Going big by going small: How much does Everest cost? And first summits!

Americans are burdened with some ugly stereotypes. In general, we tend
toward obesity, don’t speak other languages, dance in the streets when
we assassinate people, can’t place Europe on the world map, and soon
will be ordering ultra mega super big gulps. But I’ve always thought it
nice how Americans shy away from asking about salaries, age, religion,
and the cost of certain things. But all of these things are natural
curiosities. And so goes the cost of an Everest trip. By cost – I mean
the fiscal cost. There are a lot of other intangible costs and I’m going
to try to gracefully avoid those in this post.

I don’t actually come out and say how much I paid in this post. But you
can read between the lines. Hopefully my mother won’t. For me, I really
consider it a ‘no-cost’ trip. After watching the value of my condo
decline year after year, I was lucky to get out last summer with almost
exactly what I put into it in 2004. I could have easily walked away with
nothing or a foreclosure notice. So, I consider the money I walked away
with as ‘found money’. I have no interest in putting it back into the
real estate market. Renting may be a social step down, but I love not
being slave to a mortgage. The stock market is a complete gamble. Sports
cars don’t appeal. The best investment seemed to me to ‘go big’ with a
lifetime adventure. There are intangible gains in that too…

People say you shouldn’t go cheap on an Everest expedition. I looked at
the websites for the top of the line companies like Alpine Ascents and
Mountain Madness. I don’t remember and have no web access currently. But
offhand, I think their base prices are in the 60-70k range. If you
wanted a personal climbing Sherpa to be with you for the summit push –
add another 5-6k. Wow. Organic food, big screen TVs, big name guides.
But my new-found money didn’t even come close to these price tags. And
the prospect of getting sponsorship money was quickly disregarded. I’m
not an uber climber, not going to be the first person to summit standing
on my hands, and not interested in the additional pressures sponsors bring.

I was introduced to Dan Mazur from Summit Climb some time ago. Dan lives
near Seattle, regularly guides on Everest, and works with a company
called ‘Summit Climb’. He fund raises for the Everest Foundation and is
credited with giving up his summit bid and rescuing Lincoln Hall on the
mountain in 2006. All pretty impressive. I think the base cost with
Summit Climb was around 31k with 5 bottles of oxygen. Maybe another 5k
for a personal climbing Sherpa to be with you on summit day. I think
there is also a bare-bones rate of around 18k which just covers the
permit (10k) and the ability to piggy back on some logistics. I also
looked at some other companies in the same price range (give or take
10k), with Peak Freaks and Altitude Junkies appearing like contenders.

Let me digress for a minute to touch on the bare-bones option mentioned
above. There are other companies, mostly Nepalese I think, that allow
you to ‘share a permit’ along with a few other services. Regardless of
who/how you climb, the permit always costs at least $10,000k per
climber. While there are certainly some climbers here on relatively
bare-bones expeditions, virtually no-one is climbing without Sherpa
support. The few that do are the most likely to not summit and the most
likely to die on the mountain. Also the most likely to suddenly require
rescue from a larger team on the mountain. The mountain is too big to
climb alpine style (fast and light with a buddy, carrying everything you
need) unless you are a world-class mountaineer like the Benegas Brothers
(Willie and Damian), Ed Visteurs, Dave Hahn, or many of the Sherpas. For
the rest of us mortals, we need help with having the route fixed across
the Ice Fall, load carrying for oxygen and tents, fixing of higher
camps, etc. And this is where being on a team and having help from
Sherpas comes in. It’s a team effort. To try to do it solo is crazy.

One more digression. In researching companies and expeditions, three
things emerged with regard to increasing summit success and decreasing
risk: a) go with a large western team, b) consider extra oxygen, c) pay
extra for a personal climbing Sherpa for summit day.

Last fall, I found myself walking through the Annapurna Sanctuary with
Ngawang ‘Dorjee’ Sherpa, owner of Himalayan Windhorse Adventures. He had
won the bid to manage all of the in-country logistics for helping my UW
class get from A:B, freeing me to focus on teaching. Not only was his
bid the lowest out of three Nepalese companies, but he came with
spotless recommendations. Suffice to say that Dorjee did a flawless job
and we will be working together again this Fall with another class trip.
As Dorjee and I walked past waterfalls, ravines, and ridges last fall, I
eventually confessed my interest in climbing Everest. I thought his
company only did treks and was surprised to learn he had run successful
expeditions to the north and south sides in previous years. The business
man in him kicked in and he told me all the reasons I should avoid a
western company, naturally he has some self-interest in pride but he
built a good case: a) with a large number of clients on the mountain –
the western climbing guide(s) are rarely with you as you are climbing,
b) a lot of the companies underpay their Sherpas which causes dischord,
c) they have to pay higher taxes in their home countries so they are
inherently more expensive, d) if you pay extra for a personal climbing
Sherpa, you don’t usually know who is with you until summit day and then
there is only a 50% chance the Sherpa has summitted before, e) if there
is a problem on the mountain, other Sherpas on the mountain are more
likely to respond to a Sherpa run company, f) The Sherpas running local
companies live and work here and know the mountain better than any other
company. The list seeemed to go on and on and before long I was
convinced. To top it off, Dorjee provided a quote that was lower than
Summit Climb, a 50% discount on a future trip if I did not summit, the
gaurentee of a personal climbing Sherpa who has summited at least 5
times before (Damai Sherpa), and two bottles of extra oxygen (7 total).
After the class trip ended, Dorjee’s brother Che Wang guided myself and
friends Alex and Tandra through the Khumbu region. Che Wang had summited
Everest twice and confirmed everything Dorjee said and added the
encouragement that he thought I was strong enough to summit. Whoa. A
week after getting home, and after some good discussions with Kelly, I
wired a 20% deposit to Dorjee. I won’t say I didn’t have a lot of
cognitive dissonance about the decision, but I am very happy to be
sitting in my tent right now waiting for the summit push which is likely
to come in the next ten days.

During those days of cognitive dissonance, especially when two other
climbers did not commit and it became apparent that I would be the only
paying client on the team….I sent some pretty pushy/neurotic emails to
Dorjee saying I didn’t think I would feel comfortable with only one
other person on a rope team and on the mountain in general. After a
while, he replied that Kami Sherpa, the guy who would be cooking at base
camp and who had worked for him for years, could serve as a second
climbing Sherpa for an extra $1,500. Kami had actually taken a lot of
mountaineering classes, climbed many peaks including Ama Dablam twice,
and had been to the South Col before. The money would be used for extra
oxygen, and if he summited it would change his career path. I jumped at
it and have no regrets, Kami rocks as does Damai and I feel really
comfortable being on the mountain with both of them.

Other costs? Probably close to $5k on equipment (I will eventually post
a list), another $2k on travel, $1k in pocket money for 3 months, $1k on
a catastrophic medical plan back home and high altitude evacuation
insurance, $500 on my storage unit back home, and $3k planned for summit
bonuses and tips ($1,500 for Damai and $1,000 for Kami, $500 for Pasang).

What I’ve paid is a relative bargain here at base camp. We don’t have a
flat panel tv, internet sat dishes, heated towels prior to dinner,
dining menus, carpet in the dining tent, tall VHF antennas, fancy
weather reports, gas-heated shower (just a bag that we fill with hot
water), all-you-can drink booze, espresso machines or imported smoked
fish. But I’m happy not spending ~30k+ extra for these things and I’m
pretty sure we have the basics, and more importantly – the best people
and that is what really counts. If I could go back in time, I would sign
up again with HWA.

Regardless, no doubt that it’s a lot of money to pay for something. And
it can definitely be looked at as a selfish endeavor. But to me it is
found money, the opportunity to step out of my comfort zone and have
some memories of a life time adventure (summit or now). Other people
spend the same amount on a nice car and no one blinks twice. I’m
personally happy with my 1991 Honda Civic that needs a new muffler,
doesn’t always hold a charge, and has leaky windows and a mold problem
(that’s what bottles of bleach are for…BTW thanks Jami for looking
after the beast, don’t forget to use a 10% solution).

Ok – enough about the icky topic of money. Pasang just popped into my
tent and said the route is now fixed to the summit and the first Sherpas
to summit (in fixing the route) just got back into base camp. Hurray for
them. It’s on for the rest of us!

One Response to “Going big by going small: How much does Everest cost? And first summits!

  • I was so engaged reading this on the bus yesterday, I totally missed my stop! Thanks for the interesting read. I’m really glad you didn’t have the flat panel tv, internet sat dishes, and heated towels prior to dinner. Somehow that would have destroyed the story.
    Donna

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