Mount Everest

(29,035ft/8,850m) Nepal

Why Climb With a Professional Mountain Guide
Todd Burleson, President Alpine Ascents

In recent years much debate has been spawned as to the safest and most successful methods for guiding Mt. Everest. There is a tremendous amount of misinformation as to success rates and methods of guiding on Everest. I hope to clarify these topics and provide a better understanding of your choices. You may find this article of interest as part of your research: 2012 Outside Magazine Article on Everest Guiding

Methods Of Guiding
Currently the methods of guiding Everest fall into two broad categories; guided and supported/non-guided.

Guided Climbing:  Generally consists of professional mountain guides, whose primary occupation is to guide climbers on Everest and peaks around the world.  These professional guides are assisted by a Sherpa staff (both sherpa guides and support) and remain with you, as part of your climbing team throughout the expedition. For example: Alpine Ascents will typically have 3-4  guides with 9-10 climbers and 18 high altitude climbing Sherpa. 

Supported/Non-Guided Climbing: This usually involves expeditions that have Sherpa guiding the team which may or may not be assisted by a professional mountaineer on radio at base camp.

or

May have a very high climber-to-guide ratio (one professional guide on the mountain for the entire group). Note: Some companies are now calling this a Guided Climb. Usually one of the Sherpa guides are considered the lead guide for the team.  The decision making is done by the climber, overseeing or in partnership with the Sherpa guide.

Success Rates
There has been a lot of discussion about whether Supported/Non-Guided Climbs on Everest are as successful and ultimately as safe as Guided Climbs. Through the following analysis one can see the differences in success and safety in these two philosophies of climbing Everest. The analysis clearly shows that Non-Guided climbing has a much lower success rate than guided climbs and that the risks are much higher due to the lack of resources for rescue and medical attention.

The Truth about Success Rates
Many websites post success rates that are inaccurate or at best incomplete. An outfitter may state, “83% success above the South Col or 30 people or more have summitted Everest, “on their particular team in one year. These statements may be true but what should concern the paying climber is not ONLY  how many Sherpa and guides reach the top but how many paying climbers reach the top starting from Base Camp (where the climb begins, not just from the South Col). That is, what is the percentage of client success from both high camp and for those who began the expedition.

Counting climbers (not guides or Sherpa staff) Alpine Ascents success was:
2013:               81% reaching the summit (13/16 climbers) which includes all climbers who began the expedition
                        100% success for those reaching high camp
Some samples of other outfitters in 2013: (verified by websites and blogs)
Guide Service 1 – 40%
Guide Service 2 – 70%
Guide Service 3 – 25 %
Guide Service 4 – 0%

2012                71% success rate for those reaching high camp. 63% including all climbers who began the expedition.
(2012 note: Though a difficult season with tough summit conditions, Alpine Ascents was one of the few groups to have large scale summit success. We attribute much of the success to our experience which enabled us to choose a difficult but uncrowded summit day and utilize the expertise of our guides and Sherpa)

Below is a chart from 2011 outlining the success of the leading company offering Non-guided climbs compared with Alpine Ascents International's Guided Climbs. The data from both companies comes from day to day Everest cybercasts the companies have posted for an 8 year period (2004-2011). This data can be confirmed by reviewing outfitters websites.

Year

Alpine Ascents Guided Everest Climb

"Non Guided" with personal sherpa Everest Climb

 

# of Clients

# of Clients Summit

Success Rate

 

# of Clients

# of Clients Summit

Success Rate

2011
6
6
100%
       
2010
9
6
66%
       

2009

14

9

 

64%

 

8

4

50%

2008

10

9

 

90%

 

11

6

55%

2007

12

9

 

75%

 

9

4

44%

2006

6

5

 

83%

 

8

4

50%

2005*

12

4

 

33%

 

6

2

33%

2004

8

7

 

88%

 

9

4

44%

                 

2004-2011

77

55

 

71%

 

51

24

47%

Minus 2005*

65

51

 

78%

 

45

22

49%

As you can see from the above chart, Alpine Ascents has an overall success rate of 71% compared to 47% for non-guided. It is interesting to note that 4 out of 6 years Alpine Ascents has put 75-90% of its clients on top while the Non-Guided Outfitter has only one year of better than 50%, (the rest are 50% or less). These are significant differences.
* It is worth noting that 2005 was one of the worst weather years for summiting Everest in 20 years. Teams did not summit until the very end of May and into June. Many climbers left early before summit attempts were made. If you remove this one year anomaly for both teams, Alpine Ascents has an 78% success rate and the Non-Guided Outfitter 49%. In effect Alpine Ascents put 4 out of every 5 climbers on the summit compared to 1 out of 2 climbers for the non-guided.

Are Guided Climbs Much Safer than Non-Guided
Safety is a more difficult thing to measure but the more important. It entails the "what if" situation that you hope never happens. What can be measured are the resources you have to deal with in an unexpected emergency. For example: A climber on the Lhotse face is hit by rock fall and injured. If your only resource is one climbing Sherpa your chances of a quick rescue and good medical attention are much smaller then having professional Everest guides and a strong Sherpa team there who can quickly provide vital medical attention and a quick evacuation. To a trauma patient this can be the difference between life and death.

  • A recent study published in the British Medical Journal states that 80% of the deaths on Everest happen on summit day or shortly thereafter. Marked fatigue, late summit times, and the tendency to fall behind companions are common among non-survivors.
  • While guiding on summit day we have come across a number of non-guided (Sherpa supported) climbers who were disoriented, fatigued (some out of oxygen) who would most likely not have survived without assistance from another team.
  • Another example is the well-known case of Lincoln Hall, a very competent and famous climber who was left for dead on Everest. His Sherpa believed that he could not help his client anymore and left. In my opinion it is unfair to put any Sherpa or Western Guide in a situation that they would have to single handedly rescue a climber high on Everest. It just is not possible.

A team on the other hand can join together to provide medical attention and evacuation. There are many such stories as Lincoln Hall's that have taken place on Everest. I think it is clear that the support of a cohesive climbing team greatly increases the safety margin on Everest.

Good Judgment
There are many ways to increase safety on Everest; more oxygen, good weather reports and proper equipment make a difference. But none of these resources can take the place of having true  a team at the ready and  good judgment gained through years of experience. Safe climbing starts with making good decisions. Professional and experienced guides will be the best decision makers.
Every day on Everest we are confronted with challenges where decisions must be made, often unexpectedly. For example,

  • You are climbing up a fixed line and find it damaged? The questions arise: Is it safe to go on? Do I know how to fix it? Are the anchors good? Should I go up or retreat? The wrong decisions can mean life and death.
  • You wake up at Camp III and it has snowed all night? Maybe it is safe to move up or maybe it is not. Avalanche potential is a difficult thing to measure.
  • You or your climbing Sherpa has become ill. Should you medicate? Do you know which drugs to give and what their effects are? Should you retreat or make the next camp and see what happens. etc.

There are numerous important decisions that must be made throughout the expedition. It requires years of experience to make good judgment calls. Before you climb non-guided /sherpa guided you must ask yourself. Do I have the experience to make these decisions?

In my opinion only climbers with years of high altitude experience and knowledge in such areas as avalanche potential, route finding in bad weather, medical/and rescue skills, are skilled at self-care and management should attempt to climb Everest non-guided.

An important question is: Are Sherpa qualified to guide you on Everest? If it were true, outfitters would save us $10,000 per Western Guide just in royalties alone not to mention the cost of salaries, hotels, airline tickets etc. The truth is there are very few Sherpa in the Khumbu who have the qualifications to pass our requirements for guiding on Everest.

We have many Sherpa on our team who have summitted Everest over a dozen times but lack the vital leadership/decision making skill to guide safely. Their primary role is to carry loads high on the mountain and to provide man power where directed.

I hope this analysis helps you to understand the differences between non-guided and guided climbs with strong team support. Probably the most important decision you will make climbing Everest is who you will climb with and in what manner. Please feel free to contact me with any questions. I am happy to talk with you at any time.

Sincerely,
Todd Burleson
President

 

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