Kenton Cool: the truth about Everest

Posted by Sarah Stirling on 29/08/2019
Kenton Cool. Photo: Kenton Cool Collection.
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Are regulations necessary on Everest? How bad are the queues and dead bodies really? In the murky wake of Nepal's proposed new Everest rules, Sarah Stirling gets some honest answers from Kenton Cool, who, having summited Everest 14 times now, is something of an expert.

The first time I called Kenton for this interview, he was building lego with his children Saffron and Willoughby in his Cotswolds home; the second time the IFMGA Mountain Guide was on a train from Zermatt to Geneva after guiding on the Dufourspitze. Charismatic, articulate, sponsored by Landrover and dubbed 'King of the Mountains' by the national press, Kenton is an elite climber who can speak mainstream, and as such has become a spokesman for Everest, a mountain he has summited more often than most Brits have summited their nearest hill.

When a photo of queues on Everest went viral recently, along with tales of stepping over dead bodies, it was nothing new but the media attention seemed to reach an all-time crescendo. In response, the Nepalese government created a panel of government officials, tour operators and climbers to discuss The Problems of Everest. The main things the panel suggested were:

Expeditions companies should have three years experience organising high-altitude climbs before guiding on Everest. Climbers should summit a 6,500m peak before attempting the mountain. To discourage budget tour companies, tour operators should charge a minimum of $35,000 per client (including the $11,000 permit fee). It was suggested that these rules should come into play ahead of next season but nothing has been firmly agreed.

Writing this piece, Everest: the proposed new rules, I'd realised the situation was quite a minefield.  There was one person who might be able to clear the mist. Mr Cool himself.

KC: There are a lot of naysayers who think that being guided up Everest is not mountaineering. It’s not, in the purest sense, but people will always want to climb it because it’s dripping in history, it’s a beautiful mountain in a stunning part of the world and it’s the highest part of our planet.

It doesn’t keep me awake at night, but, yes, I do realise I play a part in the growing popularity of Everest. I don’t feel directly responsible for the commercialisation, but I do make the mountain achievable for those who wouldn’t be able to do it without the infrastructure. 

THE MEDIA ATTENTION

"A lot of the noise on Twitter is from clients who have been guided up Everest trying to sound important"

At the moment, we’re seeing a load of people who don’t understand Everest shouting ‘this is wrong’. I’m very fond of Ben Fogle, but his comment that there should be a London Marathon-style lottery for Everest permits was a load of cobblers.

I don’t think mountaineering should be over-regulated, I like that it’s a sport that’s open to everyone and quite anarchistic. Regulation goes against the ethos of mountains. The problems begin when people don’t take full responsibility for their lack of experience and own judgement.

A lot of the noise on Twitter about the proposed new regulations is from people who have little idea about how the mountain works. Clients who have been guided up Everest trying to sound important, that sort of thing. There are only a few Mountain Guides who really understand Everest: people like me, Guy Cotter and Adrian Ballinger.

Foreigners have to be careful, because a lot of Nepalese livelihoods are dependent on Everest and it’s not our mountain. Limiting numbers on Everest would have a direct financial impact and Nepal is a poor country.

I understand what the Ministry of Tourism is trying to do - trying to show they are doing something - but I don’t think any changes will happen soon. There will be pushback from tour operators. If people had to prove they had climbed a 6,500m peak before attempting Everest next spring, you’d have to be ready to go to Manaslu or Aconcagua now. 

WATCH One Melanie Windridge's adventure to the top of the world on BMC TV:

THE NEW REGULATIONS

"There's nothing to stop you calling yourself ‘Sarah Stirling Everest Guides’"

I don’t think the current problems are about guiding qualifications. There’s no training for Everest-style guiding in the IFMGA syllabus. You see that right across the board - the British guides, the Swiss, the US - all these IFMGA Guides come over to Nepal with an alpine-like mentality, but the reality is that it’s very different on a commercialised 8,000m peak with different weather systems, established Sherpa teams and so on.

One of the biggest issues is that there are all these different stakeholders in Nepal. On the surface level, everyone wants the same thing - successful summits - but each has their own agenda: the Ministry of Tourism, local tourism companies, western guides, groups of militant Sherpas. Plus, there’s the politics that goes with all that and, ultimately, it comes down to a lot of money floating around in a desperately poor country.

Everest is not cheap to climb, but I don’t have an issue with the Nepalese monetising their resources. The $11,000 permit fee goes to a poor country. However, the Ministry of Tourism’s proposed minimum fee of $35,000 seems to have been plucked out of the air. It won’t make any difference to the quality of client care.

I do think we need to look at the regulation of tour operators on Everest. The problem is predominantly caused by local tour operators. Some are great, but some are quite cheap - some Western companies are cheap also - and you generally get what you pay for. 

I could say: “Give me two-and-a-half years and quarter of a million dollars and I’ll get you to the top of Everest, 1:1.” If someone else said, “Give me 50,000 bucks and I’ll take you tomorrow, as part of a group,” then you can see the appeal. I charge a lot and court one high-end client, while some charge a fraction and take many people, but how do you look after them all?

There's nothing to stop you calling yourself ‘Sarah Stirling Everest Guides’ and going out to Everest. Setting yourself up at base camp and getting a Sherpa guide who doesn’t speak much English to take your clients up. The client is then on their own and if they don’t have the pedigree of experience and the communication isn’t clear, you can see the problem. When should I change cylinders? Should I turn down the oxygen if I’m stuck in a queue?

I do think it’s beneficial to have a guide on your shoulder all the time on Everest. It’s way more complicated than going up Mont Blanc. By law, the client-guide ratio is 1:1 on the Matterhorn and 2:1 on Mont Blanc. Having said that, I don’t think there should be a ratio on Everest: I prefer that the choice is personal responsibility.

Most of the numbers of people on Everest come from China, India, the USA and the UK. If you look at the figures it’s the Chinese and Indian markets that are strongest right now. Speaking in broad brush strokes these clients may not have the level of experience of some of the Western clients and can be more tempted for the cheaper options.

QUEUES ON EVEREST

"We forecast that bottleneck over a week before it happened. So why did it still happen?"

Photos of big queues on Everest are a double-edged sword. They do put some people off, but clients come to me specifically because I avoid the crowds. I elevate safety and enjoyment and get them down safely. I’ve never queued on Everest. Well, perhaps briefly, but I’ve queued more on the Matterhorn.

The number of Everest permits given out is going up, but only about nine more permits were given out on the south side of Everest this year compared to last year. However, last year there was a massive weather window of ten days. This year, the number of summitable days wasn’t that dissimilar but it was somewhat tighter with everyone looking at the 22nd and 23rd of May - which meant a bottleneck.

We forecast that bottleneck over a week before it happened. So why did it still happen? I left basecamp with my client on the 12th of May, and we summited on the 16th. We were the first on the summit that day and I think around 60 summited in total on that day. We didn’t have to wait anywhere. The forecast wasn’t quite as good for that window, but sometimes you have to be bold to be safer and have a good experience. It might be tricky for the way 99% of the industry operates but it’s easy if you guide 1:1.

There are such short weather windows on Everest because you’re beholden to the jet stream. There are only a few days in the spring when the jet stream moves off the summit. You could go post-monsoon season, in the autumn, but that’s not something people tend to do with clients at the moment. There’s not the Sherpa power. The fixed ropes will have been left and you won’t know what state they are in. But perhaps that’s something we might start to see in the future.

WATCH: Scott Mackenzie on the summit of Everest on BMC TV:

DEATHS ON THE MOUNTAIN

"There are around 100 deaths in the Mont Blanc massif each year alone"

11 deaths: this was an unfortunate year. But if you look at 1992 there were around 90 summits and 15 deaths, so the industry is doing something right: the percentage of deaths to summits has been dropping. But how many people die in the European Alps each year? There are around 100 deaths in the Mont Blanc massif each year alone. There are queues on the Matterhorn when the weather is good. Yet few people are saying that strict rules need to come into play on the Matterhorn.

The bodies on the mountain aren’t as prevalent as some will lead you to believe. That said. I’m not actively looking for them - one or two people who are there were friends of mine - but they aren’t littered everywhere. Some years it’s very snowy and you see less of them, other times they are more exposed.

Mountaineering is a dangerous sport. No matter how hard you try to minimise deaths they will always happen. More and more, you hear about families wanting bodies brought back down, but body retrieval from 8,000m is not an easy thing to do and comes at a hefty cost.

It’s human nature, all the deaths make Everest more appealing to some people. You can imagine you’re at a dinner party and you say, “11 people died on Everest last year and that didn’t put me off.”

WHAT’S THE FUTURE OF EVEREST?

"I owe almost everything in my guiding career to that mountain"

I wish I had the answer, but it’s not as simple as putting regulations in. It needs to be a mix of answers that’s true to the sport of mountaineering. The thing that saddens me is the impact on the community and the client: standing in a queue at 8,000m looking at your oxygen level going down isn’t fun.

I owe almost everything in my guiding career to that mountain. This beautiful house I’m sitting in is built upon Everest so I owe a huge debt of gratitude to it and I want it to be great and still hold kudos. Yes, it’s commercialised but so is Mont Blanc, Denali, the Matterhorn. It’s an easy mountain to bash.

I do get criticised for going to Everest year after year. I am perhaps best known for Everest expeditions but I also guide all over the world. Other Guides say Everest is not guiding but that washes over me, I think it’s an amazing place and I want to help people fulfil their dreams. Some climbers don’t like the commercialisation of Everest, and I understand both sides.

I think Everest is an ever-evolving industry and it’ll find a self-levelling balance. And it’s worth noting that all the reports do say the proposed regulations are merely a discussion point at the moment. If that is the case, I suspect they won’t be enforced.

READ: more about Kenton: on his website kentoncool.com


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