Nirmal “Nims” Purja Is More than a Viral Photographer

4 Aug

You probably saw the photo of a traffic jam high on Mount Everest. The picture, shot on May 22 from below the summit ridge, quickly went viral, landing on the homepage of The New York Times, the Washington Post, and elsewhere. The man who took the photo, Nepalese climber Nirmal “Nims” Purja, calmly waited in the queue and helped manage the bottleneck on the fixed lines. His patience was impressive, as he had pressing afternoon plans. 

After summiting Everest at 5:30 A.M., Purja descended to the South Col and proceeded to the summit of 27,940-foot Lhotse, the world’s fourth tallest mountain. He then flew about a dozen miles to Makalu base camp and summited in one push, tagging all three peaks in a 48-hour window. 

With that final summit, the 34-year-old completed the first of three phases of what he calls Project Possible: an attempt to summit all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks in just seven months (the current record is just under eight years). During phase one he climbed Annapurna, Dhaulagiri, Kanchenjunga, Everest, Lhotse, and Makalu in a single month. Purja is raising money to fund the rest of his project, but set off for the Karakoram anyway. On July 3 he reached the top of 26,660-foot Nanga Parbat, which marked the halfway point of his quest. Then he climbed Gasherbrum I on July 15 and Gasherbrum II on July 18. He summited K2 on July 24, after many teams packed up camp and headed home, citing dangerous snow conditions. Two days later he was on the summit of Broad Peak, ticking off his eleventh 8,000-meter peak in just over 90 days. This fall he’ll tackle Manaslu, Cho Oyu, and Shishapangma.

Purja didn’t grow up in the high-altitude villages in the Everest region like many of the Nepalese and Sherpa climbers who work in the mountains. He’s from the town of Narayanghat, which sits at an elevation of less than 1,000 feet above sea level, and draws tourists looking to spot tigers, not bag peaks. Following in his father’s footsteps, Purja joined the Gurkhas, a band of Nepalese soldiers that have existed within the British Army since colonial times, when he turned 18. He served for six years before setting his sights on the special forces, where he served another decade. 

In 2012, sick of telling people that he’d never seen Mount Everest, he decided to trek to Everest Base Camp. On the second or third day of the trek the trail leads uphill from Namche Bazaar, the biggest town in the Khumbu Valley. As he crested the hill Purja saw the dramatic shark fin of Ama Dablam and asked his guide if they could go climb it. His guide said no—Ama Dablam is not a beginner’s mountain—but Purja convinced the guide to take him up the non-technical 20,000-foot Lobuche East. He quickly learned to walk in crampons on a patch of grass in a nearby village, and the two successfully summited. Just two years later, Purja attempted his first 8,000-meter peak, Dhaulagiri. “That’s where I discovered that I actually did good at high altitude,” he says. From then on Purja headed for the Himalaya during everyday holiday from the special forces. In 2017 Purja climbed Everest, Lhotse, and Makalu in the span of five days, setting a record that he broke this spring. 

In March of this year, he left the military (and a generous pension), emptied his savings account, remortgaged his house, and started Project Possible. “When I joined the special forces it was never for the money. It was for pure desire to serve in an elite unit,” Purja says. “It’s the same principal now. I’m following my heart.”

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(Courtesy Nirmal Purja)

In addition to dealing with the crowds on Everest, Purja has had a lot more than just his own climbing to worry about this year. On April 23, he and his team reached the top of 26,545-foot Annapurna––a mountain that kills one in three climbers who attempt it. As they descended, they got word of a stranded climber alone at nearly 25,000 feet. Wui Kin Chin, a 49-year-old from Malaysia, was unable to move on his own and Chin’s Sherpa, Nima Tshering, had given him his own oxygen and descended to get help. Purja’s team, on only four hours of sleep, ascended to Chin and were able to get him to Camp 3 where he was later long-lined off the mountain via helicopter. Both Nima Tshering and Chin were hospitalized for their injuries. Purja was vocal on social media about his anger over how slowly Chin’s rescue company was to respond to the situation; Chin did not survive

On May 15, while descending off Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest peak, Purja and his partners, Mingma David Sherpa and Gesman Tamang, came across a pair of climbers who’d run out of oxygen: Biplab Baidya, from India, and his guide, Dawa Sherpa. Purja’s partners gave the men their own oxygen supplies and started to help them down. As they descended they found another Indian climber, Kuntal Karar, also out of oxygen and alone. Purja gave him his oxygen, but Karar died soon after. They repeatedly called for help and extra oxygen, but none ever came. “You can imagine how hard it is to operate a rescue mission at 8450m without O2,” Purja later wrote on Instagram. “I was told 3 Sherpas were coming up with O2, this never happened. This seriously impacted my team and was a huge risk to life.” Purja’s partners both began to show signs of high altitude cerebral edema and had to descend. Baidya died shortly before reaching Camp 4. 

Though Purja’s been constantly confronted with the risks of climbing at high altitude this season, he’s still set on his goal. Back in April, Purja said he ran into people who laughed at him when he told them his plans. Like it was a joke, or a feat too big for him to accomplish. But big goals, like big mountains, are tackled one step at a time. Eleven down, three to go.

Climbers Presumed Dead on Flanks of Nanda Devi East

7 Jun

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 at around 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.

Nanda Devi is the second-highest peak in India at 25,643 feet, but it was briefly regarded as the highest mountain in the world around 1820. The main peak, first climbed in 1936 by a combined American/United Kingdom expedition, has been closed to climbing since the 1980s when the Indian government declared it off-limits as a biosphere reserve. Nanda Devi East, a lower peak connected to the main peak by a ridge, remained open to climbing and has drawn mountaineers since.

The mountain was also the site of a joint mission between the C.I.A. and Indian intelligence service in the 1960s to have mountaineers plant a sensor on Nanda Devi’s summit in order to intercept information about nuclear tests conducted by the Chinese. The expedition to place the device was thwarted by heavy snowfall so the team cached the equipment––including some 10 pounds of plutonium to power a generator––and planned to return the next spring to finish the task. Returning teams could not locate the cache; the location they’d left the gear had been swept away by avalanches.

The Uncertain Calculus of Surviving a Himalayan Peak

5 Mar

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 replicate the 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 Dablam last 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.

How a Mountain Guide Makes It Work on $35,000 a Year

1 Oct

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.

How to Fund Your Adventure

11 Sep

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

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(Courtesy Grit & Rock)

Application Period: TBA

Grant Amount: Up to $10,000

Skill Level: Intermediate to expert

Area: Mountaineering

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

Skill Level: No PhDs allowed

Area: Conservation, education, research, storytelling, technology

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

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(Courtesy 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

Area: Climbing

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

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(Courtesy 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

Area: Exploration

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

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(Courtesy Jones Snowboards)

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

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(Courtesy American Alpine Club)

Application Period: February 1 to March 31, 2019

Grant Amount: Varies based on project, $200 to $1,000

Skill Level: Any

Area: Climbing

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…

Sport: Running/hiking

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 recipient Heather Anderson attempted to set the female unsupported record on the 465-mile Colorado Trail (she was unsuccessful).

Nepal’s Guides Are Making Big Money on Insurance Scams

31 Aug

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.”

Four Lessons from Two Harrowing Alaska Rescues

30 May

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.

The First Licensed Native Guide in the Grand Canyon

25 May

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,” says Nikki. “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 perspectives during 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 Sherpa Breaks Her Own Everest Record

16 May

At 5:40 a.m. on May 16, Lhakpa Sherpa reached the summit of Mount Everest for the ninth time. In doing so she broke the record—her own record—for the most summits of the world’s tallest peak by a woman. The next closest woman to the record is American Melissa Arnot Reid, who’s climbed Everest six times.

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.”

Kami Rita Summits Everest for 22nd Time

16 May

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 eighties and earning a 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.