Fergus White on Climbing Everest – Part 1
In 2009, putting his career in IT consultancy aside, Dubliner Fergus White travelled to the Himalayas to train as a mountaineer. 6 months later during spring 2010, Fergus returned to the Himalayas to climb the 8848m of Everest, becoming only the 19th Irishman ever to do so.
Hot on the heels of Ascent Into Hell, a thrilling account of his time upon the world’s highest mountain, Fergus has teamed up with close friend Gavan Doherty, CEO of 247meeting, to produce a series of Everest podcasts.
Throughout the series, Fergus & Gavan will examine the physical and mental requirements in ascending Everest. During the discussion, we’ll uncover the amount of planning required, the constant anticipation and readjustments, the management and prioritisation of risks, as well as difficult decision making in an inhospitable environment.
From Fergus’s own inspirational sense of purpose, determination, and level-headedness under such extreme conditions, we’ll draw life lessons and apply these survival skills in day-to-day corporate leadership.
The first episode of the series coincides with the beginning of the 2018 Everest season. Discussed is the current conditions of Base Camp living, Sherpa preparations at much higher altitudes, the ever-increasing popularity of Everest, plus the cost of undertaking such an endeavour.
Tune in to the discussion and be sure to grab a copy of Fergus White’s Ascent Into Hell. Have your say or ask your questions by tweeting @247meeting!
Check the Transcript
Gavan: Welcome to the first in a series of interviews with Fergus White, an Everest summiteer and author of the best-seller, “Ascent into Hell,” describing his experiences.
My name is Gavan Doherty. I’m the CEO of 247meeting. In his corporate life, this is how we know Fergus, but here we are today, and over the next few weeks during the climbing season, here we are to discuss his experiences and his take on the current season.
So, Fergus, welcome aboard.
Fergus: Good to see you, Gav. Good to be back here again.
Gavan: So, Fergus, what are your predictions for this season?
Fergus: I reckon it’ll be another busy year on both sides. There’ll be about 800 attempts in total, with 10 trying it without oxygen tanks. If weather conditions are good, there could be 400 summits on the south side, in Nepal, and perhaps 200 on the north side, in China, Tibet.
Longer term, Everest will get busier and busier. The demand is exploding. As a result, we’ll get more expansible with the next few years, and, regrettably, more than half a dozen climbers will lose their life each year.
Gavan: And have recent deaths like that not scared people away?
Fergus: No. Everest is as popular as ever, despite the risks and recent deaths. Fifty climbers died in the last five years on Everest, which, of course, leads to a lot of politics and recriminations. Government policies in Nepal and China change and rechange in response, but this just distracts from the mountain itself and the climbing. For many, it’s a life-long dream.
High-altitude climbing is inherently dangerous. It always will be, and regulations will only scratch the surface. More and more climbers are coming from India and China in recent years. The Chinese, U.S., and Indians now have the most number of summits by country. This will all add to the crowding. Somehow, in India, it has become a common belief that an Everest summit is a route to fame and fortune, which, of course, it’s not, but the demand keeps growing.
Gavan: Okay. Well, here we’re looking at a slide showing the base camp, the bottom-most camp, as it were. Typically, what’s happening over there this week?
Fergus: The Sherpas have arrived at Everest base camp. On the south side, they’re busy building camps. To do this, they have to flatten out platforms in the rock and ice on the Khumbu Glacier. Ice axes and shovels are the basic tools for them. Each team will have large tents for cooking, storage, and eating. They all have to be tied down firmly, of course, to withstand the strong winds. Once the climbers arrive, they’ll pop up their own individual sleeping tents.
Fergus: The climbers themselves, they flew into Kathmandu last week, and they met with their new teammates. Most of them arrived at the Lukla Airport, the entrance to the Himalayas. They’ll be trekking up to base camp now this week. And Everest ER, it’s already been set up. Their tent offers medical service to all comers and is staffed by volunteer doctors. The foreigners pay $100 each for access for the 2 months. The Sherpas, porters, and locals are treated for free. Even at this early stage, they’ve already treated 50 people and arranged 1 helicopter evacuation. That was for altitude sickness.
Gavan: Okay. So, looking at the icefall here, that’s where you’re climbing. What we saw previously was loaded tents, but when does the actual climbing start?
Fergus: Well, the icefall doctors who plan a route through the icefall have arrived, and they’ve started to build the 2018 route through the icefall using ropes, ice screws, stakes, and aluminium ladders. They expect less than half a dozen ladder crossings on the icefall, which is less than normal. Once they’re done, in a few days’ time, then the real climbing begins in earnest. By next week, the camp will have over 1,000 climbers, Sherpas, guides, cooks, and base camp managers from all over the world.
Gavan: Wow. So all that kind of stuff’s gotta cost a fair bit. What are the costs?
Fergus: Yeah, it’s not cheap. You’ve got that right, Gav. An Everest climbing permit from the Chinese side is $10,000 per person. In Nepal, it’s $11,000. This is a government charge. The average price to join a commercial team ranges about $40,000 per person.
Gavan: Wow. And is that, I mean, say in terms of range, is that a standard, or does it go up, are there higher, are there lower?
Fergus: It’s like everything in life, I suppose. You pay for what you get. A bare-bones team could have a slot for about $20,000. That would offer minimum support, so a base camp and some tents at the high camps. A standard supported climb ranges from $30,000 to $80,000. That’s U.S. dollars, of course. That would offer a large and fully-staffed base camp, Sherpa support, western guides, equipment and oxygen tanks being transported up to the mountain, and maintenance tents at the high camps. However, prices of up to $110,000 have been quoted for all sorts of luxuries and constant personal support. The low-cost Nepali teams, they were run by Sherpas who’d previously worked for western teams, they used to compete on price. Their operating costs are much lower than the western teams. However, with such demand, they’ve now increased their prices closer to those of the traditional teams.
Gavan: Okay, and what kind of changes have taken place over the last little while?
Fergus: Well, due to the increased demand, the icefall doctors will try to open the icefall route a week earlier than normal. This will allow for more summit days and lessen crowding on the critical nights. A new feature is helicopter drops of equipment up to Camp 2, at 6,300 meters. This is still being trialled. It’s much safer for the Sherpas. Flying the rope-fixing gear up to Camp 2 greatly lessens the number of carries they have to make through the dangerous icefall. It also helps to get the route to the summit open earlier. This will allow those who are ready to grab an early summit if a weather window presents itself.
And, lastly, another change, the crevasses between Camp 1 and Camp 2 are getting bigger, and there are more of them. This will make that section more dangerous. It will take longer than normal, as the climbers have to either negotiate them or walk in a zigzag fashion some distance around them.
Gavan: Okay, I can see the crevasses there. And any new regulations?
Fergus: Yeah, every year there’s always new regulations, and, you know, some last, and some don’t last, but, over on the Chinese side China now requires all Chinese climbers to have an 8,000-meter summit under their belt before climbing Everest. This will make expeditions from the Tibetan side safer for all. But, as with all regulations, it will be difficult to police with 100% accuracy.
Also, again, on the Chinese side, the Chinese now require a $5,000 trash deposit from all teams. They also require that each climber carry 8 kilograms of rubbish off the mountain. Again, tricky to police. If a storm hits, it’s every man for himself, and an injured climber, or one who’s being medivaced out, well, obviously, he won’t be carrying five empty oxygen tanks in his stretcher.
Gavan: True enough. Okay, and then a topical question. Does global warming affect the climbing at all?
Fergus: It does, yeah. The level at which water freezes is rising in altitude every year. This has caused changes in the snowpack and ice formations on Everest. It’s something that has to be considered if I’m planning the route. The real concern is that it’s making the icefall more unstable. By late May, the ice screws and stakes that hold the fixed rope will be melting out. Once that happens, it’s season over.
Gavan: Okay. Well, look, thank you so much for those insights.
Fergus: Not at all, Gav. Glad to come in and chat, as always.
Gavan: Very much so, and we’ll maybe touch bases in about two weeks’ time, or that kind of thing, as the season progresses, and we’ll just see what kind of progress or what’s happened.
Fergus: Absolutely. Glad to do this again, and we’ll maybe cover a few different topics.
Gavan: Sounds good. Thank you.
Fergus: Thanks, Gav.