A week and a half after they were last heard from, eight mountaineers attempting the unclimbed Peak 6477 on the flanks of 24,389-foot Nanda Devi East in the Indian Himalaya are now presumed dead. On June 3 a helicopter search conducted by the Indian military reported five bodies in avalanche debris close to the expedition’s last known camp ataround 17,700 feet. The other three missing climbers are also assumed to have been killed in the slide.
The team, led by Martin Moran via his Scotland-based expedition company Moran Mountain, consisted of two American climbers (Ronald Beimel, Anthony Sudekum), one Indian (Chetan Pandey), three Brits (John McLaren, Richard Payne, Rupert Whewell), and an Australian (Ruth McCance).
According to a statement released by the British Association of Mountain Guides the original team of 12 split into two separate groups upon arriving at base camp on May 18. Moran led one group on an acclimatization climb up Peak 6477 (so called for its height in meters). The other group, let by British guide Mark Thomas, instead went to prep the route to Nanda Devi East. Moran was last heard from on May 25, when he sent a message saying that they’d attempt the summit the following morning. When Moran’s team didn’t return as scheduled, Thomas went to search for them. He found evidence of a large slide on Moran’s intended route. Thomas’ team was ultimately rescued by helicopter due to the high avalanche danger.
Moran and Thomas, both experienced mountaineers who frequently explored the Himalaya, had previously attempted a new route on the northeast ridge of Nanda Devi East in September 2015. In his report for the American Alpine Journal, Moran noted that they reached a new high point of 22,522 feet, but were forced to turn around due to poor snow conditions.
Amit Chowdhury, an official at the Indian Mountaineering Federation who helped coordinate the search efforts, told the New York Times that photographs from the rescue helicopter showed at least five bodies, and that “it now appears that all the climbers were caught in an avalanche quite close to the spot where they had camped for the night.” Chowdhury also said that plans are being made to retrieve the bodies. Another official told The Times that four of the climbers were tied into a rope together and partially covered in snow.
Ama Dablam sits in the heart of Nepal’s Khumbu Valley, just a few days’ walk from Mount Everest. Trekkers heading to Everest Base Camp will spend the better part of two days staring at its 22,349-foot summit. From the trails that snake through the valley, it looks foreboding, dramatic, improbable.
The first time I really saw Ama Dablam was on Google Images—a shark’s fin of rock capped by a swath of steep snow runnels leading to the mountain’s apex. Pictures of tents precariously perched at camp two are basically designed to give your grandpa a hernia. Footage distorted by GoPro’s infamous fish-eye lens renders ridgelines perilous tightropes at 20,000 feet.
“I want to climb that one,” my boyfriend and climbing partner, Mike, said last spring. The idea kind of made me want to throw up, which was how I knew I was going to say yes. A few days earlier we’d had a few too many beers and impulse-bought cheap flights to Nepal for the coming fall. We hired a logistics company to handle our porters and base-camp support, but Mike is a professional mountain guide, so we planned to climb on our own. After a few months spent ironing out details, we wired a large sum of money to the company and finally hopped a flight to Kathmandu in mid-October.
The type-A part of my personality comes out aggressively before I do anything big. Before running the Leadville 100 in 2017, I spent weeks fine-tuning a detailed four-page Google doc for my support crew. My Ama Dablam doc was 19 pages long. I’m inclined to be embarrassed about what that might say about my anal retentiveness, but I consulted it often and found it useful. One thing I read about a lot were accidents on the mountain. I wanted to understand the worst-case scenarios ahead of time. So, I wondered, when people die on Ama Dablam, what tends to go wrong?
There are any number of ways to die in the mountains. On peaks 6,000 meters and higher in Nepal’s Himalayas, death occurs most often by falling (39 percent), avalanche (28 percent), or acute mountain sickness (7.6 percent). Between 1959 and 2018, 32 people have died attempting the climb on Ama Dablam, according to the Himalayan Database, which keeps track of such things. Fifteen deaths resulted from a fall, five from illness, three from falling rock or ice, seven from avalanches, and one from a failed BASE jump (the cause of one death is unknown). In 2006, the Dablam avalanched. (The Dablam is a huge hanging glacier that gives the mountain its name; Ama Dablam means “mother’s necklace.”) It killed a team of six in their sleep at camp three. That camp has been considered too dangerous to use until recently. Many of the falling deaths seem to be a result of human error: not testing ropes before committing to them, clipping an old rope instead of a new one, rappelling off the end of a rope, failing to use gear correctly or employ proper safeguards.
None of these things are surprising, and are easy enough to write off as a cost of doing business in the mountains. You can’t plan your way out of everything. Accidents happen. Objective hazards exist. Was the climber being irresponsible, or were they just unlucky? In this way you can rationalize risk to skeptical family members—and to yourself. You can hang out in the territory between naivete and acceptance, by believing it won’t happen to you while also knowing that it just might.
The trade route on Ama Dablam follows the southwest ridge, a rocky spine that sends climbers up exposed rock faces, around gendarmes, and up mixed couloirs to steep snow and ice pitches that lead to a surprisingly expansive, flat summit. The climbing is varied, and the position is spectacular. Sir Edmund Hillary once called it “unclimbable,” but today it’s one of the country’s most frequently permitted peaks. It’d likely still be considered unclimbable for most mountaineers if not for the climbing Sherpas who fix ropes from camp one to the summit at the beginning of every season. Ropes or not, though, the margin for error on Ama Dablam is close to zero. The exposure is huge, and there’s almost always a few thousand feet of air beneath your boots.
You can’t control objective hazards, but you can control your own preparation. To that end, I spent the spring and summer fine-tuning skills. I did practice laps at the climbing gym while simultaneously sliding an ascender, a progress-capture device, up a fixed rope. The point of this was to replicatethe peak’s Yellow Tower, a 40-foot rock face that goes at around 5.8, which some call the technical crux of the climb. Mike and I climbed routes like Mount Baker’s North Ridge, a committing and exposed 3,000-foot route in Washington’s North Cascades that’s steep enough to frequently require two ice tools. For exposure therapy: lots of multipitch rock routes and airy rappelling. Statistically, most mountaineering accidents happen on the descent, when climbers are tired. And to descend Ama Dablam, you’ve got to do at least 20 rappels. I wanted to be able to do it efficiently in my sleep, or in an altitude-induced haze. (We heard a story about climbers leaving the summit last fall who’d never rappelled before, if you can imagine.)
We flew to Lukla in October, and after two weeks of trekking, we made it to camp one, at 18,500 feet. The trail there is a nontechnical slog and can be done in four to five hours. We set up camp on one of the few remaining flattish slivers of dirt amid a field of boulders. Due to the risk of petty crime (seriously), we padlocked our tent’s doors to protect our water, food, and fuel before returning to base camp to plan our ascent and wait for a weather window.
Camp two sits on top of a rock pillar that drops off thousands of feet on either side. Real estate is limited. You can fit roughly a dozen tents up there, none of which will be comfortable and all of which will be close together. It’s a smelly, high-altitude slumber party. Teams rotate through the tents that are already set up, so individual climbers have to figure out if a tent is free during their desired summit bid. After asking around, we still hadn’t found any openings, and were talking about summiting from camp one instead, when a pair of Romanians approached us. They offered to sell their Black Diamond Firstlight, which was already pitched at camp two, for way too much money. But it looked like our best option, so we reluctantly forked over the cash. What’s the going rate for a tattered nylon roof on a rocky, off-kilter piece of dirt at 19,700 feet? Two hundred dollars, after a round of hard bargaining. Our Sherpa friends thought this sort of Ama Dablam Airbnb thing was ridiculous, and they had a good laugh about it.
We got to camp two just before sunset and found our expensive neon green hotel room tied to a small ledge. The ledge cliffed out just a few steps from the front door. It was imperative that we watched our step when going to pee, or really when doing anything at all. If you’ve never seen a Firstlight, they weigh nothing and are incredibly tiny. Ours pitched left at about 20 degrees, and the two of us slept more or less in a pile. We waited until all the other climbers left camp so we could climb alone up the Grey Tower, a few loose pitches of blocky 75-degree granite where the route turns from rock to ice and snow.
It’s sections like this where you wouldn’t want someone above you making desperate or careless steps and accidentally knocking down rocks. We had watched some people learn how to use their gear for the first time at base camp and so had a healthy skepticism of other climbers on the mountain. In some instances, we saw climbers approach an anchor and then wait for their Nepali guide to transfer all their safety gear for them. It was impossible to know if the person above you was experienced or if this was all new. You can’t control other climbers.
We took a quick break to gnaw on frozen Snickers bars just as the sun was starting to coat the surrounding peaks in pink. From there we ascended a few short ice cliffs to camp three before continuing up onto the steep snow pitches that led to the summit. A little less than nine hours after leaving camp two, we stood alone on top, all smiles (and maybe a few tears) with unreal 360-degree views of the tallest peaks in the world.
To descend, we swapped our ascenders for belay devices. The terrain on the upper snowfields is less than vertical, maybe 70 degrees, so the rappel is essentially a quick backward walk downhill. We fell into an easy rhythm, with Mike about one anchor ahead. Maybe five rappels down the snowfields, the fixed line curves back to the right and around a slight corner. Below us was another 1,200 feet of snowfield that flattened out to camp three, followed by a steep face that dropped to the valley floor another 5,000 feet below. Just as I approached the corner, the anchor I was weighting—a single metal picket driven into the snow—blew out. I fell about ten feet, swinging out left before the rope went tight again. I was fine, but spooked. It’s unnerving to fall suddenly like that in such an exposed position. Luckily, the ropes that make up the fixed lines are mostly all tied both together and to each anchor. Had that not been the case, there’s no way I would’ve been able to arrest that fall. Mike, who has some 50 pounds on me, had just used that same anchor, as did all the people who’d summited before us that day. I was rappelling gently.
During the fall 2018 season, two people died on Ama Dablam. I read about what happened once I’d returned home. Steven Biem, a 47-year-old American, died of high-altitude pulmonary edema at camp two, and Australian Michael Davis died in what was called a “freak accident” when rockfall severed the rope that attached him to the mountain. Their deaths don’t seem to be the result of inexperience. You can technically do everything right and that can still not be enough.
Reading the news didn’t make me feel like I’d skirted death, even though I’d slept at camp two, where Biem had died, and rappelled the same rope below the same rock that killed Davis just ten days after I’d been there. It only made me feel sorry.I think most would agree that no mountain is worth dying for, or even worth losing a single fingertip over, but that line of thinking just compels climbers to turn around when it gets too dangerous to continue, and it’s not meant to dissuade them from trying at all. To go and try something challenging that you’re not sure you can do is sort of the whole point.
Death in the mountains, and the deaths on Ama Dablamlast season, don’t really make me think about mountaineering any differently. Not because I don’t think something like that could ever happen to me, but because I think that it very well could.
Name: Mike Coyle Occupation: Mountain guide and outdoor educator Age: 30 Location: Split between the Cascades and the Front Range Salary: $35,000
What are your monthly expenses? Last year, I only paid two months of rent at $400 per month. This year, I haven’t paid any rent because I was in Argentina from December 1 through March 1, staying in employee housing while guiding on Aconcagua for Alpine Ascents International. When I came back, I stayed at employee housing while I was working for Colorado Mountain School in Estes Park, Colorado. Other than that, I was camping in Moab or staying with friends or my girlfriend. When I’m moving around so much, it doesn’t make sense to sign a lease. I make it work between the truck—I drive a 2004 Toyota Tacoma and in a pinch can sleep in the back—and friend’s houses. Each month, I pay $120 in student loans, $70 for car insurance, $10 for Netflix, $15 for my Audible subscription, and $100 for my phone bill. I don’t pay for internet, utilities, or health insurance (I’m still on Medicaid from a work injury). I contribute to a Roth IRA when I can; last month I put in $180. I usually save whatever I make in tips.
How much time off do you have? It depends on the season. Summer is consistently my busiest time. There are periods, like when I was on Denali in Alaska, where I work for a month straight. In the Cascades, I might work nine out of ten days doing back-to-back summit climbs and then get five days off or something. In fall, I teach at a community college and have two days off per week, though I might get work guiding on those days. Generally, October and November are my least busy months. December used to be slow, but I teach a lot more avalanche safety classes now and work a trip or two on Aconcagua every year. I try to work when I can, but I don’t really plan time off unless it’s a big trip. I just climb or ski on the days off I get.
How did you become a mountain guide? I went on an Outward Bound course when I was 15. That was my first real expedition, and I loved it. Honestly, it kind of changed my life in terms of how I perceived what is possible outside. I decided pretty much right then that I wanted to be able to provide that experience for other people, at the time really having no idea what that meant. I wasn’t a mountain person or climber then. I just knew I wanted to be involved in giving other people that experience. I moved to Taos, New Mexico, after high school, where there are mountains, and continued to pursue the outdoors by ski instructing and raft guiding. I still didn’t know what it meant to be a guide. I found the adventure education major at Fort Lewis in Durango, Colorado, and that’s when it really became a more solidified dream of exactly what I wanted to do and how. I became more involved in climbing culture and learning about what this profession is about, and opportunities opened up from there.
Walk us through a year of work. In January, I was already in Argentina—I got there in December 2017—finishing my first Aconcagua expedition, and then I turned around did a second Aconcagua trip. In March, I came back to the States and taught an ice-climbing course and a mountaineering course at Red Rock Community College. I taught a bunch of avalanche courses for a guiding service and did a couple days of backcountry ski guiding. In late April, I came to Washington and started guiding in the Cascades on Rainier, Baker, and Shuksan. I spent June and half of July on Denali, then was back in the Cascades. From now through October, I’m teaching classes at the community college and picking up other local guiding work. In November, I’m doing a climbing trip in Nepal for fun, and then I’ll be back on Aconcagua for two trips.
What do you do for fun? Rock climbing or skiing.In the past year I climbed in Red Rock Canyon, the Flatirons, El Dorado Canyon, Potrero Chico, the Frey in Bariloche, ice climbing and skiing in the San Juans, and a few climbing trips to Moab and Pacific Northwest climbing hubs like Leavenworth, Index, Squamish, and I climbed for fun in the Cascades. It’s been a good year, and getting to travel and have random times off to do trips is a huge job perk.
What’s the hardest part of your job? Finding time for myself and a routine, in terms of working out and eating good food and all that. The hardest thing day to day is trying to find those moments to develop some kind of routine for myself, but in terms of the bigger picture, all my stuff is in my truck all the time. In Seattle, I worry about my car getting broken into. In Colorado, I’m not worried about theft, it’s just not having a permanent space for myself. The most difficult hurdle I’ve had was when I fell and broke my ankle and dislocated my shoulder while climbing. I had to move back in with my parents, because I couldn’t drive the truck I was living in, and I couldn’t do my job while injured. That was incredibly hard. My income depends entirely on my body being healthy. The fear of that happening again is a constant nagging thought. I can’t work if I’m hurt. I’ve been able to save some money, but the job we do as seasonal employees doesn’t give us benefits or PTO or worker’s comp unless I get hurt while I’m doing my job.
Job perks? The perks are getting to be a part of people’s best days, their worst days, and to be a part of this significant event in people’s life. I feel like I’m spreading joy and opening up a part of the world that would otherwise be inaccessible for people. It’s a perk to be able to share a part of the world that I feel like is essential, at least in my life.
What do you drive? A 2004 Toyota Tacoma.
What was your biggest purchase this year? A plane ticket to Nepal and fixing my truck.
What are your biggest spending categories every month? Going out to eat and groceries. I spend too much money on that. I’ll buy vegetables and have them go bad while I’m working. I feel pressured into eating out quite a bit. I have to cook out of my truck or in the office because I don’t have a kitchen, so sometimes it’s easier to go out.
Things you can’t live without buying? Food. Gas—I’m constantly driving. Clothes and replacing gear is a big expense. Climbing gear. Dog food and the occasional kitschy sweater for my dog, Yonder.
Something you want but can’t afford? A house.
What are your long-term financial goals? To earn enough money to afford a mortgage.
How do you feel about the state of your finances? Better than I did last year.
Are you happy with the state of your finances? Yeah. I have what I need, and that’s great. I think I’ve been able to save a bit of money this year, but I still feel like I’m recovering from breaking my ankle. That was a big setback. I feel good now.
Funding your dream trip—or any trip, for that matter—can be expensive. Flights, food, gear, and lodging add up quickly. But if you know where to look and are willing to put in some effort, your next big idea might just be free (or at least cheaper). Maybe you’ve been fantasizing about BASE-jumping off a 3,000-foot cliff, creating your first podcast, or putting up a first ascent on a remote peak. No matter the pursuit, there are organizations and individuals out there who want to help you make it happen. We’ve gathered a handful of grants to get you started.
Female First Ascent Award, Grit & Rock
Application Period: TBA
Grant Amount: Up to $10,000
Skill Level: Intermediate to expert
Women have made only 1 percent of first ascents on high-altitude peaks. This award is intended to change that by enabling women to both attempt first ascents and become role models for future generations of young women to do the same. Funds go to proposals in three categories: ambitious, difficult, high-altitude peaks; smaller-scale exploratory expeditions on new routes in remote areas; and skills advancement. In 2017, a $4,000 prize went to a Ukrainian/Russian team of accomplished alpinists (Marina Kopteva, Galina Chibitok, and Anastasia Petrova) for a new route on Cameron Peak in China.
Early Career Grant, National Geographic Society
Application Period: Due October 3, 2018
Grant Amount: Usually less than $5,000; proposals accepted for up to $10,000
Grants in the above areas will be given to proposals that are bold, exploratory, new, and of broad interest––and to people who are diving into their first time leading a project. They should be approached through one of three lenses: the human journey, wildlife and wild places, or our changing planet. Check out this grant if you’ve been trying to, say, finally make that surf film or build a prototype for your revolutionary new tent design.
Cutting Edge Grant, American Alpine Club
Application Period: October 1 through November 30, 2018
Grant Amount:$5,000 to $15,000
Skill Level: Advanced
Area: Climbing, mountaineering
This grant supports leading climbers in pursuit of notable climbing and mountaineering objectives. Think remote areas, unexplored ranges, first ascents, and tough new routes. Low-impact style and Leave No Trace ethics are preferred. The awardee must be a U.S. citizen, but other team members don’t have to be. One 2018 grant went to Kurt Ross, who along with his partner Jess Roskelley is attempting a first ascent on a 6,000-meter peak in the Karakoram that’s been previously inaccessible due to military restrictions in the area.
Mugs Stump Award
Application Period: Ends December 1, 2018
Note: This grant is suspended for 2018 to allow the community time to mourn the deaths of Hayden Kennedy and Inge Perkins. (Hayden’s father, Michael, is one of the grant’s founders.)
Grant Amount: Varies, approximately $6,000
Skill Level: Advanced
Revered alpinist Mugs Stump died in a crevasse fall on Denali in 1992. To honor his legacy, grants in his name are given to adventurous and exploratory climbs done fast and light. The objective should expand the notion of what’s possible in alpinism today. One of the 2017 awards, for example, went to alpinists Steve Swenson, Chris Wright, and Graham Zimmerman to fund their attempt on the world’s second-highest unclimbed peak (at 24,452 feet) in Pakistan’s Karakoram.
Zack Martin Breaking Barriers Grant, American Alpine Club
Application Period: Ends April 15, 2019
Grant Amount: Around $5,000
Skill Level: Any
Area: Alpinism, ice climbing, rock climbing, bouldering
Created to honor Zack Martin, a mountaineer who died in a car accident at age 24, this award is given to expeditions that focus first on a humanitarian objective and second on a climbing goal. Martin disliked the self-serving nature of climbing trips and was committed to altruistic service on all of his expeditions. The humanitarian effort suggested should be sustainable for the community and, ideally, teach a skill. One award went to 12-year-old Lilliana Libecki, who climbed Kilimanjaro and completed a solar project to light an orphanage.
Millet Expedition Project
Application Period: Ends September 31, 2018
Grant Amount: About $60,000, split between ten or fewer projects
Skill Level: All
This grant funds diverse expedition-style adventures, from climbing a 7,000-meter peak to an all-female kite-skiing trip. The parameters are intentionally broad. The key is to select an ambitious objective, and it doesn’t hurt if trips also have a humanitarian, environmental, or social element. In 2012, Vanessa François, a paraplegic, received a grant to climb El Capitan. One recently funded project was a two-month packrafting trip down Ethiopia’s Omo River, where participants planned to teach the locals circus skills along the way. Applicants must make a three-minute video to tell judges why their trip is worth funding.
Jones Snowboards Grants, American Alpine Club
Application Period: October 1 through December 1, 2018
Grant Amount: $1,500 plus gear
Skill Level: Amateur
Sport: Backcountry snowboarding
Jones Snowboards offers two awards focused on splitboarding expeditions. Its Backcountry Adventure Grant is for a multiday trip designed around a particular objective, a specific descent, or a traverse of an area. The Live Like Liz Award, in memory of ambassador Liz Daley, who was killed in an avalanche in 2014, is for female splitboarders attempting a North American objective. The American Alpine Institute also offers a Liz Daley scholarship ($500 to $2,500) that gives aspiring female guides funding for courses offered by the institute, where Daley taught.
The Next Challenge
Application Period: Fall 2018
Grant Amount: Between £60 and £800 ($85 to $1,139), but typically £100 or £200 ($145 and $290)
Skill Level: No experience necessary; must be self-organized
Area: Anything that involves physical activity, and it should involve camping
This award is offered by adventurer Tim Moss, who benefited from expedition grants when he was younger and wants to offer the same opportunity to others. This grant is fun, because it exists to fund your original, wacky adventure idea. Past projects have been things like running a marathon at Marathon in ancient Greek armor, hiking the length of Portugal, and camping for 100 nights in one year.
Live Your Dream Grant, American Alpine Club
Application Period: February 1 to March 31, 2019
Grant Amount: Varies based on project, $200 to $1,000
Skill Level: Any
This one is all about personal progression. The grant solicits proposals from climbers who are looking to push their limits, wherever those limits may be. Recipients have included a gym climber who wanted to become a competent outdoor lead climber and traveled to South America to do so and a big-wall climber who wanted to test himself on vertical ice during a two-week trip to Ouray.
*Amateur climbers who want to explore new routes or unclimbed peaks in small/lightweight teams should check out the McNeill-Nott Award, another AAC grant offering $5,000 awards.
FKT Grant, Ultimate Direction/La Sportiva/Gu
Application Period: TBA
Grant Amount: Four grants of $1,000 each, plus gear
Skill Level: FKT stands for fastest known time, so…
It’s impressive to thru-hike the nearly 2,700-mile Pacific Crest Trail, but it’s an entirely different thing to do it quicker than anyone has before. If you’re the type of person who has been dreaming of crushing a speed record, then this is the grant you should explore. Running and hiking must be the activity for at least half of the FKT project, and the other half must be nonmotorized sport. While athletes can take on a project anywhere in the world, they must be based in North America. Projects must be documented by GPS or some type of third-party tracking. In 2017, grant recipientHeather Anderson attempted to set the female unsupported record on the 465-mile Colorado Trail (she was unsuccessful).
In Nepal, there’s a new scam directed at trekkers in the Mount Everest region, and to see how it works you need look no further than the experience of Jessica Reeves.
The Australian told Agence France-Presse that she was trekking with Himalayan Social Journey when she complained to her guide about a common cold. It wasn't an emergency, and certainly not life threatening. But her guide repeatedly urged her to agree to a helicopter rescue.
“They said if I kept going it would be really risky, so it was better to leave now instead of risking it,” she said.
According to Reeves, nine or ten hikers in her group shared a helicopter ride back to a hospital in Kathmandu, but were each told to say they were alone. She thinks that Himalayan Social Journey billed each of the client’s insurance providers for a separate helicopter ride, banking about $35,000 in the process. Another trekker told GearJunkie earlier this month that her partner complained of a mild headache and their guide suggested a helicopter rescue right away, saying they should both take the ride and tell whoever asked that they were feeling very sick. A local helicopter pilot, who rescued trekkers almost daily during the April and May trekking season, told AFP that during that time he flew only three people who actually seemed to be ill.
As the scam goes, once off the mountain the climbers are taken to hospitals, where they undergo a battery of tests, all billed to their insurance. From mountain to hospital and back, the guides, helicopter companies, and hospitals all take a cut from these false insurance claims. According to AFP and Traveller Assist, a UK-based company that represents international insurers, the high number of helicopter rescues for tourists made 2017 the most expensive year yet in Nepal for insurance companies (though 2018 is on track to outdo it).
Outrage over this widespread scheme prompted a major government crackdown this summer. And last month an investigative committee submitted a 700-page report to Nepalese Tourism Minister Rabindra Adhikari. The report found that 1,300 helicopter rescues took place in the first five months of 2016 and cost insurers more $6.5 million. One of the more concerning findings detailed how some guides served food tainted with baking soda, a known laxative, in order to sicken tourists so they could be pressured into a helicopter rescue. In all, according to the Kathmandu Post, the investigation probed ten helicopter companies, six hospitals, and 36 travel, trekking, and rescue agencies—with further investigation of 15 of these companies recommended. The scamming has become so pervasive that the report advised that all rescue operations be taken over by Nepal’s police.
The stakes for solving the problem are high. Insurance companies set a September 1 deadline for Nepal to crack down on the abuse, threatening to stop providing coverage for trekkers and climbers if nothing is done. That would have huge ramifications on the country and the people who depend on this work, because tourism is one of Nepal’s main industries.
The country already took a major financial hit after the 2015 magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck. It killed nearly 9,000 people and crumbled homes and buildings. Ever since, tourism has been slow to recover. Meanwhile, there are more than 2,600 trekking agencies competing for this now smaller pool of tourists. So operators lower their rates, which leaves little money left over.
“We are moving on a price war rather than a service war.” Deepak Joshi, CEO of the Nepal Tourism Board, told GearJunkie. “And that is causing desperate measures.”
Climbing season is underway in the Alaska Range, with a recent run of good weather allowing a bunch of parties to make moves on their chosen routes on Denali and other peaks.
But with summit attempts also come rescues. So far, there have been four total (last year there were 19). The two most recent happened on May 20: one for a party of two on a sub-peak of Mount Hunter, within Denali National Park, and another for a two-person team on Denali.
Both were serious incidents, with high stakes. The Hunter pair was rappelling the Mini-Moonflower route when they were hit by falling rock and ice debris. Both climbers were cut and one broke their arm. The Denali rescue was even more harrowing. The two climbers were ascending a narrow ridge at around 16,500 feet, when they slipped and fell approximately 1,000 feet down toward the Peters Glacier, where they were stopped by a large, shallow crevasse.
What’s remarkable is that neither accident resulted in a fatality—and that’s because in both cases, the climbers (and rescuers) did everything right. On Hunter, the pair used an InReach, a two-way satellite messaging device, to request a rescue from the National Park Service, then they finished descending to the base of their route on their own and met the helicopter at the bottom. The Denali climbers used a similar personal locator beacon to relay their location to the NPS. Then one of the climbers hiked back up to camp at 14,200 feet and reported that his partner was injured but stable. She was later evacuated by helicopter and is being treated for significant spinal injuries.
In a statement, National Park spokesperson Maureen Gualtieri credited the successful outcomes in these two rescues to the “self-sufficiency of the climbing parties rescued; the use of satellite communication technology” and teamwork by the mountaineering rangers, volunteers, and guides.
There’s a lot to be learned from rescue scenarios like this, even if you’re attempting nothing more ambitious than a short hike on your backyard trails. We talked to Dale Remsberg—the technical director at American Mountain Guides Association who has experience guiding in the Alaska Range—about the key takeaways.
Lesson #1: Know How to Self-Rescue
In the incident with the rock fall, the party had the skills to be self-sufficient in the first stages of the rescue. “They had the pre-requisite skills in terms of self-rescue to be able to get themselves off the peak. That’s not something every climber has,” says Remsberg.
Every person in your party should have a solid understanding of how to get out of a sticky situation—from knowing how to find the trailhead and using a first-aid kit to setting up improvised anchors and assisting an injured climber. “Before you go to a remote location, if you don’t understand self-rescue you should hire a professional to get you up to speed,” Remsberg says.
Lesson #2: Always Carry a Satellite Communication Device
Don’t rely on cell service for communication in the backcountry. The outcomes of these two incidents would probably have looked very different if the parties hadn’t both had satellite communication devices. The first party had an InReach, which allowed for two-way messaging between the party and rescuers. “Being able to communicate back and forth can help rescue services decide what type of team to send and provide additional information about location, which can help reduce the response time and the risk to the search parties,” Remsberg says.
The second party is said to have had a personal locator beacon, but the type of device wasn’t specified. Some PLBs only allow one-way communication: users press a button that sends a rescue signal with GPS coordinates to dispatchers, who then relay it to the local rescue personnel. These tend to be cheaper than devices like the InReach and are a good emergency back-up.
But if you plan to go deep into the backcountry, Remsberg recommends carrying a device with the capacity for messaging. “If you just push a button that says ‘We’re in trouble,’ it doesn’t give a lot of information.”
Lesson #3: Stay Calm
“In a crisis there’s a perceived time pressure that you have to start speeding up,” Remsberg says. “That’s when accidents happen.” Even if there’s a significant injury, climbers should take a minute to pause and consider all of their options before they start executing a plan. Don’t make a bad situation worse by making rash decisions.
Lesson #4: Know When to Use (and Not Use) a Rope
Given that the Denali climbers were said to be on a narrow ridge near 16,500 feet, they were likely just past the route’s fixed lines and ascending the exposed 600 feet of ridgeline around Washburn’s Tower. “This is a notorious area where climbers sometimes aren’t sure how best to tackle it,” says Remsberg. “It’s exposed and steep so people feel like they need to use the rope for protection.”
According to reports, the two climbers were roped together. “There’s a perceived notion out there, which used to be more prevalent, that you should always be roped together,” says Remsberg. “But if you’re roped together then if one person falls the other will also be pulled.”
It’s sometimes safer to climb unroped, according to the American Alpine Club. In situations where self-arrest is unlikely, like on a steep or icy slope, the “slip of a single climber roped to the rest of the team could result in the loss of the entire team.” Of course, the decision to unrope should take the climber’s skill levels and confidence into account.
While attending Northern Arizona University (NAU) in Flagstaff, Arizona, one of Nikki Cooley’s friends invited her to go on her first river trip. “I didn’t even know what that meant,” saysNikki. “I started going out on the San Juan River, in Utah, and I got into it.” Soon she was working as a guide on the river and realized that she was good at taking care of people, and she was already accustomed to the tough physical labor.
As kids in Shonto, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation, Nikki and her six siblings grew up without electricity. Their closest water source was 15 miles away. Nikki would often help herd the family’s flock of 100 sheep during the day, then come home at night as the sun sunk below the horizon. She recalls falling asleep outside on the roof, watching the stars.
Years later, on a trip down the San Juan, Nikki was sitting on the banks of the river as her clients asked her about the stars. “I told Navajo stories about them, and I realized that there was a lack of education for people coming to the river,” she says. “Through our stories, I explained why the Navajo people would take care of the earth and why it was important—how important it is to all of us. To me, being on the river was an amazing feeling. It was like being home.”
Nikki, now 38, started working as an assistant in the Grand Canyon when she was 19 and spent a few seasons working support roles before the company asked her if she wanted to row her own boat. “She didn’t even finish talking before I said yes,” Nikki says. In 2004,she became the first Navajo woman to work as a licensed commercial river guide on the Colorado River. (The first Native female guide on the river was Havasupai; Shana Watahomigie began guiding in 2001, at a time before guides were licensed.)
“I didn’t realize what a monumental event that was at the time. I was just in love with the river,” Nikki says. The job gave her the chance to offer a Native perspective. “I felt it was my duty as a Navajo woman to share why we hold the Grand Canyon so significant. It’s not just stories in a book—the place is intertwined with our daily lives and prayers.”
The Havasupai Tribe still lives inside the canyon. The Hualapai Tribe’s reservation sits on 1 million acres along the canyon’s West Rim. In total, 11 different federally recognized tribes have ties to the canyon. Yet there was almost no discussion of Native perspectivesduring river trips. Nikki decided to address that issue.
In 2008, she started a training program at NAU to help get more Native Americans into river guiding. Three years earlier, the president of Arizona Raft Adventures gifted the university a river permit on the San Juan. Since then, the program has been leading trips and helped certify some 50 guides to lead raft trips through the sacred areas.
Nikki’s sister, Colleen, now 32, soon joined the guiding community, too. She also attended NAU, where she took a multiday trip from Sand Island to Clay Hills, in southern Utah, where the river flows through swaths of tribal land. “It was my first experience being there, and I just felt that immediate connection to it,” says Colleen, who became a guide on the San Juan in 2009. “About three years later, my sister started the river guide training program, and I knew I wanted to be part of that community.”
Between the two sisters, they have nearly 25 years of experience guiding the area’s rivers and have worked to protect them and their surrounding landscapes. Both advocated for Save the Confluence, a Navajo-led coalition organized to stop the construction of the Grand Canyon Escalade. The proposed 1.4-mile tramway would have brought 5,000 to 10,000 visitors per day into the belly of the canyon to the Confluence, a spot sacred to multiple tribes where the Little Colorado meets the Colorado. The tribe ultimately rejected the plan. “The Grand Canyon is not a water park. It’s not a pool. It’s someone’s home,” Nikki says.
“Our people were forcibly removed to establish this park and designate these areas,” Colleen says. “Our teachings, our story, our clans, how we identify ourselves is around the water and the land. It’s these places. Once a place is destroyed, you can’t take it back. You can’t undo it.”
Lhakpa, 45, is from the Makalu region of Nepal, and now lives in Hartford, Connecticut, with her three kids. After an abusive relationship with her ex-husband, fellow Everest climber George Dijmarescu, a court granted her full custody of their two daughters (Lhakpa's son is from a different relationship and was not a part of the custody battle). She’s a single mom, and works as a dishwasher at a Whole Foods in West Hartford. Before that she worked as a housekeeper and a cashier at a 7-Eleven.
Lhakpa lives modestly, and saves up to purchase a plane ticket back to Nepal each spring to climb Everest with her brother Mingma Gelus’ expedition company, Seven Summits Club. This year, Black Diamond sponsored her, providing gear and monetary support. According to the Associated Press, she wants “to show that a woman can do men’s jobs. There is no difference in climbing a mountain. I climb for all women.”
Lhakpa has been making quiet history for decades. In 2000, she became the first Nepali woman to climb Everest and make it down alive (Pasang Lhamu Sherpa summited in 1993, but died on the descent). Lhakpa’s proven to be a particularly strong climber, despite ostensibly climbing Mount Everest off-the-couch every year (she credits her fitness to work that keeps her on her feet all day). She grew up above 13,000 feet and started working as a porter for an outfitter when she was 15. She’s become accustomed to pushing through hard times, both emotional and physical. One year she climbed Everest just eight months after giving birth, and another when she was two months pregnant.
Lhakpa told the Associated Press that she plans on climbing Pakistan’s K2 (28,251 feet), the world’s second tallest peak, next year. “I don’t need to be famous,” she told them. “I want to keep doing my sport. If I don’t do my sport, I feel tired. I want to push my limits.”
At 8:30 a.m. on May 16, Kami Rita Sherpa, 48, reached the 29,035-foot summit of Mount Everest for the 22nd time—more than any other person living or dead. Kami Rita arrived at that familiar patch of snow on the summit plateau leading a group of clients on behalf of Kathmandu-based Seven Summits Trek. He had previously shared the seven-year-old record of 21 summits with Apa Sherpa and Phurba Tashi Sherpa, both of whom have since retired from climbing.
Kami Rita has been working and climbing on Everest and other 8,000-meter peaks for the past 26 years. He spent the majority of those years with Seattle-based Alpine Ascents International (AAI), where his elder brother, Lakpa Rita Sherpa (who has 17 Everest summits himself), has been employed since the early 1990s. With this season’s Everest summit, Kami Rita has summited 8,000-meter peaks a total of 33 times, including ascents of Cho Oyu (eight summits), K2, Manaslu, and Lhotse. (Phurba Tashi holds the 8,000-meter record with 35 summits.)
Lakpa and Kami, along with their six sisters, grew up in Thame, a village of about 45 stone houses downvalley from Everest. The family shared a small one-room house, with the yaks and other animals sleeping downstairs. Thame is a climbing village, and a significant portion of the men make their living in the Himalayas. Many famous climbing Sherpas hail from the area, including Tenzing Norgay, who made the first ascent of Everest, alongside Sir Edmund Hillary, in 1953. Even Kami’s father, now in his eightiesand earninga living with his herd of yaks, worked as a mountain guide until 1992.
Lakpa Rita attended school in Kumjung, four hours away by foot. From the schoolhouse, he could see the top of Everest and soon decided that he wanted to climb it. Kami Rita, however, wasn’t interested in school––or climbing. As a kid he wanted to be a monk. When he was 16, he attended the Thame Dechen Chokhorling monastery, which is perched on a cliff above the village. He studied their for four years but, according to his brother, didn’t like the lifestyle. The monastery offered sweeping views of the snow-covered Himalayan giants, and Kami Rita decided to seek employment in the mountains instead.
In 1992, Lakpa Rita was working his first season as a sirdar, or head Sherpa, for AAI. “I said to Kami, come with me and work as a cook boy,”Lakpa Rita told me in 2015. (Outside could not reach Kami Rita for comment, as he was still on the mountain.) As a sirdar,Lakpa Rita routinely hired a few dozen men from the valley to work on Everest, and Kami Rita spent that first season assisting the Base Camp cook.
“Then he started working as a climbing Sherpa and became pretty strong,” says Lakpa Rita, who’s now 51 and living in Seattle. “Today he has more summits than me.” Kami Rita summited Everest for the first time in spring 1994, when he was 24 years old. He’s been on the mountain almost every year since, making up for missed seasons by completing double summits in 2009, 2010, and 2013. According to Lakpa Rita, he worked as a Sherpa from 1993 to 2000 and as a sirdar from 2001 to 2017. All but one of his 22 Everest summits have been via the South Col route; in 2016, he reached the summit via the north side, accessed from Tibet.
The brothers were both on the mountain working for AAI during the 2014 avalanche in the Khumbu Icefall, which killed 16 Sherpas as they carried loads to Camp I. Among the first on the scene, Lakpa Rita and Kami Rita spent hours digging out the bodies of their colleagues. Five of the dead Sherpas worked for AAI; one of them was the brothers’ uncle. And Kami Rita was on the mountain in 2015, when an earthquake triggered an avalanche that killed 19 people at Base Camp; the quake also caused major damage in Thame.
The 2018 season was Kami Rita’s first guiding for Seven Summits. The Nepalese outfitter is popular for the low price of its summit expedition—roughly $30,000, although it also offers a $130,000 luxury package that includes 12 bottles of oxygen and a helicopter flight to a hotel in Kathmandu, to rest before the summit push. According to Outside correspondent Alan Arnette, the Seven Summits camp was the largest on Everest’s Nepal side this year, with some 200 people, including support staff.
Kami Rita lives with his wife, Lakpa Jangmu, and two children in Kathmandu. He earns a comfortable living, bringing home about $10,000 at the end of the climbing season, according to the Associated Press, in a country with an average annual income of $700. But like his brother, he’s making sure his children get an education, so they aren't forced to work a dangerous job in the mountains.
Kami Rita told the Associated Press that he wanted to set the Everest summit record for himself, his family, and the Sherpa people. He also said that he has no plans to stop climbing and will return to the mountain every spring.
On a foggy day in September 2013, 23-year-old Dawa Yangzum Sherpa pulled her crampons tight against the bottom of her boots, taking care to tuck in the loose ends of the straps. She buckled a helmet over her long dark hair and swung her pack onto her shoulders. It was dry season in Nepal, and conditions were calm on the Langshisha Glacier, located in the upper Langtang Valley. The glacier, which sits below the sharp ridges of 21,086-foot Langshisha Ri, was about 45 miles as the crow flies from where Dawa Yangzum grew up.
Four stern-faced examiners from the Nepal National Mountain Guide Association positioned themselves across the glacier and watched as Dawa Yangzum tied herself into the end of a rope, coiled the excess around her torso, and secured the other end to her client’s harness. She curled her fingers around her ice axe, took a deep breath, and started walking. She had 30 minutes to guide her client safely along a route that traversed the glacier’s icefall, skirted crevasses, and descended 30 feet down a sheer face. If the client slipped, she would use the axe to arrest his fall. The stakes were high: By passing this test, Dawa Yangzum, who’d already summited some of the world’s highest peaks, including Everest and the 26,906-foot Cho Oyu, would be one step away from becoming the first Nepalese woman to earn a certification from the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations.
The IFMGA, with its 25 member nations, is the world’s foremost association for guiding professionals. Those five letters on a résumé signify an elite status that commands higher pay (as much as $600 per day) and more job opportunities. Guides in the United States aren’t required to have their IFMGA certification, but those working in Canada and Europe must.
To earn what essentially amounts to a high-altitude PhD, applicants must pass three separate monthlong on-mountain guiding exams, plus a final 21-day test during which they have to safely guide a client in the alpine. Before any of that, though, applicants must have already climbed four trekking peaks (nontechnical mountains under 7,000 meters tall) and at least one peak above 7,000 meters. These courses and exams can take more than five years and up to $30,000 to complete, so it’s no surprise that the ranks of the successful are small: There are only about 7,000 IFMGA guides worldwide. And while mountaineering on the whole is a male-dominated sport—according to the Himalayan Database, of the 44,137 climbers who have ascended above base camp on Nepal’s 6,000- to 8,500-meter peaks between 1950 and 2016, only 5,059 were women—the IFMGA ranks are even more skewed. Just over 100—1.5 percent—are women. Only 12 of the 133 U.S. IFMGA guides are female. And out of the 50 certified Nepalese and Sherpa guides, none are women.
To become the first, Dawa Yangzum had to get through the Langshisha Glacier. Over the past year, she completed more than five months of formal training and spent some $10,000 of her own money. (The Nepal Mountaineering Association covered the rest of her fees—another $10,000.) She climbed the four requisite trekking peaks, one 7,000-meter peak (6,120-meter Ama Dablam, which counted due to its technicality), and even one 8,000-meter peak (Everest). She passed the exams at the end of the two monthlong courses, in the Rolwaling Valley and around Kathmandu. Here in the Langtang, she hoped to pass the exam at the end of her third course, earning her a chance to take the final 21-day test. She could feel the pressure.
On the Langshisha Glacier, Dawa Yangzum easily navigated the uneven icefall and gaping crevasses. When the pair arrived at the steep dropoff that fell 30 feet to the route below, Dawa Yangzum secured herself and her client to an anchor embedded in the ice, then set up a system to lower him to the ground. “So many teachers were watching me,” she says. “I started to panic.” But she kept calm and safely lowered the man to the ground. Dawa Yangzum then threaded her own rappel device and smoothly slid down the ropes to land beside him. So far, so good. She transitioned their safety gear so they could continue together across the glacier. Her eyes scanned the ground, then jerked back up toward the anchor. Her heart started pounding, like it might blow out of her chest. She’d left her ice axe at the top of the cliff.
Two days later, Dawa Yangzum was back in Kathmandu waiting for the results of the exam at the mountaineering association’s office. When she got the test paper back, she stared at it in disbelief. There were black marks over her name. She’d failed. If Dawa Yangzum had any hopes of becoming an IFMGA guide, she’d have to repeat her entire aspirant year—those three monthlong courses—and pay up to $10,000 again. “I was embarrassed and mad, and I was so sad,” Dawa Yangzum says. “I wasn’t going to go back. I didn’t want to look at the examiner’s faces again.”
When Dawa Yangzum was nine years old, her teacher at school asked the class what they wanted to be when they grew up. Most of the students ticked off careers they knew to be respectable: doctor, teacher, nurse. “I said I wanted to climb Mount Everest,” Dawa Yangzum, now 27, told me last August. “Everyone laughed, but I thought it was a good profession at the time.”
Dawa Yangzum grew up in the Sherpa village of Beding, a tiny town that sits at 12,300 feet in the Rolwaling Valley, one valley to the west of Everest. There’s no road to the valley’s villages, and getting outside the area requires a few days’ walk. Tall cliffs tower over the cluster of stone structures with brightly colored roofs that sit above the snaking Rolwaling River. The 23,406-foot Gaurishankar, considered a holy peak, looms overhead. Every winter, her parents moved her and her siblings—three brothers and two sisters—down from their home in the high village to one of the valley’s lower-elevation towns, where it was warmer. Each spring, Dawa Yangzum watched as the men from the Rolwaling left to work on high-alpine expeditions.
Those who climbed big mountains were revered. “Nepal doesn’t have a world-class cricket team, and they’re not playing soccer,” says professional mountaineer Conrad Anker. “So, for a small landlocked nation, being an Everest climber is a really big deal.” It’s also lucrative. (And dangerous.) Since commercialism hit the world’s tallest peak in the 1990s, Sherpas and Nepalese climbers have supported the expeditions that arrive en masse each spring—earning up to seven times the country’s $700 average annual salary in a single season. The roles on the mountain are hierarchical: At the bottom are the porters who carry gear to base camp, the kitchen hands, the Sherpas who ferry loads between camps, and the highly skilled climbing Sherpas who set up the route’s fixed ropes. At the top of the food chain are the guides (many of whom are Westerners, and most of whom are men), who lead paying clients to the summit.
More than 70 Sherpas from the Rolwaling Valley have summited Everest, mainly as part of high-altitude support teams. Dawa Yangzum, whose formal education ended at age 11, wanted to climb Everest too. But while the men in the Rolwaling Valley were encouraged to pursue this career, women were not. Women stayed back to tend the home. “Every year, it’s the same. You go to the field, grow potato, eat potato, collect wood, burn wood,” Dawa Yangzum says. “How long can you do this, you know? And what’s the point? All these climbers would come back to the village from expeditions and have all these fancy things and lots of stories. I was curious.”
Life at home was dull and stressful. “There’s really no exit for the people in the village,” says David Gottlieb, 50, a friend whom Dawa Yangzum had met four years earlier when he stayed in her village before making the first ascent of the 22,103-foot Kang Nachugo. “You either go to Kathmandu and become a townie or stay in the village and get old, and you can’t do the chores you once could. Everyone falls into drinking."
Dawa Yangzum agrees. “My environment growing up wasn’t good,” she says. She acknowledges that while her family didn’t directly encourage her to pursue guiding, they didn’t stop her either. “She’s her family’s last daughter, and by tradition she’s supposed to stay in the village and care for her parents,” says Gottlieb. But Dawa Yangzum knew her options for the future were limited in the Rolwaling. “I didn’t know I wanted to guide,” she says. “But if I’d told my parents, they wouldn’t have cared.”
The women of Dawa Yangzum’s valley have a reputation for being fiery and strong.“It’s different in the mountain regions. It’s tough,” she says. “Mountain women are tough.” In 2003, the then 13-year-old decided to leave her village, alone. She didn’t know exactly what the plan was, but she knew she couldn’t stay. When a trekking group heading over the rugged Tashi Lapsa pass came through town in search of porters, Dawa Yangzum joined the group and left without telling any friends or family. She carried some 30 pounds of gear for six days through the snow, eventually arriving in the village of Thame, where her mother grew up. She had a nasty cough and a case of frostbite. “But I didn’t need to cut off any toes,” Dawa Yangzum says. The rest of the porters returned to the Rolwaling, but she was gone for good. With her wages, Dawa Yangzum bought a plane ticket to Kathmandu for $20 and took a taxi to her uncle’s house. “I wanted to do something, but I didn’t see anything in my village,” she says. “That was the beginning of everything for me.”
“I never found love from our dad, but I think it was a good thing for me, because I just moved on,” she says. “Maybe if my dad was really nice to me, I never would have left my village. I never would have become a climber.”
For the next five years, Dawa Yangzum lived in Kathmandu with her brothers, who’d left home for schooling in the city. While her older brother, Dawa Gyalje, worked as a guide on Everest and other peaks in Nepal (he’s since earned his IFMGA certification), she cared for the two younger ones at home. It wasn’t until spring 2008, when Dawa Yangzum was 18, that she got a break. Dawa Gyalje offered her the lead guide position on a 15-day trek showing three French hikers around the Rolwaling Valley. It would be Dawa Yangzum’s first time guiding and her first time back to the valley since she ran away. She was proud to return as a guide with paying clients and impressed by the money she was making. Dawa Yangzum earned $100 on that trip.But the novelty of the job soon wore off. “After a little while, it was like, oh, I’m just a trekking guide,” she says. “You’re never satisfied.” The trip rekindled her childhood dreams, and she decided to set her sights higher.
In the winter of 2010, Dawa Yangzum enrolled in a free ten-day course in Phortse at the Khumbu Climbing Center (KCC), a vocational nonprofit started by Jenni Lowe-Anker and her husband, Conrad Anker. At the KCC, Western and Nepalese climbers teach the technical skills required to climb safely. Dawa Yangzum proved herself an ace student, demonstrating proficiency in everything from knot tying and ice-climbing technique to crevasse rescue and pulley systems. “If a student does well and has leadership capabilities, then they have the opportunity to be an instructor,” Anker says. “Dawa definitely had that. She was confident and poised, talented, and knew what she wanted.” The following year, Dawa Yangzum returned to the KCC to teach, working with students who were typically men older than she was. “These guys come in and see a woman instructor, and let’s just say they’re not exactly convinced they have the best one,” says Pete Athans, a veteran mountain guide who was also teaching at the KCC that year. “But when they see how she moves on rock and how talented she is, they’re usually standing at the bottom of the cliff with their jaws slacking open.”
In 2012, Anker asked Dawa Yangzum, then 21, if she would join him as a member of the North Face/National Geographic Everest expedition commemorating the 50th anniversary of the peak’s first American ascent. She’d already completed two monthlong mountaineering classes with the Nepal Mountaineering Association and climbed a couple 7,000-meter mountains in Nepal. Anker thought she was ready for her first 8,000-meter peak. “I was so excited. I never thought I could climb Everest because it’s so expensive,” Dawa Yangzum says. Of the dozen Sherpas on the team, she was the only woman. She would be paid to help carry loads between camps, going as high as Camp IV, at 26,246 feet. After that, she’d be able to climb for herself.
Dawa Yangzum quickly bonded with fellow expedition member and North Face athlete Emily Harrington. “She was always making jokes and poking fun and laughing,” Harrington says. “I could tell she really wanted to be there and was passionate about the mountains.” Dawa Yangzum and Harrington climbed together from Base Camp through the towering seracs of the Khumbu Icefall up to Camp II. “She was way faster than me,” Harrington says. “She would go and then just chill and wait.”
On May 25—summit day—the two women found themselves climbing alone above Camp IV (their expedition had spread out during the final leg of the ascent), so they headed up together. Dawa Yangzum thought working Everest was tough—she’d spent weeks hauling anywhere from 15 to 40 pounds of gear between Camp I and IV, thousands of vertical feet apart—but climbing it? That was easy. It was a beautiful, perfectly clear morning on the summit. “I don’t think I realized how lucky that was,” Harrington says. They stood above the snaking valleys dotted with tiny villages like the one where Dawa Yangzum grew up. That day, she became the first woman from her valley to reach the top of Everest.
Before that day, though, all Dawa Yangzum focused on was reaching Everest’s summit. Afterward, she was ready to push her guiding career forward. Right before she left on the Everest expedition, Gottlieb, then the lead climbing ranger on Mount Rainier, had invited her to come to the United States. He’d secured for her a volunteer visa to spend the summer working as a climbing ranger on Mount Rainier for the National Park Service. “I was so excited,” Dawa Yangzum says. “I got down from Everest and went straight to the U.S.”
“Mount Rainier is a really small mountain,” Dawa Yangzum told me with a laugh last fall. “The top is [at the elevation] where I was born. But when you’re up there, it looks like you’re on a 7,000-meter peak in Nepal.”
She spent the summer of 2012 at Camp Schurman, a waypoint for climbers attempting the summit by the Emmons Glacier, one of the peak’s less-trafficked routes. She mainly did trail work, but it ended up being a formative season nonetheless. “I saw a lot of female guides with clients,” Dawa Yangzum says. “In Nepal, there was no one like that. It’s all men guiding trips. I was impressed. It made me want to do it.”
That fall, Dawa Yangzum returned to Nepal to begin the formal training required to become a certified mountain guide. She’d only recently learned about the IFMGA. “At first, I couldn’t even pronounce it nicely,” she says. Yet once she learned its value from other Sherpa guides in Nepal, she knew that was what she’d strive for. “I wanted to be able to guide internationally like the men did,” Dawa Yangzum says. She handily passed the entrance exam and signed up for the first course in January 2013—23 days of alpine, rock, and ice technique in the Rolwaling Valley. Six months later, she passed a 20-day course on practical skills, including rescue, first aid, navigation, and snow science. In September, she spent 25 days on peaks in the Langtang Valley, where she covered all aspects of guiding and managing expeditions with clients.
During that time, Dawa Yangzum’s climbing résumé started to read like a mountaineer’s bucket list: Yala Peak (18,110 feet), Island Peak (20,305 feet), a first ascent of Chekigo (20,538 feet), Ama Dablam (22,349 feet), Everest, and Cho Oyu. “When I started climbing, I would say, ‘If I can climb Ama Dablam, that’s all I want,’” she says. “Then you climb Ama Dablam and you want to climb one more. Then you climb Everest and you want another. It never ends.”
Everything was going smoothly—until she left her ice axe at the rappel anchor during that exam in September. It was such a small, stupid error—totally beneath her. “I realized I’d regret it badly if I didn’t go back,” Dawa Yangzum says. She resolved to do her three aspirant guide courses over again. First, though, she’d attempt to climb the world’s second-tallest mountain, Pakistan’s 28,250-foot K2, with two other Sherpa women.
Often called the “savage mountain,” K2 is unrelentingly steep and technical, with high rockfall and avalanche hazards and harsh, erratic weather. Only around 388 summits of the peak have ever been made (compared to the some 8,306 summits on Everest), and, historically, one out of every four people who attempt the climb have died. In the summer of 2014, Dawa Yangzum and her climbing partners, Pasang Lhamu Sherpa Akita (a 2016 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year) and guide Maya Sherpa, aimed to be the first all-female team from Nepal to reach the summit. At the time, only 15 women had ever done so.
In a stroke of luck, a freakishly good weather window materialized in late July, resulting in a mad dash for the summit. After more than 14 hours of climbing, Dawa Yangzum and her partners arrived atop K2 at 2:30 p.m., elated and emotional. It was sunny and calm, but the volatile Karakoram weather quickly turned, and they had to descend in whiteout conditions. “We were all separated, so I was basically alone, and I got hit in the head by a chunk of ice,” Dawa Yangzum says. “I was kind of dizzy but still attached to the rope. I thought I was gone, but I was still there.”
The climb, both mentally and physically difficult, renewed Dawa Yangzum’s determination to get her IFMGA certification. In the fall of 2014, she repeated the third guide course and finally passed the portion of the process she’d failed the year before. But she wasn’t done yet. Dawa Yangzum still had to take the 21-day final exam. But she wanted to get more climbing experience first. She wasn’t going to risk being unprepared and failing again now that she was so close to her goal.
In January 2015, Dawa Yangzum was back in the United States, settling into her new gig as a part-time nanny for a family friend in Denver. Before she could apply for a guiding job, she needed money to pay a lawyer to help her get a green card. Dawa Yangzum spent most of 2015 and 2016 working and taking other odd jobs to pay for legal fees. “I did so many different things,” she says. “I even did landscaping.” She spent five months waitressing at the Mount Everest Cafe in Fort Collins, Colorado, making $5 an hour. She was miserable. “Somehow I completely forgot about my climbing,” she says.
In 2016, Dawa Yangzum finally got the green card (Emily Harrington was one of the people who supplied a letter of support), and, in late April, went to guide tryouts for Seattle’s Alpine Ascents International (AAI), following in the footsteps of her mentor Lakpa Rita Sherpa, who’s been working for AAI since 1992. Of the ten people at tryouts, Dawa Yangzum was the only woman, and everyone watched as she performed a crevasse rescue. She messed up part of her pulley system. (“Oh my god,” she told me, putting her palm to her face. “The guy was just hanging there, and it took me a long time to pull him out.”) The flub meant she’d need to prove herself in a six-day training course before AAI would make a final hiring decision.
Back in Seattle, Craig Van Hoy, an experienced AAI guide who’d watched the tryout, pulled Dawa Yangzum aside and told her not to worry about it. “There’s much more to guiding than technique,” he said. The technical skills can be practiced. “Guides need to have something inside of them, and I saw that in you.” She got the job.
Dawa Yangzum was gainfully employed as a guide for AAI—capable of making anywhere from $8,000 to $20,000 per summer working trips in the Cascades—plenty to live on in Nepal. But she still wanted the IFMGA certification.
The first opportunity to take the final exam came in March 2017, back in the Rolwaling Valley. Dawa Yangzum needed to complete a route graded 5.10a, which is relatively easy for an experienced climber in grippy rubber rock shoes. But she was required to do it wearing big, bulky mountaineering boots that made it difficult to feel her feet against the rock. As the examiners looked on, Dawa Yangzum felt a familiar sense of unease. Roughly 80 feet up the wall, she clipped the rope into carabiners attached to the anchor. She went to finish the last few feet of the route, then lost purchase. She fell, and received another failing grade.
This setback wasn’t as devastating as before—candidates can retake individual components of the final 21-day IFMGA exam without having to repeat the whole process, but she’d have to wait until the fall to try again. And there was no time to sulk. A month later, in April, Dawa Yangzum and her K2 climbing partners, Pasang Lhamu and Maya, made an attempt on Nepal’s Kangchenjunga—the world’s third-highest peak. They were just shy of the 28,169-foot summit when heavy snow forced them to turn back.
She spent the summer of 2017 guiding in Washington, which is where I first met her. In August, I joined her for a three-day climb on Mount Baker. Dawa Yangzum stands five foot two. She’s quick to smile and does so often. Her English, honed by years of working with Westerners in the mountains, is strong. At first she was shy, offering short answers to my questions, but it didn’t take more than half a day before Dawa Yangzum was speaking candidly, cracking jokes, and doing a contagious full-belly laugh capable of spreading across a room. “In Nepal, there’s this whole ‘women should be seen and not heard’ kind of vibe,” says Gottlieb, who’s now a senior guide at AAI. “That’s not her. She’ll put her foot in your mouth if she thinks it’s bullshit, she’s definitely that lady. We need that level of directness to make things safe. And she’s got it.”
A little after midnight on our Mount Baker summit day, Dawa Yangzum led two clients up pitches of firm snow, reminding them to keep the slack out of their bright-orange rope. As we approached the Roman Headwall, a Technicolor sunrise started to pop and illuminated the snow. “You may tire of climbing uphill, but you never tire of the sunrise,” she says. “Even if you see it three times in a week.” When we reached Mount Baker’s 10,778-foot summit, six hours later, Dawa Yangzum gathered her rope team for a celebratory photo. The two other guides wrangled her for a summit selfie, then swooped her up off her feet, all laughing. “My first year [at Alpine], I was very quiet and polite, but now I’m comfortable,” she says.
Dawa Yangzum confessed that there were times over the past five years when she’s questioned why she’s spent so much time and money pursuing an IFMGA certification. “It was stressful. I thought, ‘Why am I doing this? When will I finish it?’ But now, when I look back, I’ve done a lot of things, and I’m proud.” For one, Dawa Yangzum is her family’s main breadwinner, paying college tuition for one of her brothers (about $1,500 per year). She says her extended family is supportive of her, but many of them still don’t understand what she’s doing. Most people in Nepal go to the mountains to make money, they say, but she goes there and spends it.
She gets asked why she’s alone working with all these men. “That’s not even a question in the U.S.,” Dawa Yangzum says. “Culturally, it’s not easy for me to be a woman guide. It was strange to my community that a female started doing a man’s job. You have to be very independent and confident to do this. If you’re really independent, then you don’t need to listen to anybody. That’s what I’m doing.”
In December 2017, Dawa Yangzum returned to the Rolwaling and once again stood at the foot of a 5.10a wearing those big, awkward boots. “It was really intense,” she says. “I knew if I failed I’d have to do it again next year. This was my chance.” Dawa Yangzum started up the long pitch. “I didn’t fall, so I knew I passed right away. I was so happy, like, ‘Oh wow, I really did it.’”
At the end of the month—after she and her brother summited the last unclimbed peak in the Rolwaling, the 20,856-foot Mount Langdung—Dawa Yangzum attended the Nepal National Mountain Guide Association’s annual National Mountain Guide day in Kathmandu. The event recognizes aspirant guides and decorates newly minted IFMGA guides with certificates and medals. In front of a crowd, the emcee announced that Dawa Yangzum had made history by becoming the first woman from Nepal to receive an IFMGA certification.
The room erupted in cheers.
“She has the credentials of the climbs she’s done in the Himalaya, which are spectacular. And she’s got the teaching skills and street cred to be very legit to any business owner,” Pete Athans says. “I think that in a lot of ways, the certificate just validates institutionally what she does, but she already has that validation elsewhere.”
Dawa Yangzum now splits her time between the United States and Nepal. Her friends get tired of her traveling all the time. “When people are going to invite me to a wedding, they always have to ask where to send the invitation,” she says, laughing. “I have no permanent place to stay.” During the summers, Dawa Yangzum guides on Mount Rainier and Mount Baker, sleeping between trips at the AAI guide house in Ashford, Washington, or in the bunk beds at AAI’s downtown Seattle headquarters. She has an apartment in Kathmandu but is almost never there.
Whatever Dawa Yangzum chooses to do next—be it guiding Mont Blanc or Mount Everest—the door is open. In June, she’ll guide her first trip on Alaska’s Denali with AAI, and next winter she hopes to guide on Aconcagua in Argentina. She’d also like to attempt Nepal’s Makalu, the world’s fifth-highest peak, and take another shot at Kangchenjunga. “I don’t have a good education or a wealthy background. If I didn’t climb mountains, I don’t think I would be here. I’m in the U.S., guiding and speaking English, because I climb,” she says. “The mountains have given me everything—whatever I have now and who I am now is because I climb.”
The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.