you can think of.”
“There’s no other mountain range in the world like this – just these sheer, crazy things that rise 10,000, 15,000 feet off the glacier. It’s crazy. And then there’s the other half of it, which is mountaineering is changing into a business, at least on that mountain.”